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.

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