This April, a natural gas pipeline exploded in Salem Township, Pennsylvania, shooting flames well above the tree line and producing enough heat to send a man to the hospital with third-degree burns. Such explosions, if uncommon, aren’t rare: according to ProPublica, they’ve killed five hundred people and injured four thousand more in the past thirty years.
When infrastructure fails in such a dramatic fashion, it is usually considered an accident. In the rare instances in which events like pipeline explosions are addressed as structural failures, it is only in the most literal sense of the word “structural,” prompting demands for repairs, regulation, and safety measures. But calls for oversight and technological fixes only reassert the accidental nature of what is in fact a problem of class society.
Pipeline explosions are a perfect example of what the late nineteenth-century French syndicalist Emile Pouget called “capitalist sabotage”: the regular and systematized damage done by capitalists to industry, commerce, workers, and consumers in the service of profit.
This is quite different from the sabotage periodically carried out by workers. For workers, Pouget explains, sabotage is “aimed only at the means of exploitation against the machines and the tools, that is against inert, painless and lifeless things.” Capitalist sabotage — “the very life essence of modern society” — “reaps human victims and deprives men of their health by sticking a leech at the very sources of life.”
Capitalists, of course, are well aware of the difference. The energy industry is again instructive. The initial investment in pipeline infrastructure was not necessarily a safety measure — it was a self-conscious assertion of class power.
Pipelines allow oil to flow across vast distances without human labor, wresting control from workers who would otherwise control crucial checkpoints in its distribution network. They decrease workers’ ability to, as Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn put it, “consciously withdraw their efficiency” — in other words, sabotage the operation.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, the IWW used Pouget’s concept of “capitalist sabotage” to explain allegedly accidental violence visited upon workers and consumers by business owners.
In addition to being an important tactic for workers engaged in class struggle, “sabotage” was also a crucial idea — a conceptual apparatus by which radicals explained the mechanics of class struggle and linked theory to practice.
For workers, sabotage was a way to temporarily assert control over the means of production in order to further their interests. For capitalists, sabotage was a means to increase profits by neglecting, overworking, adulterating, and otherwise abusing the social wealth that is the means of production. And the means of production included — as it still does today — scores of human bodies.
In a 1911 speech that precipitated a split within the Socialist Party over the question of sabotage, William “Big Bill” Haywood defended the McNamaras’ bombing of the Los Angeles Times:
Let the capitalist class bury its own dead. There are 21 dead in Los Angeles. We are too busy to go there because tonight we have 207 dead [in a coal mine] in Bryceville, Tenessee . . . Human life is cheaper [than safety measures]. Therefore they continue to murder us by the thousands every year.”
For both groups, the material control of infrastructure and industry was a crucial mechanism for the consolidation and exercise of class power. For business owners, it required coordination with each other and the state and for workers’ coordination within and across industries. In a self-reinforcing manner, sabotage was the product of class organization as well as a practice that strengthened and expanded the capacity for organization.
While pipeline explosions might be accidents in the strictest sense, they are also a symbolically loaded and very real symptom of a long-evolving structure of control established by careful and conscious acts of sabotage over time.
Look again and you can see that industrial accidents are actually capitalist class power literally exploding to the surface; a capitalist analogue to the wild-eyed, dynamite-wielding Wobbly; a violent expression of a system organized around the control of workers and the profits that control delivers.
Binding the Classes
Thorstein Veblen, writing in 1921, identified sabotage as a structural feature of capitalism: “whether employed by the workmen to enforce their claims, or by the employers to defeat their employees, or by competitive business concerns to get the better of their business rivals,” sabotage is “part of the ordinary conduct of industry under the existing system.”
While careful not to present his arguments in terms that might be mistaken as socialistic, Veblen’s understanding is informed by a class analysis: sabotage would not exist without class conflict. And the capitalist class would not exist without the state.
For Veblen, the capitalist class is not simply a loose collection of businessmen. The state plays an essential role in binding the capitalist class together and facilitating its power within society.
Capitalist sabotage requires the intervention of the state because
the retardation of industry . . . cannot well be left . . . to the haphazard, ill coordinated efforts of individual business concerns, each taking care of its own particular line of sabotage within its own premises . . . Sabotage can best be administered on a comprehensive plan and by a central authority.
The national government, then, is charged with “some share in administering that necessary modicum of sabotage that must always go into the day’s work of carrying on industry by business methods for business purposes.” A contemporary example: fracking is exempted from federal environmental regulations.
For the working class, sabotage served a similar purpose. While it was used to secure concessions from employers, Mike Davis notes that groups like the IWW employed the tactic as a way of “forging . . . a ‘culture’ of struggle among immigrant workers.”
