Final Remarks

 

Mark Bradford,
Mark Brad­ford, “Unti­tled” 2006.

This arti­cle is the con­clud­ing install­ment of  “The Cri­sis and the Rift: A Sym­po­sium on Joshua Clover’s Riot.Strike.Riot.”

The first thing and most impor­tant mat­ter is to express my grat­i­tude for this port­fo­lio. View­point has dis­tin­guished itself in its intel­lec­tu­al heft and focus on the most nec­es­sary top­ics. That they have devot­ed a dossier to this occa­sion is clar­i­on tes­ti­mony on behalf of the book’s wagers and their time­li­ness. The wagers are the­se: that the riot can now be thought as a fun­da­men­tal form of class strug­gle rather than an impo­lit­i­cal spasm; that we can rec­og­nize in this the ascend­ing sig­nif­i­cance of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions with­in the dialec­ti­cal pro­duc­tion of capital’s antag­o­nists; and that the riot can be in turn seen as a sun­di­al indi­cat­ing where we are with­in the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. One may hag­gle intel­lec­tu­al­ly over peri­odiza­tion, but the exis­tence and seri­ous­ness of the dossier togeth­er do a good job of telling time.

I count the con­trib­u­tors as com­rades. Like all com­rades, they dis­agree. The dis­agree­ments among them­selves are often telling. And so for exam­ple one insists that the book’s analy­sis is marred by an excess of the polit­i­cal; anoth­er finds a dearth of the polit­i­cal in pre­cise­ly the same place. One insists we shift our analy­sis to a high­er degree of abstrac­tion in his­tor­i­cal thought; the two oth­ers in dif­fer­ent ways affirm the neces­si­ty of atten­tion to more con­crete prac­tices. One sug­gests that we can­not peri­odize in this way; anoth­er con­firms the book’s peri­odiza­tions, while sug­gest­ing they ought lead us to alter­nate recog­ni­tions. There are oth­er such moments of blunt incon­sis­ten­cy, some­times so much so that it is hard to imag­ine they have read the same book. If the­se diver­gences seem most­ly to express the respon­dents’ own predilec­tions and research pro­grams, that is only to be expect­ed. And col­lec­tive enter­pris­es take many forms, includ­ing tak­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty just to say what ideas you’ve been try­ing out and work­ing through, and con­tin­u­ing to puz­zle over them in the com­pa­ny of oth­ers.

It may be the main point of con­tention lies not in speci­fic dif­fer­ences but in the rela­tion to the gener­ic char­ac­ter of the­o­ret­i­cal-his­tor­i­cal mod­el­ing. I take many of the moments which dis­pute (and some­times mis­char­ac­ter­ize) argu­ments as aris­ing from the assump­tion of, or desire for, a dif­fer­ent kind of book. Per­haps that is just my ten­den­cy to min­i­mize dis­putes; every­body knows I shy from antag­o­nism. I will turn to this mat­ter of gen­re below. Before that, how­ev­er, some par­tic­u­lars, tak­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to restate some of the book’s core argu­ments along the way — hope­ful­ly with a clar­i­ty gained from the­se respons­es. I want also to take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to agree — sim­ply and appre­cia­tive­ly — with var­i­ous aspects of the respons­es. They often add miss­ing dimen­sions and cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fy slip­pages and unclar­i­ties in the book. They add to the shared inquiry. For all this, I must leave a vast amount of the­se exten­sive and thought­ful respons­es unre­marked, lest this become over­long.

On Cir­cu­la­tion and Marx

Among what are for me the most use­ful propo­si­tions is Delio Vasquez’s asser­tion that while focus­ing on riot, the book’s “argu­ment is in fact bet­ter matched to oth­er admit­ted­ly less spec­tac­u­lar forms of con­tem­po­rary strug­gle – forms such as theft, fraud, tax eva­sion, embez­zle­ment, bur­glary, and squat­ting.” This under­scores the pri­ma­cy in the book’s argu­ment not of the mar­quee item of riot itself, but of the more capa­cious and sig­nif­i­cant cat­e­go­ry of the cir­cu­la­tion strug­gle as char­ac­ter­is­tic of con­tem­po­rary capital’s devel­op­ment. The cen­tral­i­ty of this cat­e­go­ry, which is exem­pli­fied but not exhaust­ed by the riot, does not come through as well as it might in the book (per­haps because of the title and the times) and this more capa­cious view is help­ful. More­over, Vasquez’s focus on the prac­ti­cal aspects of the­se strug­gles is vital, as is his atten­tion to the way that crim­i­nal­iza­tion obscures this aspect. Even the riot, so sub­ject to spec­tac­u­lar­iza­tion and pathol­o­giza­tion by left as well as con­ser­v­a­tive crit­ics, involves a deeply prac­ti­cal set of activ­i­ties. This prac­ti­cal func­tion of cir­cu­la­tion strug­gles, par­tic­u­lar­ly again­st the ten­den­cy to take them as cries of the immis­er­at­ed, is at the heart of the book. The response’s reminder that with­in the expand­ed field of cir­cu­la­tion strug­gles the col­lec­tive meet­ing of needs is cen­tral and deserves our close atten­tion is a crit­i­cal recog­ni­tion.

