Consumption, Crime, and Communes: Making Political Meaning Out of Riots

Mark Bradford Hummingbird-min
Mark Bradford, Dead Hummingbird, 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 84 x 108 in. (213.4 x 274.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White.

In the introduction to Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings, Joshua Clover states that “a Marxism that can understand the tendency of reality only as error is no Marxism at all.”1 Motivated by an obligation to understand the world as it is, Clover insists on the need to produce a “properly materialist theorization of the riot” (6), an effort that should serve well to dispel stereotypes of riots that relegate them to the realm of the passions and dismiss them as politically backward. However, it also seems that this effort to describe and theorize plays second fiddle to another, more politically motivated inquiry that occupies a larger portion of the author’s attention. In an age of proliferating riots, should political radicals reject the riot as tactic, or is it a troublesome but historically inevitable phenomenon, or further yet should it be embraced as a necessary and recommended form of struggle? In some regards, Clover is responding to trends in insurrectionary leftist thought and practice arisen over the last decade, and while he takes pains not to marginalize aesthetic appreciations of riot grounded in emotion – inspired as he is by that recent tradition – the strength of the text undeniably lies in its investment in materialist economic history and social movement theory. Nonetheless, Clover’s political project prevents him from being as empirically rigorous as he could be, and thus the text’s biggest weaknesses arise from the coupling of this historical materialism to the dogmatic tendencies common to the most teleological brands of Marxism, schools of thought according to which historical materialism is not just about a measurable past but about a supposedly inevitable future. Briefly put, we find that Clover believes the riot to be crucial – but only because it might lead to that which is certain to come and certain to save: the commune.

While Clover’s effort to historically situate and draw our attention to the riot as a form of anti-capitalist struggle outside of the workplace is certainly valuable, his insistence on interpreting its political value primarily through its relationship to the utopian keeps his analysis from accounting for the function and meaning that riots have for most of the people who find themselves actually participating in them, to say nothing of whether or not riot is really best understood through its relationship to consumption and circulation, as he argues. Consumption may have become a crucial and contentious site of struggle, but that does not mean that the labor strike has been replaced by the riot, particularly when there are so many other more prominent ways to struggle that people today take up – forms of theft and fraud among them – as their means to the resources they need to live and live happily.

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Riot. Strike. Riot is built on the central assertion that the labor strike should not be regarded as some transhistorical and quintessential tactic of anti-capitalist struggle but rather as one among many. That is, for Clover, the strike must be understood as a historically situated and tactical response to the particular form capitalism took during its expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, a period during which capitalism’s presumed primary characteristic was the extraction of surplus value from the labor of workers. Accordingly, Clover relies upon and is aiming to link two distinct approaches – one political and the other economic.

First, Riot. Strike. Riot fundamentally relies on political scientist Charles Tilly’s concept of “repertoires of contention.”2 According to Tilly, certain forms of political resistance become prominent during some periods but disappear during others for a variety of reasons – not only for tactical reasons, but also cultural ones – but all of them comprehensible through a grounding in social, political, and economic dynamics. Clover thus echoes Tilly’s insistence that riots be treated as historically specific political phenomena just as strikes are, rather than as spontaneous or ahistorical acts.

Second, Clover’s economic periodization draws heavily from the work of Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, the Endnotes collective, and others, which together assert that since the 1970s the global system has entered (or returned to) a phase in capitalism’s development that privileges not production but the extraction of profit from processes of circulation. Rather than making money primarily from the labor of workers, capitalists can now only hope to make money off of our practices of consumption, and this in turn is taken to mean that workers will increasingly struggle less in their role as workers and more in their role as consumers. “Phases led by material production will issue forth struggles within production, over the price of labor power; phases led by circulation will see struggles in the marketplace, over the price of goods” (21).

