“The general lesson learnt by political England from its experience of pauperism is none other than that, in the course of history and despite all administrative measures, pauperism has developed into a national institution which has inevitably become the object of a highly ramified and extensive administrative system, a system however which no longer sets out to eliminate it, but which strives instead to discipline and perpetuate it.”
Everyone on the left has pointed out that the riots in London are rooted in capital’s assault on the working class, couched in the ideological language of austerity – and that this was the kindling sparked by the racist police brutality that culminated in the murder of Mark Duggan. But our task – like Marx’s task, when he defended the violent upheaval of the Silesian weavers – isn’t to give a moral evaluation of the riots, like schoolmasters diligently stacking the pros against the cons, but, rather, to grasp their specific character.
In 1844 German linen weavers revolted, smashing machines, destroying homes, looting warehouses, and demanding money from local merchants. When much of the left, including his erstwhile comrade Arnold Ruge, dismissed the uprising as little more than a confused disturbance with no real political content, Marx sought to find its deeper significance, by relating the particularity of this event to the broader struggles of his conjuncture.
Today, with England in flames, we identify two representative responses. The first recalls the enthusiasm of the Sex Pistols for “Anarchy in the UK”: Malcolm Harris celebrates “grassroots Keynesians, increasing aggregate demand one broken window at a time.” This is a tradition inaugurated by Guy Debord, who wrote of the 1965 Watts Riots that looting “instantly undermines the commodity as such.” At the other extreme is the motto from “God Save the Queen,” which sees “no future” for the left. Owen Jones writes on a Labour Party-themed website that the riots are a “catastrophe,” traumatizing and terrorizing middle-of-the-road Londoners. He warns that the inevitable consequence is a right-wing backlash: the middle class will turn against the poor, furnishing a justification for state repression.
While these extreme perspectives might make for good music, they leave something to be desired as political analysis. We hope we’re not alone in recognizing that more is needed today than spontaneous individual rebellions against the commodity form. But we also reject the defeatist fatalism that takes capital’s viewpoint and fails to work to build spontaneous rebellion into organized resistance.
Obscured by the focus on commodity fetishism or middle-class ideology are the analytical and strategic problems. The first of these is the question of class composition. Where are these rioters situated in the mode of production, and what specific form of activity corresponds? The second is the question of the objective conditions for revolution. Is the current historical stage one that permits the performance of insurrection?
Refuse of All Classes
Politicians and journalists tell us that the only people rioting are criminals. But we all know that few participants can be classified as professional criminals – in fact, it’s been confirmed that most of those arrested have no previous convictions of any kind. All this talk of criminality compels us to take another look at the history of that alleged class of criminals, to see where it stands in the changed conditions of the present.
The class which engages in crime and violence, according to the classical Marxist analysis, is not the proletariat. Paul Hirst has skewered the “radical sociologists” who interpret criminal deviance as the revolt of the alienated individual, ignoring completely the relationship of this activity to the mode of production. Crime is the profession of thelumpenproletariat.
Though the concept of the lumpenproletariat is introduced in The German Ideology, it’s Marx’s analysis of the revolutions of 1848 in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that presents an assessment of the political significance of the class. For Marx, the lumpenproletariat, a diffuse collection of pickpockets and pimps, has no essential characteristic; it’s the “scum, offal and refuse of all classes,” which is only constituted as a class by the state – pulled together by the right-wing coup of Bonaparte as the popular basis for his rule.
But the strange thing about 1848 was the alliances between differing class forces; though the proletariat entered into an alliance with the bourgeoisie in February, it became clear by June that proletarian demands couldn’t be met by the moderate bourgeois dictatorship. The insurrection of June represented the autonomy of the proletariat from liberal reformism, and it was at this point that the extreme right, Bonaparte as representative of the “finance aristocracy,” was forced to take advantage of the heterogeneous composition of the lumpen and the peasants to suppress proletarian autonomy. It was this motley collection of classes he turned to for support in his December coup.
In fact, Marx’s entire description of the lumpenproletariat was a political gesture; before June 1848, as Peter Stallybrass has pointed out in a fascinating etymological investigation, the term “proletariat” itself “was not the working class: it was the poor, the ragpickers, the nomads.” In 1838 the conservative French writer AG de Cassagnac defined the proletariat as a collection of workers, beggars, thieves, and prostitutes. It was Marx’s innovation to redefine the proletariat as the enabling condition of bourgeois society – the only class capable of producing value, and by virtue of this unique property the only class whose political power could destroy capitalism. The lumpenproletariat was the excess generated in the process of articulating a new class.