In this focus on prac­tice, Vasquez mis­rec­og­nizes the entan­gled rela­tion between the abstract and con­crete sens­es of cir­cu­la­tion, end­ing up with a one-sid­ed, non-dialec­ti­cal view. In main he reduces cir­cu­la­tion to con­crete prob­lems of con­sump­tion and to spa­tial move­ment, to con­crete ways “ways riots can dis­rupt circulation/consumption.” This comes at the expense of under­stand­ing that riots are cir­cu­la­tion strug­gles in part for the rea­son that their par­tic­i­pants have been exclud­ed from pro­duc­tion and pushed into the social sphere of cir­cu­la­tion, defined in the last instance for the pro­le­tari­at by mar­ket depen­dence and for cap­i­tal by the com­pul­sion toward effi­cient real­iza­tion of val­ue.1 Thus the class of riot, con­sis­tent­ly exclud­ed along racial­ized lines but still mar­ket-depen­dent, must fight in cir­cu­la­tion whether or not they endeav­or to dis­rupt, inter­fere, resolve con­sump­tion needs. This is cen­tral to the book’s argu­ment, and makes vis­i­ble the rela­tion­ship between explic­it price-set­ting of the first era of riot and the racial­ized sur­plus rebel­lions of riot prime: the lat­ter is nei­ther a sim­ple return of the for­mer nor an unthink­ably dif­fer­ent phe­nom­e­non. Rather we find a dialec­tic of con­ti­nu­ity and rup­ture between them. Ah-hah but where’s the price-set­ting in a riot? miss­es this argu­ment entire­ly.

It is easy enough to be sym­pa­thet­ic toward calls to focus on dai­ly, lived strug­gle rather than the­o­ret­i­cal cat­e­gories. One might almost think from Vasquez’s essay that, in respon­se to the riot, there is some annoy­ing pre­pon­der­ance of the lat­ter. The oppo­site is the case. There are far more books that take soci­o­log­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal mea­sure of the activ­i­ties Vasquez men­tions, with noble atten­tion to every­day life, than there are polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic the­o­riza­tions of the riot. It would be hard to weigh the two cat­e­gories and con­clude we need more of the for­mer — unless one had a polit­i­cal pre­dis­po­si­tion toward such a con­clu­sion. This betrays the larg­er lim­its of the respon­se. Vasquez’s con­cern, for exam­ple, that a polit­i­cal econ­o­my of riot has the dan­ger­ous con­se­quence of sug­gest­ing that “riot­ers are not real­ly agents, but more like automa­tons who ful­fill their role in the pre­de­ter­mined march of his­to­ry” sure­ly has good inten­tions. Read­ers, how­ev­er, will like­ly rec­og­nize in it the inter­sec­tion of post­struc­tural­ist cliché and lib­er­al cant, of the sorts levied again­st ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist the­o­ry from the begin­ning. Agen­cy not deter­min­ism, etc etc. The res­ur­rec­tion of the sanc­tioned and sanc­tion­ing jar­gon of decades past bespeaks the essay’s com­mit­ment to the con­ven­tions of anti-Marx­ism.

Fol­low­ing that tra­di­tion, the essay final­ly sub­scribes to the banal gen­re whose main maneu­ver involves attribut­ing to a text pre­cise­ly the argu­ments it is crit­i­ciz­ing, pre­tend­ing that it is tak­ing on the ide­olo­gies of the world it tries to describe. The exam­ples are too numer­ous to list. The impli­ca­tion of “euro­cen­trism” is curi­ous, given that the book declar­es its area of study (the ear­ly indus­tri­al­iz­ing nations, basi­cal­ly) and explic­it­ly decli­nes to enforce its con­clu­sion on oth­er regions.2 By the mea­sure Vasquez puts on offer, The Mak­ing of the Eng­lish Work­ing Class would be euro­cen­tric, as would Guide to North Amer­i­can Birds. Among oth­er anti-Marx­ist com­mon­places: accu­sa­tions of “tele­ol­o­gy,” of being “tied to a polit­i­cal pro­gram,” and so on.3 I learned long ago that the­se will be hauled forth as a sort of defen­sive spell again­st the ter­ror appar­ent­ly inspired by Cap­i­tal. Still, it is bizarre to encoun­ter them regard­ing a book that is among oth­er things an extend­ed rejoin­der to per­sist­ing Lenin­ist Marxisms, and par­tic­u­lar­ly to their insis­tence on a nec­es­sary and sta­t­ic view of his­tor­i­cal pro­gress which thus implies a sin­gle polit­i­cal pro­gram. The book is at pains to clar­i­fy its rejec­tion of such approach­es, to insist on an ana­lyt­i­cal­ly descrip­tive rather than pre­scrip­tive the­o­riza­tion, and to explore the mate­ri­al bases for tran­scend­ing the pro­gram­ma­tism of tra­di­tion­al Marx­ism, bases which the riot’s rise again­st the strike dis­clos­es. That is imma­nent through­out. For good mea­sure the book also devotes a cen­tral chap­ter to this issue, argu­ing again­st con­tem­po­rary thinkers “trapped in the amber of ‘what is desir­able.’” It con­tin­ues, “We must be open to ‘a fun­da­men­tal revi­sion of the old stand­point of Marx­ism,’ one based in the trans­for­ma­tions of social real­i­ty. One does not declare that a com­mu­nist does this or an anar­chist does that.” If this is a polem­i­cal moment, it is a polemic again­st pro­gram. The rea­son­ing is rout­ed, it is true, through a dis­cus­sion of the mass strike from a cen­tu­ry ago and “Luxemburg’s over­com­ing of pre­scrip­tive pol­i­tics.” I guess that will teach me to make use of alle­go­ry.

