Limits to Periodization

12_2009_8, 5/6/09, 12:30 PM, 8C, 5754x7806 (110+194), 100%, chrome 7 stops, 1/8 s, R43.4, G22.4, B38.0
Mark Brad­ford, A Tru­ly Rich Man is One Whose Chil­dren Run Into His Arms When His Hands are Emp­ty, 2008. Mixed media col­lage on can­vas H: 102 x W: 144 in. (259.10 x 365.80 cm) Cour­tesy of the artist and Sikke­ma Jenk­ins & Co., New York.

As the sub­ti­tle of the book emphat­i­cal­ly asserts, Riot. Strike. Riot is con­ceived as a the­o­ry of the present, con­fig­ured here as a “new era of upris­ings.” In this intent, Clover’s cor­us­cat­ing essay joins a smat­ter­ing of texts that have tried to bap­tize and ori­ent the moment that blos­somed into recog­ni­tion after 2011 – essays and books by Alain Badiou, Alain Bertho, Théorie com­mu­niste, The Invis­i­ble Com­mit­tee, Jodi Dean, End­notes, and a few oth­ers. The the­o­ret­i­cal resources and vocab­u­lar­ies that Clover enlists into his argu­ment – with envi­able clar­i­ty, econ­o­my, and focus – would reward atten­tion on their own right. Most crit­i­cal­ly, the ground­ing claim that “a the­o­ry of riot is a the­o­ry of cri­sis” means that the per­sua­sive pow­er of Clover’s mon­tage depends large­ly on one’s esti­ma­tion of his splic­ing of Robert Bren­ner, Gio­van­ni Arrighi and val­ue-the­o­ret­i­cal accounts of cri­sis to pro­vide the log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal arma­ture of the over­all account.1

Though “riot” (often invoked with­out def­i­nite or indef­i­nite arti­cles and in the sin­gu­lar) is meant to illu­mi­nate cri­sis, it is evi­dent from the out­set that the weight of the­o­riz­ing rests on the the­o­ry of cap­i­tal­ism, and it is that the­o­ry which allows us to turn the toponymy of insur­rec­tion (Oax­a­ca, Oak­land, Tahrir, Clichy-sur-Bois, etc.) into a force­ful claim about the shift­ing shape of col­lec­tive action against cap­i­tal. Notwith­stand­ing Clover’s not­ing of the ety­mo­log­i­cal link between émeutes (riots) and emo­tions, and the insur­rec­tionary invo­ca­tions that pep­per his writ­ing, his the­o­ry of riot is not a phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of riot­ing, a the­o­ry of the subject(s) of riot (except to the extent that riot is sub­ject, I’ll return to this), or even an inves­ti­ga­tion into the mate­r­i­al tac­tics and reper­toires of con­tem­po­rary upris­ings. Nor is it a poet­ics of riot (for which the read­er is bet­ter off turn­ing to his recent poet­ry col­lec­tion Red Epic). Where the phys­iog­no­my of col­lec­tive action is con­cerned, notwith­stand­ing illus­tra­tive ref­er­ences to of free­way block­ades, port occu­pa­tions and the antin­o­mies of the move­ment of squares, the argu­ment is of a fun­da­men­tal­ly his­tor­i­cal kind.

Here the soci­o­log­i­cal work of Charles Tilly serves as the schema per­mit­ting the pro­jec­tion of a his­tor­i­cal-mate­ri­al­ist the­o­ry of cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis and trans­for­ma­tion onto mul­ti­ple instances of col­lec­tive action (and inverse­ly, though the ascend­ing move­ment from riot to sys­tem is, I would main­tain, exem­pli­fy­ing and not prop­er­ly con­sti­tu­tive). “If the riot looks at peri­odiza­tion, the peri­od in turn peers back at the riot through the dialec­ti­cal key­hole. It is hard, per­haps impos­si­ble, to estab­lish what a riot is with­out peri­odiza­tion; with it, the riot (and the strike as well) can be under­stood as a set of prac­tices in the face of prac­ti­cal cir­cum­stances, with or with­out an imag­i­nary regard­ing the reflex­ive self-aware­ness of par­tic­i­pants on which so many accounts rest” (43). A thor­ough appraisal of the inter­pre­tive machine that Clover has dex­ter­ous­ly engi­neered in Riot would no doubt require an inter­ro­ga­tion of its com­po­nent parts: Is the amal­gam of world-sys­tems the­o­ry, polit­i­cal Marx­ism and val­ue-cri­tique sta­ble? Is Tilly’s his­tor­i­cal pat­tern­ing of col­lec­tive action – itself anchored in a non-Marx­ist his­tor­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy – map­pable onto that his­tor­i­cal-mate­ri­al­ist fres­co?2 Can the riots real­ly express and expli­cate our his­tor­i­cal moment (105), serv­ing as the “holo­graph­ic minia­ture of an entire sit­u­a­tion, a world-pic­ture” (123)? What I want to address here is the over­ar­ch­ing prin­ci­ple that gov­erns the com­po­si­tion of the book’s var­i­ous con­cep­tu­al ele­ments, and which in the final analy­sis is Clover’s name for the­o­ry: peri­odiza­tion.

Riot Theory

When Clover declares that what our moment demands is “a prop­er­ly mate­ri­al­ist the­o­riza­tion of the riot” it is a sui gener­is his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism he is call­ing upon (6). This is pit­ted against, on the one hand, soci­o­log­i­cal­ly-deter­min­is­tic accounts of col­lec­tive action as a fore­castable reac­tion to giv­en con­stel­la­tions of pow­er and inequal­i­ty, and, on the oth­er, philo­soph­i­cal­ly-vol­un­taris­tic and tax­o­nom­i­cal accounts of the riot as a pre-polit­i­cal her­ald of a com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion and idea to come, as in Alain Badiou’s por­tray­al of our “age of riots.” Though read­ers expect­ing a keen-eyed the­o­rist of poet­ics such as Clover to delve into the aes­thet­ic of riot will be dis­ap­point­ed, the for­ma men­tis of Marx­ist lit­er­ary crit­i­cism of a decid­ed­ly Jameson­ian stamp is pal­pa­ble. Peri­odiza­tion is con­ceived as the cor­re­la­tion of his­tor­i­cal­ly emer­gent social forms to polit­i­cal and not poet­ic forms, but the method and style of cor­re­la­tion will be famil­iar to read­ers of land­mark essays like “Mod­ernism and Impe­ri­al­ism” or “Cul­ture and Finance Cap­i­tal” – both of which pio­neered this use of Arrighi’s work (though to Clover’s cred­it, his use of peri­odiza­tion aims at a less alle­gor­i­cal result).3

The frame­work is strik­ing and stark in its sim­plic­i­ty: meld­ing Arrighi’s Braudelian account of cycles of pro­duc­tive and finan­cial accu­mu­la­tion with Brenner’s diag­no­sis of the long down­turn – with 1973 as year zero of our sta­tion­ary or ter­mi­nal age – Clover gen­er­ates a three-ages the­o­ry of sorts, map­ping, via Tilly’s soci­ol­o­gy and E.P. Thomp­son account of 18th-cen­tu­ry riots, ages of cir­cu­la­tion, pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion (or, in his terms, cir­cu­la­tion prime) onto long phas­es in which riot, strike and what he calls riot prime are the pre­em­i­nent or hege­mon­ic fig­ures of col­lec­tive action. This account is then sup­ple­ment­ed with Théorie communiste’s take on the lim­its of anti-cap­i­tal­ist action, as we will touch upon below. In Clover’s syn­op­sis: “cri­sis sig­nals a shift of capital’s cen­ter of grav­i­ty into cir­cu­la­tion, and riot is in the last instance to be under­stood as a cir­cu­la­tion strug­gle, of which the price-set­ting strug­gle and the sur­plus rebel­lion are dis­tinct, if relat­ed, forms (129).