The role of the lumpenproletariat in 1848 demonstrates two things: first, that classes are constituted by political processes, and second, that classes enter into contradictory alliances. In fact, the first revolution in this wave, in Palermo, only kicked into gear when the squadre, a kind of embryonic mafia, invaded the streets to join in the fight, triggering a revolution that ultimately forced the Neapolitan King Ferdinand II to promise national independence, reforms, and a constitution. In Naples, where the disturbances spread next, it was the surprising, though weighty, presence of the lazzaroni, the lumpen slum masses of the city, that tipped the balance in favor of the revolutionaries, forcing the king to concede once again. The unexpected participation of these two totally distinct groups of lumpenproletarians sent the revolution scurrying up the Italian boot.
Where are we now? Well, working-class insurgency in the factory and the city forced capital to innovate its production process and invent new forms of social control, like Hausmannization. This tendency continued and shaped the 20th century; the post-war Keynesian order permitted workers’ autonomous development as the motor of innovation, and incorporated proletarian political organization in the form of social welfare and bureaucratized unions to avoid the threat of organized revolution. We’re not condemning this as some kind of sell-out, but instead arguing that the political power of workers’ struggle was so strong that capital had to align its demands with labor. In fact, as Sergio Bologna has pointed out, this kind of alignment can be the foundation of new revolutionary forms. In Germany, the skilled and specialized machine and tool workers who supposedly stood to benefit from capitalist development, “inextricably linked to the technology of the labour process, with a strong sense of professional values and naturally inclined to place a high value on their function as ‘producers,’” were the ones who discovered the “concept of workers’ self-management” – which they realized in the “political-organisational project” of workers’ councils.
In other words, labor was able to “co-opt” capitalist reformism. Though this allowed, for a certain period, the smooth functioning of capital – as in the New Deal that liberals wish we could return to – it also contained the risk of allowing workers’ power to develop to the point of insurrection. February warms into June, but the threat of December is not far away.
As Gerard Duménil and Dominique Lévy have argued, neoliberalism is a ruling-class assault on labor, an alliance between the managerial classes and capitalists led by finance. This assault succeeded in increasing the rate of exploitation, by destroying the welfare state and the unity of labor. By now the classical Fordist movement towards a skilled, educated, and affluent working class has been replaced with a movement towards systematic unemployment, precarious work, service labor, and global slums.
The entire composition of the working class has changed, and effective alliances between different class positions will have to be determined. First of all, it makes little sense to speak of a classical lumpenproletariat in this new context. With the continual growth of a surplus workforce confined to the slums, alongside rapid changes in the qualities of labour-power, we’re dealing with a massive social stratum whose members play the lumpen criminal one day and the waged proletarian the next. The traditional borders are so blurred – with some employed workers supplementing their income by engaging in traditional lumpen activities like selling bootleg videos, while some lumpens are picking up casual jobs to supplement their revenue from knock-off handbags – that the classical lumpenproletariat is becoming more and more indistinguishable from the proletariat. If anything, what was once the lumpenproletariat has now become another constitutive pole within the much broader composition of the proletariat itself. You might even go so far as to say that nowadays there is a little of the lumpen in every prole.
This is why we don’t say “farewell to the working class.” On the contrary. These shifting class positions are central to the mode of production – they play a fundamental role in generating and transmitting information, and in reproducing the social and cultural inputs of the production process. Alongside those of us who remain in manufacturing, these varied class positions constitute a new working class.
The English rioters are not just criminals; many are students, some are precarious workers, others are salaried professionals. They have a highly heterogeneous composition– a strange bridging of professions, skill levels, races, ages, and genders. They are black and white, eleven year-old boys and fifty year-old women, students at élite universities and high school dropouts, the children of paupers and a daughter of a millionaire, the unemployed and skilled workers, immigrants who just arrived and Englishmen who have been there for generations. There are lifeguards, teaching assistants, graphic designers, dental assistants, and forklift drivers. Such an intersection of class sectors is a new development in the struggle. In Silesia, everyone who revolted was united by the fact that they all had the same job, were exploited in the exact same way, and worked in the same place. In Watts it was race that tied everyone together. But in England, it’s not occupational unity, nor race, nor even a shared place, since the riots spread like wildfire from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city. The traditional lines that divided people in the past – such as race, profession, skill level, place, culture – have already been superseded here.
Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s a unitary response. Small shop owners have had their property destroyed, residents have been intimidated. Not only are these condemnable acts, they indicate a genuine obstacle to unity and organization. But these problems coexist with an expression, however incoherent, of a power that threatens the social order. It’s not impossible that as in Palermo, such apolitical and criminal acts enable proletarian community.
