Home Forum Political Economy What Does a World Without Sabotage Look Like?

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  • #248551

    The term “sabotage” as used in CasP theory (and previously by Veblen his The Engineers and the Price System, and some of his other works) is evocative but it begs several questions.

    For the purposes of this discussion, I refer to the definition of sabotage provided by Tim Di Muzio at page xvi of The Capitalist Mode of Power:

    Sabotage.  The strategic ability to incapacitate or restrict production and human creativity for the sake of business profit. There are two types: universal sabotage which all businesses pursue as a matter of course and acts of sabotage that are unique to one corporation or a group of corporations.

    First, in all of recorded history, has humanity ever enjoyed a world free from sabotage?  If sabotage is universal to profit-seeking enterprises today, was that not also true in ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, etc.? Even if there is something specific about the nature of capitalist sabotage that distinguishes it from prior modes of power, has there ever been a mode of power that did not engage in sabotage of some type?

    Second, relatedly, what does a world without sabotage look like? Do we have examples or just a utopic vision that is yet to be imagined or articulated?

    Third, does all sabotage take the form of expressly incapacitating and restricting production and human creativity? For example, is the act of directing production and human creativity also a form of sabotage?  We live in a world with finite resources and limited time.  Every option we decide to pursue represents several options we chose to forego.  Is “sabotage” really just a reframing of the individual v. collective dichotomy that presumes the primacy of the collective?

    Finally, does CasP theory care about sabotage outside the narrow definition it has thus far adopted and pursued, e.g., is CasP theory merely descriptive?  The word “sabotage” strongly implies a normative viewpoint that the good of society as a whole matters.  Veblen was a product of his time, a time when people agreed that there is a society, and they all wanted it to be good.  Today, with the advent of neoliberalism and its pathological understanding of individualism, many people don’t seem to believe there is a society that can be sabotaged, only coalitions and factions in a struggle for dominance.

     

    • This topic was modified 1 year, 6 months ago by Scot Griffin.
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    • #248553
      jmc

        Great questions, Scot. I have thoughts on this and I hope others do as well.

        A world without sabotage?

        • This reply was modified 1 year, 6 months ago by jmc.
      • #248556

        This is a great question Scott, and I think that a lot of good answers will be found in the work of Elinor Ostrom

        First, in all of recorded history, has humanity ever enjoyed a world free from sabotage?

        It would seem to me that sabotage, as used by Veblen, and Di Muzio, and CasP more generally, would require property that is legally defined in order to exclude access. With legal exclusion, we have the development of the various tools that are utilized in both senses of sabotage. Thus if we want to look at a world without sabotage, we must necessarily look outside the world of enclosures, and this would then mean looking at the world of Commons Pool Resources. Ostrom’s work in this area is very extensive, and has covered everything from physical resources, to intellectual resources.

        Second, relatedly, what does a world without sabotage look like? Do we have examples or just a utopic vision that is yet to be imagined or articulated?

        I don’t necessarily think that we should limit ourselves to the work of Elinor Ostrom, but it is a good starting point. I certainly don’t hold Ostrom as sacrosanct, and it has been a few years since I read her works, but I feel like her research is invaluable for informing this particular subject.

        Some Ostrom Recommendations
        1. Rules, Games, and Common Pool Resources
        2. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons
        3. Working Together: Collective Action, The Commons, And Multiple Methods in Practice 
        4. The Future of the Commons Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation

      • #248558

        This is a great question Scott, and I think that a lot of good answers will be found in the work of Elinor Ostrom

        First, in all of recorded history, has humanity ever enjoyed a world free from sabotage?

        It would seem to me that sabotage, as used by Veblen, and Di Muzio, and CasP more generally, would require property that is legally defined in order to exclude access. With legal exclusion, we have the development of the various tools that are utilized in both senses of sabotage. Thus if we want to look at a world without sabotage, we must necessarily look outside the world of enclosures, and this would then mean looking at the world of Commons Pool Resources. Ostrom’s work in this area is very extensive, and has covered everything from physical resources, to intellectual resources.

        Second, relatedly, what does a world without sabotage look like? Do we have examples or just a utopic vision that is yet to be imagined or articulated?

        I don’t necessarily think that we should limit ourselves to the work of Elinor Ostrom, but it is a good starting point. I certainly don’t hold Ostrom as sacrosanct, and it has been a few years since I read her works, but I feel like her research is invaluable for informing this particular subject. Some Ostrom Recommendations 1. Rules, Games, and Common Pool Resources 2. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons 3. Working Together: Collective Action, The Commons, And Multiple Methods in Practice 4. The Future of the Commons Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation

        Pieter,

        Thank you for the recommendations.  I will take a look.