In the process, workers would recognize that they weren’t just struggling against a boss in a shop or the depression of wages in a particular industry, but a whole class of owners — and that these owners were not simply custodians of an economic system based on naturally occurring laws of supply and demand but active manipulators of industry for increased profit.
As a tactic, sabotage also implicitly identified machinery and infrastructure as the site of this struggle.
Struggle at the Point of Production
Because it is illegal — and because of the presence of agents provocateurs, who have framed labor organizers and worse — identifying acts of worker sabotage is often difficult. But it did and does happen.
During coal miner strikes in West Virginia, women tore up railroad tracks to prevent the arrival of strike breakers; workers smashed looms during the Lawrence textile strike; during the railroad strikes of 1886 and 1877, workers tampered with engines and set fire to trains and railyards; in 1937, they turned off refrigeration at Newton Packing Co., destroying $170,000 worth of meat.
Capitalist sabotage, in much the same way, aims to control the material stuff of production — but to the detriment of workers and consumers.
In his book Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell shows how working-class victories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not only a product of revolutionary ideas but of the way these ideas circulated, fermented, and were put into practice in the new workscapes created by the mining and moving of coal.
“Great volumes of energy now flowed along narrow, purpose built channels,” Mitchell writes. “Specialized bodies of workers were concentrated at the end-points and main junctions of these conduits . . . Their position and concentration gave them opportunities . . . to forge a new kind of political power.”
The shift from coal to oil decreased workers’ ability to control and disrupt these crucial chokepoints and increased the power of capital to do the same, ushering in a new age of capitalist sabotage.
Extending an argument made by Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class, Mitchell points out that at the most general level, “institutionalized waste” became a crucial strategy for “[soaking] up surplus capital and [maintaining] the profitability of several of [the] largest manufacturing corporations” through peacetime military spending.
Capitalists might call this good economic policy, but it fell easily under the definition of sabotage Elizabeth Gurley Flynn offered in 1916: an organized interference “with the supply as well as with the kind of goods for the purpose of increasing . . . profit.”
Not for Profit
But the activities of large corporations don’t only qualify as sabotage in a general way. The collusion between capitalists and the state that Veblen underscores is not only a necessary component of organized sabotage — those very relationships coalesce around particular instances of sabotage in the same way that workers’ disruption of rail transport during the age of coal helped solidify their power as a class.
For example, British Petroleum, concerned with reducing the market share of the French oil consortium Compagnie Française De Pétroles, deliberately reduced oil production in its Iraqi oil fields. BP “delayed the completion of [a] pipeline . . . deliberately drilled shallow wells . . . and plugged wildcat wells that yielded large finds.”
Likewise, in the 1950s, Iraq suggested that BP relinquish certain oil-producing areas included in the original development concession in hopes of developing its national oil industry. BP refused to let Iraq have a say about which areas would be given up, even though London “found Iraq’s proposals on relinquishment ‘not in fact unreasonable.’” The British government “feared that Iraq might respond by annexing Kuwait.”
BP’s decision to protect profits by restricting production even to the point of sparking political instability reveals the difference between class power founded on strategies of domination and short-term money grubbing.
On the face of it, refusing to negotiate with Iraq was a poor economic decision. But as Mitchell notes, “the oil companies preferred to provoke a crisis. Forcing Iraq to act unilaterally would give the impression that the [Iraq Petroleum Company] had no say in the matter, and make it harder for other countries to request similar arrangements.”
When BP decided to have nearly all of its Iraqi reserves confiscated rather than to surrender any of them, they weren’t acting in the interests of profit, but in the interests of their class.
Dialectics Break Bricks
Pouget’s pamphlet was translated into English by Arturo Giovanitti while he awaited trial for inciting a riot during the Lawrence textile strike of 1912. In his introduction to Pouget’s work Giovanitti notes that sabotage is something that workers have always practiced instinctively, but that it “becomes dangerous when it becomes the translated practical expression of an idea even though, or rather because, this idea has originated from the act itself.”
Emphasizing something we tend to forget — that one needs both collective action and a theory of class — Giovanitti continues: “It is only when [worker sabotage] becomes an idea that it becomes a dynamic and disintegrating force of bourgeois society, in so far as it wrests from the political state one of its cardinal faculties,” namely, the ability to control the means of production and distribution as an organized class.
Exploding pipelines and flammable water may appear to be accidents that could, ideally, be reduced or eliminated through a process of regulation. Perhaps they are. Yet as an endemic feature of the social relations of production they are also expressions of class power in capitalist society.