Is the Riot the 21st-Century Version of the Strike?
“Oh my gosh, he’s gonna hurl it at the police. He’s gonna hurl it at the police. Here we go!”
So says the nervous voice in a cellphone video of a confrontation between protestors and law enforcement on a street in Baltimore. It was the end of April 2015 and the death of a black man in police custody had triggered protests, which after a few days were about to intensify into something more: riots. Crossing the empty space between demonstrators and the row of police shields, a young black man hoists a flaming trash can like a javelin as another demonstrator with an umbrella, a pink rain jacket and a purse dashes up to thwart him. The first man heaves his burden into the air, clear over the raingear of the other person, and it smashes in a crosswalk at the feet of the phalanx.
What happens in this moment of here we go? How should we react when the protests turn violent and the demonstration forks off into two branches—one hurling urban scrap at the police, breaking shop windows and setting cars on fire; the other retreating to the sidelines to film it, plead in vain for peacefulness or even collaborate with the police to restore order.
There’s obviously no deliberation at Fox News, where the event is narrated as the natural outcome of the police losing control over a black population. But for many African Americans, and everyone else who believes the police and the system they defend are the fundamental problem, the riot is a conundrum. Many people hoping for change in Baltimore could not accept the riot as part of their struggle. Some protesters denied that looting was an issue. Others claimed, despite trashcans flying on YouTube, that the police had always made the first move.
Everyone debated. The riot isn’t a protest because protests are organized. It can’t be a revolution, because revolutions involve charismatic leaders, pamphlets, Marxist strategy, workers’ strikes, and a plan for the morning after, when the police return tenfold strong, and the city’s black residents are paid minimum wage to clean up their own once dilapidated, now incinerated neighborhoods.
Despite the distrust of the riot, what lingers is the feeling that something more than a protest happened in Baltimore last year, in Ferguson in 2014, in Tottenham in 2011, in Paris in 2005, in Los Angeles in 1992. In his new book Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016), UC Davis professor and former Spin magazine columnist Joshua Clover argues—with mixed success—that the riot has replaced the strike as the site of struggle in the 21st century.
Clover’s theory, as short and sweet as possible, is this: The riot, long ago the primary tactic of society’s disenfranchised peasants and early laborers, is now, after an industrial epoch in which the strike was king, making a comeback. (Thus the title of the book.)
In that first “Golden Age” of riots, before Marxism, before the industrial labor union, collective action on the part of the disenfranchised set its sights on the market. At the end of the 17th century and into the 18th century, food riots broke out in ports and at grain reserves, with poor people preventing merchants from exporting local food in times of shortage or simply seizing bread to feed the hungry at home. Then, to put it simply, when power shifted from merchants to factory owners, the class struggle shifted in the same direction. From the end of the 18th century up until as recently as the mid-20th century, industry was on the make, factories were growing and everything depended on workers showing up to work. When they didn’t, the ruling class panicked. That became known as the strike.
Clover highlights something quite interesting in the history of the strike. When workers first laid down their tools to bargain for a better wage, it was often perceived as a riot, a spontaneous spasm of criminality with no political rhyme or reason. Writing in 1830, when almost all collective action by workers was seen as illegitimate, a French prosecutor described a recent work stoppage as “a riot of textile workers” who “wanted a raise in pay,” concluding that the action, which resulted in several broken windows, “does not appear to have any political overtones.” The prosecutor’s error is now clear. Collective action is political by definition, and if early observers dismissed the strike as apolitical, many of us may have missed the significance of the contemporary riot in kind. Clover’s aim, then, is to take the riots in Baltimore and elsewhere seriously, as if they were the textile worker strikes of the new age.
The key to Clover’s argument is the idea that the weight of capitalism has shifted from production to “circulation”—one of the Marxist terms you can probably take a whole class on. Suffice it to say that if you’ve lived in a developed country like the U.S. in the past few decades, you’ve probably noticed that most people don’t work in factories anymore and the world’s wealthiest people are not necessarily captains of industry. The fat stacks of cash are now made in the circulation of capital—that is, everything from communications to the transportation of goods to the circulation of money itself, i.e. the financial market.
If, during the industrial era, the factory was the appropriate site of rebellion, we’ve now come back to the marketplace. Pointing to the contemporary riot’s spontaneous yet common features of breaking windows of businesses, looting stores and blocking freeways, Clover writes that these struggles:
confront capital where it is most vulnerable... Compelled into the space of circulation, the riot finds itself where capital has increasingly shifted its resources. The riot’s more or less simultaneous arrival on the freeways of St. Louis, Los Angeles, Nashville, and more than a dozen other cities is as decisive a verdict on the circulation thesis as could be imagined.
