Open-Mouth Sabotage, Networked Resistance, and Asymmetric Warfare on the Job

A recurring theme in ruling class circles over the past thirty years has been the “crisis of governability” (e.g. Samuel Huntington, et al., The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, 1975).  It increased by at least an order of magnitude with the new possibilities the Internet offered for networked resistance (Netwar) by the late 1990s.  David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla (The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico MR-994-A, 1998)  surveyed the global support network for the Zapatista movement as one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon.

One topic that has received far less attention than it deserves, in my opinion, is the application of this networked resistance or asymmetric warfare model in the specific context of labor relations.  This is the theme of draft Chapter Nine (Special Agency Problems of Labor:  Internal Crisis Tendencies of the Large Organization)  of my work in progress on anarchist organization theory.

As is the case with the crisis of governability in general, asymmetric warfare in the workplace predates network culture by many decades, if not centuries (it probably started the first time a slave or serf told his master some farming implement “broke itself”).

My concern here is with the specific tactic the Wobblies have called “open mouth sabotage”  and the exponential increase in its potential made possible by the rise of network culture.

One of the central themes of the Cluetrain Manifesto was the potential for direct, unmediated “conversations” between workers and customers.  The authors believed that by bypassing the company’s official happy talk and engaging in genuine dialogue, workers would create authentic relationships that would actually increase customer loyalty.  But that’s only one side of the coin.  Businesses that follow the typical MBA model of repeated and relentless downsizings and speedups, and internal authoritarianism to suppress disgruntlement over such policies, have good reason to fear their employees talking directly to the customer.  Their worst nightmare scenario is for the workers to realize that the customer (or the general public) is a potential ally against their common worst enemy–management–and to pass along all the dirt to strategically chosen outsiders with the goal of causing maximum damage to the employer.

And given that the majority of corporate employers follow the same “work ’em to death and replace ’em” model of workplace relations, and that open-mouth sabotage is impossible to suppress and almost risk-free, it’s safe to assume that the coming decades will see revolutionary changes in management-labor relations as the new potential makes itself fully felt.

One of the first hints of how open-mouth sabotage might be used in the Internet age was the so-called “McLibel” case in Britain, which–although it ended in the early days of the Internet–was a humiliating PR disaster for McDonalds.

It showed itself again in 2004 with the Sinclair Media and Diebold cases (see Yochai Benkler’s account of both).  Both of them showed that, in a world of bittorrent and mirror sites, it was literally impossible to suppress information once it had been made public.

Most recently, the phenomenon was demonstrated in the case of Wikileaks, where a judge’s order to disable the site

didn’t have any real impact on the availability of the Baer documents. Because Wikileaks operates sites like Wikileaks.cx in other countries, the documents remained widely available, both in the United States and abroad, and the effort to suppress access to them caused them to rocket across the Internet, drawing millions of hits on other web sites..

This was yet another demonstration of what has been facetiously labelled the “Streisand effect”:  efforts to suppress embarrassing information leading to embarassment several orders of magnitude worse, from publicity attracted by the suppression attempt itself.

Meanwhile, in late 2004 and 2005, the phenomenon of “Doocing” (the firing of bloggers for negative commentary on their workplace, or for the expression of other non-approved opinions on their blogs) began to attract mainstream media attention.  The interesting thing is that employers, who fired disgruntled workers out of fear for the bad publicity their blogs might attract, were blindsided by the far worse publicity–far, far worse–that resulted from news of the firing.  Rather than an insular blog audience of a few hundred reading that “it sucks to work at Employer X,” or “Employer X gets away with treating its customers like shit,” it became a case of tens of millions of readers of the major newspapers of record and wire services reading that “Employer X fires blogger for revealing how bad it sucks to work at Employer X.”  Again, the bosses are learning that, for the first time since the rise of the giant corporation and the broadcast culture, workers and consumers can talk back–and not only is there absolutely no way to shut us up, but we actually just keep making more and more noise the more they try to do so.

The current potential for open-mouth sabotage, and for networked anti-corporate resistance by consumers and workers, is positively breathtaking.  The anonymity of the writeable web, the comparative ease with which disgruntled workers can set up anonymous sites of their own (witness the proliferation of www.employernamesucks.com sites), and the possibility of simply emailing large volumes of embarrassing information to everyone you can think of whose knowledge might be embarrassing to an employer.

All a disgruntled worker has to do is keep his eyes and ears open, write things down, and keep a copy of every potentially embarrassing document that comes his way.  And just about everything is potential fodder for organizational humiliation, if you compare the official happy talk in memos and newsletters to descriptions of what management is actually doing (often in the same memos and newsletters, as a matter of fact), or if you compare the now-forgotten happy talk of six months ago (“Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia”) to what’s actually happening now.  It’s pretty easy to put it all together into a single damning textfile.  It’s also easy to compile a devastating email distribution list:  all your employer’s major customers, contractors and outlets, the community social and charitable organizations management hobnobs with, consumer and labor advocacy groups, mainstream and alternative press at both local and national levels, etc.  Just save that draft email with file attachment, pre-addressed to your distribution list, and hit “Send” the day you get fired.  Or maybe just set up a dummy email account and send it anonymously right now.  Either way, the subsequent barrage of emails and phone calls will hit the executive suite like an atomic blast.

