Disarticulating the Mass Picket

MB.06_photo-Joshua-White (1)
Mark Bradford, Lights and Tunnels, 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.

How does the history of class struggles appear from the perspective of the present? And from our vantage, what forms of struggle can be seen on the horizon? At base, these are the questions that concern Joshua Clover in Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. The book offers a provocative, sharply argued intervention in a cluster of strategic and historical debates that recently have preoccupied radicals – debates that have turned in part on the question of whether an industrial organizing strategy could reanimate revolutionary politics in the present. Clover argues against the continued viability of industrial strike organizing, suggesting that the time of the strike has passed, and that we now inhabit the time of the riot. But the conceptual and periodizing demarcations that Clover deploys in advancing these claims tend to obscure the actual forms of class struggle that broke forth during the supposed era of the strike – forms of struggle that may yet have something to offer the present.

The staccato title – Riot. Strike. Riot – presents a distilled version of Clover’s historical claim. The history of class struggle, at least in the capitalist core, can be marked out in terms of the oppositional tactic that prevailed during a given era of accumulation. “The mercantilist era more or less matches the first age of riots,” according to Clover, while the subsequent era of production-centered accumulation delineates the heyday of the strike.1 Finally, now, in the long crisis signaled by the 1973 downturn and defined by capital’s turn to circulation-oriented strategies of accumulation (finance and logistics), the riot has returned as the leading edge of social struggles. A sweeping, elegant story, which cannot but entail the traversal of much historical ground in quick bounds: this is history-writing in seven-league boots, to borrow a phrase Clover uses when figuring capital. 

While the book holds to its framing, tripartite narrative, it also introduces significant complications to the story as it moves toward its end. Having marked out the essential differences of riot and strike, Clover then asserts their fundamental relatedness, and proceeds to direct his focus above all to transitional periods, in which the riot and strike commingled explosively in the capitalist core (the early 19th-century moment of machine-breaking, and the rebellious 1960s and ’70s, during which the flashing-forth of black-led riots corresponded with an “autumnal flare-up” of the strike in mining and manufacturing districts). Rather than treating the strike and riot as tactics set in rigid opposition to each other, Clover shows how they are “complementary and genealogically conjoined.”2

How, then, are these conjoined tactics to be distinguished? Decidedly not in terms of their relative entailments with “violence.” Clover usefully writes against prevailing ideologies of collective action, which have cast riots as eruptions of unthinking violence, while portraying strikes as little more than the lawful, nonviolent downing of tools. We are reminded that strikes have involved a range of violent acts, from attacks on strikebreakers to armed confrontations with police, and have often exceeded the bounds of the law. So, if not relative violence, what distinguishes the riot and strike? Clover marks out the differences in terms of the riot and strike’s respective spheres of intervention (circulation vs. production), exemplary sites (market, port, and street vs. shop floor and mine), core activities (stopping food shipments, looting, and blocking up thoroughfares vs. downing tools and cordoning the factory floor), proper agents (unrelated members of the dispossessed vs. workers appearing in their role as workers) and central aims (setting the price of market goods vs. setting the price of labor).

The schematic delineation of riot and strike across these different registers is one of the book’s defining contributions, while also a significant source of troubles. Before turning to the latter though, it will be useful to offer some context for Clover’s intervention: why is this book appearing now, and why does it take the form of a sweeping, tripartite historical narrative?

Back to the Pre-Fordist Future?

A clue to these questions appears during one of the more polemical moments of the text, in a late chapter on “The Long Crisis.” Clover references Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara’s 2012 observation that, in building a socialist politics adequate to the present, it “might be helpful to consider the ways in which the current situation resembles a return to pre-Fordism.”3 For Sunkara, the weakening of labor protections, rise in unemployment rates, and expansion of contingent forms of work in the post-Fordist period call for a renewal of those pre-Fordist forms of working-class struggle that passed beyond the shop floor:

The pre-Fordist nineteenth century city central, the alliance between the employed and unemployed, and most often forgotten, the importance of a workers’ party, still the best vehicle for forcing universal concessions from the state and eventually transforming it along with the way we labor, may not seem especially lyrical, but sometimes new crises have to be confronted with old vocabulary.4

