Looking for the Commune: Riots, Circulation Struggles and Social Strikes

Riots are coming, they are already here, more are on the way, no one doubts it. They deserve an adequate theory.

Joshua Clover has written a book with an intuitive premise. Riot. Strike. Riot, released by Verso last year, tries to give a framework for understanding the wave of revolts and riots that has swept over the world, focusing particularly on the United States. The claim is no less than that “the riot can now be thought as a fundamental form of class struggle rather than an impolitical spasm” and “a sundial indicating where we are within the history of capitalist accumulation.” The book has created a lot of debate among comrades and journalists alike, including several reviews, a book tour in Europe and a dossier by Viewpoint Magazine with three critiques from Alberto Toscano, Amanda Armstrong and Delio Vasquez, as well as a response from Clover.

In this article, I will reflect the argument Clover makes on riots and more specifically circulation struggles – a name given for struggles that take place first and foremost in the marketplace, not the sites of production. I’ll use Clovers analytical apparatus to illuminate the politics of the Spanish housing rights movement la Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca as well as to show some limits to the arguments Clover makes. I start with  a short summary of what I found to be the most central arguments that Clover made and then move on to la PAH. Finally, I will look at Clovers conception of the commune as a strategy to overcome the internal and external limits of the riot – and other circulation struggles.

This is a first sketch of thoughts that I will be presenting at the Westermarck Annual Conference on Sociology working group on housing the 24th of March. If you want to hear more, please come to my presentation at 9 AM.

Riot. Strike. Riot Prime.

The riot has been the topic of many recent books, as Joshua Clover points out in the early pages of Riot.Strike.Riot. What puts Clover apart from these, is his attempt to place the riot within a periodization of social struggles under capitalism. Following authors who theorize over the qualitative shifts in the composition of capital over different cycles of accumulation, Clover makes the point that similar shifts can be found in the way we struggle under capital. Historical variations in the compositions of capital and labour create varying historical opportunities and needs for social uprisings and revolts.

First, during the heydays of primitive accumulation and the creation of a workforce through the dispossession of the means of production, came the riots of the early days of capitalism. These were oriented towards the sphere of circulation of commodities in the marketplace: food riots were a direct assault on unaffordable prices and an attempt to satisfy basic needs. As labour got organized, the riot became a more peripheral form of social struggle. Now, instead of the marketplace, it was the sphere of production where labour could organize best – not for price reductions, but for higher salaries, shorter working days and so on.

Today, as union membership is waning and the amount of working hours lost due to strikes annually has stayed at record lows for 20 years, the age of the strike seems to be approaching it’s end – at least in the West. Meanwhile, the riots seem to be returning and making headlines around Europe and the US. Are these just a rerun of their historical predecessors? No, but before we clarify this point, let’s really pin down the difference that Clover makes between strike and riot.

So, what is a strike and what is a riot? The former has been theorized plenty, but as for the riot, most writers deal with it in purely economical (as a tipping point to be predicted by studies of social inequality, unemployment etc) or purely political (as an Event or the return of History) terms. What Clover attempts is to overcome this split and find the strike and the riot in the historically oscillating intersection of the reproduction of capital, on the one hand, and the reproduction of labour, on the other. He offers the following succinct definitions of the strike and the riot:

The strike is the form of collective action that

1. struggles to set the price of labor power (or the conditions of labor, 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 interruption 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.

The movement Clover traces between cycles of struggle is not simply cyclical, but also one of qualitative shifts. One cycle of circulation struggles will be both similar to and different from the next one.

The early riots in Clovers account marked the emergence of the labour movement – they were a preamble to an enduring proletarian show of strength. This is not the case for the current wave of riots, which marks the fall of the labour movement. So, against the economism of those who would draw on simple statistics like the unemployment rate to explain the riot, Clover proposes a model that can account for the “difference between rise and fall, between tightening and slackening labor markets, between the capacity for dynamism and expansion and the course of stagnation and contraction.” (145)

The differences between the conditions of the preindustrial riots and the conditions of current riots are innumerable, but some seem more relevant than others: Our contracting economies, where people are being laid off due to a lack of growth combined and increasing automation, are a far-cry from the expansive boom of the early 19th century. The logistical revolution, which has “aerosolized” the actual production and circulation of goods necessarily changes the site for the contemporary riot. Circulation now is not what it was then, but rather a circulation prime marked by resistance of the riot prime. And unlike then, we today face a fully developed state protected by an increasingly militarised police force. If the preindustrial riot had direct access to “the economy” in the form of the market place, riot prime faces different conditions: “For riot, the economy is near, the state far. For riot prime, the economy is far, the state near. Either way it is the marketplace and the street.” (126)

