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Tactics is not strategy: a critique of Riot. Strike. Riot
A review of Riot. Strike. Riot: the New Era of Uprisings by Joshua Clover
By Ben Peterson
August 16, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Win with permission — In the wake of 2011 uprisings in the Arab spring and Occupy, there has been a resurgence radical ideas and a new enthusiasm for radical theorists. A new generation of activists are seeking to digest these experiences, to take lessons from them and prepare for the struggle to come. Joshua Clover’s Riot-Strike-Riot is part of this process. Unfortunately, it is an unhelpful attempt. Good theory contextualizes a struggle and draws together the threads of history together into a coherent argument, which can illuminate what has happened and what can now be done. Riot-Strike-Riot instead deifies certain tactics and if its strategic suggestions were taken up would hinder rather than advance the movement for post-capitalist revolution.
The argument Riot-Strike-Riot is not as complicated as its writing style, which makes ample use of unnecessary academic jargon and unexplained references to classical mythology, would imply. In short Riot-Strike-Riot argues that as capitalism has evolved, the predominant form of class resistance has evolved with it. In capitalism’s early phases, circulation and trade was the central aspect of capitalism. Therefore ‘Riots’ in the form of bread riots or mob enforced price setting were the predominant form of resistance. As industrial capitalism developed, the central dynamic of struggle changed, and the new form of proletarian resistance became the strike. However, since ‘1973’, the centrality of production in capitalism has ebbed, and circulation is now key- thus we are seeing a return to a new era of riots, “riot prime”.
If it could stand, this argument would be a neat summary of struggle, and be a useful guide to the way ahead. Unfortunately, I believe the argument falls apart in both its reading of history, and in its definition of ‘the riot’.
For this narrative to work, Riot-Strike-Riot creates a definition of riot and strike as follows-
“The Strike is the form of collective action that;
1.Struggle to set the price of labour power (or the condition of labour, which is much the same thing: the amount of misery that can be purchased by the pound);
2.Features workers appearing in their role as workers;
3.Unfolds in the context of capitalist production, featuring its interruptions at the source via the downing of tools, cordoning of the factory floor, etc.
The riot is the form of collective action that
1.Struggles to set the price of market goods (or their availability, which is much the same thing, for the question is similarly one of access);
2.Features participants with no necessary kinship but their dispossession;
3.Unfolds in the context of consumption, featuring the interruption of commercial circulation.”
These definitions are not helpful in understanding the history of class struggle.
The book rightly goes to length to argue against reducing riots to mindless outbursts of mob violence. However, the formula suggested reduces both the strike and the riot to economic struggle. In both cases, this is insufficient. It plays down, and plainly doesn’t see the history of the political strike, which should be essential for those who want to see a revolutionary alternative.
It was political strikes which overthrew the Russian Tsarist monarchy 1917, and which dissolved the Cuban state with the flight of the dictator Batista in 1959. Both would fall outside of this definition of strike. In Australia, there is a long and important history of strikes for non-industrial reasons- such as the Green Bans to save the environment, and the refusal to send pig-Iron to Japan in support of the anti-colonial struggle in China. In 1969 one million workers took strike action to call for the release of a jailed Tramways Union leader, Clarrie OShea. For radicals and revolutionaries, it is actions like these that go beyond purely wage struggles which have an amazing emancipatory and revolutionary potential, but the book has nothing to say on these events.
The book does mention debates led by Rosa Luxembourg in 1905, but then retreats from these discussions into reducing the modern union to meekly co-operating with business to keep wages competitive. It becomes confused, and unconvincing, and can’t see the political struggle within unions and the working class in the wake of these challenges.
The same can be said for the Riot. The Stonewall riots were a defining moment for LGBTIQ rights, but this was not born out of an identity of people as dispossessed. Nor was it aimed at holding up the circulation of capital to ask for reforms. Instead it was a physical confrontation of homophobic oppression by the police. This event was not isolated, it was inspired by, and helped inspire the broader radicalization of the times. The definition of riot by the book has no adequate means of understanding these events.
Further, this reading of the Strike/Riot has a very superficial reading of these forms of protest. It is limited to the western world, and does not look beyond these horizons. For instance, the traditional form of workers protest in Nepal/India is the Banda, which merges these definitions into one event. Not only is work stopped, but transport is forbidden on roads within a community. Its both aimed at production, and the market, but like everything else that doesn’t fit the Riot-Strike-Riot formula, it is ignored.
It is true that as the nature and forms of capitalism have evolved, the nature of resistance to capitalism has evolved with it. And it is true that at different times and places, different tactics have been predominant, such as the Luddite smashing of looms, or the waves of sit down strikes in the US in the 1930’s. But, while tactics can be more prominent at a certain point in time- the theory of a swing from riots aimed at circulation to strikes aimed at production, and back again seems ill fitting with the historical record.