While Clover opens his book with some critical remarks on workers’ parties, he opts not to evaluate the historical significance of the first two forms of struggle listed by Sunkara – a not incidental oversight, insofar as these forms might seem to call into question Clover’s chain of association that renders the shop floor the privileged site of struggle, and those employed on this floor the leading agents of struggle, in the era of production-centered accumulation. While Clover does not discuss certain fin de siècle forms of struggle that passed beyond the shop floor, he nevertheless picks up on, and pushes further, the structural logic of Sunkara’s historical analysis:

Perhaps we might concede that Sunkara is half right. It is inevitably the case that we will understand new moments first through old vocabularies. But we are farther along the arc than he can suppose, and so might need to reach back for a rather older lexicon and make it new. It is earlier than we think. Which is to say, it is a good deal later.5

For Clover, pre-Fordist industrial capitalism, with its relatively high profit rates, expansive dynamism, and minimal labor protections, does not offer a mirror of the present, insofar as the present is defined by economic stagnation, chronic turbulence, and a turn by capital toward real estate, finance, and logistics. A better reflection of the present can be found, he argues, in the riot-prone mercantilist era that immediately preceded the industrial take-off.

Clover’s perception of historical parallels is not entirely idiosyncratic. In the discipline of history, we can look to a 2007 essay by Geoff Eley for a resonant account of the increasing salience, from the perspective of the present, of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century class relations. Eley notes that the center of gravity of historical research on labor under capitalism has shifted in recent years, moving away from studies of relatively secure industrial workers to studies of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century forms of unfree labor, especially chattel slavery and domestic servitude. He suggests that this historiographical shift can be attributed to changes in the present, in which

the de-skilling, de-unionizing, de-benefiting, and de-nationalizing of labour via the processes of metropolitan deindustrialization and transnationalized capitalist restructuring…have also been undermining that claim [of “the centrality of waged work in manufacturing, extractive and other forms of modern industry for the overall narrative of the rise of capitalism”] from the opposite end of the chronology.6

If Eley’s attempt to explain the evident salience of early modern class relations resonates to some extent with the historical approach Clover takes in Riot. Strike. Riot, the differences between Eley and Clover in this regard are also illuminating. While displacing relatively secure industrial workers, Eley nevertheless maintains a focus on labor as such, particularly on forms of unfree labor through which race and/or gender subordinations were reproduced. The image Clover offers of the mercantilist era, by contrast, focuses on dispossessed populations’ direct confrontations with the infrastructures of circulation: in his account, those engaging in export and grain riots are not defined by the work they were compelled to do, but by the difficulties they faced in accessing commoditized goods and by the collective actions they took to address their separation from the means of reproduction.7

While Clover’s portrait of an era usefully draws our attention to struggles in the sphere of circulation where labor was only indirectly at issue, the historical research noted by Eley serves as an antidote to Clover’s relative inattention to early modern labor regimes, particularly domestic service and plantation slavery, and to struggles against these regimes. To be sure, Clover does note that emergent black-led riots bear a genealogical relation to uprisings against slavery, but insofar as he puts off mentioning this genealogical link until a late chapter of the book, the historical coincidence of export riots and antislavery uprisings does not come into focus. Nor does the reader learn of the continuities in management technique and production processes that linked the plantation to the industrial factory. C.L.R. James referred to the millions of African people who were captured, enchained, shipped across the ocean, and made to work under threat of the whip on sugar and other plantations as “closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time,” grouped together around and compelled to operate large-scale industrial technologies for the profit of European plantation owners.8 When the enslaved rebelled, often their first acts were to kill the overseers, to burn the infrastructures of the plantations, and to gather into groups capable of defending themselves from whites intent on their re-enslavement. These were struggles in and against the sphere of production during the mercantilist era – struggles that pointed toward the overthrow of racial capitalism, and that ultimately forced fundamental transformations in regimes of race and labor.