More than anything else, the riots signify refusal. There is a refusal to accept the non-community the residents of the slums of London have been coaxed into accepting, the refusal to submit to daily searches, the refusal to shut up and stay out of sight, a refusal to continue pretending as if they actually own things, but most of all, a refusal to accept the identity that has been forced upon them. If these struggles fail to list concrete demands, as in Spain, Greece, California, and now in London, it’s not only a symptom of spontaneity but also an indication that people have stopped thinking that capital can somehow improve their condition. They know that in this day and age, in this conjuncture, to put forth demands is to abandon their autonomy by forcing them to speak the same language as capital. A refusal to act as a trading partner with capital, a latent intransigence: these people no longer think capital has any future left to give them.
Lenin in England
So it’s clear that the categorization and differentiation of classes in the mode of production is changing, and it’s clear that the political alliances of classes have changed. But do the objective historical conditions allow for a successful alliance between the diffuse popular classes?
We are all familiar with an old idea on the left: once the foot of the capitalist has stuck itself most painfully into the workers’ neck, the worker will revolt. This “immiseration thesis” has been revived today. But the success of capital’s campaign to increase and entrench extreme inequality has led some to a more pessimistic view: that capital has succeeded, has resolved its contradictions. It’s literally too big to fail.
Our history makes both of these views difficult to maintain. Periods of prosperity which permit working-class development have often led to militant struggle, but prosperity can also coexist with retreat. In fact, the entire premise of “objective conditions” for revolution seems to have dropped into the ash-heap of history. Capital has turned many of its contradictions into imperatives for recomposition and restructuring.
The famous example of such development, imperialism, will have to be reconsidered. There is no place in the global order for the old narrative of a “combined and uneven development” which will be disrupted by “bourgeois-democratic revolutions” carried out by industrial workers. The “Third World” is, in fact, specifically and deliberately developed by capital, which retains the leftover social forms of feudalism and utilizes them to facilitate global circuits of production. The slum-dwellers of the world are not being developed into industrial proletarians. Instead, they are displaced with gentrification, and integrated into economies that rely simultaneously on digital marketing and sweatshops.
This is why we prefer to speak, along with Louis Althusser, of revolutions that emerge from encounters– just as capitalism emerged from the encounter between the “owners of money” and the dispossessed peasants who had nothing to sell but their labor-power. The encounter that produced capitalism was able to “take hold”; it established social phenomena like the state that allowed it to reproduce itself. The Russian Revolution represented the encounter between a peasantry pushed to the brink, a rising bourgeoisie attempting to break free of Tsarist restrictions, and a proletariat confronted with the collapse of the social order.
Whatever the character of the particular revolts, such encounters are taking place throughout the world. In Egypt, France, and the anti-cuts movement in England, these encounters were represented as specifically political. In all cases the middle class was protesting against attempts by the governments to revoke privileges granted by previous struggles. However, the current riots, like the ones in the banlieues of Paris, recall Watts and LA. They have no political agenda and are oriented towards unfocused destruction.
But these uprisings reflect the knowledge that there is no identity between the demands of the proletariat and the demands of capital, as though capital could offer them a better alternative if only they compromised and went home. We can measure such social phenomena by their relation to the development of the class, not as stages in the fixed process of History. The capital relation will continue to exist until the proletariat forces its non-reproduction. It might do this when capital itself is quite strong, it might do this when capital is starting to suffer under its own strain. At this point, a rupture with capital and with middle-class values is a beginning step in the autonomous development of the working class, which will have to leave History behind.
The ultraleft tendency will call for us to celebrate every excess, every error, to watch as these struggles simply explode on their own. But the challenge is to find a way for these encounters to take hold, which is by no means organically contained in any element.
For Althusser, the case of Russia also demonstrated that the tasks set out by history are accompanied by a void – the absence of a subject that can automatically carry them out. It was this kind of subject that Machiavelli tried to interpellate when he published The Prince, aware that the people of Italy were suffering from fragmentation in city-states but lacked an agent to accomplish national unification. For the Russian revolutionary encounter to take place, it was necessary to align the urban proletariat with the peasantry to produce a political subject. The existence of an organized body that took on the task of “building the party” in times of retreat enabled this encounter.
Before you shake your head and dismiss this as leftover vanguardism, recall the words of the workerist Mario Tronti in his reflection on “Lenin in England,” in which he calls for “a new Marxist practice of the working class party.” Tronti emphasizes the necessity of “a revolutionary growth not only of the class, but also of class organisation,” and warns that “if this element is absent, the whole process works to the advantage of capital, as a tactical moment of a one-sided stabilisation of the system, seemingly integrating the working class within the system.” The danger, after all, is that the dialectic of History will reassert itself. An encounter will also have to reckon with the elements of the old régime – which may have a stronger capacity for reproduction, as Althusser surmised of Russia.