In Clovers words, “the preindustrial riot finds the market immediately before it, a concrete phenomenon; it finds the economy itself. At the same time it does not find the police, the armed state, except in the most attenuated forms”. The postindustrial riot, on the other hand, “ finds only a sampling of commodities in the local shops. Looting seizes upon this as it must: the truth of the the old riot, the setting of prices at zero.” (123)

It’s important to note that Clover isn’t making a simple argument where riots are just an attempt to get stuff for free. This is a point that Clover puts special emphasis on in his exchange of arguments with Delio Vasquez in Viewpoint. Riots emerge out of the production of non-production, out of the birth of surplus populations that “have been excluded from production and pushed into the social sphere of circulation, defined in the last instance for the proletariat by market dependence and for capital by the compulsion toward efficient realization of value.” Excluded from production, but still dependent of the market, this (most often racialized) surplus population “must fight in circulation whether or not they endeavor to disrupt, interfere, resolve consumption needs.”

La PAH: Circulation struggles beyond the riot

La PAH occupying a bank office. Photo: Kukka Ranta.

Riot. Strike. Riot is a hyperbolic book if there ever was one. It makes a huge, sweeping periodization without providing much data to support it. On top of it all, the book appoints a hegemonic figure for different spheres and periods of struggle and straight out ignores a myriad of other ways people have struggled in these same spheres. This, and more, was pointed out in the various critiques compiled by Viewpoint. Still, the argument is tempting and offers a basis for building an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses different strategies might have in different types of struggles.

Looking beyond the riot, we find a number of struggles taking place in the sphere of circulation. One common rubric suggested for these by groups like Allt åt Alla in Sweden and Plan C in the UK is that of the ‘social strike. Plan C writes:

These are making the new conditions visible, disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles. (emphasis added)

The most common example of a social strike today seems to be the women’s strike in Poland that was organized last fall against the planned (and then scrapped) abortion ban. It was a good example of the strike as an event, as a disruption with a clear before and an after. But what would the social strike look like as a continuous practice, as a repeated microintervention against capital? One example of this might be what the housing movement la PAH is doing in Spain.

La PAH was formed to stop the wave of foreclosures and evictions that swept over Spain in the wake of the mortgage crisis that started in 2007. Recently, when the tide of foreclosures gave way for a sharp increase in rent-related evictions, the movement expanded to deal with housing in general. The movement is based on weekly assemblies, where people share their experiences and try to find solution for their case, usually with the aim of debt nullification (‘dacion en pago’) combined with a social rent for the same apartment and exceeding no more than 8% of the income of the former mortgage holder. La PAH supports its members primarily through negotiations with landlords and banks, by stopping evictions and by blocking the offices of banks that fail to give a deal to their former clients.

The activities of la PAH take place in the sphere of circulation in several ways: as a practice of price-setting, as a blockade of goods and infrastructure and as the only possible struggle for a certain group of dispossessed people.

First of all, by pushing for debt nullification and social rents, la PAH provides a tool for setting the price of housing. The movement is a direct intervention by its members into housing – one of the most central sites of contemporary capitalist accumulation – forcing down the price on a commodity that has become perhaps the central tool to displace and marginalize labour.

Secondly, la PAH directly attacks the creation of new debt by blocking bank offices and stopping customers from entering, by tarnishing the reputations of the banks and by helping its members get of a vicious circle of refinancing operations that in the end give very few if any mortgage holders a real solution. Here, la PAH shows how blockades can be effective not only against transportation systems but also against sites of commerce.

Thirdly, by preventing evictions and keeping foreclosed homes of the market, la PAH disrupts value creation through accumulation by dispossession. People who come to la PAH have, in the words of Clover, “no necessary kinship but their dispossession” and this makes for a very transversal movement, with very different kinds of people forming connections and creating common notions. The growth of la PAH has happened as a necessity, as organizing in the only site where the Spanish mortgage crisis can be addressed collectively.

Strikes and transparency

So what kind of beast is la PAH, at least in the bestiary of Joshua Clover? Drawing on further distinctions between the riot and the strike, Clover makes some illuminating points on how the two have historically been perceived in relation to each other.