Occluded Histories of the Mass Picket

If Clover deemphasizes struggles in the sphere of production during the mercantilist era in order to maintain the periodizing divisions of Riot. Strike. Riot, he similarly downplays struggles in the sphere of circulation from the 1840s through the 1960s, despite the fact that the looting of rail networks and the mass picketing of city streets constituted key oppositional tactics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over this period, grain riots shook famine-plagued colonial India, looting was repeatedly carried out along the Panama railway, and mass pickets shut down roads and rail lines in South Wales (to note instances of what were relatively ubiquitous tactics).9 Each of these collective actions intervened in the sphere of circulation, even if mass pickets also tended to take shape in the context of strikes in the sphere of production.

The history of the mass picket, in particular, unsettles the conceptual and historiographical divisions that underpin Clover’s interventions. Mass pickets are characterized by the commingling of striking employees and those not employed in a particular industry in order to block key economic nodes. For instance, during a British railway strike in 1911, railway workers stationed along the transit network were joined by local proletarians in picketing and sabotaging rail crossings, signal boxes, and stations. In Llanelli, a town in South Wales, military officers were deployed against mass picketers, two of whom were shot and killed by soldiers. Shortly after the shootings, crowds looted and burned the approximately 100 railway carriages in the area, while also looting warehouses owned by the local notable responsible for calling in the military. The mass picket that passed into rioting in Llanelli was not anomalous; similar antagonistic acts had taken shape the year before in the mining town of Tonypandy, would erupt in the port city of Liverpool in 1911, and then would continue to reappear in the context of strike activity up through the general strike of 1926.10 While the leadership of the Trades Union Congress mapped out a general strike plan that involved keeping workers in many industries on the job and limiting the scope of pickets, radicals on the ground pushed for the generalization of the strike, and attempted, through combative mass pickets, to shut down roads and tram lines in major cities. With the defeat of the strike, parliament outlawed the mass picket – a legal bar that would remain in effect until the post-WWII election of a social-democratic government. Following a wave of mass pickets in the 1970s, Thatcher’s government again banned the tactic, which allowed the police and courts greater leeway in repressing pickets, especially those composed of people other than workers who had walked off the job.

The history of the mass picket in the United States offers an interesting contrast to the history of the tactic in Britain – a contrast that suggests the significance of the state and of political dynamics in shaping repertoires of contention. The 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which followed waves of wildcat strikes and collective actions by unemployed populations, was widely interpreted by working-class radicals as making mass pickets lawful. While police repression suggested otherwise, Ahmed White, in his study on mass pickets and the law in the United States, suggests that the Act nevertheless bolstered proletarians’ sense of the legitimacy of their pickets.11 In 1934, just months after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, a wave of municipal general strikes – involving mass pickets of roads, rails, dockyards, and factories – was sustained by alliances between organized unemployed populations and unionized workers, who together carried out some of the more confrontational and effective strikes in U.S. labor history. While strikes, including those involving mass pickets, increased in frequency over the 1930s and into the mid-forties, the 1947 passage of the Taft Hartley Act – which banned secondary and mass pickets – significantly constrained class struggle in the United States. Restrictive labor law converged with the consolidation of power by more conservative labor bureaucrats, setting in place relatively cramped norms around strikes, which would be challenged to some extent by wildcats in the 1970s, though not in ways that meaningfully reanimated the mass picket.

Conceptual Blockages

The history of the mass picket’s near total eclipse in Britain and the United States underwrites the conceptual oppositions that we find not only in Clover’s work, but more generally within the above-mentioned debates among radicals to which his book contributes.12 The mass picket would seem to confound nearly all of the conceptual oppositions Clover yokes together in distinguishing the riot from the strike. Mass pickets took shape in both the spheres of circulation and production (and were most effective in shutting down transit industries, which themselves trouble the distinction between these two spheres); the pickets not infrequently passed into property destruction and looting, while also forcing a stop to processes of production; and they were carried out by striking workers taking action as workers but also by unsituated proletarians – a combination that at once gave force to often isolated groups of workers while also giving an initial context of intervention for wageless populations and/or less strategically situated workers.13 Thus, only within a historical and conceptual account inattentive to the mass picket can strikes be characterized as events undertaken by “workers appearing in their role as workers” (rather than as events undertaken by a motley collection of proletarians, workers and non-workers alike, appearing as such).14 Likewise, only insofar as mass pickets remain undertheorized can strategic debates among radicals polarize in the way we find evinced in Clover’s critique of recent Jacobin essays concerning logistics and class struggle:

