I saw this tweet while I was reading Miximum Ca’ Canny The Sabotage Manuals by Ida Börjel and it articulated my main gripe with the book: direct action and workplace sabotage are useful tools, but there should be some analysis that leads to choosing a particular target and thought to the impacts of collateral damage. Who is impacted by the sabotage is important, but in Börjel’s book, sabotage becomes indiscriminate.
The book opens with a single-poem section titled “Etymology” which contains some playful sabotage of its own regarding the origin of the word sabotage:
The word is taken from the french sabot, wood clog, and the French mill workers’ manner of protesting against the new automatic looms by hurling their clogs into them. So they removed and aimed, took off their only pair of shoes and threw them into the machine’s opening and walked barefoot through nah
In truth, the word does derive from the wooden clogs and their noise and clumsiness (“A / saboteur is someone who drags / their feet”), but Börjel’s telling leans toward the romantic images of workers throwing their shoes into machines. This is, of course, part of the word’s history, even if it’s technically incorrect.
The heart of the book is in the titular section two, “The Sabotage Manuals.” Börjel invokes two guides to sabotage, starting with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency, originally published 1916 and distributed by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). (The other, The Simple Sabotage Field Manual published by the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) I’ll comment on in a moment.) Flynn’s manual, which you can read on the IWW website, forms the basis for the first portion of this section, offering methods of sabotage such as “Tools,” “Water and Other Things,” “Fire,” and so on.
The poems here are carefully made, building on and calling back to one another: three sections in a row end on images of keys or locks. Flynn’s writing is where the phrase Ca’ Canny of the title derives from: “Sabotage, as it aims at the quantity, is a very old thing, called by the Scotch ‘ca canny’. All intelligent workers have tried it at some time or other when they have been compelled to work too hard and too long.” The phrase means “a slowdown” or “a deliberate limiting of output,” but has the bonus, in English, of sounding a little like cacophony.
The second portion of this section uses the OSS manual, and it’s here that I’m less sympathetic to Börjel’s project. The OSS was a WWII-era intelligence agency and precursor to the modern CIA. Indeed, the CIA is the agency that declassified The Simple Sabotage Field Manual in 2008. The OSS manual’s sabotage instructions are more broad and are addressed to field agents whose end goal is undermining an “enemy” State, rather than gaining rights for workers. It’s the OSS manual that gives us the “miximum” of the title:
distort telegrams so that additional ones need to be composed sometimes simply by changing a letter from “minimum” to “miximum” then they won’t know if minimizing or maximizing is at stake
This is a clever bit of language intervention, and could be useful for workers depending on the context, but other suggestions are more inconveniencing to workers than to bosses, their impacts directed at undermining an economy rather than seizing control of the economy. In the section “On the Roads,” we’re offered this:
replace or rotate signs at intersectionswhen asked for directions give the wrong answerbus drivers can drive past stops taxi drivers can take the longest route between A and B
Reading in the United States, where public transit is tragically bad and usage often breaks down along class lines, the idea of bus drivers intentionally sabotaging their routes falls flat. Further, the OSS manual’s language is even more warlike: “When the enemy asks for directions, give him wrong information” [emphasis added]. Sure, class warfare is still warfare, but ultimately I’m skeptical of CIA methods that are used without critique.
Not to mention the conflating of revolutionary tactics meant to transfer power to workers, with the tactics of empire meant to build the power of the State strikes me as careless, ultimately undermining the poetic project. There are three more sections after the two I’ve addressed, but by the time I read them, I was uneasy with Börjel’s project. I’m willing to be wrong on this one (there’s a link to download a PDF of the book on Commune Editions’ website), but for now I remain skeptical.