Peri­ods and Tran­si­tions

The ques­tion of the polit­i­cal also cen­ters Alber­to Toscano’s respon­se. His essay is flu­ent and capa­cious as I have come to expect, with for­mi­da­ble eru­di­tion. More­over, he has under­stood the book’s stakes in the ways I would have hoped: no more as a text about riot than one which uses the his­tor­i­cal emer­gence and reemer­gence of forms of strug­gle as a frame­work with which to sit­u­ate our­selves in the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal. We need not our­selves be par­ti­sans of riot or strike to rec­og­nize there is con­sid­er­able con­se­quence in whether we per­ceive capital’s sun still near its zenith and just fuck­ing hang­ing there, or instead con­clude that we fight with­in a tra­jec­to­ry where twi­light has fal­l­en. As a Greek com­rade remind­ed me last night dur­ing a dis­cus­sion of cri­sis the­o­ry, anoth­er end of the world is pos­si­ble.

In what I take to be Toscano’s intel­lec­tu­al piv­ot, his essay makes the deci­sion not to engage the his­tor­i­cal argu­ment on its par­tic­u­lars, but instead to turn toward an abstruse line of rea­son­ing which seems to con­clude with a warn­ing regard­ing how “dif­fi­cult it is for the instru­ments of peri­odiza­tion not to mutate into the slo­gans of a phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry.” Con­trar­i­ly, he avows, we need to eschew the pro­duc­tion of polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic peri­ods in favor of a sense of seem­ing­ly per­pet­u­al tran­si­tion (import­ing here his own recent research) where­in we can rec­og­nize its “prop­er­ly polit­i­cal valence.”

This fate­ful piv­ot deserves a care­ful engage­ment. It occu­pies much of the sec­tion wit­ti­ly titled “1973 And All That”, and begins, “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.”

What fol­lows is a remark­ably detailed and patient non-engage­ment with the argu­ment. It seems anx­ious about the book’s “splic­ing of Robert Bren­ner, Gio­van­ni Arrighi and val­ue-the­o­ret­i­cal accounts of cri­sis,” but, while he con­cedes that much will depend on how one under­stands this oper­a­tion, he elects not to work through it. One could argue again­st the map­ping of Arrighi’s his­tor­i­cal­ly ground­ed schema (show­ing peri­ods of mate­ri­al expan­sion led by expand­ing indus­tri­al cap­i­tal and employ­ment at the core of the world-sys­tem, fol­lowed by finan­cial expan­sion led by merchant/banking cap­i­tal and typ­i­fied by manufacturing/industrial con­trac­tion and gen­er­al volatil­i­ty) onto the era of cap­i­tal­ism defined by Brenner’s per­sua­sive his­to­ry — with the bases for the volatil­i­ty and even­tu­al decline of each cycle to be found in Marx’s the­o­ry of cri­sis that cul­mi­nates in Chap­ter 25 of Cap­i­tal (vol.1). This coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is not forth­com­ing. Per­haps Toscano hopes that the poet­ic res­o­nance of the word “splic­ing” will do a cer­tain eval­u­a­tive work. Lat­er he repeats the device in ways that will be even more telling:

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”?

He wish­es more atten­tion given to the coex­is­tence of strug­gles across his­to­ry, which would demon­strate that we are always with­in tran­si­tions; this coex­is­tence, he indi­cates, is more in tune with real­i­ty that some con­fab­u­lat­ed peri­ods of, as he puts it, “pure strike” or the “pure riot.” The read­er may won­der after the quo­ta­tion marks sup­plied in his text. Nei­ther of those phras­es appears any­where in the book. The match­ing con­cepts are sim­i­lar­ly not to be found. In fact the book states quite clear­ly the con­trary, reject­ing the very for­mu­la­tions Toscano requires for his argu­ment to make sense. Page two: “Since the pas­sage marked by Tilly [at the dawn of the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry], both tac­tics have exist­ed with­in the reper­toire; the ques­tion con­cerns which pre­dom­i­nates, pro­vid­ing the pri­ma­ry ori­en­ta­tion in the cease­less war for sur­vival and eman­ci­pa­tion.”

Toscano’s impro­vi­sa­tion here pro­vides a sense of the counterargument’s shape: ide­al­ized antin­o­mies absent from the book are con­jured, peri­ods of pure this and pure that, so that they can be shown to be exces­sive, inat­ten­tive to “pol­y­se­my” and mul­ti­plic­i­ty, to the het­ero­gene­ity with­in mod­es and forms of cap­i­tal and of strug­gle. Despite his mis­lead­ing syn­op­sis, we more or less agree on this point: shit is com­plex. It is here that we draw quite dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions. I would argue that — for all the het­ero­gene­ity — we can still speak of lead­ing forms, of ori­en­ta­tions, of ten­den­tial direc­tions, of cen­ters of bal­ance with­in the whorl of things, coor­di­nates that per­sist for a while until they don’t, and begin to give onto a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion which may itself, for all its com­plex­i­ty, also per­sist for a while. We can still speak of his­tor­i­cal change, even if it pro­ceeds impure­ly. Obvi­ous­ly it pro­ceeds only in such a man­ner. We can try to deci­pher the bases for both a given arrangement’s per­sis­tence and its end. Doing so can be a use­ful frame­work for thought.