[Charlie Post] notices the same transformation “particularly in lean production and just-in-time inventories,” and recognizes the resulting importance of “focusing on these distribution points” so as to “blockade distribution.” The author recommends toward this purpose the organization of “strategically placed groups of workers”…. One could forgive a reader for being perplexed as to why the hollowing out of the industrial sector, the historical basis for socialist organizing, would call for “an industrial strategy” once again. One might in turn ask why “blockading distribution,” precisely the tactic of nonworkers both logically and historically, demands “groups of workers.” From this perspective, no matter the problem the solution is always the same: industrial labor organization. It is always the time of the strike.15

Here Clover offers a particularly stark rendering of the logical and historical claims of Riot. Strike. Riot. We are brought back to the grid that delineates strike and riot, distributing to each tactic distinct spheres of activity and proper social agents. Because distribution is and has been the site of the riot, and riots are and have been undertaken by dispossessed proletarians, Clover seems to argue, a revolutionary strategy premised upon labor strikes in warehouses, on ports, along roads, at rail crossings, and across other nodes and spans of distribution is logically incoherent and without historical precedent. In this and other passages, the categorical argument seems to be wedded to a different sort of historical argument about automation and unemployment rates – an argument that would suggest contemporary workers’ relative lack of structural power, and thus their relative incapacity to shut down key nodes of supply chains through independent strike action. It seems to me that we can accept the analysis of contemporary workers’ relative lack of structural power while questioning the categorical claims embedded in Clover’s grid, as well as the strategic conclusions Clover draws from his chains of association. As the history of the mass picket makes clear, collective direct action against transit systems can be waged through the combined efforts of transit workers and unsituated proletarians, including at moments of relatively high unemployment – a possibility that is entertained neither by Clover nor, for the most part, by his antagonists at Jacobin magazine.

While Clover tends to see labor organizing, including organizing in logistics and transit industries, as largely irrelevant to revolutionary practice in the present, I would be inclined to see such organizing as a critical, if also insufficient, element of such practice. Given the fluidity of logistics networks and the dynamics of automation in shipping and other transit industries, it’s difficult to imagine that labor organizing alone can fundamentally transform these sectors, let alone the broader balance of class forces in and beyond the old capitalist core.16 On the other side of the coin though, it seems to me that it would be a mistake to ignore such organizing, insofar as workers in warehousing, shipping, air transit, and rail operation have access to forms of knowledge and collective capacity that, if turned toward a politics of solidarity, could enable broader and more explosive ruptures with the order of capital. This is not simply a matter of an individual rail operator tossing a flare over a fence to those in the streets, as occurred in the Bay Area during a particularly riotous night in December 2014. Rather, it is a matter of struggle passing into the widespread blockading of roads, airports, rail lines, distribution centers, and ports – an intensification of struggle, aiming to make it all stop, that would require a capacity to coordinate between different nodes in these networks and the collective knowledge of how transit infrastructures work – knowledge that I would guess few antagonists unattached to these industries currently enjoy, important efforts along these lines notwithstanding.17 The history of the mass picket, in addition to unsettling the conceptual and historiographical oppositions that govern Clover’s Riot. Strike. Riot, might offer some lessons for how transit workers and unsituated proletarians could coordinate to bring a halt to supply chains. This history also highlights the limits such coordination is likely to run up against, barring the effective intensification and broadening out of struggles – a breaking open of struggles, guided by the north star of the commune, to which Clover and I surely share a commitment.

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 and New York: Verso, 2016), 57. 

  2. Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot, 80. 