In the comments to the original version of this post, a reader raised the question of whether the media would become so saturated with such attacks against thousands of targets that the individual messages would be buried in white noise.  This point would be a valid criticism in regard to the general broadcast media and traditional newspapers. The good thing about network society, though, is that we’re not forced to work through broadcast media.  It’s possible to “narrow-cast” open mouth sabotage to the specific audience who will be most interested in it:   the major stakeholders doing business with a corporation, the community where it’s a major institution, and all the other recipients that would cause maximum embarrassment to the target.

Let’s take a specific case:   Pretend you work at a hospital.  You put together a textfile contrasting the deliberate understaffing and other malfeasance where you work to the official happy talk (“extraordinary patient care” “renowned for going above and beyond”) in the mission statement. You send copies to the offices of the most important doctors with admitting privileges, the local United Way/Red Cross leadership the hospital management likes to hobnob with, the Chamber of Commerce and City Council, the local nursing college that sends students to train there, the major charitable donors, the local alternative press, all the reporters whose bylines have appeared under healthcare stories in the mainstream paper, to the CEOs of other local hospitals, and then CC it to the board of directors and C-suite (not to mention major shareholders and creditors!) at corporate headquarters while you’re at it.  You can probably apply the same principle pretty easily in any line of wage employment.

We’re living in an era of labor relations characterized by the convergence of two trends:  the emergence of unprecedented possibilities for easy, low-cost damage to employers, at a time when workers have less reason for loyalty to their employers than at any time since the Thirteenth Amendment.  In other words, the perfect storm.  As more and more disgruntled workers figure out the possibilities, it will be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

The twentieth century was the era of the large organization.  By the end of the twenty-first, there probably won’t be enough of them left to bury.

[Edited 11/4/10]

7 Comments Open-Mouth Sabotage, Networked Resistance, and Asymmetric Warfare on the Job

  1. Adam Ricketson

    The empire will strike back.

    If employers can’t suppress the information outright, they may perform “covert ops” to discredit the channel by which malcontents would spread damaging information — at the least, they won’t lobby the government to subsidize that channel or provide honest regulation (though they may use regulation as a tool for suppression).

    For example, if email really undermines the governability of workers, then maybe employers will feed the spam monster.

    The current system may work well for the moment, but I suspect in the near future we will have to pay more attention to how we validate these communications.

  2. autocrat

    I agree that these tactics are an important source of counter-power held by workers against employers, and should be utilized to maximum effect wherever possible.

    I’m somewhat skeptical though regarding the degree of your optimism as to its mass effect – i.e. “the perfect storm / unbottled-genie” – my thoughts are: perhaps as the more prevalent this practice (hopefully) becomes, the more it will become just another source of general “white-noise” to be filtered and ignored not only be the media, but by consumers as well – i.e., at what point does “open mouth sabotage” become a “fully saturated market”?

  3. Pingback: The twentieth century was the era of the large organization. By the end of the twenty-first, there probably won’t be enough of them left to bury. « Chief Outhouse Correspondent

  4. Kevin CarsonKevin Carson

    Adam,

    My fear is that the state will put the Internet under lockdown. “National security” legislation has tended to blur the line between “direction action on the job” and “economic terrorism.” They’ve already proposed “smart stamps,” which would require someone to register a street address and provide valid ID to mail a letter. They might try requiring a real, documented identity associated with a street address as a condition of Internet access.

    Another possibility is the state itself engaging in covert ops against the radical labor movement, along the lines of COINTELPRO. The deliberate creation of misinformation to control the mindset not only of the “enemy,” but of the domestic public (like there’s a difference to them) has been openly discussed in national security circles.

    Autocrat,

    Your point is valid IMO as far as it involves the general press–the broadcast media and traditional newspapers. The good thing about network society, though, is we’re not forced to work through broadcast media. It’s possible to “narrow-cast” open mouth sabotage to the specific audience who will be most interested in it: as I mentioned before, the major stakeholders doing business with a corporation, the community where it’s a major institution, etc.

  5. Kevin CarsonKevin Carson

    Autocrat,

    P.S. I should have been clearer in the post about the makeup of a hypothetical email distribution list. Let’s say you’ve got a textfile contrasting the deliberate understaffing and other malfeasance at the hospital where you work to the official happy talk (“extraordinary patient care” “renowned for going above and beyond”) in the mission statement. You send copies to the offices of the most important doctors with admitting privileges, the local United Way/Red Cross leadership the hospital management likes to hobnob with, the Chamber of Commerce and City Council, the local nursing college that sends students to train there, the major charitable donors, the local alternative press, all the reporters whose bylines have appeared under healthcare stories in the mainstream paper, to the CEOs of other local hospitals, and maybe CC it to the national and regional corporate HQ while you’re at it. You can probably apply the same principle pretty easily in any line of wage employment.

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  7. Anon74

    They might try requiring a real, documented identity associated with a street address as a condition of Internet access.

    Isn’t this the way it is already? At the very least the ISP has to know your phone number to connect the service…

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