“Riots are coming, they are already here, more are on the way, no one doubts it. They deserve an adequate theory. ” – Joshua Clover (2020)
Riots – literally surplus, misunderstanding, neither this nor that: “too toxically masculine,” “too Lenin,” but also “too feminine,” “too vague, affective and hysterical,” “too undemanding,” “too demanding,” sometimes “too eager for action,” ” too LARP-suspicious” (Live Action Role Playing), at the same time “too much infantile disorder,” “too little Lenin and reasoned” …
The spectrum of the event entitled Pipeline Riots and Riot Pipeline: Struggles in a Heated World last week on riots and political violence with Joshua Clover and Andreas Malm was accordingly wide-ranging and provided ample opportunity for discussion (in cooperation with Helle Panke e.V. (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung), Galerie der Abseitigen Künste, NON, Matthes&Seitz and Jacobin Magazine Germany).
As in his book Riot.Strike.Riot, recently published in German translation, Clover argued to Malm that the emerging riots should be analyzed not only against the backdrop of climate collapse but long-term restructurings of the social order in terms of deindustrialization, surplus population production, and state terror.
His book’s theoretical intervention lies in tracing the shifts that have occurred historically-materialistically in the extended circuit of the reproduction of capital (of production and circulation). These structural shifts move people and directly affect the form of social struggle they choose. Bread price revolts, harbor riots, looting of markets in Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc., are the historical precursors of circulation struggles in which crowds directly appropriated commodities and enforced price demands.
With the onset of industrialization and the organization of workers, social struggle shifts to the factory, to the sphere of production. The strike becomes the leading tactic of collective action. Since the 1960s, another shift occurred, according to Clover. With the end of Fordism, incipient deindustrialization, with production moving to the Global South, an ever-growing reserve army (“superfluous” people without a reserve) emerges. Those people can be partially absorbed productively by the labor market (if at all) but find themselves in increasingly precarious conditions (part-time jobs, pseudo-self-employment, illegality). They are “relatively” to “absolutely” excluded, postmodern pariahs, racialized subjects, NEETs (=Not in Education, Employment or Training), masses of unemployed, global impoverished “lumpenproletariat” moving outside the official labor systems, marked by the toil of mere survival. In addition to a perverse disincentive effect (“Look what happens if you don’t work!”), this pauperized stratum of the population serves another, capital function: To put pressure on wages. Because the social reproduction of this segment of the population is becoming increasingly precarious, even independently of the consequences of climate change, there is an increase in these struggles outside the sphere of production, in the markets and ports of the 21st century (shopping malls, train stations, city centers, parks, and streets): Watts, Newark, Detroit, Tian’anmen Square, Los Angeles, São Paulo, Gezi Park, San Lázaro Tahrir Square, Exarchia, Clichy-sous-Bois, Tottenham, Oakland, Ferguson, Baltimore, Paris, Hong-Kong, and so on.
Blockades, squats, sabotage, and barricades are the means of these struggles, far from production but near state violence and prison.
The riot is the other of exclusion/inclusion. It is noise in the symphony of order of capitalist “crisis management” but also of a political discourse that sings the song of an authoritarian-populist agenda, as Stuart Hall described it already 1978 in his study “Policing the Crisis.”
Doesn’t the outrage in the face of burning cars and smashed windows of riots (crude, disorganized, barbaric) recall the racially tinged panic over mugging (i.e., robbery) in the 1970s in England? Doesn’t the discourse around riots also sounds like this: “essentially biological body, driven by instincts, far below the domain of human agency, far from reason and will, without full human will, unrestrained, hypersexual, violent, a powerful force disrupting civil society, frightening, unable to be integrated into normal social life”? (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Mask)
The language of governance and policyis that of “law and order.” Policing is “class struggle from above,” the intention and reality of shaping society (if necessary with the baton) against the backdrop of ecocide already taking place, a burning world, and mass social impoverishment to that paradoxical point, where social reproduction submits to a logic which renders it impossible, ultimately destroying it.