  3. Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot, 145. The reference to Sunkara’s 2012 essay metonymically evokes a larger debate amongst radicals to which Sunkara’s essay contributed. For further contributions, see Charlie Post, “We’re All Precarious Now,” Jacobin, April 2015; Aaron Benanav, “Precarity Rising,” Viewpoint Magazine, June 2015; Aaron Benanav and Joshua Clover, “Can Dialectics Break BRICs?,” South Atlantic Quarterly 113, no. 4 (Fall 2014): 743–59; Doug Henwood, “Workers Aren’t Disappearing,” Jacobin, July 2015; Jasper Bernes, “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect,” Endnotes 3 (September 2013); Charlie Post, “The Forgotten Militants,” Jacobin, August 2016. Also particularly relevant to these discussions is Robert Brenner’s work on shifts in post-war automobile manufacturing industries: Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence (London and New York: Verso, 2006). 

  4. Bhaskar Sunkara, “Precarious Thought,” Jacobin, January 13, 2012. 

  5. Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot, 146. 

  6. Geoff Eley, “Historicizing the Global, Politicizing Capital Giving the Present a Name,” History Workshop Journal 63 (Spring 2007): 166. 

  7. Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot, 49–60. 

  8. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (London: Secker & Warburg, 1938). See also, W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Russel & Russel, 1935). 

  9. A sense of the spread of such tactics can be gleaned simply by doing a keyword search for “looting” on the Times of London’s digital archive. On riots and looting in colonial India, see Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2000), 120–70; Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil, “State Forestry and Social Conflict in British India,” Past and Present 123, no. 1 (1989): 141–77; Bandyopadhyay Premansukumar, Indian Famine and Agrarian Problems (Calcutta: Star Publications, 1987). On a later uprising against British imperial enclosures, see David Arnold, “Looting, Grain Riots and Government Policy in South India, 1918,” Past and Present 84 (August 1979): 111–45. 

  10. Ben Tillett, History of the London Transport Workers’ Strike, 1911 (London: National Transport Workers’ Federation, 1912); John Edwards, Remembrance of a Riot: The Story of the Llanelli Railway Strike Riots of 1911 (Swansea: Graham Harcourt, 1988); Ralph Darlington, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism: An International Comparative Analysis (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013); Hugh Armstrong Clegg et al., A History of British Trade Unions Since 1889: 1911-1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); Bob Holton, British Syndicalism, 1900-1914 (London: Pluto Press, 1976). 

  11. Ahmed White, “Workers Disarmed: The Campaign Against Mass Picketing and the Dilemma of Liberal Labor Rights,” Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Review 49 (2014). 

  12. A shadow of the mass picket persists in the contemporary community picket, which the ILWU has managed to maintain as a viable tactic along west coast ports. While resonant with the mass picket, the community picket differs in some key ways: workers themselves generally do not join the pickets, and are able to avoid work without repercussions insofar as a third party designates the picket as a hazard to the safe performance of work at the docks. ILWU workers’ commitment to maintain this tactic helped enable the west coast port shutdowns in 2011, as well as more recent block the boat efforts in connection with the BDS movement. 

  13. I am opting to use the term ‘unsituated proletarians’ to describe those not employed in given industries, whether they be unemployed or employed in other industries. This term helps keep in view a key distinction relevant to discussions of blockades of economic nodes (namely, the distinction between those employed directly at such nodes, and those not employed at such nodes), while not making claims about such unsituated proletarians’ relative dispossession. 

  14. Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot, 16. 

  15. Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot, 143–44. 

  16. Bernes, “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect,” Endnotes 3 (September 2013); Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy (London: Verso, 2011). 

  17. See, for example, Anon, Choke points: mapping an anticapitalist counter-logistics in California – Degenerate Communism, 2014, libcom.org; Empire Logistics, empirelogistics.org. 

Author of the article

is an assistant professor of History at the University of Michigan and a member of the Michigan Society of Fellows. She has published on struggles in the sphere of social reproduction for LIES, Reclamations, and the South Atlantic Quarterly, and is currently working on a book project about anti-colonial and class struggles on the British and colonial Indian railways between the 1840s and 1920s.