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Sabotage as Environmental Activism

Why sabotage of pipelines is a justifiable and effective form of resistance to the sanctity of capitalist ownership

Space is a means of production: the network of exchanges and the flow of raw materials and energy that make up space are also determined by space. The means of production, themselves a product, cannot be separated from the forces of production, techniques and knowledge; from the international division of social labor; from nature; or from the state and other superstructures.

–Henri Lefebvre, “Space: Social Product and Use Value” (1970)

On July 23, 2017, two members of the Catholic Worker Movement, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya claimed responsibility for sabotaging construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in Iowa and parts of South Dakota. They had burned several pieces of heavy machinery at a construction site and proceeded to teach themselves how to cut exposed portions of empty pipelines with oxyacetylene torches. As they explained in an interview on Democracy Now, the two women decided to confess because so little media attention was given to their actions. Extending the general policy of silence, the pipeline’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, refused to comment on their confession. Following their revelation, an article in the Des Moines Register reported several incidents of arson the previous year, for which Montoya and Reznicek denied responsibility. Multiple valves along the Keystone pipeline carrying oil from Canadian tar sands were sabotaged in coordinated attacks across four states in 2016 as well.

Sabotage, as a form of resistance and a means of defending our shared environment, is quite common, but we hear very little about it. The dearth of media coverage does not, however, indicate that no one is paying attention. On the contrary, the Department of Homeland Security has issued a publicly-available report on pipeline sabotage and eco-terrorism. Several states, including Iowa, are also considering bills to streamline prosecutions for these acts by creating a new crime, “critical infrastructure sabotage,” based on model legislation drafted by the venerable American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as well as an act passed in Oklahoma last year.

Unlike sabotage, which is necessarily covert, the political power of something like the encampment at Standing Rock, hinges on visibility, but this is not a sufficient explanation for why repeated acts of sabotage — illegal activity resulting in millions of dollars of damage — gained so little relative attention. Sabotage should be headline grabbing: it’s secret; it’s expensive; it has a sexy, Hollywood spy component; it’s French. But as far as I can tell, pipeline sabotage produced one article in a major national newspaper.

The word sabotage is difficult to define. Since its incorporation into the English language it has taken on a military connotation that gives it a meaning similar to espionage. Lately, as a staple of pop-psychology, it has come to mean just about any action that interferes with a desirable outcome in our personal lives. But the word was not introduced into the American lexicon by domestic or foreign military agents and had little to do with selfhood until recently. Sabotage entered our national imagination and our vocabulary at the beginning of the twentieth century by way of radical labor organizers and terrified business owners. Its use in this context points us toward definitions of violence and conflict that differ from a national, military conception in significant and productive ways.

In 1913, Walker Smith, editor of the Industrial Worker, wrote an article entitled, “Sabotage: Its History, Philosophy and Function.” Sabotage, Smith contended, “is so universally feared by the employers that they do not even desire that it be condemned for fear the slave class may learn … its great value.” Smith drew heavily on the arguments made in an 1898 pamphlet of the same name by the French syndicalist Emile Pouget, and his arguments were repeated by famed Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer and orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, not to mention numerous articles in the Industrial Worker.

Rather than a breach of national security or a threat to military operations, sabotage was, for both the IWW and its targets, anything that destroyed the “profits [of the capitalist class] to gain a definite revolutionary, economic end” or “any conscious and willful act on the part of one or more workers intended to slacken and reduce the output of production in the industrial field.” In other words, sabotage had nothing to do with conventional warfare and threats to national interests. It was a tactic employed in a class war and its meaning was class-bound. Sabotage can therefore sound like direct action more generally but what differentiates it is its potency as an idea — the mere fact that it was named as a coherent strategy. In some sense, sabotage remains common vandalism if it is kept secret. Montoya and Reznicek’s confession was prompted by this understanding and this point was elaborated by another IWW organizer, Arturo Giovannitti, as follows:

[Sabotage is] a certain simple thing, which is [practiced by workers] … but it becomes a monstrous thing, a crime and a blasphemy when it is openly advocated … it only becomes dangerous when it becomes the … practical expression of an idea … and it is dangerous because this idea has originated from the act itself.