What are the pre­sup­po­si­tions of this image of the­o­ry as peri­odiza­tion? First, and per­haps most momen­tous, is the notion that we must iden­ti­fy a “cen­tral fig­ure of polit­i­cal antag­o­nism” (3). This think­ing of the present through cen­tral, dom­i­nant or hege­mon­ic fig­ures has become so com­mon­place on the left as to be often left unques­tioned. It is almost invari­ably dri­ven by the felt need to refute a tra­di­tion­al left’s attach­ment to obso­les­cent or anachro­nis­tic “fig­ures” – par­ty, union, strike, rev­o­lu­tion­ary grab for pow­er. In this respect, Clover’s polem­i­cal school­ing of labor-nos­tal­gia on the U.S. social­ist left has more than a few echoes of anal­o­gous assev­er­a­tions by Ital­ian post-work­erist against stal­warts of his­tor­i­cal com­mu­nism, of French anar­cho-com­mu­nists against Trot­sky­ists, and so on and so forth. The polemics often reach their tar­get, but rarely if at all do they inter­ro­gate the found­ing attach­ment of what we could term the phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry of col­lec­tive action to a “lead­ing tac­tic” (73) trans­mut­ed into a sin­gu­lar fig­ure, “both a real frac­tion of and a fig­ure for the many to which it is always adja­cent” (73). Riot prime “names the social reor­ga­ni­za­tion, the peri­od in which it holds sway, and the lead­ing form of col­lec­tive action that cor­re­sponds to the sit­u­a­tion” (28).

What com­pels us to trans­form a tac­tic or a form into a his­tor­i­cal sub­ject and sub­stance? It is worth paus­ing here on Clover’s lan­guage – clear­ly pon­dered and cho­sen in full fore­sight of its effects. Con­trary to those post-work­erists for whom the fig­ure is still, in how­ev­er mutant a form, a col­lec­tive class sub­ject (the cog­ni­tari­at or assort­ed cog­nates), in a ges­ture as cap­ti­vat­ing as it is poten­tial­ly mys­ti­fy­ing and fetishis­tic, it is “riot” (not the riot, or riots) which takes the agen­tial or actant role from the out­set. In elu­ci­dat­ing how “riot is itself the expe­ri­ence of sur­plus” (1) – where the phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy or locus of that expe­ri­ence is curi­ous­ly unlo­cal­iz­able – Clover will write of the “moment when the par­ti­sans of riot exceed the police capac­i­ty for man­age­ment, when the cops make their first retreat, [as] the moment when the riot becomes ful­ly itself, slides loose from the grim con­ti­nu­ity of dai­ly life” (1-2). It is not riot­ers that face off against the cops, but “par­ti­sans of riot,” and while they are the sur­plus it brings into being, it is riot that is sub­ject, “it” becomes ful­ly itself, in an impec­ca­bly Hegelian turn of phrase. At times these par­ti­sans seem reduced to mere Träger or ven­tril­o­quists for this spec­tre haunt­ing a dein­dus­tri­al­iz­ing world: “Riot goes look­ing for sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, and these are its basis for expan­sion” (154). At oth­ers there is a fusion, with vital­ist echoes, of riot with the biopol­i­tics of exclu­sion: “Riot prime is the con­di­tion in which sur­plus life is riot, is the sub­ject of pol­i­tics and the object of ongo­ing state vio­lence” (170).

Riot as sub­ject, or the sub­li­ma­tion of a form of col­lec­tive action into fig­ure of his­to­ry, is also a prod­uct of Clover’s deter­mi­na­tion – most com­pelling­ly delin­eat­ed in his engage­ment with Luxemburg’s writ­ing on the gen­er­al strike – to iden­ti­fy nec­es­sary or his­tor­i­cal­ly inevitable forms of action in the present. Clover’s def­i­n­i­tion of the­o­ry is worth repro­duc­ing here: “The­o­ry is imma­nent in strug­gle; often enough it must hur­ry to catch up to a real­i­ty that lurch­es ahead. A the­o­ry of the present will arise from its lived con­fronta­tions, rather than arriv­ing on the scene laden with back­dat­ed hom­i­lies and pre­scrip­tions regard­ing how the war against state and cap­i­tal ought to be waged, pro­grams we are told once worked and might now be refur­bished and imposed once again on our quite dis­tinct moments. The sub­junc­tive is a love­ly mood, but it is not the mood of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism” (4). But the log­ic of theory’s emer­gence and the char­ac­ter of its pre­sen­ta­tion here mas­sive­ly diverge. The con­tem­po­rary prac­tice of riots (and its remark­ably recur­rent reper­toire) is not the source of the the­o­ret­i­cal claims, rather it is the detour through the longue durée of peri­odiza­tion which reveals why “riot prime” is the uncir­cum­ventable form of action in our present. But riot as sub­ject is also the gram­mat­i­cal com­ple­ment to a claim upon the con­ti­nu­ity-in-dis­con­ti­nu­ity of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures of col­lec­tive action, what per­mits us to think through the spi­ral­ing “return” in the present (or even as the very polit­i­cal name of our present) of a form side­lined by the vast phase of strug­gles over pro­duc­tion.

1973 and All That

The full stops in the book’s title reveal them­selves as Marx­i­an hyphens, trac­ing a cir­cuit. What a the­o­ry of the present demands is “a peri­odiza­tion to match our prac­tices: riot-strike-riot prime maps onto phas­es of cir­cu­la­tion-pro­duc­tion-cir­cu­la­tion” (19), in which “the sequence riot-strike-riot prime does not sug­gest a sim­ple his­tor­i­cal oscil­la­tion but a long and arch­ing devel­op­ment that both exhausts and retrieves forms as the con­tents and con­texts of strug­gle change” (110). Again, I do not wish to inter­ro­gate here the con­tent of these peri­odiza­tions – the his­to­ries of cap­i­tal and col­lec­tive action whose deft inter­lac­ing makes up the bulk of the book – but the prin­ci­ple of peri­odiza­tion itself.

Peri­odiza­tion is also polit­i­cal­ly crit­i­cal to the man­ner in which Clover artic­u­lates his rela­tion to Marx­ism. Its upshot is that a prop­er his­tor­i­cal-mate­ri­al­ist cor­re­la­tion between phas­es of accu­mu­la­tion and modal­i­ties of strug­gle results in a near-apo­d­ic­tic cer­tain­ty about the irrel­e­vance of tra­di­tion­al Marx­ist pol­i­tics, in its nexus of union-strike-par­ty-rev­o­lu­tion. In this cru­cial ges­ture, Clover’s book shares much with the com­mu­niz­ing cri­tique of con­tem­po­rary Lenin­ism and social­ism, name­ly a puta­tive­ly “clas­si­cal” adher­ence to Marx­ist tenets whose polem­i­cal tar­get is con­tem­po­rary par­ti­sans of tra­di­tion­al Marx­ist pol­i­tics. A cru­cial foot­note spec­i­fies: “Marx­ism being not a polit­i­cal belief (much less a pro­gram), but rather a mode of analy­sis” (89n1). Clover’s book thus dou­bles as a “Marx­ism of Marx­ism” (sec­ond-order Marx­ism or Marx­ism squared, if you will), which provin­cial­izes the resid­u­al­ly-dom­i­nant con­cep­tion of Marx­ist pol­i­tics as bound to the long nine­teenth cen­tu­ry of the strike. This marks it out emphat­i­cal­ly from the two oth­er lead the­o­ret­i­cal treat­ments of the “age of riots,” Alain Badiou’s Rebirth of His­to­ry and Alain Bertho’s 2009 Le temps des émeutes (not tack­led in Riot), espe­cial­ly from the lat­ter, for which the rise of riots is not just a ter­mi­na­tion of the polit­i­cal but of the ana­lyt­i­cal vocab­u­lary of Marx­ism.