As of yet, these “circulation struggles”—looting and transportation blockades—have no real effect on the prices at CVS or the ability of capital to move its goods around the Interstate system. But it points to how this kind of direct action, waged outside the factory and often by non-workers, could actually check the seeming omnipotence of the economy.
This would certainly be an exciting prospect for the left, given the current climate of direct action. The Walmart strikes cost the United Food and Commercial Workers union about $7 million a year and thousands of organizing hours, whereas the Black Lives Matter movement, born of riots in Ferguson, Missouri, seemed to take off spontaneously, spread around the country by simple mimesis and take more of a financial toll on insurance companies than activists.
As a reporter in Chicago, I attended both Walmart strikes and Black Lives Matter protests, and the mood at each could not have been more different. The strikes at times felt like a school play with union organizers calling cues while the majority of workers remained inside the store and hardly knew there was a strike going on. The BLM protests, on the other hand, seemed to put the whole city on pause, with police on horses at midnight unable to usher the last demonstrators off of Michigan Avenue. And that was before the unrest over the Laquan McDonald killing made Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s life a misery.
It's a case study in prescriptive politics failing awkwardly and expensively, like a clown at a birthday party. Some on the left are so dedicated to a simplistic version of the labor movement that they see riots as recruitment zones at best, a total squandering of outrage at worst. This petrified attitude, writes Clover, “tacitly associates labor organizing with ‘logic,’ with a kind of orderliness that can’t but mirror the congealed rationality of the factory assembly line. The riot goes with disorder, illogic, the ambient social space of rumor.” But it was the socialists’ own Rosa Luxemburg who warned against holding the line too taut, arguing that what is “desirable” is not always “historically inevitable.” Clover’s message here is that maybe a hyper-organized walkout is not what scares Walmart.
The riots in Baltimore, Ferguson, Tottenham and Los Angeles are moments of revolutionary potential—perhaps the very embodiment of revolutionary potential. But when Clover counterposes the riot to the strike as if it were its own cycle in history, it’s as hard to believe as Clover seems to worry it is throughout the book. He fails to establish that there was ever a moment in history when the riot did not exist, and so what emerges is a map of history where every era that lacks revolutionary organizations looks like an “era of riots.” These periods experience the riot as a flash of light in the void, an explosion of energy with no movement for which it can serve as the propulsion.
Times when there was something more than just riot, the structure of society changed. Propelled by riots, the French bourgeoisie overthrew the monarchy and established a republic. Through riots (and thousands upon thousands of strikes), the Russian working class deposed their tsar and established (for a few years) an egalitarian society. Never shy to riot, sometimes for days at a time in street battles with the police and the military, labor unions in the U.S. secured the weekend, the eight-hour day, a minimum wage, and collective bargaining rights. But in all these cases, revolutionaries had something more than the riot to make breakthroughs.
So in the poor neighborhoods of Baltimore, what wedge do rioters have besides the spectacle of their own act, the immediate result of which is the mobilization of more police to expunge the specter of nothingness? The BLM protests could grow to 10 times their current size, involve millions of people, shut down the entire Interstate system from I-5 to I-95, loot a hundred Walmarts, and the system as it is would still recover as long as it maintained its authority and its hold on capital. Without something like a labor union or a revolutionary party, there will be no one to pick up the pieces and regroup after the state, with its eternally superior force, suppresses the protests, and after Walmart, with its bottomless coffers, replaces its windows.
Having draped this question at the end, I feel a pang of guilt. Every sentence of Riot. Strike. Riot is an attempt to dispel this usual skepticism, and at times it works. As a theory of the riot, Clover’s book establishes that, no, the turn toward riots does not represent, as some on the left would have it, the crumbling of revolutionary dreams. It’s not some 21st-century perversion of a previously disciplined struggle against economic injustice.
Combing through Clover’s theoretical prose, we can just barely make out the contours of a political program: The contemporary riot, as a direct action against a racist economy and a class society, yearns toward the idea of the commune, where not just industrial workers but the unemployed, the homeless, the stay-at-home parents, the youth, can join an uprising that does not just include people of color but is led by them.
Yet after the here we go moment of the riot, we’re left with the inevitable questions where? and how? Clover, in his celebration of the chaotic, the inevitable, has left these questions to fate rather than to activists.