        I agree with the centrality of property rights to sabotage, but what about money itself?  To me, sabotage starts with the managed scarcity of money, which is the basis for the differential accumulation of property.

        • #248559

          To me, sabotage starts with the managed scarcity of money, which is the basis for the differential accumulation of property.

          Could you clarify what you mean by this?

          While I think that the MMT/Chartalist crowd have gotten a lot wrong, I do think there is some validity to the idea that the State controls the creation of currency, and forces society to utilize their currency by requiring that taxes be paid using their currency. The legal structures of taxation then permit tax avoidance for the wealthy, and this facilitates differential accumulation. But money and currency are not the same thing, so I’m unsure if this is what you are referring to.

      • #248572

        To me, sabotage starts with the managed scarcity of money, which is the basis for the differential accumulation of property.

        Could you clarify what you mean by this? While I think that the MMT/Chartalist crowd have gotten a lot wrong, I do think there is some validity to the idea that the State controls the creation of currency, and forces society to utilize their currency by requiring that taxes be paid using their currency. The legal structures of taxation then permit tax avoidance for the wealthy, and this facilitates differential accumulation. But money and currency are not the same thing, so I’m unsure if this is what you are referring to.

        Sure. Let me try it this way (my overarching theory is still coalescing).

        I am referring to money broadly, which I believe even under MMT includes both currency and bank deposits.

        Regardless of what constitutes money or how we theorize it, money is not neutral.  If property is theft, money is assault and battery.

        Although it encloses nothing, money is a gate that stands between us and our survival.  To access the necessities of life, one must have money, and it is the relative need of money that creates power differentials among individuals, defining and narrowing the options of those who do not have it while creating and broadening the options of those who do.  While capital is the stock of capitalist power, money and debt are its flows.

        It is the relationship between debt and money that ensures the scarcity of money and the flow of power to capital.  There is always more debt than there is money to pay it.  This is especially true in a credit money system such as the one we have, where banks create money on the precondition of a promise to pay the bank the money created plus interest in the future (normally, we call this “lending at interest,” but there is no loan, just credit extended on the promise to pay that was fraudulently premised on the fiction that the bank is giving the person money that the bank already possesses).

        Yes, MMT shows us we can model the current credit money system as if it is the state that creates money by spending it and destroys money by taxing it away, but empirically that is not yet true, and significant changes are required to transform the theory (MMT) into reality (MMR).  Banks create more than 90% of all money in the first instance, and the reserves follow weeks or months later.

        If we ever move towards changing our monetary institutions to make MMT “MMR,” I am concerned that it will largely be illusory, a move to further entrench the power of dominant capital, which MMT leaves largely intact.  MMT would only affect the rate of differential accumulation, not differential accumulation itself.

        I do not object to credit money per se, I just think credit money should not be interest-bearing except in cases where the proceeds are used for purely financial purposes (e.g., speculation or stock buybacks) or other uses unrelated to the production or consumption of commodities.  If MMT were to embrace the idea that the state lends the money into existence instead of spends it into existence, then the private servicing of debt would perform the same function as paying income taxes, which could be eliminated for most people.  Why does MMT choose to keep the banks in the middle? (NOTE: MMT says that repaying debts destroys money, but that really just means the “money” associated with principal payments is removed from a deposit account on the liability side of the bank’s books.  It does not mean that the principal payments don’t show up elsewhere as an asset on the bank’s books, replacing the “loan” it “repaid.”  While principal payments are credited against the loan to reduce the book value of the loan, as a legal and accounting fiction, the principal is being “returned” to the bank and cannot and does not disappear. I can find no legal or accounting basis for concluding banks do not treat principal payments as a return of capital, which is not income to them for tax purposes, and nobody who asserts otherwise has proven me wrong when I’ve asked them to do so.)

        Credit money was an important innovation and is the foundation of capitalism and capitalist power.  To me, all MMT does is recognize that credit money supply is not materially constrained the way hard money supply is, which means we do not have to ensure that the masses remain poor so a few can get rich.  In a credit money system, money is not a store of value, capital is, and hoarding capital does not withdraw money from the system.  This means policies like austerity are unnecessary artifacts of a bygone age that can be abandoned.

         

        • This reply was modified 1 year, 6 months ago by Scot Griffin.
      • #248801

        This is such a crucial question and overlaps with things I’m trying to understand in this forum post: Is power a thing in itself or the space between things?

         

        I’m not nearly knowledgable enough to comment on questions (1) and (2), but I’ll have a crack at (3) and (4).

        Third, does all sabotage take the form of expressly incapacitating and restricting production and human creativity? For example, is the act of directing production and human creativity also a form of sabotage?  We live in a world with finite resources and limited time.  Every option we decide to pursue represents several options we chose to forego.  Is “sabotage” really just a reframing of the individual v. collective dichotomy that presumes the primacy of the collective?