Toscano would pro­pose that the com­plex­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion rule this out. Instead, what with every­thing going on at once, the sit­u­a­tion is more or less always con­junc­tural, tran­si­tion­al. This in turn dic­tates that the course of strug­gle is con­di­tioned more sig­nif­i­cant­ly by the polit­i­cal. “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.”4

Toscano there­fore prefers the book’s chap­ters on tran­si­tion. So do I. They were fas­ci­nat­ing to research; there is far more to say about, say, Detroit in the Six­ties, its extra­or­di­nary volatil­i­ties and inter­sec­tions, the dra­mat­ic and bril­liant thought it gave rise to — James Bog­gs most of all. Well, a book must have ris­es and falls, and it seems like­ly that the chap­ters on tran­si­tion, with its intrin­sic dynam­ic, will achieve a greater dra­ma.

But: ris­es and falls. There are no peaks with­out val­leys, no tran­si­tions with­out non-tran­si­tion. The his­to­ry of Detroit in the Six­ties with its dynam­ic coex­is­tence of mil­i­tant labor and non-labor strug­gles, its back­ground of pro­le­tar­i­an energies and rapid dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, has great his­tor­i­cal force in no small part because it is not like the present — not in Detroit, not else­where in the ear­ly indus­tri­al­iz­ing nations, I don’t think (though there are some very imper­fect resem­blances here and there in West­ern Europe). Dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion won. Employ­ment con­tract­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Black­ness was crim­i­nal­ized with a new inten­si­ty in part to man­age those no longer dis­ci­plined by the wage. Life there changed. DRUM and the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers don’t exist any­more. Sur­plus pop­u­la­tion does.

Being inter­est­ed in tran­si­tion and sug­gest­ing we con­tin­ue to be in “the con­di­tion of tran­si­tion” are two quite dif­fer­ent things. And one of them I fear, verges on the mean­ing­less. Just as his­to­ry with­out tran­si­tions is not his­to­ry but homo­ge­neous time, tran­si­tions with­out the peri­ods between which they medi­ate are not tran­si­tions but are them­selves per­sis­tent peri­ods. Absent this under­stand­ing — absent the under­stand­ing that “tran­si­tion” as a con­cept is always already a peri­odiz­ing tool — the cat­e­go­ry of tran­si­tion is emp­tied of its ana­lyt­ic force. To put it as sim­ply as I can: tran­si­tions are tran­si­tions because there are peri­ods. Iron­i­cal­ly, Toscano’s insis­tence on tran­si­tion turns to become an affir­ma­tion of Jameson’s insis­tence on peri­od. Per­haps when Jameson wrote that “We can­not not peri­odize” he was onto some­thing.5

Given that there is no escap­ing peri­odiza­tion, we should prob­a­bly ask the ques­tions of whether the book’s con­crete claims about the peri­ods have enough valid­i­ty to provide a use­ful frame­work. Can we say that there was a peri­od of nascent cap­i­tal­ism in which the wage form was less gen­er­al­ized than mar­ket depen­den­cy, a peri­od led by mer­chant cap­i­tal, a peri­od in which riots and oth­er mar­ket con­flicts pre­dom­i­nat­ed among forms of nascent class strug­gle? Can we say there was a rise of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal, first with­in a given group of economies; that there was a shift toward greater par­tic­i­pa­tion in the for­mal wage; that the strike appeared and ascend­ed, dis­plac­ing riot and sim­i­lar strug­gles as a lead­ing form? Can we say that we have entered a peri­od in the­se nations with noth­ing like the indus­tri­al dynamism of the pre­vi­ous peri­od, where we have seen not just a con­trac­tion of industrial/manufacturing employ­ment but a glob­al pro­duc­tion of sur­plus pop­u­la­tions both rel­a­tive­ly and absolute­ly; that this peri­od has fea­tured a dra­mat­ic decline and trans­for­ma­tion of orga­nized labor strug­gles into dimin­ish­ing and defen­sive oper­a­tions; that this has hap­pened alongside a both rel­a­tive and absolute increase in riots and sim­i­lar sorts of strug­gles, now changed and par­tic­u­lar­ly racial­ized accord­ing to the log­ic of sur­plus-ifi­ca­tion? Despite occa­sion­al and imper­fect ref­er­ences to the his­tor­i­cal record, Toscano large­ly leaves the­se actu­al­i­ties unad­dressed — and nec­es­sar­i­ly so, to bol­ster his abstract brief for polit­i­cal con­tin­gen­cy again­st real tra­jec­to­ry, and pros­e­cute his case again­st a phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry. This does not seem over­ly respon­sive to the book’s argu­ments but rather a kind of philosopher’s street-fight­ing, where the street is always Rue d’Ulm. Read­ers of the book will deci­pher for them­selves whether this is where the action is. 