Even a basic look at US labour history raises serious doubts about the historical narrative that Riot-Strike-Riot would have us believe. For instance, in 1934 there were three major strikes that became the precursors to the industrial unrest that lead to the radical Congress of Industrial Organisation. While one was at the point of production (Toledo Auto-Lite), the two other major strikes were in distribution (Minneapolis Teamsters and West Coast Longshoremen). Surely this should call into question the neat separation of circulation and production that Riot-Strike-Riot rests on. Alongside these, ‘the riot’ continued to exist, particular in the form of the race riot- white mobs targeting blacks, or blacks responding to repression in outbursts of resistance.
Most importantly, these are tactics, and in and of themselves tactics are not strategy. They are not even of themselves positive- Australia has a long and shameful history of riots against migrants, and strikes have been organised by the ruling class against revolutions in Chile and Venezuela. Riot-Strike-Riot can’t see this, and instead tries to take these tactical questions and pull them above their context into a driving strategic vision.
Given that the narrative of Riot-Strike-Riot is seriously flawed, this should raise serious questions about its theoretical seriousness. How can we take a theory seriously when it’s built on such a superficial reading of history and struggle? Even so, it’s worth looking at its strategic suggestions.
The current era is supposedly Riot Prime. Due to the breakdown of industrial jobs, and the growth of service jobs and the unemployed has led to a “surplus population”. Therefore, the target of struggle can no longer be strikes at production, but “riots” aimed at the circulation of capital and setting prices. The vehicle for driving this change is no longer the industrial unionist, but the urban surplus population rioter.
Such a strategy implies that radicals should not focus on union struggle, or winning over multiple layers of the broader working class, but instead aim to build up a stronger organisational ability to create blockades and occupations. The goal is to interfere with the distribution of the economy. By holding things up, it creates pressure to win demands. This will bring activists and the surplus population into conflict with the state. As this struggle grows, those activists must develop a new commune to win this battle with the state, and end class antagonisms.
This strategy has serious holes. It is true that radicals must begin/continue to work with and relate to long term unemployed (the surplus population). Radicals have a long history of doings so. However, in and of themselves the surplus population do not constitute a revolutionary subject.
Firstly, simply being more oppressed does not necessarily make one more revolutionary. On a basic level, the surplus population is a minority of the class. Even in Detroit, the ground zero of deindustrialisation, unemployment is somewhere between 25%-45%. That is staggeringly high, but it also means that the bigger section of the class is still in work.
This is not to say that white working class unionised workers are either- in and of themselves, but no section of the class by themselves can hope to overturn capitalism alone. Radicals should be able to offer a coherent analysis that can appeal to both the unemployed, the economically stressed worker, and immigrants. People face oppression differently, but the dynamic at play is the same, and the role of radicals should be to build solidarity between different groups. The US today has signs of a radicalisation in these low paid workers, with the spread of fast food strikes and the fight for $15. These people are not structurally separate from the urban popular surplus. Riot-Strike-Riot does point out the unemployment is growing, that it is racialized and that economic trends do not point to this changing. That’s fair enough, but it does not explain why the unemployed and the employed would be antagonistic, or why one is strategically superior to the other.
It has even less to say on how a commune can come about. Riot-Strike-Riot rightly points out that actions to interfere with capitalist circulation and distribution would bring activists and communities into conflict with the state. It offers no explanation as to how or why this conflict would lead to a commune. On the contrary, radicals limiting themselves to only a section of the proletarian class launching into conflict with the state sounds to me like a very good strategy for radicals to become isolated and incarcerated, and without the backing of a broad and organised movement amongst working people (and the unemployed), then there would be noone left to come to their aid.
A radical strategy has to have a whole class perspective. For us to have a chance of bringing into being a new world that is fundamentally more democratic, it will require the active participation and struggle of broad sections of the working class, not the militant actions of only a section of it.
Thankfully, this is more in line with the historical record of struggle. In both the Teamster and AutoLite strikes of 1934, one of the decisive links in those struggles was between the Union movement and unemployed workers organisations. In both cases, these links were able to prevent against the sectional counterposing of workers and unemployed and instead develop solidarity which proved successful. Similar dynamics can be seen in the 60’s, with strategic alliances between students and the black civil rights struggle leading to a radicalisation which in turn led to an upswing in Union action by young workers.
In all cases there was a political and strategic leadership that made this happen. The problem with Unions or other groups today is not the confines of a political/economic situation that leaves them behind, but the absence of a political leadership capable of relating to new challenges.
The challenge today is not simple as simple Riot-Strike-Riot would have us believe. We can’t overthrow capitalism by blocking a freeway. Even if it’s done over and over, a small group holding things up and making a demand would just be a radical reformism. And no matter how many times we block the port, the state won’t just give up. Its not to say that these things shouldn’t be tools in our movement, but turning tactics into strategies is a recipe for losing sight of what matters- building the confidence of the class.
Revolutionaries can’t just wait around for the riot to come in “five, fifteen, forty years”. Spontaneous outbursts will come, but the outcome of those will depend on the experience the class develops in the years between. The work we do now and in the coming days, building unemployed groups, unions, and small campaigns might seem small. So be it. Only through building stronger political clarity through these campaigns and building a greater organisational experience amongst working people is it possible to build the bonds of solidarity that make a new world possible.