If you work for a government that is exhibiting authoritarian tendencies, there are many nonviolent methods you can use to obstruct and impede the implementation of its policies.
Government leaders depend on the support of ordinary civil servants to get their policies carried out. But that support is always tenuous. The ways of fouling up the work of government are endless.
Far from being rational, smooth-running machines, large bureaucracies bumble and stumble along, wallowing in inefficiency, waste and disastrous miscalculations. They are riddled with cracks, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and contradictions.
That insight was tacitly recognized by the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS—the predecessor to the CIA) in a little pamphlet called Simple Sabotage Field Manual. Published in 1944, it was apparently distributed to enemy countries during WW II in an attempt to encourage disruption of their government’s war effort.
The manual is not about sophisticated operations like destroying ammunition depots or blowing up bridges. Rather, it encourages what the OSS calls “simple sabotage” that can be performed by ordinary folks.
The pamphlet is full of tips on how to undermine the war effort by causing machinery to break down prematurely, surreptitiously weakening infrastructure and wasting time on the job. Some ideas are clever; others downright wacky—like this one:
“Anyone can break up a showing of an enemy propaganda film by putting two or three dozen large moths in a paper bag. Take the bag to the movies with you, put it on the floor in an empty section of the theater as you go in and leave it open. The moths will fly out and climb into the projector beam, so that the film will be obscured by fluttering shadows.”
But the most interesting ideas from the viewpoint of nonviolent action come at the end of the manual and might be described as “social sabotage.” This type of disruption “…requires no destructive tools whatsoever and produces physical damage, if any, by highly indirect means. It is based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit.”
The manual makes clear that the goal is simply to exacerbate the bureaucracy’s natural tendencies: “The potential saboteur should discover what types of faulty decisions and noncooperation are normally found in his kind of work and should then devise his sabotage so as to enlarge that ‘margin of error.'”
Gene Sharp calls this “stalling and obstruction” when practiced by government workers. It is number144 in his list of 198 methods.
Text & graphic by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.