Toscano’s essay is not, how­ev­er, with­out rel­e­vant insights. In par­tic­u­lar, his recov­ery of Man­del on “desyn­chro­niza­tion” is impor­tant and well-tak­en. It is indeed an issue for peri­odiza­tion that it often incli­nes toward propos­ing over­ly tidy and prompt relays from tec­ton­ic shifts in social orga­ni­za­tion to expres­sions of said changes in var­i­ous are­nas. I know this all too well from lit­er­ary stud­ies, where we are often drawn into sug­gest­ing that texts some­how reg­is­ter social meta­mor­phoses almost instant­ly. Per­haps this is pos­si­ble; it may even be that texts can be quite del­i­cate anten­nae and cap­ture great trans­for­ma­tions as they are just begin­ning, not yet vis­i­ble to the naked eye. This is less like­ly regard­ing phe­nom­e­na con­sid­ered in the book: riots, strikes, and the like. Mandel’s sense that such expres­sions do not nec­es­sar­i­ly arrive on sched­ule but see an uneven onset, often with untime­ly delays, strikes me as large­ly accu­rate both his­tor­i­cal­ly and the­o­ret­i­cal­ly. The book, and here I agree with Toscano, sim­pli­fies this unfold­ing. For exam­ple, while it does say that “In the Unit­ed States, the strike would expe­ri­ence an autum­nal flare-up begin­ning around 1964 and last­ing into the seventies—it could not be known that this would be the last gold­en gleam before win­ter came for the labor move­ment at the heart of the cap­i­tal­ist world sys­tem,” in gen­er­al it speeds too quick­ly past moments of notable and sug­ges­tive asyn­chrony and deferred respon­se.

I am not sure that this would lead me to the same con­clu­sion as Toscano — asyn­chrony is not mias­ma where­in his­tor­i­cal ten­den­cy is evac­u­at­ed, leav­ing the fog of uneven­ness to a com­bat of polit­i­cal will. That seems more a smug­gled vol­un­tarism. In this case the avail­able evi­dence argues that there is a his­tor­i­cal ten­den­cy, one that cor­re­sponds non-triv­ial­ly to the the­o­ret­i­cal course of ten­den­tial decline in val­ue pro­duc­tion atten­dant to dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion (and this is the basis, as opposed to the goal, of bring­ing togeth­er world-sys­tem analy­sis with Marx’s the­o­ry of val­ue). Nonethe­less, the fact that there is a medi­a­tion between trans­for­ma­tion and its expres­sion, and that this medi­a­tion is often mys­te­ri­ous and unpre­dictable in its forms and its sched­ules, should not be ignored; it invites fur­ther research. The var­ie­ga­tions and the sur­pris­es of the­se asyn­chronies deserve our atten­tion and our the­o­riza­tion. The book has lit­tle of that.

Inter­lude on the Mod­el

It is here that we might arrive at what I believe to be the most sig­nif­i­cant gener­ic dis­tinc­tion regard­ing what kind of book it is. It is a book that makes mod­els. A mod­el always involves rad­i­cal exclu­sions, always involves the economist’s most vex­ing incan­ta­tion: ceter­is paribus, “all oth­er things being equal.” All oth­er things are not equal. The things that are exclud­ed from the mod­el mat­ter great­ly. Mod­els schema­tize; they reduce. The mod­el is always exposed to the crit­i­cism that begins, “but isn’t it a bit more com­pli­cat­ed than that?”

There is, nat­u­ral­ly enough, a com­ple­men­tary gen­re of social thought, which eschews the clar­i­ty of mod­els for a more thor­ough­go­ing mimet­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the mul­ti­plic­i­ty, het­ero­gene­ity, the dif­fer­ence of the world in full, the world which pro­vides our def­i­n­i­tion and lim­it of com­plex­i­ty. This may explain the con­fused sum­mon­ing of “pure strike” and “pure riot.” If one believed the book were meant to be one of pro­tract­ed elab­o­ra­tions of com­plex­i­ty, one might indeed be con­found­ed by the clear iden­ti­fi­ca­tions: peri­ods of cir­cu­la­tion and riot, peri­ods of pro­duc­tion and strike. But the ques­tion is not whether there are excep­tions — there are. Argu­ing from excep­tions (which occu­pies a sur­pris­ing swatch of real estate in Toscano) is not ter­ri­bly per­sua­sive. That’s not how mod­els work. They abstract from the par­tic­u­lars of his­to­ry to ren­der ten­den­cies and bal­ances of force exact­ly because there are excep­tions, and the­se excep­tions exist as a con­sti­tu­tive part of ten­den­cies and bal­ances, not exter­nal coun­terev­i­dence.

Nei­ther is the ques­tion that of whether mod­els efface the world’s com­plex­i­ty — they do. Again, one may prefer oth­er­wise, but such exclu­sions are what mod­els are for. I would sug­gest that the vital ques­tion is: given what mod­els sac­ri­fice, do they offer us ana­lyt­i­cal gains in return? The­se ana­lyt­i­cal gains are not sim­ply the educ­ing of pat­terns with­in the seem­ing dis­or­der of his­to­ry. Via this clar­i­fy­ing process, mod­els pro­pose causal rela­tions; they abstract enough to dis­tin­guish caus­es from effects, even with­in the entan­gle­ments of the his­tor­i­cal dialec­tic. The great apo­r­ia of Fou­cault lies in the absence from his his­to­ry of how soci­ety tra­vers­es one regime of pow­er and arrives at anoth­er. And this under­scores the dif­fer­en­tia speci­fi­ca of cap­i­tal as not sim­ply anoth­er regime or rela­tion: It must move. It must be self-mov­ing, must via imper­son­al dom­i­na­tion not mere­ly repro­duce itself but expand, and thus must fea­ture the capac­i­ty to do so. The ques­tion of causal­i­ty in capital’s move­ment can­not be elid­ed. One may of course retreat into ideas of overde­ter­mi­na­tion; it is an under­stand­able solu­tion to the prob­lem of sim­pli­fy­ing mod­els vs. com­plex­i­fy­ing arrays. Marx him­self was an adher­ent of ceter­is paribus, pre­cise­ly so he could inquire into capitalism’s laws of motion — inquiries which, in detect­ing not just a direc­tion but a cause for that direc­tion, can in turn sug­gest tra­jec­to­ries than hurl them­selves into a mys­te­ri­ous world of even­tal sur­pris­es. Such inquiries are not “proph­esy “or “por­tent” or any of the oth­er por­ten­tous lan­guage Toscano deploys. They are expres­sions of the sine qua non of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism: that the move­ment of his­to­ry includes an objec­tive char­ac­ter.