The wager that Marx­ist analy­sis can be desu­tured from Marx­ist pol­i­tics and pro­grams is bold and part­ly per­sua­sive – after all, if the fate of Marx­ism were depen­dent on trends in union den­si­ty or strike rates its death-knell would be tolling ever loud­er. As Clover cor­rect­ly warns: “A class pol­i­tics of even the most recon­dite or reduc­tion­ist vari­ety is now com­pelled to refig­ure itself accord­ing to these great polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tions or con­sign itself to the end­less role-play­ing of a back­dat­ed romance to which the per­fume of 1917 always clings” (145). And yet there is a blindspot in this propo­si­tion, name­ly that peri­odiza­tion as the­o­ry is not so eas­i­ly sep­a­rat­ed from peri­odiza­tion as pro­gram. As a reck­on­ing with the his­tor­i­cal-log­i­cal ten­den­cies of cap­i­tal with­in which giv­en con­junc­tures are sit­u­at­ed and col­lec­tive antag­o­nism oper­ates, peri­odiza­tion, I would pro­pose, is an implic­it­ly strate­gic con­cept – as a cen­tu­ry of Marx­ist debates about modes of pro­duc­tion, tran­si­tions, and social for­ma­tions sug­gests, from Lenin’s The Devel­op­ment of Cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia all the way to 1970s dis­cus­sions about the shift from “mass work­er” to “social work­er.” What’s more, notwith­stand­ing the anti-orga­ni­za­tion­al ani­mus of Riot, which seeks to cleave to the demand-less inevitabil­i­ty of sur­plus rebel­lions, the sed­i­ment­ed for­ma men­tis of peri­odiza­tion still impels Clover to intro­duce qua­si- or para-strate­gic notions like “abso­l­u­ti­za­tion” and “com­mune.” These two names for the process and form of what, to court anachro­nism, we could call rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics retain from the pro­gram­mat­ic reg­is­ter in which Marx­ist peri­odiza­tion has always func­tioned (for good or ill) a deter­mi­na­tion to ori­ent, if noth­ing else away from the com­pul­sion to repeat a stereo­typed rev­o­lu­tion­ary sequence.

Clover is right to be sus­pi­cious of the­o­ry as the antic­i­pa­to­ry (and thus often fan­tas­ti­cal) orga­ni­za­tion of action, the enlight­ened fore­cast ori­ent­ing cadres. But retain­ing the peri­odiz­ing form of Marx­ist dis­course, which has his­tor­i­cal­ly bound analy­sis to pro­gram (even if the lat­ter is shame-faced or reduced to mere mood and neg­a­tiv­i­ty), begs the ques­tion of what or whom such a the­o­ry is for. With no strate­gic or ped­a­gog­i­cal pre­ten­sions, Clover dis­places pro­gram­mat­ic pre­scrip­tion into polem­i­cal pro­scrip­tion, as though the peri­odiz­ing nar­ra­tive served prin­ci­pal­ly to under­score the futil­i­ty of a tra­di­tion­al image of polit­i­cal action, the “back­dat­ed hom­i­lies” he cas­ti­gates. Iron­i­cal­ly then, the cen­tral­i­ty of peri­odiza­tion “con­cerned pre­cise­ly with the degree of capital’s tech­ni­cal and social devel­op­ment … in all its elo­quent and ambigu­ous undu­la­tions,” is aimed at undo­ing the very pur­pose of peri­odiza­tion in Marx­ist the­o­ry hith­er­to (17). An ana­lyt­i­cal cor­re­la­tion between the present shape of accu­mu­la­tion and the lead­ing tac­tics of action would serve not to delin­eate the con­tours of a “lead­ing sub­ject” or orga­ni­za­tion, but pre­cise­ly its impos­si­bil­i­ty. This, in a way, is Clover’s spe­cif­ic con­tri­bu­tion to the “ide­ol­o­gy of col­lec­tive action” (82).

As he nice­ly artic­u­lates through­out these prac­ti­cal ide­olo­gies can be under­stood – whether we con­sid­er E.P. Thomp­son, Sorel, Lux­em­burg or the lived dis­cours­es of class strug­gle – in terms of an abid­ing con­trast between strike and riot, through the “antithe­sis of forms of action” (89). Clover’s recount­ing is at its sharpest and most cap­ti­vat­ing when deal­ing with those tran­si­tion­al moments – riot to strike, strike to riot prime – in which we wit­ness the dual pres­ence and ambi­gu­i­ty of the ide­al-typ­i­cal forms of strike and riot (16). Whether assay­ing machine-break­ing in the Swing riots or out­lin­ing the graft of riot onto strike in the Detroit Upris­ings, as illu­mi­nat­ed in a scin­til­lat­ing pas­sage by James Bog­gs, Clover right­ly checks his own ten­den­cy to an ide­al-typ­i­cal seg­men­ta­tion of col­lec­tive forms to reflect on the “volatil­i­ty of [riot and strike’s] dual pres­ence” at crit­i­cal moments.

It is strik­ing that lit­tle is said about the con­cept of rev­o­lu­tion here, though Clover’s form-his­to­ry could pro­vide a fine start­ing point for revis­it­ing that idea. After all, rev­o­lu­tion­ary or pro­to-rev­o­lu­tion­ary moments – 1871, 1917, 1956, 1968, 1977 (to alle­go­rize dates rather than places) – all appear to require the artic­u­la­tion of these forms. If a his­tor­i­cal les­son can be drawn from rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­junc­tures it is that they are dom­i­nat­ed pre­cise­ly by the het­ero­gene­ity and com­bi­na­tion of polit­i­cal forms, and the uneven­ness of times. Such uneven­ness – and not the syn­chro­niza­tion between the his­tor­i­cal log­ic of cap­i­tal and the fig­ures of col­lec­tive action – is the “norm.” Here lies, to my mind, the most ques­tion­able pre­sup­po­si­tion of Clover’s book, which thinks tran­si­tion as a polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic or his­tor­i­cal-soci­o­log­i­cal cat­e­go­ry - in oth­er words “objec­tive­ly” - under­es­ti­mat­ing its prop­er­ly polit­i­cal valence. At one point, Clover writes that it “is pre­cise­ly the tran­si­tion from mar­ket­place to work­place, from the price of good to the price of labor pow­er as the ful­crum of repro­duc­tion, that dic­tates the swing from riot to strike in the reper­toire of col­lec­tive action. In fact, these are the same, con­text and con­flict” (69). Yet the Bren­ner frame­work under­ly­ing the peri­odiza­tion is large­ly inim­i­cal to the notion of con­flict deter­min­ing con­text, and cer­tain­ly to any notion that it is prin­ci­pal­ly the age of strikes that lies behind the cri­sis crest­ing in 1973, such as one might encounter in operaista nar­ra­tives.4 Rather than think­ing tran­si­tion pri­mar­i­ly through the world-his­to­ry of cap­i­tal gen­er­at­ed by the meld­ing of Bren­ner, Arrighi and Tilly, might it not be more effec­tive to think of the con­di­tion of tran­si­tion (of the kind traced here in machine-break­ing or the “black mil­i­tant strike”) as much more illus­tra­tive of con­tem­po­rary strug­gles than the “pure strike” or the “pure riot”?5 The desire for a cor­re­la­tion between the peri­odiza­tion of cap­i­tal and the peri­odiza­tion of strug­gles is respon­si­ble for the fal­la­cy of treat­ing log­i­cal forms or ide­al-types as con­crete­ly revealed in prac­tice. It also involves an unwar­rant­ed and unprov­able pre­sup­po­si­tion – shared with oth­er philoso­phies of his­to­ry of anti-cap­i­tal­ism, post-work­erism among them – of a syn­chronic­i­ty and cor­re­la­tion between cap­i­tal­ist phase and anti-cap­i­tal­ist form. Why should tac­ti­cal reper­toires match the peri­odiza­tion of cap­i­tal, espe­cial­ly since the cri­te­ria of peri­odiza­tion dif­fer con­sid­er­ably? Accord­ing to what schema­tism can a quan­ti­fied archive of punc­tu­al events be pro­ject­ed onto a method of ten­den­cy based on a grasp of the abstract dialec­tic of social forms?