Needless to say, any large-scale historical periodization, particularly one tied to a political program, leaves itself open to accusations of having omitted crucial details and sometimes even whole histories. While Riot. Strike. Riot is no exception, to his credit, Clover readily concedes the charge that his economic history is limited by eurocentrism (7). While he makes passing mention of “common and persuasive” “positivistic studies linking food prices to riots… particularly in low-wage nations” (10), he chooses not to engage much with places like North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and China, despite these locales arguably being the true hotbeds of rioting today. His data is instead firmly ensconced, provincially even, in places like the banlieues of Paris and the ghettos of Oakland, in sites like New York City and poverty-stricken London. Regrettably, he does not make much of an effort to adjust his political analysis accordingly.

Ultimately, though, the task of critiquing the merits and shortcomings of these sorts of grandiose periodizations of global scope is better tackled by others elsewhere. More to the point for us here, even if Clover’s assessments about the particularities of 16th century Italian commerce were to be inaccurate, it need not take away from his more important claim that the workplace should not be taken as the privileged site of struggle over the means to food, clothes, shelter, and the money that allows access to them. Instead, struggles should be expected to appear elsewhere, not mediated by the wage relation, but in places that allow for “direct expropriation” as part of the “redistributive struggle for survival,” as he puts it (51). That other place is the riot, he asserts, located in the markets and the squares, manifested when “surplus populations confronted by the old problem of consumption without direct access to the wage” (28) take the problem into their own hands – by taking goods into their own hands, so to speak. “The zero of seizure is a price too,” Clover quips (51). In this arrangement, “riot is the setting of prices for market goods, while strike is the setting of prices for labor power” (15). Clover’s intervention is a refreshing one, and he manages to lend some economic and political legibility to the riot, a phenomenon typically maligned as irrational, individualistic, and even harmful to political movements aimed at reform or revolution.

However – and this is perhaps the greatest empirical shortcoming of the book – Clover does not actually provide any clear evidence that consumption is in fact the primary function of the typical contemporary riot. Put in simple terms, if riots are frequent now because we are in an age of struggles over consumption and circulation, then riots should be defined and dominated by them. Clover states that riots’ “two manifest forms are economic destruction and looting” (29), and yet he rarely actually discusses looting, providing next to no evidence, empirical, anecdotal, or otherwise, about its frequency during riots.

The reasons for this are several, and so Clover’s inability to come up with the empirical data to match his narrative should not be surprising. What we call “riots” are quite frankly extremely complex and diverse political events, permeated by the politics of protest and direct action both, inspired by the material, the affective, and the ideological. Riots can spring forth from an electrical blackout, the murder of a prominent person, a symbolic legal decision, or all of a sudden at a breadline after people have been starving for years without incident. The people we call rioters are very often seeking a variety of things, many of which are at odds with each other and follow different political logics. Rioters might loot luxury goods that can be pragmatically sold for cash but other times might be kept as trophies; sometimes they might be looking for catharsis and an emotional outlet in trying times, while at other times they might steal shoes to wear or diapers for their children; and at other times still, riots are indeed attempts at political discourse within a society that tends to lend primacy to liberal forms of protest – a riot can strive to be “the language of the unheard” as we are sometimes told. The questions that need to be posed are: which particular riots are we talking about, and what did its participants actually do?

Arguably the very word “riot” is not a useful one, at least not for political analysis. The word riot first gained the notably vague meaning of “public disturbance” in the 14th century, and, in England, mobs (short for mobility) arose as a result of migrations caused by major political-economic shifts in early industrial Europe: peasants became increasingly urbanized, politically organized, and were suddenly legible to elites as a potentially powerful force.3 This political fear, combined with the elite’s ignorance about peasant conditions and motivations, gained the mob a reputation for being supposedly impulsive, irrational, and emotional. These traits were considered inherent and inheritable traits because commoners were indeed understood as a type of people, rather than as just a group distinguished by economic differences, a symptom of an early kind of race-thinking in Europe.