Riot. Strike. Riot pro­pos­es a mod­el with a causal mech­a­nism, with a cer­tain objec­tiv­i­ty: in the last instance that of the law of val­ue expressed at a sys­temic lev­el. Clear­ly the entire argu­ment can­not be repeat­ed here. The pur­suit of accu­mu­la­tion moves cap­i­tal first toward a peak of pro­duc­tion cen­tered by indus­tri­al cap­i­tal, and then away from this peak with accu­mu­la­tion wan­ing; this rise and fall (“the arc of accu­mu­la­tion” as I call it) exists both for given inter­nal cycles and, as cap­i­tal exhausts its capac­i­ty to dis­place its con­tra­dic­tions spa­tial­ly and tem­po­ral­ly, exists at a macro lev­el for cap­i­tal as a whole — the lev­el of analy­sis which Marx enjoins us to hold in mind. This arc of accu­mu­la­tion entails con­comi­tant restruc­tur­ings of prof­it sources and class com­po­si­tion, and the­se restruc­tur­ings will act as affor­dances that help shape mod­es of strug­gle and repro­duc­tion for both cap­i­tal and pro­le­tari­at. While class con­flict has always been imma­nent to capital’s social rela­tion, it has not always been cen­tered in pro­duc­tion (and here we note that the mod­el I pro­pose tries to com­pli­cate the stan­dard mod­el pro­vid­ed by tra­di­tion­al Marxism’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the pro­le­tari­at with the work­ing class, which seems to me the reduc­tion more worth our inves­ti­ga­tion). In accor­dance with this arc, cap­i­tal first inter­nal­izes its antag­o­nists from cir­cu­la­tion as pro­duc­tion expands; after crest­ing the peak of accu­mu­la­tion in the same dialec­ti­cal course, capital’s antag­o­nists are increas­ing­ly exter­nal­ized from pro­duc­tion — notably in the form of sur­plus pop­u­la­tion. The argu­ment that chal­lenges this mod­el would have to demon­strate con­vinc­ing­ly that this has not hap­pened, is not hap­pen­ing. It can­not rely on, “but isn’t it a bit more com­pli­cat­ed than that?”

Mass Pick­et and Hybrid Forms

What such an approach can do is add dimen­sions that are nec­es­sar­i­ly omit­ted from the mod­el, or that the mod­el is at risk of obscur­ing. Both the Vasquez and Toscano respons­es gen­er­ous­ly offer such con­tri­bu­tions, some of which I have tried to note, and for which I am grate­ful. It is here that I would turn final­ly toward the lucid and salient addi­tion offered by Aman­da Arm­strong, to my mind the respon­se which takes up the book’s argu­ments most direct­ly while offer­ing some force­ful and insight­ful amend­ments and emen­da­tions both.

It will even­tu­al­ly set­tle on a form of strug­gle occlud­ed from the book’s mod­el. In so doing, it takes up the ten­den­tial valid­i­ty of the mod­el only in part. To the extent that it does, it relies on Geoff Eley’s work to argue that the book exces­sive­ly index­es labor strug­gles to indus­tri­al and man­u­fac­tur­ing labor, and in train effaces oth­er sorts of labor and accom­pa­ny­ing strug­gles which, if rec­og­nized, might tes­ti­fy again­st the cir­cu­la­tion struggle—production struggle—circulation strug­gle his­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the pre-indus­tri­al era: “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.” This is then tied via C.L.R. James more specif­i­cal­ly to the labor of slaves: in James’ words, “closer to a mod­ern pro­le­tari­at than any group of work­ers in exis­tence at the time.”

The tra­di­tion of “maintain[ing] a focus on labor as such” lies heav­i­ly on the library of mod­ern antag­o­nism. There is no short­age of books that pre­sume and nat­u­ral­ize labor as the con­text for strug­gle, even in its absence. In some regard the book is writ­ten again­st this ten­den­cy and for good rea­son.6 The extent to which one under­stands upris­ings by unfree labor­ers again­st racial­ized dom­i­na­tion as being pro­duc­tion strug­gles depends in part on under­stand­ings of the role of the wage and of pro­duc­tion in gen­er­al. Cer­tain­ly they were rebel­lions again­st work, again­st its unfree­dom and its mis­ery. Cer­tain­ly they direct­ed them­selves again­st oppres­sors who were boss­es, and again­st the mate­ri­als of work. At the same time they did not demand bet­ter wages or work­ing con­di­tions, did not demand con­trol over pro­duc­tion or its prof­its or the labor process, and in this are quite dis­tinct from the pro­duc­tion strug­gles that define class con­flict from 1830-1975 and that con­tin­ue to bewitch the minds of pro­gram­ma­tist ortho­dox­ies. The events she recounts are breaks with pro­duc­tion as much as they are pro­duc­tion strug­gles. This is a dif­fer­ence that makes a dif­fer­ence; much would be lost in sub­sum­ing the­se to the same cat­e­go­ry as the strike or for that mat­ter sab­o­tage, slow­down, and so on.

