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.

***

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.

***

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.