The most important reason, however, that Clover cannot solidly defend his claim that looting is central to riots is far more simple and does not require historical knowledge. While the anonymity and cover that a crowd in the streets can provide for individuals may foster looting, looting during a riot is quite frankly not really a very effective way to steal goods, or “set prices,” as he puts it. As a result, Riot. Strike. Riot’s argument is in fact better matched to other admittedly less spectacular forms of contemporary struggle – forms such as theft, fraud, tax evasion, embezzlement, burglary, and squatting. If it is true we are in a stage of circulation/consumption, then we should be seeing: 1) massive increases in resistant practices defined primarily by their usefulness for addressing consumptive needs; and 2) laws and mechanisms of control designed by the state and capital to curtail those practices. Note, for example, the fact that identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States – with “expropriators” extracting over $16 billion dollars annually, mostly at a cost to the state and capital – and the concordant passage of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998 immediately following the popularization of the internet. Surely these kinds of activities are much more effective and popular forms of struggle over access to resources than the occasional, albeit spectacular, street riot during which one or two stores might be looted for a few hundred dollars worth of merchandise.

This would not be the first time in history that theft became a powerful form of struggle. As Michel Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish, mid-1700s Europe witnessed a sharp rise, intensification, and peak in “everyday illegalities”:

theft of produce imported from America and warehoused along the banks of the Thames had risen, on average, to £250,000 per annum; in all, approximately £500,000 worth of goods was stolen each year in the Port of London itself (and this did not include the arsenals and warehouses outside the port proper); to this should be added £700,000 for the town itself.4

According to Foucault, these illegalities rose in frequency until the end of the 1700s, when there was a major shift in the character of contestation. This is in fact consistent with Clover’s own periodization, according to which “the arrival of the strike as social fact falls somewhere between 1790 and 1842” (9). That is, resistance based in circulation and consumption were replaced by resistance based in labor and the workplace once theft became criminalized and suppressed. Foucault famously argues that this period featured the very creation of the modern concept of criminality, reflected in the proliferation of laws designed to protect property rights and the intense criminalization of these everyday practices of pilfering which had, in prior periods, in fact been tolerated and considered simply a part of the political and economic life of society.

Regarding other ways riots can disrupt circulation/consumption, Clover also draws our attention to the port shutdowns that characterized the Occupy movement in some places and the more recent highway blockades aimed against racist police brutality in the U.S., an argument others have made elsewhere but which he chooses not to spend much time on, devoting only a few pages to the “spatialization of struggle” (138). This tactic has of course been increasingly prominent in recent decades, particularly among indigenous communities in Latin America and most recently near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota over an oil pipeline. If we were to be precise, however, one might argue that riots and blockades are perhaps better understood as distinct and separate phenomena, with the former only occasionally taking the form of the latter. Sometimes blockades are not riotous at all, but exceedingly disciplined and pre-planned.

Elsewhere, Clover rightly points to the use of forms of debt finance as key in the management of circulation and consumption by elites. “The microloan, student loan, and payday loan are parallel instruments, equally sustainable, in the project to stabilize this growing surplus [of unemployed persons] and somehow preserve them within the circuits of profit” (157). If Clover is correct, we should be seeing increasing competition between capitalists over the question of who among them will be able to most reap the benefits from the consumptive practices of surplus populations while simultaneously investing the least in providing them resources, ideally perhaps by shifting more of the cost onto the state. Indeed, with this in mind, we might begin to make sense of some of the recent proposals that capitalism might be “saved” if a minimum income is established or a more extensive social welfare system is established. To this end, if the current movement for the establishment of a universal basic income (whether framed by libertarian economists or the growing democratic socialist left) were to gain ground or even simply create the conditions for an expanded disbursement of current government benefits, we may have good reason to interpret such successes as indeed potentially serving the goals of capitalist circulation, depending on exactly what enacted policies end up looking like. Furthermore, however, if the economic periodization that Clover leans on is correct, then such policies aimed at more tightly managing the circuits of consumption (as well as struggles against them) should have been observable since the 1970s and taken up in particular by those political interests most heavily allied with capital.