That said, I can find only agree­ment with Arm­strong here on what I take to be the press­ing strate­gic ques­tion. What strikes me about the strug­gles she limns is their hybrid char­ac­ter, rather than their proof of ear­ly pro­duc­tion strug­gles. Here the essay’s insights are salu­tary, even bril­liant. To get to the mat­ter of hybrid­i­ty, she repeats the ges­ture of point­ing out that the peri­ods set forth in the book were more het­ero­ge­neous than the book’s mod­el sug­gests, that there were also cir­cu­la­tion strug­gles dur­ing the era dom­i­nat­ed by pro­duc­tion strug­gles — point­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly to parts of the globe for which the book does not haz­ard claims. Yes: see above. But the essay is on its way to some­thing more tren­chant: the hybrid­i­ty of the mass pick­et. The sum­ma­ry pas­sage is worth revis­it­ing in full:

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.

I am less cer­tain that this con­founds the coor­di­nates of riot and strike (which, as the book argues repeat­ed­ly, are best not thought as an oppo­si­tion).7 We would have to be more atten­tive to its pur­pos­es in rela­tion to its activ­i­ties; if the goal of the mass pick­et is bet­ter wages or work­ing con­di­tions, greater work­er con­trol over the labor process or out­put, it veers toward strike. In both the UK and US this seems to be the case to a con­sid­er­able degree, and it is more­over reg­u­lat­ed by labor law.

I men­tion the­se ambi­gu­i­ties in Armstrong’s account large­ly to clar­i­fy the cat­e­gories the book puts on offer and how it under­stands them, which is a core func­tion of mod­el­ing. How­ev­er, this scarce­ly unmakes the cru­cial insight that I think Arm­strong pro­vides. The mass picket’s con­tri­bu­tion is to provide a form in which wage labor­ers can con­join in direct strug­gle alongside oth­ers. It is not the only form to do this, but it is a thrilling exam­ple. As Arm­strong has it, a given set of strik­ers, basi­cal­ly, would be joined by what she calls “unsi­t­u­at­ed pro­le­tar­i­ans,” which she defines judi­cious­ly as “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.”

The oper­a­tion is deft. I would wor­ry a bit that this par­tic­u­lar def­i­n­i­tion priv­i­leges the indi­vid­u­al enter­prise as the locus of strug­gle. The nor­ma­tive antag­o­nist is an employ­ee of that enter­prise, with oth­ers join­ing in — in many cas­es, it would seem, to help them win demands. In this, the mass pick­et remains on the side of the strike. The mass picket’s weak­ness as an ori­ent­ing form in the present lies in the extent to which it has tra­di­tion­al­ly been a labor-cen­tered strug­gle, most often join­ing work­ers with oth­er work­ers. Its his­tor­i­cal exis­tence scarce­ly gain­says the book’s argu­ments that labor-cen­tered strug­gles have weak­ened and that this trend is like­ly to con­tin­ue; its own decline would seem in truth to affirm this argu­ment and peri­odiza­tion.

Nonethe­less, “unsi­t­u­at­ed pro­le­tar­i­an” holds open space for one of the book’s most press­ing sug­ges­tions — that the cat­e­go­ry of pro­le­tari­at needs to recov­er its sense of those with­out reserves, includ­ing those beyond the for­mal wage. The ques­tion of how this pro­le­tari­at, his­tor­i­cal­ly divid­ed by the scis­sion of the wage, can pro­ceed togeth­er again­st their dis­pos­ses­sions is clar­i­on. In this regard we should note the greater labil­i­ty of the riot, among our ini­tial cat­e­gories: it is far bet­ter at includ­ing work­ers in a shared strug­gle than the strike is at includ­ing those out­side work. Any­one can riot. But as the book sug­gests in its final pages, the future of polit­i­cal con­test is not the riot. It rests in those forms, toward which the mass pick­et ges­tures, which have the poten­tial to mass togeth­er pro­le­tar­i­ans of all sorts — those with­in and with­out the for­mal wage, antag­o­nists appear­ing as work­ers and antag­o­nists who are sur­plus pop­u­la­tion, those who will affirm nei­ther wage nor mar­ket, nei­ther cap­i­tal nor state. If there is an eman­ci­pa­to­ry con­tent to the future, it pass­es through such forms. I am dou­bly grate­ful thus to be remind­ed we have some exam­ples on offer.


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


  1. In one of the few moments of over­lap with Vasquez’s respon­se, Toscano also strug­gles with this dimen­sion, indi­cat­ing that only “coun­ter-intu­itive­ly” could we “accept cir­cu­la­tion as the name for a regime of social orga­ni­za­tion.” Per­haps so. I would sug­gest Toscano’s intu­ition — nev­er any­thing but a name for com­mon sense — is not coun­ter mine but Marx’s. Here is a sim­ple test. Could we say that pro­duc­tion is a regime of social orga­ni­za­tion? Indeed, we could say noth­ing else. That the social is orga­nized toward pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and not sim­ply in the fac­to­ry itself (so that we have, say, both the tech­ni­cal and the social divi­sion of labor) has become self-evi­dent. So it would be curi­ous if we could not also say that cir­cu­la­tion is a regime of social orga­ni­za­tion, given that pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion form a dialec­ti­cal whole. Marx him­self, in one of his bet­ter known pas­sages, first clear­ly dis­tin­guish­es the mar­ket itself from the larg­er sphere of cir­cu­la­tion, and then defines that sphere pre­cise­ly by its social char­ac­ter: “The con­sump­tion of labour-pow­er is com­plet­ed, as in the case of every oth­er com­mod­i­ty, out­side the lim­its of the mar­ket or of the sphere of cir­cu­la­tion. Accom­pa­nied by Mr. Mon­ey­bags and by the pos­ses­sor of labour-pow­er, we there­fore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where every­thing takes place on the sur­face and in view of all men, and fol­low them both into the hid­den abode of pro­duc­tion.” I would sug­gest that the inabil­i­ty to rec­og­nize the social char­ac­ter of the­se spheres, and to reduce them instead to con­crete eco­nom­ic func­tions, under­scores the chal­lenge of pre­serv­ing the uni­ty of the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic — a uni­ty which defines the cap­i­tal­ist mode. They are sep­a­rat­ed only in bour­geois thought. 

