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.