Here it might be inter­est­ing to briefly turn our atten­tion to a nowa­days rather neglect­ed Marx­ist the­o­rist of peri­odiza­tion: Ernest Man­del. In the midst of 1980s debates over the nature and span of long waves of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, Man­del pro­posed – in the ambit of a “dialec­ti­cal, para­met­ri­cal socioe­co­nom­ic deter­min­ism” not a mil­lion miles from Clover’s inspi­ra­tion – the the­sis of a desyn­chro­niza­tion of cycles of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and cri­sis, on the one hand, and cycles of class strug­gle (and rev­o­lu­tion), on the oth­er.6 In var­i­ous writ­ings, Man­del argued for class strug­gle as an inde­pen­dent vari­able with rel­a­tive auton­o­my, more specif­i­cal­ly claim­ing that what lent down­turns and upturns in cycles of accu­mu­la­tion their asym­me­try was that class strug­gle as a par­tial­ly “exoge­nous” fac­tor was cru­cial in deter­min­ing the shape of a new round of accu­mu­la­tion. More­over, class strug­gle itself is marked far more by the out­comes of a pre­vi­ous cycle of con­tes­ta­tion than by the present shape of the cap­i­tal-labor rela­tion.7 Over­all, and notwith­stand­ing con­ver­gences “in the long run”:

It is impos­si­ble to estab­lish any direct cor­re­la­tion between [the] ups and downs of class strug­gle inten­si­ty on the one hand, and the busi­ness cycle, or “long waves,” or the lev­el of employment/unemployment on the oth­er hand. The con­clu­sion is obvi­ous: there is a def­i­nite de-syn­chro­niza­tion between the busi­ness cycle and the cycle of class strug­gle. The lev­el of class mil­i­tan­cy of the work­ers at a giv­en moment is much more a func­tion of what hap­pened over the pre­vi­ous fif­teen to twen­ty years in the class strug­gle than of the eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion (includ­ing the degree of unem­ploy­ment) hic et nunc.8

Mandel’s pro­pos­al of a “dialec­tic of uneven and com­bined devel­op­ment of cur­rent eco­nom­ic trends, work­ing-class reac­tions and eco­nom­ic end results, in which the struc­tur­al depen­dence (sub­or­di­na­tion) of wage labor to cap­i­tal is com­bined with the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of work­ing class reac­tions (strug­gles)” trans­lates into the fol­low­ing image (drawn from Long Waves of Cap­i­tal­ist Devel­op­ment, 39) of the some­what sinu­soidal, syn­co­pat­ed dou­ble step of cap­i­tal and labor – the desyn­chro­nized rhythm of antag­o­nism.


Mov­ing away from long waves, we might also won­der whether the vast­ness of Clover’s his­tor­i­cal can­vas –in which 1848 is clos­er to 1967 than 1967 is to 1977 in terms of the rela­tion between cap­i­tal and col­lec­tive action– doesn’t risk los­ing many of the undoubt­ed virtues of think­ing the rhythms of con­flict in con­junc­tion (but not lock­step) with the rhythms of accu­mu­la­tion. For instance, notwith­stand­ing the broad strokes with which the epochs of riot, strike, and riot prime are con­nect­ed to cir­cu­la­to­ry and pro­duc­tive phas­es of accu­mu­la­tion, the his­tor­i­cal par­ti­tures advanced in Riot com­pli­cate mat­ters con­sid­er­ably, on the ledgers of both cap­i­tal and labor (or anti-cap­i­tal). In the Braudelian graph pre­sent­ed by Clover (18), for instance, much of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry is dom­i­nat­ed by the log­ic of pro­duc­tion and the peri­od between the 1880s and the 1940s by that of cir­cu­la­tion, though the lat­ter large­ly over­laps with the hero­ic peri­od of strikes in the West and beyond. This doesn’t quite chime with the claim that “pro­duc­tive cap­i­tal held sway from, say, 1784 to 1973” (20) and that strike is “the form of col­lec­tive action prop­er to the pro­duc­tive phase of cap­i­tal” (85). But con­sid­er also the pat­tern of strike inci­dence in Britain which – in the whole peri­od fol­low­ing the sup­pres­sion of the 1926 gen­er­al strike – was actu­al­ly high­er in “cir­cu­la­tion” than “pro­duc­tion” peri­ods, spik­ing over 1973-1985, while being remark­ably dor­mant before.9


In this respect, to say that the strike “sur­vives as a lead­ing tac­tic in the indus­tri­al­ized west through the six­ties” is a bit pecu­liar, unless we think of it more specif­i­cal­ly as a strike against the shift to cir­cu­la­tion, against dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion. This view would be strength­ened by the recog­ni­tion that the strike – no doubt due to the inte­gra­tion of the labor move­ment in Fordist state strate­gies – is a rather dor­mant tac­tic in much of the overde­vel­oped world in the peak peri­ods of the pro­duc­tive phase. Thus, the “log­i­cal­ly nec­es­sary causal­i­ty” (107) between taut labor mar­kets, indus­tri­al expan­sion, high prof­it rates and strikes doesn’t mate­ri­al­ize, and the “heuris­tic smooth­ing” advo­cat­ed by Clover blurs the uneven­ness, syn­co­pa­tion and gran­u­lar­i­ty that might allow the peri­odiza­tion of cap­i­tal to illu­mi­nate the modal­i­ties of col­lec­tive action. It is not that the sequence riot-strike-riot prime couldn’t inform a his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism, but it can­not attain iden­ti­ty with it, it can­not serve as “tes­ti­mo­ny about the sta­tus of cap­i­tal­ism as such” (21). Where a “dis­tant read­ing” of col­lec­tive action and cap­i­tal­ist trans­for­ma­tions as prac­tice here­in may sus­tain a broad lam­i­na­tion of riot and “cir­cu­la­tion,” strike and “pro­duc­tion,” atten­tion to con­junc­tures of accu­mu­la­tion and strug­gle in the post­war peri­od large­ly belies the nar­ra­tive that ris­ing accu­mu­la­tion was the con­di­tion for suc­cess­ful social­ist action (145). Not only have strikes often been high­er in inci­dence and impact dur­ing the the effec­tive or immi­nent con­trac­tion of labor mar­kets, an inaus­pi­cious eco­nom­ic cli­mate and polit­i­cal volatil­i­ty, but rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics – whether of a com­mu­nist, anar­chist or anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ist type – has nev­er depend­ed on those con­di­tions, either in the overde­vel­oped world, or, patent­ly, in the rest. This is not to say that, to para­phrase Tron­ti, strug­gles can’t take place at the strongest links in the chain, but sure­ly that can­not be assumed as a norm.

This of course should pose no mys­tery for a Marx­ism draw­ing on the well of left-com­mu­nist tra­di­tions, for whom the strike as a reg­u­la­to­ry ele­ment in the state-led repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal-labor rela­tions dur­ing peri­ods of ascen­dant accu­mu­la­tion is a giv­en (just think of Cold War union­ism in the Unit­ed States). Fol­low­ing Théorie com­mu­niste, Clover presents the present com­plex­ion of the cap­i­tal-labor rela­tion in terms that posit class belong­ing qua exter­nal con­straint as “the lim­it for labor strug­gles as rev­o­lu­tion­ary engine.” Though, as the predica­ment of labor strug­gles in Argenti­na, Greece, and else­where shows, there is much truth in stress­ing the predica­ment of a class com­pelled at times to depend the repro­duc­tion of the cap­i­tal-rela­tion under puni­tive con­di­tions – what here goes by the name of the “affir­ma­tion trap” – this should not serve by con­trast to argue that the pre­ced­ing phase was in the main one of even implic­it rev­o­lu­tion­ary élan, nor to min­i­mize how it too was shaped by the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic black­mail, so to speak, of repro­duc­tion. More­over, cleav­ing to the Théorie com­mu­niste nar­ra­tive also risks thor­ough­ly reify­ing the lim­its of strug­gle, such as argu­ing as though it were an incon­tro­vert­ible objec­tive fact that: “The social sur­plus accom­pa­ny­ing accu­mu­la­tion has dwin­dled” (151).10 This is not to revert to social-demo­c­ra­t­ic illu­sions about our con­di­tion being one of mere mald­is­tri­b­u­tion, but it should be pos­si­ble, with­out ignor­ing the fet­ters imposed by cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, also to rec­og­nize that the social sur­plus is polit­i­cal­ly con­sti­tut­ed, and that “the state’s inabil­i­ty to appor­tion resources” is also its rank unwill­ing­ness to do it, due to polit­i­cal class con­straints that can­not be chalked up to con­trac­tions in accu­mu­la­tion alone.