Indeed, they were. As Premilla Nadasen details in Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States, between 1969 and 1972 the Nixon administration was involved in extensive debates concerning the merits of establishing a minimum income for all U.S. citizens.5 In one of the iterations of Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP), a maximum income of $1,600 ($10,660.28 in 2016’s dollars) plus $864 in food stamps ($5,756.55 today) for a family of four was to be guaranteed to all citizens regardless of sex or parental status. Nadasen describes the terrain well: “theorists discussing social rights in the 1960s came to similar conclusions for different reasons. Their justifications varied from concerns about an inefficient government bureaucracy to problems of unemployment in an age of automation, but they all grappled with how the nation might provide a basic level of economic security for its citizens.”6 Participants in this conversation included at one end neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman who advocated a “negative income tax” as well as a complete replacement of all government programs with federal cash grants, and, at the other end, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), whose leaders met frequently with Nixon administration officials to negotiate over how best to expand Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC, or “welfare”) or alternately establish a federal guaranteed annual income of $5,500 that would be framed as a right of citizenship and an extension of the constitutional right to life. For the NWRO and their allies at the Center of Social Welfare Policy and Law, any hindrances on the right to life – such as poverty itself – in turn also jeopardize one’s rights to free speech and assembly.

Instead of becoming policy, however, the discussion ended up in the dustbin of history. By 1972, Nixon and the Republicans had abandoned what had been originally conceived of as an attempt to capture the loyalty of the white working class for the next few decades by providing actual resources, and instead pursued the rhetoric-and-ideology-heavy “Southern Strategy” – the demonization of welfare recipients, the “lazy” poor, the Civil Rights Movement in particular, and African Americans in general through an appeal to traditional racism and misogyny. Despite the fact that most welfare recipients were then and are today both white and female, the National Welfare Rights Organization was dominated and often led by African American women, and so the organization made an easy target for racist narratives. Unfortunately, this approach also proved exceedingly effective in establishing electoral and political hegemony for the Republican Party, so much so that it was picked up the Democratic Party as well, as with President Clinton’s dismantling of welfare in 1996. The fact that these same debates have returned, 50 years later, despite how effective appeals to racism and sexism by the major political parties proved instead, arguably lends some credence to Clover’s economic periodization. Returning, then, to Clover’s thesis: if the state and capital can be expected to increasingly aim to oversee and manage the circulation and consumption of goods, then this shift should also present new opportunities for poor people to take advantage of. That is, we should just as well expect a rise in the opportunistic exploitation of such resources by poor people seeking to live. Credit card scams, EBT (“food stamp”) scams, other forms of welfare fraud, in addition to more traditional forms of theft, should presumably be gaining prominence. Thus, a key site of struggle might more often be located in the digital bank account rather than the highway.

While Clover does not venture into this terrain of discussion around questions of race and consumption, he does attempt to deal with the obvious racial dynamics at play in contemporary riots in other ways. In particular, he explores the hypothesis that – in the experiences of immiserated African Americans in those decades before the 1970s – there may have been early signs of what the rest of the dispossessed and surplus populations of the future might soon come to face, a notion that was being forwarded in the 1960s by Black Panther Party members like Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. It is not clear how successful Clover is in his efforts, however. While he does bring up the “race riots” of the first half to the 20th century – a cluster of conflicts characterized by assaults by white civilian populations upon African American ones, conflicts thus best understood as quite distinct from the riots of the 60s and 70s which were centered more on resisting police brutality, protesting the failures of the Civil Rights Movement, and looting – he unfortunately declines to attempt an economic analysis of their content.7 Such an excursion would have arguably been much more useful than the somewhat haphazard theorization that he does advance concerning the relationship between riot and race late in the text. Featuring underdeveloped riffs on the work of Stuart Hall with lines “riot [is] a modality of race” and “riot is the modality through which surplus is lived” (170), Clover’s foray into a metaphysics of race is largely grounded in over-generalized categories, seemingly aimed to engage the far edges of the increasingly prominent discourses of necropolitics and afro-pessimism. To that point, he arguably does not do much to help us understand real questions of social difference, like why Black Lives Matter protests over the past few years have been characterized by peaceful highway blockades in some places and bellicose destruction led by teenagers in others. There are also a few moments in the text when Clover chooses to resurrect age-old debates between anarchists and Marxists concerning mostly abstract and logical questions about the concept of the general strike and the role of riot in a prescriptive political program. Fortunately, Riot. Strike. Riot mostly sets aside such debates. However, where a more philosophical approach would have been well-merited is around the question of the political horizon. Clover’s attempt to salvage riot for the left is ultimately burdened by one conceptual problem: the very desire to salvage it.

