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What is Sabotage?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Sabotage is a form of subversion which involves deliberate damage, interference, or disruption. In a classic example, ecological activists have disabled the engines of logging equipment in the Pacific Northwest to prevent loggers from working at various points in history. There are a number of different forms of sabotage, all of which are designed to obstruct an activity in some way, creating chaos and often generating economic problems as people struggle to resolve the damage.

Many people are not familiar with the true origins of this word, although they may be acquainted with the folk etymology, which claims that the term is derived from the practice of throwing wooden shoes known as sabots into the workings of machines. Though a charming idea, this is not, in fact correct. “Sabotage” actually comes from the French word saboter, which means “to walk clumsily,” a reference to the self-same sabots discussed above; the term is actually meant to describe the work stoppage and disruption created by sabotage.

One of the most infamous forms is military sabotage, in which saboteurs penetrate the defenses of an enemy and attempt to disrupt weapons systems, military strategy, and so forth. Sometimes, damage comes from within, with rebels sabotaging the military of their own nations in an attempt to help the enemy gain the upper hand. It can also take a political form, in which case it is primarily carried out through well-timed media releases and comments which are designed to undermine opposing political campaigns.

Ecological sabotage, or ecotage, involves acts performed with the goal of helping the environment in some way. Ecotage typically involves damaging equipment used in activities which are viewed as ecologically harmful. In industrial sabotage, saboteurs penetrate enemy companies to damage their productivity, sometimes in advance of the release of a major product. This can also be done to collect information about projects in progress and upcoming product releases, with the goal of coming out with a competing product.

Because sabotage usually involves property destruction, it is typically illegal by nature. If charges can be proved, the perpetrators may face a stiff sentence, especially in the case of military sabotage, which is often treated as treason. More mild forms may be designed to skirt the law, especially in the case of political sabotage, which can be frustrating for the victims, as they have no legal recourse.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By turquoise — On Jun 04, 2011

In World War II, the Allied forces sabotaged German factories that made these round metal spheres. These were basically used in all German cars and other vehicles. Their destruction meant that the Germans could not repair the vehicles used in the war.

Military sabotage is really different than any other. It has a lot of strategic decisions involved and can make a big difference in a war. The Allied forces attacked those specific factories because it was not something the Germans would think of protecting, and sabotaging it would weaken their position in the war. I think this is called "attacking the weakest link" in defense language. A military sabotage isn't done on the enemy's strong point, it's done on their weakest. And military sabotage should not overdo it. It should use the least amount of force necessary to complete the job and no more than that.

By bear78 — On Jun 02, 2011

I feel that sabotage doesn't really serve any purpose. Maybe it does when the goal is to just make a party or a political leader look bad. That will have real consequences for the success of the party and the career of the politician.

When it comes to other types of sabotage like ecotage or sabotage at work, I don't think it does anything other than satisfy the violent nature of the saboteur. I doubt that saboteurs ever do enough damage to a company to put them out of business for good. I think the damage is minimal. Even if the damage is substantial, it won't mean anything unless the reason for the sabotage is publicized. But that means risking being prosecuted for sabotage, vandalism and so forth.

The same thing with sabotage at work. If employers really don't know that there is sabotage going on and why, how do the employees plan on communicating their issues to the company? Sabotage is not going to resolve the core problems, it is not going to make work conditions better all of the sudden.

A non-violent protest, a public campaign and the use of media would be much better, safer and effective ways of getting the point across. Don't you think?

By burcinc — On Jun 01, 2011

Sabotage at a workplace can be physical, like the examples in the article, of disrupting processes and breaking machinery. But it can also take a sort of political nature, where there is sabotage of reputation of someone in the company.

I think sabotage at a workplace happens the most when employees are harmed by different company practices. Maybe they feel mistreated or ignored. It might even be the case that they dislike a superior or are unhappy about the working conditions.

I heard that workplace sabotage is one of the most common forms of sabotage in the U.S. But it doesn't get much attention because employers don't even get to know about most of them. Saboteurs want to do damage, but they don't want to be identified. It might actually be easier to do this at a workplace if the other employees know about the sabotage, agree with the saboteur and want to protect him or her.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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