It Goes Round and Round Day and Night, and Will Be Consumed by Fire

Clover’s pow­er­ful delin­eation of our new era of upris­ings depends for its peri­odiz­ing thrust on the map­ping of riot prime on “cir­cu­la­tion prime,” the Arrighi­an name for the present plan­e­tary phase of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. Here Clover, no doubt piv­ot­ing upon the Oak­land Occu­py block­ade, echoes per­va­sive debates on the place of “logis­ti­cal” and relat­ed strug­gles to the cur­rent for­tunes of antag­o­nism. Hav­ing already wad­ed into this stream in the pages of View­point, I want to lim­it my com­ments here to the pre­con­di­tions for the peri­odiz­ing move, name­ly the limn­ing of cir­cu­la­tion. My impres­sion is that the pol­y­se­my, in Marx and beyond, of the term “cir­cu­la­tion” is doing much of the work that per­mits the bind­ing of the his­tor­i­cal log­ic of cap­i­tal to the vicis­si­tudes of col­lec­tive action. This is, for instance, the way in which an act such as block­ing a free­way – more sig­nif­i­cant as a sym­bol of inter­rup­tive pow­er than as any kind of sev­er­ance of com­mod­i­ty chains – can be treat­ed as a strike against the cir­cu­la­tion of cap­i­tal. Clover writes of a “world of cir­cu­la­tion” (121), but one may be for­giv­en for think­ing that the uni­ty of this world is pure­ly con­trastive, polem­i­cal­ly arrayed against the world (or indeed the fan­ta­sy) of a per­fect nexus of accu­mu­la­tion-pro­duc­tive labor-fac­to­ry strug­gles-rev­o­lu­tion­ary hori­zon which haunts the rhetoric of the social­ist nos­tal­gics that draw Clover’s crit­i­cal con­tempt. Clover declares that “riot and strike are col­lec­tive per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of cir­cu­la­tion and pro­duc­tion at the lim­it” (121). But is the cir­cu­la­tion that riot (neg­a­tive­ly, antag­o­nis­ti­cal­ly) per­son­i­fies that of finance, logis­tics or con­sump­tion? All three? Are we so sure these are all bound into a uni­ty, so as to bring a “world” into being? Isn’t a con­tem­po­rary port more like a fac­to­ry (in essence and appear­ance) than like a mar­ket? And can we declare the abstract log­ic of cir­cu­la­tion to be spa­tial (138) if its finan­cial facet depends so much on tem­po­ral arbi­trage?

I don’t seek to gain­say the evi­dent fact that strug­gles at the point of pro­duc­tion clas­si­cal­ly con­ceived have long been on the wane, and that Clover is large­ly jus­ti­fied in his sar­don­ic skep­ti­cism for “back­dat­ed hom­i­lies.” What I’m more doubt­ful of is the map­ping of cur­rent strug­gles onto “cir­cu­la­tion.” This appears as a short­cut to fit­ting them with­in a curi­ous­ly ortho­dox and restric­tive con­cep­tion of all mean­ing­ful strug­gles as artic­u­lat­ed to the his­to­ry and log­ic of cap­i­tal. Thus, while refer­ring to the riot as a cir­cu­la­tion strug­gle fore­grounds the sig­nif­i­cance of some of the spaces in which it even­tu­ates (the square, the street, more rarely the free­way or the port), the pas­sage from that accep­ta­tion of cir­cu­la­tion to its strict­ly polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic mean­ing – key to Clover’s under­stand­ing of the­o­ry as peri­odiza­tion – is far more pre­car­i­ous. “Cir­cu­la­tion is val­ue in motion towards real­iza­tion; it is also a regime of social orga­ni­za­tion with­in cap­i­tal, inter­lock­ing with pro­duc­tion in a shift­ing rela­tion whose dis­e­qui­lib­ri­um appears as cri­sis” (175), Clover writes. But even if we counter-intu­itive­ly accept cir­cu­la­tion as the name for a regime of social orga­ni­za­tion, how it is artic­u­lat­ed to cir­cu­la­tion in the more every­day sense of roads or even mar­kets is uncer­tain, unless the nega­tion of the ide­al-typ­i­cal (but always minori­tar­i­an) fig­ure of the fac­to­ry is our sole com­pass. When Clover observes that “the riot is a cir­cu­la­tion strug­gle because both cap­i­tal and its dis­pos­sessed have been dri­ven to seek repro­duc­tion there” (46), the “there” of cir­cu­la­tion is uncer­tain. The con­text of the con­flicts at Tahrir or Plaza del Sol or Occu­py Wall Street, or indeed across the U.S. Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, is no doubt that of the ongo­ing cri­sis, with its lessons about the lim­its of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and pro­duc­tion of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions. How­ev­er, the term “cir­cu­la­tion strug­gle” posits an iden­ti­ty and an objec­tive ori­en­ta­tion that belies the large­ly polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of such strug­gles, the fact that in their form as demon­stra­tions (along with sundry forms of direct action and ide­o­log­i­cal work) and not riots their para­me­ters and reper­toires are hard­ly spec­i­fied by the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of cir­cu­la­tion.

The State of Reproduction

Clover is more com­pelling when the riot/strike tran­si­tion is treat­ed more as an uneven matrix than as the pro­duc­tion of phas­es or eras where the form of cap­i­tal and the form of strug­gle would reach a dubi­ous syn­chronic­i­ty. The focus on repro­duc­tion, intro­duced through the dialec­tic of con­sumer and work­er is a case in point. Resist­ing a smooth pas­sage from con­sump­tion (cir­cu­la­tion?) to pro­duc­tion, Clover writes of “two momen­tary roles with­in the col­lec­tive activ­i­ty required to repro­duce a sin­gle class” (15). He elu­ci­dates repro­duc­tion through the prism of tran­si­tion, writ­ing insight­ful­ly about the “dou­ble change” of cap­i­tal­ist con­text and col­lec­tive con­flict, and he defines riot and strike “not accord­ing to giv­en activ­i­ties but rather to the ways that the prob­lem of repro­duc­tion con­fronts the mass of peo­ple, their posi­tions with­in the giv­en social rela­tions, the places where they have been pushed, the spaces where their antag­o­nists must be vis­i­ble, might be vul­ner­a­ble” (70). Yet I think that when we scale down from Arrighi­an cen­turies to polit­i­cal­ly mean­ing­ful con­junc­tures, we should think tran­si­tion through repro­duc­tion and not vice ver­sa, avoid­ing the philo­soph­i­cal-his­tor­i­cal temp­ta­tion to anoint a hege­mon­ic fig­ure as ful­ly time­ly and syn­chro­nous – a posi­tion that Clover, despite cau­tions pep­pered through­out the text, in the end under­signs. To do this how­ev­er, we also need to avoid the temp­ta­tion, as with cir­cu­la­tion, to turn a com­plex artic­u­la­tion and pol­y­se­my into a world-his­tor­i­cal syn­onymy: the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal (as under­stood, say, in Marx’s dia­grams from vol. 2 of Cap­i­tal) and social repro­duc­tion are inti­mate­ly bound togeth­er, but they are not the same. Some­times, Clover seems to rely on homonymy to speed the argu­ment along, for instance writ­ing that: “The strike ascends when the site of pro­le­tar­i­an repro­duc­tion moves to the wage, which must at the same time become the crux of capital’s own cir­cuit of repro­duc­tion” (86).

But the artic­u­la­tion of the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal with social repro­duc­tion is an emi­nent­ly polit­i­cal ques­tion, espe­cial­ly when the tran­si­tion from strike to riot prime is so entan­gled with the for­tunes of the state. A his­tori­cized the­o­ry of the state as an agent in the process of repro­duc­tion seems the biggest absence from Clover’s can­vas. It is pecu­liar that, whilst much of the phys­iog­no­my of riot prime is drawn from a link­ing of cap­i­tal forms to those of col­lec­tive action, bypass­ing the phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of riot, when it comes to the state, we are instead tak­en to the abstract­ed point of view of riot itself, where the state is the police. Clover makes the very astute com­ment that in con­tem­po­rary riots “the state is near and the econ­o­my far” (126), and right­ly pos­es the fetish of the police as a kind of prac­ti­cal apo­r­ia, but his expla­na­tion of it is par­tial. The state is near not just because of the neolib­er­al hyper­tro­phy of its repres­sive func­tion, but because, at least since the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, it has always been near, its inti­ma­cy that of need and vio­la­tion. When the econ­o­my was “near” to strug­gles, in the peri­ods of indus­tri­al con­flict at the point of pro­duc­tion, so was the state – and not just repres­sive­ly, but as one of the stakes of the strug­gle. The last wave of mass indus­tri­al action in West­ern Europe showed the depth and volatil­i­ty of that entan­gle­ment, in which the wage and the social wage were not sep­a­ra­ble. The social wage is key when we talk of “sur­plus pop­u­la­tion con­front­ed by the old prob­lem of con­sump­tion with­out direct access to the wage.” Like­wise, it is dif­fi­cult to deny the mas­sive part that what we can call a desire for the state plays in the nos­tal­gic reg­u­la­to­ry hori­zon of many of the sig­nal moments that Clover name-checks, not least those in Greece, Spain and the Unit­ed States.