This simple juxtaposition, Lenin in England, is now the figure which represents today’s political dilemma. On the one hand, working-class activity has not yet articulated an organizational form that corresponds to its development. On the other, the parties which claim the legacy of Lenin cling to a structure and practice that totally ignores the transformations in the composition of the class. Neither the sectarian ideologues to the left, nor the compromising parliamentarians to the right; the working class will have to walk forward towards a new form.
In Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri wrote that the spontaneous struggles of today “have become all but incommunicable” (72); they emerge without communicating with each other, and without unifying their objectives. But it’s clear that today’s struggles are highly communicable, in a double sense.
First, they rapidly circulate from one place to another, from one neighborhood to another, one city to another, even one country to another. It’s almost as though the mere news of an eruption is enough to ignite another somewhere else, in spite of dissimilar historical conditions. This happened on a large scale in the Middle East, and now on a smaller, though more intense and condensed scale in England. But what’s more, if we recall the solidarity between Egypt and Wisconsin, there are direct connections between these struggles, as though they were all talking to each other.
Second, and this is clear in England, these struggles are materially grounded in communication. Cell phones, the internet, photos, and media have all been used to track police movements, signal tactics, and spread information. It’s no surprise that the main targets of the lootings are more communications equipment. Of course, this isn’t the first time communications technologies has been creatively turned against capital. In Italy in the 1970s, pirate radio stations like Radio Alice in Bologna or Onda Rossa in Rome were an advanced model of communication, linking individual callers, disseminating news, and countering state propaganda. But today there is no centralized point of communication, just dispersed networks that are far more difficult to track. Information moves faster, devices are mobile, and the media have expanded. The Italian communists toyed with video, but ultimately rejected it since they found television to be too static and passive, as Bifo argued; video, however, is no longer monopolized by television.
But the use of capitalist communications technology against capital goes well beyond simple tactical needs. First, such practices are a way of creating a new collective experience. Just as in Italy, they have been used to construct a community of resistance directly opposed to the one imposed upon them by capital. Second, it’s no coincidence that the rioters have chosen to appropriate, and creatively rework, the products of an industry that now leads capitalist development in much of the world. Communications has not only become one of the most productive industries, it has also come to play a fundamental role in the reproduction of the capital relation itself. With the restructuring of the 1970s, which saw widespread flexibilization, decentralization, and territorial disarticulation of production, communication came to prominence as the primary means by which increasingly disseminated points of production could be reconnected, the factory linked to society, and production to reproduction. As the hegemonic pole of capitalist production, the communications industry has become the very regulator of the capital relation.
What’s crucial to recognize today is that this appropriation of communications technology in the streets of English cities is taking place at the very same time as a major strike at Verizon, waged by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). While the Democrats are waging war on “luxury plans” like medical care and the corporation makes $19 billion in profits, the Verizon workers are chasing scabs through fields and turning away customers.
This is an encounter of two distinct forms of struggle, united, despite their differences, by their common assault on the same communications industry. Insurgents today will have to discover the means to make this encounter hold. They will have to look for creative ways to bring together classical forms of labor struggle like the strike with these new practices that draw on the power of varying class positions like the unemployed. One potential way of binding such disparate struggles has already been suggested by the laboratory of political forms that was the Italian experience of the 1970s. Auto-reduction is the collective refusal to accept price increases: faced with growing unemployment and a soaring cost of living, tenants refused to pay exorbitant increases in their rents, “housewives” and domestic laborers argued that the value produced by their unpaid labor freed them from the obligation to pay their electricity bills, and commuting workers decided to ignore the unilateral increase in their bus fares and simply paid the old amount. It was, of course, in this last sector, transportation, that the movement gained significant ground. This was almost certainly because of the increasingly important role the transportation industry was starting to play in Italian capitalism. As Sergio Bologna, Bruno Ramirez, and others have noted, transportation not only connected increasingly separated points of production, it soon served as the essential link-up between the factory and the neighborhood, production and consumption, production and reproduction. It’s no surprise that it became a highly contested site of struggle, uniting commuting workers, whole neighborhoods, and the transport workers themselves.
Communications is a key pole of capitalist development today in the same way that transportation was when the auto-reductions were first taking place. Both the Italian struggles of yesterday and the ones beginning to develop today show the proletariat forcefully turning these key poles of the capital relation against capital itself. We’re audacious enough to imagine a mass movement which shows its solidarity with striking workers by refusing to pay its telephone bills, while continuing to use the communications structure it has built with its information and imagination. The possibility of disruption is in the American memory; one of us spoke to a Verizon worker on the picket line who grew up in West Virginia, and still remembers the wildcat strikes that turned the mines upside down. We may be seeing a new global cycle of struggle forming.
There is another Sex Pistols lyric, in “Holidays in the Sun,” which captures the lesson of the uprisings today: “I was waiting for the communist call.” We have no shortage of opportunities to make the call.
First published at jacobinmag.com.