  2. The spin­ning mule and the assem­bly line may indeed be euro­cen­tric. 

  3. As a larg­er ques­tion, “tele­ol­o­gy” per­haps deserves its own treat­ment. It is a philo­soph­i­cal cat­e­go­ry lat­er bor­rowed by post­struc­tural­ists and left lib­er­als alike in their pro­scrip­tion of “grand nar­ra­tives” and so forth. Depart­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly from its orig­i­nal mean­ing, it came to des­ig­nate a stag­ist or evo­lu­tion­ary mod­el of his­to­ry in which iron deter­mi­na­tions dri­ve us nec­es­sar­i­ly from one social form to the next with a given out­come more or less assured. Even­tu­al­ly, in the most dete­ri­o­rat­ed sense, it became a sort of atmos­pher­ic, meant to cling to any sug­ges­tion of causal mech­a­nisms with­in his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ries. It is here per­haps I can make sense of Vasquez’s deploy­ment. It is cer­tain­ly true that Riot. Strike. Riot is inter­est­ed in causal­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­i­ty in the causal mech­a­nisms that might move us from one social dis­pen­sa­tion to anoth­er. Cer­tain­ly the book pro­pos­es that the ear­ly indus­tri­al­iz­ing nations as a loose aggre­gate have moved from peri­od to peri­od in the last instance because cap­i­tal­ism is not and can­not be sta­t­ic but is com­pelled to trans­form itself cease­less­ly; that the­se peri­ods have dis­tinct char­ac­ter­is­tics shared uneven­ly across space; that the forms which class strug­gles take in the­se places and times are indica­tive of both their given social cir­cum­stances, and of how the­se have emerged from pre­vi­ous cir­cum­stances. One would have to do vio­lence to mean­ing itself to have this be the mean­ing of “tele­ol­o­gy.” It’s his­to­ry, Jake. 

  4. We shall have to brack­et this extrac­tion of the polit­i­cal from polit­i­cal econ­o­my, con­fer­ring on it a phan­tom auton­o­my. The for­ma men­tis is clear enough: as Rob Lucas sum­ma­rizes in the present issue of the New Left Review, “Trot­sky argued that con­junc­tural, polit­i­cal fac­tors were more impor­tant than eco­nom­ic ones in deter­min­ing capitalism’s rhythms.” This may be a use­ful route toward find­ing a coher­ence among Toscano’s gen­er­ous respons­es to what we might loose­ly call left or anti­s­tate com­mu­nist the­o­ry: after some gen­er­al allowance that there may have been var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal changes, it always proves to be the case that in the event of it, we will require cen­tral coor­di­na­tion and polit­i­cal will, the par­ty in all but name. 

  5. Fred­er­ic Jameson, A Sin­gu­lar Moder­ni­ty (Lon­don: Ver­so 2002), 29. 

  6. A use­ful exam­ple is the work of Bev­er­ly Sil­ver. She is an ines­timable his­to­ri­an, a role mod­el as a researcher and thinker, and no approach to glob­al cap­i­tal­ism is com­plete absent seri­ous engage­ment with, e.g., Forces of Labor. Here, how­ev­er, title is des­tiny. Every encoun­ter with social con­test, includ­ing those her research cohort names “Protest of the Stag­nant Rel­a­tive Sur­plus Pop­u­la­tion” (see RSR 157), is under­stood to be in some man­ner a labor strug­gle. Hence the neces­si­ty of dis­ar­tic­u­lat­ing strug­gle from this pre­sump­tion. 

  7. As the book notes, “Tran­si­tion from riot to strike takes hold unevenly….It will be use­ful to rec­og­nize the con­ti­nu­ity as well as the oppo­si­tion, the way that new con­tent for strug­gle emerges from old­er forms of action and thus goes through peri­ods of ambi­gu­i­ty. The same might be said of the lat­er return to riot; it is ear­ly yet” (9). The book also warns again­st this inscrip­tion of strong oppo­si­tion as an expres­sion of oth­er ide­o­log­i­cal antag­o­nisms: “The oppo­si­tion of riot and strike is an avowed project of the nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry per­sist­ing in var­i­ous quar­ters there­after” (81). The­se are two of many like pas­sages, Despite the pre­sen­ta­tions in the­se respons­es, the book argues again­st rigid oppo­si­tion of strike and riot through­out. 

Author of the article

is a communist. He is also a professor of literature and critical theory at the University of California Davis, currently visiting professor at University of Paris. A widely published essayist, poet, and cultural theorist, his most recent book along with Riot. Strike. Riot is Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015).