back to

Evan Calder Williams on the history of sabotage


In The New Inquiry, writer and artist Evan Calder Williams provides a fascinating history of sabotage—primarily of the workplace and military varieties. Check out an excerpt below of the full text here.

One of the reasons why “history does not point to an effective countermeasure to sabotage” is because the history of sabotage is itself a history of countermeasure. Sabotage weaves a minor and inconstant arc through the surveillance, management, and design of human activity and its inhuman sites and interfaces. Counter to Douthit’s specifically martial sense, we might consider sabotage, at the most abstract level, as the deployment of a technique, or activation of a capacity, at odds with the apparatus, system, or order within which it is situated and for which it was developed. Incompatible with a model of cleanly delineated means and ends, sabotage takes procedures as always in potential excess to plans—that is, to structures that, first, articulate the link between a projected possibility and what actually gets produced and, second, establish conditions for what will be visible, how it will count, and what will support it. Less abstractly, sabotage also means putting vinegar on the loom, doubt in the smile, glass in the motor, milk in the bearings, shit on the spikes, sand in the soup, and worms in the code. Being too thorough and too careless, tightening just a hair too much and too little, having seriously, oh my God, no idea how this could have happened—and having no one able to prove it otherwise.

And yet sabotage is more than all these instances, which overly stress a kind of volition, an active principle that puts the focus on a saboteur. Because what distinguishes sabotage above all isn’t any sense or principle of deviance, especially given that such operations have no inherent “politics,” available across the political spectrum and to companies and corporations themselves. Rather, it’s what Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the IWW organizer and most interesting theorist of sabotage to date, called in 1916 the “fine thread of deviation”: the impossibly small difference between exceptional failures and business as usual, connected by the fact that the very same properties and tendencies enable either outcome. If we are to think of sabotage as a process that negates productivity, it’s a negation that can’t be disentangled from the structures of productivity itself.

Image via The New Inquiry.