How to Bring down Any System

How To Bring Down the System



Four words: “Follow the rules exactly.”

That’s it? That’s it.

Any system? Any system.

There are reasons for this. These reasons are universal.

First, every institution assumes voluntary compliance in at least 95% of all cases. This may be a low-ball estimate. Most people comply, either out of fear or lack of concern or strong belief in the system and its goals.

Second, every institution has more rules than it can follow, let alone enforce. Some of these rules are self-contradictory. The more rules, the larger the number of contradictions. (There is probably a statistical pattern here – some variant of Parkinson’s law.)

Third, every institution is built on this assumption: partial compliance. Not everyone will comply with any given procedural rule. There are negative sanctions to enforce compliance on the few who resist. They serve as examples to force compliance. Conversely, very few people under the institution’s jurisdiction will attempt to force the institution to comply exactly with any procedural rule.

These three laws of institutions – and they really are laws – offer any resistance movement an opportunity to shut down any system.


When we think of institutional tyrannies, few come close to matching the system of concentration camps in the Soviet Union: the Gulag. They operated from 1918 until after the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. It took time to close them in 1992.

In his book, To Build a Castle, Vladimir Bukovsky provides one of the finest descriptions of institution-jamming ever recorded. He organized it.

What you are about to read is like nothing you have ever read. I have spent over 45 years studying bureaucracies in theory and practice. I have seen nothing to match it.

Bukovsky spent well over a decade in the Soviet gulag concentration camp system in the 1960s and 1970s. He was arrested and sentenced in spite of specific civil rights protections provided by the Soviet Constitution – a document which was never respected by the Soviet bureaucracy. But once in prison, he learned to make life miserable for the director of his camp.

He learned that written complaints had to be responded to officially within a month. This administrative rule governing the camps was for “Western consumption,” but it was nevertheless a rule. Any camp administrator who failed to honor it risked the possibility of punishment, should a superior (or ambitious subordinate) decide to pressure him for any reason. In short, any failure to “do it by the book” could be used against him later on.

Bukovsky became an assembly-line producer of official protests. By the end of his career as a “zek,” he had taught hundreds of other inmates to follow his lead. By following certain procedures that were specified by the complaint system, Bukovsky’s protesting army began to disrupt the whole Soviet bureaucracy. His camp clogged the entire system with protests – hundreds of them per day. He estimates that eventually the number of formal complaints exceeded 75,000. To achieve such a phenomenal output, the protestors had to adopt the division of labor. Bukovsky describes the process: “At the height of our war, each of us wrote from ten to thirty complaints a day. Composing thirty complaints in one day is not easy, so we usually divided up the subjects among ourselves and each man wrote on his own subject before handing it around for copying by all the others. If there are five men in a cell and each man takes six subjects, each of them has the chance to write thirty complaints while composing only six himself.”

The complaints were addressed to prominent individuals and organizations: the deputies of the Supreme Soviet, the regional directors, astronauts, actors, generals, admirals, the secretaries of the Central Committee, shepherds, sportsmen, and so forth. “In the Soviet Union, all well-known individuals are state functionaries.”

Each complaint had to be responded to. The camp administrators grew frantic. They threatened punishments, and often imposed them, but it did no good; the ocean of protests grew. Bukovsky’s description is incomparable.

The next thing that happens is that the prison office, inundated with complaints, is unable to dispatch them within the three-day deadline. For overrunning the deadline they are bound to be reprimanded and to lose any bonuses they might have won. When our war was at its hottest the prison governor summoned every last employee to help out at the office with this work-librarians, bookkeepers, censors, political instructors, security officers. It went even further. All the students at the next-door Ministry of the Interior training college were pressed into helping out as well.