Stress­ing the inevitabil­i­ty of the new fig­ure, Clover sug­gests we approach “riot as a nec­es­sary rela­tion­ship with the cur­rent struc­ture of state and cap­i­tal, waged by the abject – by those exclud­ed from pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. But it also points to the riot’s depen­dence on its antag­o­nist. In the moment, the police appear as neces­si­ty and lim­it” (47). But, at least in the overde­vel­oped and dein­dus­tri­al­iz­ing world that forms Clover’s stage, many of the par­ti­sans of riots are not in any way ful­ly exclud­ed from repro­duc­tion, nor can they be prop­er­ly or use­ful­ly defined as “abject.” I would go fur­ther, and say that it is not at all clear, for good or ill, that the state is entire­ly an antag­o­nist (no more than it was sim­ply an antag­o­nist for even the most mil­i­tant of strikes in the West­ern world through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry). At the lim­it, it may indeed turn out to be, but whether that lim­it appears or is reached as such is the ques­tion. I do not share Clover’s cat­a­strophist con­fi­dence. With­out tak­ing on the state in both its mate­r­i­al and its sym­bol­ic dimen­sions, the antin­o­mies of con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tive action, marked by a refusal of and desire for the state in the vast major­i­ty of its instances, are dif­fi­cult to con­front. And repro­duc­tion, through the state as a mate­r­i­al agent in the domain of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, is almost always embroiled with rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

The Moral Economy of the Racialized Crowd in the 21st Century

This nexus of repro­duc­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion is crit­i­cal to approach a ques­tion that Clover right­ly and com­pelling­ly puts at the piv­ot of his reflec­tions, that of race and racial­iza­tion. As he announces at the out­set: “Increas­ing­ly, the con­tem­po­rary riot tran­spires with­in a log­ic of racial­iza­tion and takes the state rather than the econ­o­my as its direct antag­o­nist. The riot returns not only to a changed world but changed itself” (11). The con­tem­po­rary riot is defined as “a sur­plus rebel­lion that is both marked by and marks out race” (27). The state as the mur­der­ous, carcer­al bul­wark of U.S. racial cap­i­tal­ism is no doubt the key antag­o­nist of move­ments like Black Lives Mat­ter, but it is not just an antag­o­nist, just as the struc­ture of U.S. racism means that bru­tal state vio­lence is by no means vis­it­ed sim­ply upon the “abject.” Here Clover’s echo­ing of con­tem­po­rary the­o­ret­i­cal dis­course on anti-black­ness, with its ten­den­cy towards the meta­phys­i­cal, risks abso­l­u­tiz­ing a link between racial vio­lence and cap­i­tal­ist exclu­sion, while also imply­ing a func­tion­al­ist bond between race and cap­i­tal.11 He writes: “The riot is an instance of black life in its exclu­sions and at the same time in its char­ac­ter as sur­plus, cor­doned into the noisy sphere of cir­cu­la­tion, forced there to defend itself against the social and bod­i­ly death on offer. A sur­plus rebel­lion” (122). While sur­plus rebel­lion in this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion may be a moment in the strug­gle against a racial cap­i­tal­ist state, a focus on abjec­tion and exclu­sion, bol­stered by tak­ing a puta­tive ten­den­cy to the pro­duc­tion of absolute sur­plus pop­u­la­tions as more or less present fact, can dis­tract us from the tena­cious con­ti­nu­ities in strug­gles against racism in the Unit­ed States and beyond, across and almost irre­spec­tive of the peri­odiza­tions of cap­i­tal – tes­ta­ment, among oth­er things, to the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of the struc­tures of white suprema­cy. To map the civ­il rights strug­gle onto “pro­duc­tion” and present strug­gles to “cir­cu­la­tion,” with the peri­od of the Detroit upris­ings as the tran­si­tion­al crux is neat, but not per­sua­sive, not least because it doesn’t con­front the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of “race,” and of the vocab­u­lary of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and recog­ni­tion it car­ries in its wake from the undu­la­tions of cap­i­tal. Stu­art Hall’s work on riots, race, and class, invoked to fine effect in the pages of Riot, is both an excel­lent guide to a judi­cious use of Marx­i­an cat­e­gories like sur­plus pop­u­la­tions in the present, and a reminder that there is no easy bypass­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al dis­cours­es.

Yet from the start of Riot, Clover makes it very clear that he will have no truck with expla­na­tions oper­at­ing at the lev­el of sub­jec­tive belief or phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, no mind the emo­tion in émeutes. I am not sure that such anti-human­ist icon­o­clasm is sus­tain­able when it comes to riot, espe­cial­ly when the lat­ter is artic­u­lat­ed – as it cer­tain­ly has been in move­ments like Black Lives Mat­ter – in vocab­u­lar­ies of dig­ni­ty and recog­ni­tion (in a non-lib­er­al sense of the term).12 Already in deal­ing with the for­ma­tive ref­er­ence to the moral econ­o­my of the eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry crowd, Clover strives to evac­u­ate the eth­i­cal thrust in Thompson’s social his­to­ry of col­lec­tive action. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly marked in his claim vis-à-vis the first wave of cir­cu­la­tion or mar­ket riots that, con­trary to the work­ers’ iden­ti­ty of strik­ers, riot­ers have “no nec­es­sary kin­ship but their dis­pos­ses­sion.” But the crux of the moral econ­o­my argu­ment is that the antag­o­nis­tic force of price-set­ting is pre­cise­ly based on a deeply sub­stan­tive col­lec­tiv­i­ty, of habits, beliefs, norms, morals. Nei­ther in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry nor in the twen­ty-first does the uni­ty of the antag­o­nist (cap­i­tal) make for the con­sis­ten­cy or coher­ence of col­lec­tive action. Riot does not syn­the­size col­lec­tiv­i­ty from a mere pul­ver­ized mass, and riot­ers are not “uni­fied by shared dis­pos­ses­sion” – as the sad­ly ample record, past and present, of riots between dif­fer­ent­ly racial­ized sur­plus pop­u­la­tions sug­gests. Recall­ing Thomp­son we could counter the claim that “it is the char­ac­ter of bour­geois thought to pre­serve moral rather than prac­ti­cal under­stand­ing of social antag­o­nism” (37), with the deeply moral vocab­u­lar­ies and moti­va­tions of much riot­ing. Though it is no doubt artic­u­lat­ed with the cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions, the slo­gan “Black Lives Mat­ter” is an emi­nent­ly moral, which is not to say moral­is­tic or ide­al­ist, one.13 Like­wise when peo­ple call police “pigs,” boss­es “bas­tards” or British Tories “scum,” these are not mere screens for a prac­ti­cal log­ic of antag­o­nism that neat­ly express­es cap­i­tal­ist con­tra­dic­tions. And, as Alain Bertho’s Les temps des émeutes has detailed, the very refusal of polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion that inner­vates many con­tem­po­rary upris­ings can also be under­stood in a sui gener­is “moral” sense, name­ly as the nega­tion of a sys­tem that holds you, sev­er­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, to be noth­ing. The non-strate­gic, anti-his­tor­i­cal time of the riot as elu­ci­dat­ed in Furio Jesi’s for­mi­da­ble “sym­bol­o­gy of revolt,” Spar­takus is also the are­na for a moral, and will­ful­ly “imprac­ti­cal” lan­guage of antag­o­nism:

The adver­sary of the moment tru­ly becomes the ene­my, the rifle or club or bicy­cle chain tru­ly becomes the weapon, the vic­to­ry of the moment – be it par­tial or total – tru­ly becomes, in and of itself, a just and good act for the defence of free­dom, the defence of one’s class, the hege­mo­ny of one’s class. Every revolt is bat­tle, but a bat­tle in which one has delib­er­ate­ly cho­sen to par­tic­i­pate. The instant of revolt deter­mines one’s sud­den self-real­iza­tion and self-objec­ti­fi­ca­tion as part of a col­lec­tiv­i­ty. The bat­tle between good and evil, between sur­vival and death, between suc­cess and fail­ure, in which every­one is indi­vid­u­al­ly involved each and every day, is iden­ti­fied with the bat­tle of the whole col­lec­tiv­i­ty – every­one has the same weapons, every­one faces the same obsta­cles, the same ene­my. Every­one expe­ri­ences the epiphany of the same sym­bols – everyone’s indi­vid­ual space, dom­i­nat­ed by one’s per­son­al sym­bols, by the shel­ter from his­tor­i­cal time that every­one enjoys in their indi­vid­ual sym­bol­o­gy and mythol­o­gy, expands, becom­ing the sym­bol­ic space com­mon to an entire col­lec­tive, the shel­ter from his­tor­i­cal time in which the col­lec­tive finds safe­ty.14

The form of peri­odiza­tion seems at odds with this inter­nal­ly unpe­ri­odiz­able punc­tum of the riot (and its phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy) just as it jars with the tra­di­tion­al strate­gic hori­zon of peri­odiza­tion (qua ten­den­cy, con­junc­ture, or phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry bound to an orga­nized project of tran­si­tion), rais­ing the ques­tion of for whom do we peri­odize: if the riot has no demands why would it (uncon­scious­ly) require a phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry, an epochal now to match its expe­ri­en­tial here?