After the strike became the weapon of choice for the labour movement, the social status of the riot changed. The strike was formalized against the riot, making the latter the “the other” of the former. At this point the riot, “now defined equally as the strike’s opposite number, must equally find its content in its form. But this has paradoxical consequences. Its form is disordered; disorder becomes its content. No one know what the riot wants. It wants nothing but its own disorder, its bright opacity.” (83)

If the riot is opaque, then the strike is transparent. If the riot is disorderly, the strike is orderly. If the riot is elusive, the strike presents clear demands.

Even a vague familiarity with labour history is sufficient for refuting the universality of this claim: strikes have often been wild, expressing nothing but the desire for everything. Riots, on the other hand, can articulate a very concrete and often outright reactionary or racist desire. But let’s nonetheless stick with the distinction Clover makes, because it feels like an accurate description of our contemporary setting. Today, rioting usually equals self-marginalization and voluntary delegitimization of any struggle in the eyes of the mainstream press.

How should one then understand a movement like la PAH, that has successfully battled in the sphere of circulation but doing so in the spirit of the strike? The first difference between the riot of Clover and la PAH that comes to mind, is the fact that la PAH is very explicitly non-violent. But this isn’t really relevant, because at no point does Clover use violence as a distinguishing or even important feature of the riot. What characterizes the riot is rather its nature as a circulation struggle where the dispossessed connect as the dispossessed and with to set the price of market goods as well as its difference vis-a-vis the strike (the above listed opacity, disorder, elusiveness).

From this perspective, one could say that la PAH is a circulation struggle, but using the means of the strike. Unlike the riot, la PAH instrumentalizes legitimacy gained through (among other things) transparency, a sense of order and clear and demands that have been made legitimate both through the ubiquitous nature of the Spanish mortgage crisis and some very determined efforts of la PAH to establish a certain narrative of the crisis, its culprits and its victims. To what consequence do they do this? Well, one could say that la PAH uses its legitimacy to get past the police and to the economy. La PAH creates an air around the group that makes repression against them difficult for any regime that wants to maintain its legitimacy.

But this ‘air’ actually flows two ways. Most people who come to la PAH, perceive themselves as good, law-abiding citizens and they have no history of confrontations with the police. In addition, many hesitate to come to la PAH or share their experiences in the group due to shame or fear of being stigmatized. If la PAH was more elusive and engaged in a more intense conflict with the cops, the majority of the people who come to them would probably stay home or go elsewhere (or become one more number in the statistics of mortgage related suicides). In this context, the ‘strike profile’ chosen by la PAH is a strategic necessity for getting people past a number of obstacles, to la PAH and then, past the police, to the economy. Of course, other movements might have risen instead of la PAH, winning different victories with different methods, but that doesn’t make the hybrid nature of la PAH any less intriguing.

There’s at least one more reason the hybrid model of la PAH might be so successful: the very special nature of housing as a commodity. While it is certainly true that most people who come to la PAH share mainly a condition of dispossession, it is also the case that many of those who hold a mortgage and still inhabit their home are at the cusp of dispossession rather than being already dispossessed. They are standing in line for downwards social mobility, fighting to hold on to what they were promised during the madness of the credit boom. They pushed toward the exit from the “community of money”, into what the movement has called “social death”.

Using transparency to summon the legitimacy works as a tool for getting past the police and to the economy – but only if you have something to negotiate over. This truth doesn’t only apply to the mortgage holder, but to anyone who can barricade the door to their apartment and force their bank or landlord to go through a lengthy judicial process to get an eviction order. Holding a mortgage or just a rental contract gives you certain leverage against a bank or a landlord, provided you have the guts, the collective power and also some institutional support in the form of elementary housing rights. La PAH thus works as a good example of the strategic significance of the social strike alongside the riot in the sphere of circulation.

On the other hand, la PAH shows how the institutional setting and relative position within the working classes offers opportunities for struggle that might be absent elsewhere. A more aggressive police force, weaker housing laws, more repressive courts and so on could easily eradicate the basis for such a movement – as the attempts of the Spanish ruling right-wing party Partido Popular to criminalize even basic forms of protest through the so called ‘gag law’ clearly shows.

While the picture Clover paints of riot prime is surplus rebellion, la PAH is best understood as a price-setting struggle or social strike. They are, quoting Clover, “distinct, if related, forms” of circulation struggles. (129) La PAH can thus be used to point at several junctions/points of divergence: historically between different regimes of accumulation, institutionally between different regimes of policing and legality, geographically and socially between different strata of the surplus population and intensities of dispossession, strategically between different struggles of circulation. Additionally, la PAH illuminates how the social strike can be understood as a form of struggle within the sphere of circulation but under circumstances that make borrowing from the repertoire of the strike not only possible but strategically intelligent.