In other words, when a worker engages in sabotage “instinctively” and “impulsively” — because he is frustrated with a machine, angry at a foreman, or wants to rest — it may disrupt production but it does not pose a political threat until it is declared publicly as an act of economic or ideological defiance. This does not mean, however, that political theorizing alone — the declaration of a class war or the assertion that property is theft — is more valuable or potent than throwing a pitchfork into the thresher. As Pouget argues, the concept of sabotage as a form of political resistance is only terrifying because the idea derives from a concrete action. Sabotage, as an idea, cannot exist without being solidly anchored to the threat of property destruction.

For this reason sabotage is a singularly useful example of the entanglement of theory and practice. Its use as a tactic, as a galvanizing discourse, and as a political strategy necessarily reveals important questions about the relationship between the laboring and capitalist classes. But it does something else as well: it specifies the role of property in that relationship. Sabotage was a historically specific tactic. It was not an irrational and immature form of rebellion that preceded more developed and mature forms of labor organization, but an entirely rational response to old property regimes and new developments in technology and management. It recognized the constitution of capitalist control and offered a material strategy for its disruption at the point of production.

That point of production, when mapped onto pipelines, is a continuous flow and it is largely workerless. But the class structure identified by the IWW remains relevant. Indeed, claims on environmental resources and the defense of an inherently communal entity such as air or water fall neatly into the political critique elaborated by advocates of sabotage, and the model legislation proposed by ALEC is similarly reminiscent of the criminal syndicalism — advocacy of acts of violence to bring about industrial or political change — and sabotage laws passed in response to IWW organizing.

Following World War I, 23 states passed criminal syndicalism and anti-sabotage laws aimed at the repression of radical organizations (mainly the IWW, but also communists and other perceived threats). The broadest and most severe of these statutes was passed by the state of Montana in 1918. The language of the Montana act is typical, but particularly significant because it served as a model for the 1918 Sedition Act. [1] A set of amendments to the 1917 espionage act under which hundreds of IWWs were charged, convicted and either jailed or deported.

The extent to which criminal syndicalism laws were concerned with the circulation of ideas is clearly demonstrated by their language. The text of Montana’s act verges on the absurd and is worth quoting at length because its obsessively thorough nature reveals the spirit of these laws — technically aimed at the prevention of material destruction, but ultimately intended to erase the existence of a set of ideas:

Any person who, by word of mouth or writing, advocates, suggests, or teaches … crime, criminal syndicalism, or sabotage, or who shall advocate or suggest … any act of violence, the destruction of or damage to any property, the bodily injury to any person or persons, or the commission of any crime or unlawful act, as a means of accomplishing … any industrial or political ends, change, or revolution, or who prints, publishes, edits, issues, or knowingly circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any books, pamphlets, paper, handbill, poster, document, or written or printed matter in any form whatsoever, containing, advocating, advising, suggesting, or teaching crime, criminal syndicalism, sabotage, the doing of any act of violence, the destruction of or damage to any property, the injury to any person, or the commission of any crime or unlawful act, as a means of … bringing about any industrial or political ends, or change … or who shall openly, or at all, attempt to justify, by word of mouth or writing, the commission or the attempt to commit sabotage … is guilty of a felony.[2]

Owners, custodians, janitors or other caretakers of property who knowingly allowed such criminal speech and writing to take place in their buildings were guilty of misdemeanors (they are guilty of a felony in Montana).

The distinction between violence against people and violence against property was a central component of the critique offered by advocates of sabotage, who not only emphasized the importance of this difference, but politicized it further by declaring property destruction “worker sabotage” and violence against persons “capitalist sabotage.” Pouget, Smith, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other radical advocates of sabotage were all at pains to explain that, when enacted by workers, it merely affects the profits of capitalists by damaging their property, whereas “capitalist sabotage” almost always does bodily harm to workers and consumers in the interest of those very same profits. This division and its conceptual distinction between violence against people versus violence against property is extremely important in the context of environmental activism, and was repeatedly articulated in Montoya and Reznicek’s confession.

The model legislation proposed by ALEC is less dramatic than the Montana Statute just cited, but it is nearly identical in spirit. The summary reads as follows:

[This Act] codifies criminal penalties for a person convicted of willfully trespassing or entering property containing a critical infrastructure facility without permission by the owner of the property, and holds a person liable for any damages to personal or real property while trespassing. The Act also prescribes criminal penalties for organizations conspiring with persons who willfully trespass and/or damage critical infrastructure sites, and holds conspiring organizations responsible for any damages to personal or real property while trespassing.