The Limit and the Absolute

Yet the arma­ture of peri­odiza­tion, which in Clover pro­vides the ratio­nal­ist check on the rhetoric of riot that has per­vad­ed kin efforts, not least those of the Invis­i­ble Com­mit­tee, does issue into a final spec­u­la­tive sal­ly, where the polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic analy­sis of the lim­its of col­lec­tive action is par­layed into an open­ly cat­a­stroph­ic wager on the abso­l­u­ti­za­tion of riot. This is the least com­pelling moment, to my mind, in this acute and gal­va­niz­ing essay. Where expe­ri­ence and phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy had been side­lined as poten­tial­ly mor­al­iz­ing imped­i­ments to the under­stand­ing of sur­plus rebel­lion, the sub­jec­tive comes back with a vengeance, inevitabil­i­ty glid­ing into vol­un­tarist prophe­cy. While the self-aware­ness of sub­jects seems of lit­tle moment, Clover seems hap­py to treat riot itself as Sub­ject, invok­ing it in the fol­low­ing terms: “It can­not be refused. The riot can do only one thing, and that is expand” (123). There is some­thing here of the “his­tor­i­cal mys­ti­cism” that Gram­sci crit­i­cized in those com­mu­nist posi­tions that saw cri­sis as sub­sti­tut­ing for prac­ti­cal agency or ori­en­ta­tion.15 The ear­li­er note is the more sober and com­pelling one: “This is the dialec­ti­cal theme, this dilem­ma of neces­si­ty and lim­it. The mar­ket­place, the police, cir­cu­la­tion. These are not sit­u­a­tions where any final over­com­ing is pos­si­ble; they are where strug­gles begin and flour­ish, des­per­ate­ly” (48).

Espe­cial­ly giv­en the vocab­u­lary of log­ic and neces­si­ty, for whom do we spec­u­late about a process of which there are no present signs, that of the gen­er­al­iza­tion, inten­si­fi­ca­tion, and cor­re­la­tion of riot as a kind of pure nega­tion of cap­i­tal­ist repro­duc­tion? The dis­mal prospects of a redis­trib­u­tive, reg­u­la­tive escape from the present per­ma­nence of cri­sis is not rea­son enough to war­rant “abso­l­u­ti­za­tion,” nor is the dim sil­hou­ette of a “renewed social­ist pro­gram” (187). Too much of this con­clud­ing nar­ra­tive is mort­gaged to the idea – whose his­tor­i­cal record in the age of strikes speaks for itself – that increas­ing immis­er­a­tion is a dri­ver of con­cert­ed chal­lenge to the sys­tem, and that an increase in the inci­dence of revolts announces their com­ing com­po­si­tion. Bank­ing on the utter fray­ing of state and cap­i­tal, on a “great dis­or­der” from which will rise “a nec­es­sary self-orga­ni­za­tion, sur­vival in a dif­fer­ent key” (187) is weird­ly opti­mistic for a text with such a keen empha­sis on the “lim­its” of strug­gles. Why fill in the for­mal gap in the peri­odiz­ing the­o­ry with this unnec­es­sary hor­ta­to­ry con­tent? Why even name the com­mune, if it is not a social form or rela­tion, but (as the book’s last line declares) “noth­ing but the name for … a pecu­liar cat­a­stro­phe still to come” (192)?

Clover tells us that “the com­ing com­munes will devel­op where both pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion strug­gles have exhaust­ed them­selves” (191). But what com­pels reliance on a pure­ly spec­u­la­tive dialec­tic of lim­it and nov­el­ty, when the book has shown such insight into the admix­ture and entan­gle­ment of forms of col­lec­tive action, from four­teenth-cen­tu­ry Nor­folk to twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Michi­gan? We can’t exer­cise pun­ish­ing sobri­ety regard­ing the chances of tra­di­tion­al pro­le­tar­i­an con­flicts at the point of pro­duc­tion while infus­ing what are still remark­ably weak, dis­con­nect­ed, and often polit­i­cal­ly ambigu­ous riots – whose main use thus far has been as occa­sions for strate­gies of state and cap­i­tal – with such strong mes­sian­ic pow­er, espe­cial­ly when the con­di­tions of their scal­a­bil­i­ty and artic­u­la­tion are entire­ly enig­mat­ic. We are told that “such strug­gles … can­not help but con­front cap­i­tal where it is most vul­ner­a­ble.” But they haven’t yet, except in dress rehearsals whose sig­nif­i­cance is still alle­gor­i­cal or pre­fig­u­ra­tive at best. Though I can’t begrudge Clover for giv­ing him­self a prophet­ic license his peri­odiz­ing frame­work had bold­ly eschewed, I would con­tend that this indis­pens­able con­tri­bu­tion to cur­rent reflec­tion on modes of col­lec­tive action, emer­gent and resid­ual (riot is in a sense both), also shows how dif­fi­cult it is for the instru­ments of peri­odiza­tion not to mutate into the slo­gans of a phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry, where prac­tice becomes por­tent, a weight con­tem­po­rary riots do not seem capa­ble of bear­ing.

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), 1. Sub­se­quent cita­tions are not­ed in the body of the text. 

  2. It is inter­est­ing to note that Tilly’s approach to col­lec­tive vio­lence inspired a com­pelling crit­i­cal sur­vey of 1960s black urban insur­gen­cies which argued strong­ly against mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion and depri­va­tion approach­es, and for grasp­ing these riots in terms of a “pol­i­tics of vio­lence.” See Joe R. Fea­gin and Har­lan Hahn, Ghet­to Revolts: The Pol­i­tics of Vio­lence in Amer­i­can Cities (New York: Macmil­lan, 1973), which pro­pos­es we view “ghet­to riots as polit­i­cal­ly dis­rup­tive acts in a con­tin­u­ing polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed strug­gle between com­pet­ing vest­ed inter­est groups on the urban scene … in the main, col­lec­tive vio­lence was occa­sioned by the fail­ure of the exist­ing urban polit­i­cal sys­tem to respond ade­quate­ly to their desires and aspi­ra­tions, to allow them a pro­por­tion­ate role in the urban struc­ture of pow­er. Ghet­to riots, there­fore, reflect­ed an attempt­ed recla­ma­tion of polit­i­cal author­i­ty over ghet­to areas … Col­lec­tive polit­i­cal vio­lence may well rep­re­sent the ulti­mate act of pop­u­lar sov­er­eign­ty” (53). 

  3. A more com­pre­hen­sive reck­on­ing with Clover’s uses of peri­odiza­tion would cer­tain­ly need to take account of his Marx­i­an objec­tions to the artic­u­la­tion of nar­ra­tive and peri­odiza­tion in Jame­son, and his alter­na­tive spec­u­la­tions on the rela­tion­ship between poet­ic form and finance cap­i­tal. See “Autumn of the Sys­tem: Poet­ry and Finance Cap­i­tal,” Jour­nal of Nar­ra­tive The­o­ry 41, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 34–52, espe­cial­ly the con­clud­ing remark: “we should not final­ly restrain our­selves from a dialec­ti­cal rever­sal of Jameson’s terms: the diachron­ic and nar­ra­tive ‘pas­sages’ of the mode of pro­duc­tion are in fact syn­chro­nized by late cap­i­tal­ism. They are trans­formed to serve as a phan­tom space when the hege­mon is no longer able to for­ward its accu­mu­la­tion via real expan­sion. This leaves non-nar­ra­tive – that ‘poet­ics’ includ­ing poet­ry – bet­ter sit­u­at­ed to grasp the trans­for­ma­tions of the era: a more ade­quate cog­ni­tive mode for our present sit­u­a­tion” (48–49). Per­haps the poem is to the nov­el what the riot is to the strike. 