With what confusing symbols and chants do the riots speak? How do they solve the fundamental problem of the reproduction of life? How do they escape the predicament of being outside the sphere of production, in permanent confrontation with state and non-state policing, without falling prey to the social, capitalist conditions of reproduction (debt, precarious or informal labor, etc.)?
The impatient, barbaric ‘murmurs’ of the riots (Endnotes, Onward Barbarians) shouldneither remain unheard in a situation of planetary uninhabitability and social impoverishment nor be underestimated as a central, emancipative tactic in the repertoire of collective action (besides strike actions, etc.).
Grasping this could give social relevance to a so-called “left”, stoically drilling social distancing, it de facto no longer possesses in its liaison with disaster capitalism. It could also awaken climate activists, e.g., FFF or Ende Gelände, from their pacifist, reformist slumber.
If looting, rioting, and planned acts of sabotage are essential tactics in the struggle against racist fossil capitalism, it is equally important that we understand the role of riots as a tactical tool of a strengthening authoritarian right (White Supremacists, nationalists, fascists). The media’s LARP spectacle of civil disobedience by angry, right-wing “insurrectionists” on Capitol Hill has reinforced the riot’s common association with the far or ultra-right. Simultaneously, the imagination of political discourse on political violence has shrunk en masse down to a ‘horseshoe.’
Riot.Strike.Riot counters these appropriations and misinterpretations with the far-reaching, long lines of riot’s tradition: the long arc of proletarian struggles from Luddite Uprising, Swing Riots to those surrounding the Black Radical tradition. That new phase of racialized struggle from the 1960s onward beginning with the history of the more reform-oriented civil rights movement, opposing it but winning its victories.
However, the failures of revolutionary upheaval in the 1960s show that the paths of guerrilla warfare, open civil war, or pure destruction and working-class mobilization alone are not promising, dangerous, if not dead ends. However, relating contemporary proletarian struggles to these historical antecedents, especially the anti-racist struggle of the black community, shows that the riot is less a figure of “brutal, immoderate attack” and “unrestricted terror” but also springs from a practice of communal care and self-defense. Is it assault when communities resist unending police violence, everyday racism, incarceration, and public executions – and burn police stations (i.e., buildings)?
If Clover’s thesis of the principled, long-term structural recomposition of the relationship between capital and labor is correct, then, it is vital to take to heart that riot is precisely the specific form of social action within a more or less “deindustrialized,” no longer production-based present. These are the material conditions from which riots emerge and with which most social actors are confronted. Riots occur precisely from those places where the growing, often racialized majority of the surplus population precisely comes together, socializes, exists, and reproduces itself. And this is no longer in the classic factory but in the street, shopping mall, social media, parks, apartment block, highway, Internet café, metro, and the squares.
There is little doubt that Riot.Strike.Riot is priceless in the debate about political violence. Riots are not only here; they are unfolding globally with ever-increasing intensity every year. Yet, they are principally disregarded by the bourgeois mainstream, leftist political discourse, and climate camp as a crucial means of collective action – if not criminalized and punished by state. The surplus phenomenon par excellence has itself become the accursed share and taboo of emancipatory theory and practice. Instead of actively distancing oneself from this phenomenon in a disparaging way, Clover presents both historical and political-economic arguments for the rehabilitation of riots in Riot.Strike.Riot.
In contrast to the empty symbolic politics of leftist anti-racism, climate activism, and anti-capitalism, riots could instead contribute materially to the negation of those conditions that mean the ongoing destruction of the livelihood of large parts of the world’s population. Riots could be something like the radical answer to the regime of inclusion and exclusion, general precariousness production, bare life, state surveillance, and violence. Are they the revolutionary starting point of other social life?
According to Clover, it is the commune, not as an achieved utopia, but ‘caring militancy’ that preserves and establishes the possibilities of collective life, emancipation, and flourishing:
“The commune must be capable of its own reproduction, be a site of mutual care; and it must be capable of breaking the procedures of capital. These are not opposed, they are the same struggle, and that unity is the real movement. ” – (JC in conversation with Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich & Marlon Lieber, 2020)
This real movement is without an alternative in the face of accelerating catastrophes.
“Communism or blub blub blub,” as Clover says, paraphrasing Rosa Luxemburg.