The model act, which was written in response to protests and encampments as well as sabotage, and includes the chilling reference to “conspiring organizations,” is similarly concerned with the criminalization of a certain politics that should be read in terms of class conflict. These laws are written to defend private property against a claim on and by the commons. The connection between the philosophy and practice of sabotage proposed by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century syndicalists and the sabotage of the Dakota Access Pipeline is not merely that of a legal or criminal category. Nor is the significance of this connection — the re-emergence of this word and its re-establishment within the criminal code — limited to the distinction between harm to people and harm to property. Although, in speaking of oil pipelines, which leak and explode almost as a matter of course, this conceptual division of worker from capitalist sabotage bears repeating. In fact, oil and natural gas pipelines might be the most perfect example to date of capitalist sabotage — the structural tendency of surplus value production to endanger human life. And, as Andreas Malm has argued, climate change needs to be thought about as a form of violence — one that is class-based, visited on large parts of the population in the economic interests of a select few. The relationship between environmental activists and the low-wage workers recruited into the IWW might seem tenuous, but the leap from machinery to pipelines is not far.

To begin with, the reaction to Wobblies — the informal term for IWWs — is similar to the legal reaction to environmentalists whose convictions and activities fall outside the bounds of acceptable discourse — and what is acceptable, in both cases, is circumscribed by the sanctity of private property within capitalism. Both labor agitators and environmental activists cross the line from legitimate (if sometimes illegal) activity into the realm of criminality, by way of sabotage. Sabotage marks the difference between an environmentalist — who might trespass or vandalize — to an eco-terrorist in the same way that it marked the difference between the average striker and a wild-eyed, revolutionary. The early twentieth century was a high point in labor-capital conflict in the United States. Strikers were not always peaceful and they were regularly met by state violence in the form of the army as well as hastily deputized vigilante businessmen. Likewise, the occupiers at Standing Rock met police violence with less than stoic passivity from time to time. But this is precisely why sabotage and the silence surrounding it is important evidence of the priorities of capitalism — why it is, by its very occurrence, revelatory as much as it is revolutionary. It makes it impossible to ignore the priorities of the system it attacks. The form of violence — against property, not people — is an extraordinary threat because it exposes the hypocrisy of a democratic state ideology that claims for itself a moral franchise on non-violence. In other words, for the democratic state to maintain its real power as the sole entity with a legitimate use of force within a given territory, it needs to present this force in moral terms — as a means of protecting people. Sabotage not only threatens the state’s Weberian monopoly on violence, it shows that this violence is primarily in the service of protecting private property and wealth accumulation.

The historical analogy extends to the object as well: pipelines are very much a means of production. The IWW was concerned with the exploitation of workers by machinery under capitalism and sabotage was an assertion of control over the material expression of this economic power. Power that exerted itself on their bodies in increasingly regimented movements in its most benign form, to gruesome injury and death at its most extreme. Sabotage can be read as a defensive move against the literal and metaphorical apparatus of this control as well as a sort of prefigurative, if temporary, seizure of property. It is both a logical, justifiable and effective form of resistance and a direct affront to the sanctity of capitalist ownership.

In his recent book, the Progress of This Storm (2017), Malm suggests that climate change is insistently temporal. He argues that the assertion by Frederic Jameson that postmodernism marks the triumph of space over time needs to be rethought in light of processes that are undeniably historical and cumulative. Climate change is the result of industrial activity over time and its effects will last for an eternity. Sabotage by climate activists offers another theoretical reorganization—one that is, itself, insistently spatial — an assertion of territorial control that also indicates a sense of time differently determined. Time that is not the time of inheritance and property transfers. Time that assumes a set of possibilities beyond the realm of a capitalist imagination. A future that is not circumscribed by private property ownership and realized in profit. In other words, a future that is not composed of financial futures.

R.H. Lossin is a Brooklyn based writer and PhD candidate at Columbia University.


[1] Sims, 63.

[2] S. 1070 “Criminal Syndicalism Defined” Isaac Watts Choate The Revised Codes of Montana of 1921.

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R. H. Lossin

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