For Clover, to legitimize riot means to connect it to that which is already idealized as an inevitable good: the commune of the future. Riot. Strike. Riot is deeply permeated by Hegelian-Marxist teleology, from the economic periodization it starts with to the sparse attempt at the end of the text to outline how riots might lead to the formation of communes. What this means is that a riot for Clover is in fact never quite adequate on its own terms. “The riot must absolutize itself, move toward a self-reproduction beyond wage and market, toward the social arrangement that we define as the commune, always a civil war” (173). Clover deploys the word “must” in that dual sense that is both meant to signal a description of what is historically inevitable (what must come to pass) and a prescription of what should be compelled and forced to be (what must be made to happen) (175). What this means is that Clover’s attempt to lend legitimacy to riot is nonetheless a co-optation of sorts. We are encouraged to value riot only as it might fit into a narrative arc of the commune-to-be, not for how it might serve the interests of actual people who riot. “It matters little, to return to an earlier theme, whether the rioters possess thoughts of world markets, distant conflicts, the tightening mesh of global space. They have a practical task that arises within these, from these, and takes part in them regardless. The participants cannot stop turning toward these things, which haunt every horizon” (55). In Clover’s market, rioters are not really agents, but more like automatons who fulfill their role in the predetermined march of history. This is not an appreciation of riot for what it does for the people who engage in it, but for what it might do for a small group of political thinkers and hopeful activists.

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What might it mean to understand the riot not as a precursor to something in the future but as one way that people attempt to address their needs, desires, and hopes today? Rather than seeking evidence that rioters are seeking to “reproduce themselves,” it might be more useful and informative – as well as less objectifying – to observe that rioters are seeking a variety of things, and key among them might be the material goods and psychological conditions that will allow them to live better. This process itself manifests as a struggle over power and is thereby political. We can no doubt critique riots for their shortcomings relative to our hopes, visions, prescriptions, and programs. And efforts like Clover’s to bring riots back into the fold of such visions can serve as crucial interventions against their dismissal. However, neither can we afford to impose such rigid schemas onto the nuanced experiences and motivations of people as they live their struggles, at minimum because it prevents us from understanding them well. Perhaps riots might lead to communes – but I would venture to say that the success and popularity of communes in such an instance would likely depend more on their ability to effectively provide access to food, clothes, shelter, and happiness for people than on their supposed historical inevitability.


This article is part of a dossier entitled The Crisis and the Rift: A Symposium on Joshua Clover’s Riot.Strike.Riot


  1. Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (London: Verso, 2016). Page 5. All subsequent paginations referenced in-text. 

  2. For two of Tilly’s most robust explanations of the concept, see Charles Tilly, Popular Contention in Great Britain, 1758-1834 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) and also his Contentious Performances (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008). 

  3. For more on this, see George Rudé, The Crowd in History. A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730–1848 (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1964); see also his Ideology and Popular Protest (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980). 

  4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977), 85–86. See also the discussion in the recently published 1972-1973 lectures at the Collège de France, The Punitive Society, ed. Bernard E. Harcourt, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 139-51. 

  5. Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (London: Routledge, 2005). Note also her recent work on domestic worker organizing in the United States. 

  6. Ibid., 162. 

  7. For more on this key distinction, see William Tuttle, Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), particularly Ch. 8, “Racial Violence in Chicago and the Nation: The Future Immediate and Distant.” 

Author of the article

is a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness at the University of California-Santa Cruz where he studies criminality, political theory, and philosophy. He is an educator, an activist, and was born in the Bronx.