  4. See Wern­er Bonefeld’s crit­i­cal reflec­tions in “Notes on Com­pe­ti­tion, Cap­i­tal­ist Crises and Class,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 5 (1999): 5–28. 

  5. The recent writ­ings of Jairus Bana­ji (The­o­ry as His­to­ry), Har­ry Harootun­ian (Marx After Marx), Gavin Walk­er (The Sub­lime Per­ver­sion of Cap­i­tal), San­dro Mez­zadra and Brett Neil­son (Bor­der as Method) on tran­si­tion, his­to­ry, and pol­i­tics are indis­pens­able ref­er­ences here. 

  6. Ernest Man­del, “The Inter­na­tion­al Debate on Long Waves of Cap­i­tal­ist Devel­op­ment: An Inter­me­di­ary Bal­ance Sheet,” in New Find­ings in Long Wave Research, eds. Alfred Kleinknecht, Ernest Man­del, Immanuel Waller­stein (New York: St. Martin’s Press; Lon­don: Macmil­lan Press, 1992), 331. He con­tin­ues: “I con­tend that the sec­ond ver­sion of deter­min­ism, which sees two or three pos­si­ble out­comes for each spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal cri­sis - not innu­mer­able ones for sure, nor ones unre­lat­ed to the basic motive forces of a giv­en mode of pro­duc­tion, but def­i­nite­ly sev­er­al, cor­re­sponds both to Marx’s the­o­ry, and to Marx’s ana­lyt­i­cal prac­tice.” 

  7. Ernest Man­del, “Par­tial­ly Inde­pen­dent Vari­ables and Inter­nal Log­ic in Clas­si­cal Marx­ist Eco­nom­ic Analy­sis,” Social Sci­ence Infor­ma­tion 24 (Sep­tem­ber 1985): 485–505; here 496. See also Man­del, Long Waves of Cap­i­tal­ist Devel­op­ment: A Marx­ist Inter­pre­ta­tion, 2nd rev ed. (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1994), 37–38, 119–20. 

  8. Ernest Man­del, “Par­tial­ly Inde­pen­dent Vari­ables and Inter­nal Log­ic in Clas­si­cal Marx­ist Eco­nom­ic Analy­sis,” Social Sci­ence Infor­ma­tion 24 (Sep­tem­ber 1985): 485–505; here 496. See also Man­del, Long Waves of Cap­i­tal­ist Devel­op­ment: A Marx­ist Inter­pre­ta­tion, 2nd rev ed. (Lon­don: Ver­so, 1994), 37–38, 119–20. 

  9. Fig­ure from “Trade Union Bill: Min­is­ters deny ‘attack on work­ers’ rights,’” BBC News, July 16th, 2015. 

  10. For fur­ther thoughts on Théorie com­mu­niste, see my “Now and Nev­er,” in Com­mu­niza­tion and its Dis­con­tents, ed. Ben­jamin Noys (New York: Minor Com­po­si­tions, 2011), 85–101. 

  11. For a lac­er­at­ing cri­tique of an influ­en­tial vari­ant of this dis­course (name­ly Frank Wilderson’s afro-pes­simism), as applied to Black Lives Mat­ter, see Asad Haider, “Uni­ty: Amiri Bara­ka and the Black Lives Mat­ter Move­ments,” Lana Turn­er Jour­nal 8 (2016). 

  12. An implic­it nor­ma­tiv­i­ty can also be detect­ed in Clover’s almost exclu­sive atten­tion to, for want of bet­ter terms, “eman­ci­pa­to­ry” (or anti-cap­i­tal­ist) rather than “reac­tionary” (or intra-work­ing-class) riots. To remain with the prin­ci­pal focus of this arti­cle it would be worth reflect­ing on how the his­to­ry of ‘hate strikes’ and (white) “race riots” inflects the peri­odiza­tion advanced in Riot.Strike.Riot. It’s worth not­ing that in both the U.S. and UK, there is a tight bond between race, class, and war, with some of the most severe riots involv­ing the attempt of white work­ers to exclude racial­ized work­ers from cer­tain job mar­kets and occu­pa­tions - dur­ing and after mass mil­i­tary mobil­i­sa­tion - often by attack­ing them and their fam­i­lies out­side the work­place, in their neigh­bor­hoods and homes. We can con­sid­er here W.E.B. Du Bois’s cru­cial analy­sis of the 1917 East St Louis riots (“The Mas­sacre of East St Louis,” The Cri­sis, Sep­tem­ber 1917), but also the enlight­en­ing account of riots against Yemeni, Soma­li and West Indi­an dock­ers in the wake of both world wars (in South Shields, Liv­er­pool and Cardiff), in the chap­ters “Racism as Riot: 1919” and “Racism as Riot: 1948” in Peter Fry­er, Stay­ing Pow­er: The His­to­ry of Black Peo­ple in Britain, 2nd ed (Lon­don: Plu­to, 2010). Fryer’s chap­ter on the Not­ting Hill riots of 1958 does sup­port, at least con­junc­tural­ly, a pas­sage from racial­ized intra-work­ing-class strug­gles around pro­duc­tion to one around cir­cu­la­tion and spheres of repro­duc­tion (prin­ci­pal­ly hous­ing), though in ways not whol­ly con­gru­ent with Clover’s nar­ra­tive. 

  13. It would be inter­est­ing in this respect to revis­it Paul Gilroy’s ear­ly efforts to link Birm­ing­ham cul­tur­al stud­ies’ work on race, class and sur­plus pop­u­la­tions (ref­er­enced by Clover in terms of Hall et al.’s Polic­ing the Cri­sis) to a dis­cus­sion of the sig­nif­i­cance of com­mu­ni­ty and polit­i­cal auton­o­my. See “‘Step­pin’ out of Baby­lon – Race, Class, and Auton­o­my,” in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, ed. Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Cul­tur­al Stud­ies (Lon­don: Hutchin­son, 1982): “Local­ized strug­gles over edu­ca­tion, racial vio­lence and police prac­tices con­tin­u­al­ly reveal how black peo­ple have made use of notions of com­mu­ni­ty to pro­vide the axis along which to orga­nize them­selves. The con­cept of com­mu­ni­ty is cen­tral to the view of class strug­gle pre­sent­ed here. It links dis­tinct cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal tra­di­tions with a ter­ri­to­r­i­al dimen­sion, to col­lec­tive actions and con­scious­ness with­in the rela­tion of ‘eco­nom­ic pat­terns, polit­i­cal author­i­ty and uses of space’ [quot­ing Ira Katznelson]…The strug­gle to con­struct com­mu­ni­ty in the face of dom­i­na­tion makes Euro­cen­tric con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of ‘the polit­i­cal’ or ‘the eco­nom­ic’ haz­ardous if not mis­guid­ed” (286–87). 

  14. Furio Jesi, Spar­takus: The Sym­bol­o­gy of Revolt, trans. Alber­to Toscano (Cal­cut­ta: Seag­ull, 2014), 53. This per­spec­tive inter­est­ing­ly res­onates with Georges Didi-Huberman’s recent art-his­tor­i­cal for­ays, based on Aby Warburg’s notion of pathos-for­mu­lae, into a ges­tur­al lan­guage of rage and revolt. See “Où va donc la colère?,” Le Monde diplo­ma­tique (May 2016), 14–15; see also Didi-Huberman’s recent talk at the Aby War­burg 150th anniver­sary con­fer­ence: “Dis­charged Atlas: Upris­ing as ‘Pathos­formel,’”June 15th, 2016. 

  15. Anto­nio Gram­sci, Selec­tions from the Prison Note­books (Lon­don: Lawrence & Wishart, 1998), 487. 

Author of the article

teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he co-directs the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, and Cartographies of the Absolute (with Jeff Kinkle). He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism and is series editor of The Italian List at Seagull Books.