        Finally, does CasP theory care about sabotage outside the narrow definition it has thus far adopted and pursued, e.g., is CasP theory merely descriptive?  The word “sabotage” strongly implies a normative viewpoint that the good of society as a whole matters.

         

        Sabotage and Power

        As I understand CasP theory, sabotage is, in broadest possible terms, the strategic limiting of creativity to forge, shape and fortify relationships of power. I offer this alternative broad definition to highlight that how we conceive of power will determine what we consider sabotage, particularly with regard to what is being sabotaged and thus lost in the process.

        I think you’re right that invoking notions of wellbeing, and perhaps even creativity, are hopelessly normative, calling into question where sabotage begins and ends and if it may in fact be good thing in some cases (brings to mind of Blair Fix’s Growth as a Power Process for instance).

        That said, I don’t think we can draw boundaries around what constitutes sabotage, nor decide when, if ever, it is desirable, without first addressing what I see as a key problem in how we conceive of power.

        TL;DR – If we conceive of power contra a vast expanse of potentialities, rather than contra a single optimum outcome, we can salvage “sabotage” as a descriptive concept. That is to say, sabotage isn’t merely undesirable because it denies us something we normatively judge to be “good”, rather the term “sabotage” describes a strategic, potentially measurable, process of limiting possibilities (that might have been explored by way of unimpeded creativity) exercised as a prerequisite for power. (I’ve attempted to outline my admittedly very vague thinking on this below, in case the TL;DR wasn’t vague enough!).

         

        Answer to questions (3) and (4)

        In this sense, I don’t see sabotage as a reframing of individual vs collective debates, as sabotage is more about limiting possibilities in the pursuit of power for its own sake, rather than enacting the will of a given social entity. Unimpeded creativity, on the other hand, need serve neither individuals nor collectives exclusively. It is a strictly social phenomenon, so I don’t see sabotage having much to do with opportunity costs or scarcity – they may set the landscape but ultimately our social lives remain an open question. Finally, if “directing” production involves imposing limitations, then categorically its sabotage (at least as I’ve defined it).

         

        Is that a bad thing? That’s a much bigger question. Bichler and Nitzan’s dense but rich recasp article Growing Through Sabotage is a very thought provoking attempt to begin systematically thinking about this issue. Don’t know if you’ve read it but I plan to come back to multiple times.

         

        Not long enough; would read

        Something I think CasP highlights, particularly with the upending of the real/nominal and economics/politics bifurcations, is that power is often thought of as external or secondary to, distracting or detracting from, influencing or distorting, something along the lines of progress, growth, civilisation, development and other idealised teleological notions.

         

        All this gives the impression that power is the arbitrary, limitless, irrational, ill-defined and boundless scope of potentialities that steers us away from the eternal, ideal, optimum, narrow, limited, well-defined and bounded “real” and “golden path” towards the greatest good.

        As I see it, this thinking motivates the tendency in conventional discourse to avoid addressing power directly. Instead, many are satisfied being relegated to the “nominal” periphery, tasked with merely exhausting the list of surface level distortions as though cutting away the tall grass that obscures the path, meanwhile taking much of what is considered “real” as given. Of course, few would ever dare to make a normative claim about the world explicitly. Far safer to claim it was revealed to us after the nefarious effects of power were accounted for; once the grass was cut away, so to speak. This is really the first trick of economics: never show your hand by making explicitly normative claims about the world, just defer to the alleged, etherial, heteronomous forces of the “economy” to do the heavy lifting.

         

        If power is the historical, contingent, normative baggage that steers us from this “golden path”, then our salvation lies in the eternal, rational, descriptive, enlightenment that will set us on the straight and narrow. In this sense, I wonder if we could understand much political contestation as emerging from their position on a scale of optimism for our prospects at identifying and duly accounting for the various effects of power. Your business as usual centrist might see nothing untoward and consider us well on our way along the “golden path”, whereas a more pessimistic “postist” (as cheekily labelled by BnN) sees only power stretching to the horizon; the path certainly exists, albeit forever hidden in the weeds of our own insurmountable partialities.

         

        To steer this tangent back to its own destination, perhaps this thinking of power as boundless and what I’ve been calling the “golden path” as bounded is precisely the problem. Perhaps, instead of defining power by its divergence from an eternal particular, its rather power that is the contingent particular that we so often find ourselves captured by, clouding our vision to what is really a boundless plane of possibilities. It’s with this conception of power that we can salvage “sabotage” as a descriptive concept; as the initial stage of forging power by limiting the scope of possibilities.

         

        These vague ramblings were inspired by a Twitter thread by Colin Drumm on how much of the western tradition tends to only see the “good” as ontologically positive, while evil is arbitrary.

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