All answers to and dispatches of complaints have. to be registered in a special book, and strict attention has to be paid to observing the correct deadlines. Since complaints follow a complex route and have to be registered every step of the way, they spawn dossiers and records of their own. In the end they all land in one of two places: the local prosecutor’s office or the local department of the Interior Ministry. These offices can’t keep up with the flood either and also break their deadlines, for which they too are reprimanded and lose their bonuses. The bureaucratic machine is thus obliged to work at full stretch, and you transfer the paper avalanche from one office to another, sowing panic in the ranks of the enemy. Bureaucrats are bureaucrats, always at loggerheads with one another, and often enough your complaints become weapons in internecine wars between bureaucrat and bureaucrat, department and department. This goes on for months and months, until, at last, the most powerful factor of all in Soviet life enters the fray – statistics.

As the 75,000 complaints became part of the statistical record, the statistical record of the prison camp and the regional camps was spoiled. All bureaucrats suffered. There went the prizes, pennants, and other benefits. “The workers start seething with discontent, there is panic in the regional Party headquarters, and a senior commission of inquiry is dispatched to the prison.”

The commission then discovered a mass of shortcomings with the work of the prison’s administration, although the commission would seldom aid specific prisoners. The prisoners knew this in advance. But the flood of protests continued for two years.

The entire bureaucratic system of the Soviet Union found itself drawn into this war. There was virtually no government department or institution, no region or republic, from which we weren’t getting answers. Eventually we had even drawn the criminal cons into our game, and the complaints disease began to spread throughout the prison – in which there were twelve hundred men altogether. I think that if the business had continued a little longer and involved everyone in the prison, the Soviet bureaucratic machine would have simply ground to a halt: all Soviet institutions would have had to stop work and busy themselves with writing replies to US.

Finally, in 1977, they capitulated to several specific demands of the prisoners to improve the conditions of the camps. The governor of the prison was removed and pensioned off. Their ability to inflict death-producing punishments did them little good, once the prisoners learned of the Achilles’ heel of the bureaucracy: paperwork.. The leaders of the Soviet Union could bear it no longer: they deported Bukovsky.


You may have heard of Saul Alinsky. He died in 1972. He gets more publicity these days than he ever got in his lifetime. That is because he was the model for ACORN, the now-defunct community organizing organization. At one stage in his career as a comminity organizer, Barack Obama worked with ACORN.

Alinsky was a follower of Gandhi. That means he refused to use violence in his protests. He was a radical. He was a revolutionary. But he was an opponent of violence. There was a crucial difference between Gandhi’s tactics and Alinsky’s. Gandhi had a genius for analyzing the British system of controls. He then broke a specific law. That forced the British to arrest him. That gave him a public platform. He spent years in various prisons. This was a high-cost system of resistance. It made him a celebrity. He gained followers. He was world famous.

Alinksy realized early that very few people will pay the price that Gandhi paid. So, he devised a system of resistance that lowered the risk, thereby lowering the cost. He understood the economists’ law: “When the cost of producing anything falls, more will be supplied.” More of what? Resistance.

His system involved at least one of two tactics: (1) violating a rule to which only a minimal negative sanction was attached, (2) follow the organization’s procedural rules to the letter in a Bukovsky-like manner.

He tested his non-violent strategy and tactics in the 1960s in Chicago. He wrote a book on his system, Rules For Radicals (1972). He wrote this.

Let us in the name of radical pragmatism not forget that in our system with all its repressions we can still speak out and denounce the administration, attack its policies, work to build an opposition political base. True, there is still government harassment, but there still is that relative freedom to fight. I can attack my government, try to organize to change it. That’s more than I can do in Moscow, Peking, or Havana. Remember the reaction of the Red Guard to the “cultural revolution” and the fate of the Chinese college students. Just a few of the violent episodes of bombings or a courtroom shootout that we have experienced here would have resulted in a sweeping purge and mass executions in Russia, China, or Cuba. Let us keep some perspective.

We will start with the system because there is no other place to start from except political lunacy. It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. To assume that a political revolution can survive without a supporting base of popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics. Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience; they need a bridge to cross from their own experience to a new way. A revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives – agitate, create disenchantment and discontent with the current values, to produce, if not a passion for change, at least a passive, affirmative, non-challenging climate. “The revolution was effected before the war commenced; John Adams wrote. “The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people. . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.” A revolution without a prior reformation would collapse or become a totalitarian tyranny.

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