Surplus populations and the global division of nonlabor

In this sense, la PAH illustrates the difference between how different layers of the surplus population can afford to struggle. Clover implicitly makes this distinction by separating between “the reserve army of labour” which “remains conceptually within the logic of the labour market, driving down wages, moving in and out of the wage with shifts in the supply of demand for labour”, and the “stagnant surplus population chronically outside the formal wage or ‘structurally unemployed’”. (155-156) These are the people who, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, are “too poor for debt, too numerous for confinement”. Here Clover turns to the definition of the proletariat by another Gilles D., Gilles Dauvé, as “the negation of this society”, “those who are without reserves, who are nothing, have nothing to lose but their chains, and cannot liberate themselves without destroying the whole social order.” (162) From this perspective, the riot and the social strike as strategies of struggles in the sphere of circulation appear as two distinct modalities with at least a loose relationship to different sections of the surplus population and their different outlooks, possibilities and political desires.

But Clovers argument isn’t only descriptive, it’s also prescriptive. He is making a point about strategy and about what is possible in the current moment. The “production of nonproduction” and the increasing size of the global surplus population has fundamentally changed the relationship between labour and capital. Clover points to a strike by the United Autoworkers in Detroit in August 1973, when the union that was famed for its ferocity and radical politics, for the first time “mobilized to keep a plant open” (146). For labour, that had become increasingly invested in the redistribution of profits of post-World War II growth, the main threat was suddenly the same as for the individual capitalist: “that a given firm cease to exist”.

This created an affirmation trap and a “cruel optimism” like the one described in the work of Lauren Berlant:

The object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving; and, doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation. (Berlant quoted on 147, emphasis added)

In short, “labour ceases to be the antithesis of capital”. Clover draws here on Théorie Communiste and Moishe Postone to point out that “traditional Marxism” “misrecognizes the basis of capitalism as ownership of means of production, while “‘treating productive labour as transhistorical source of wealth and the basis of social constitution’” (148). This misunderstanding has caused traditional Marxism to critique the mode of distribution alone and to equate communism with as the ceasing of the means of production. Against this cruel optimism of socialism, Clover proposes communism as the “”the abolition of the economy and the end of the indexical relation between one’s labour and any relation or access to social wealth”.

Care, Communism, Commune

How does la PAH appear in this light? Is it a movement of “cruel optimism”, demanding a redistribution of the commodity known as housing and a reintegration into the circuits of capital? I suspect Clover might do such a reading, were he ever to take interest in the movement. Why so? Because of one central lack in Riot. Strike. Riot, namely the fundamentally macropolitical perspective that runs through most of the book.

In the final pages of Riot. Strike. Riot, Clover approaches the limits of the riot. Much like the colonizer for the colonized in the works of Frantz Fanon, the police appears as the necessary enemy to unify the rioting crowd, establishing a Hegelian relationship of recognition, a “police-riot dialectic”. And much like the struggle for decolonization, the riot must “transcend recognition”. The police are both necessary for the riot and the limit which prevents it from unifying in action over anything other than a common opposition to an enemy. What could overcome this limit? Clover names this strategy the Commune, a communism of the present that “offers the production and consumption of needs (and of pleasures!–”communal luxuries”) beyond the measures of capital”.

The commune appears beyond wage and price because those struggles cease to be possible in any practical sense, because human reproduction in that moment is not to be found in either the workplace or the marketplace. To the degree that the commune is a historical opening, it is as well a foreclosure, and this foreclosure is inseparable from its working existence. As Marx reminds us, “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence.” (190)

The commune emerges as a foreclosure of earlier forms of struggle, marking a historic turn that makes them inefficient and vacuous, and as an opening of other, new forms of struggle, that emerge as a necessity when human reproduction is “not to be found in either the workplace or the marketplace”. It is “a social relation, a political form, an event” and tactic of collective action. One might add that it’s a name that brings together different struggles and practices, providing a horizon where there was previously only capitalist realism. Perhaps one image of this struggle as a necessity which emerges out of the vacuity of previous forms of resistance would be the Kurdish uprising in Bakur or Western Turkey. It is, as a friend commenting on this text pointed out, about survival in such a profound sense that it forces the question of struggle as a form of life to the forefront.

But what’s macropolitical about Clover’s perspective here? Well, in Clover’s account there’s a sense of either-or. Either you demand distribution or break out of this “cruel optimism” and proceed towards the abolition of the economy. This simplification doesn’t do justice for the elaborate argument that Clover makes, but I think it still points at a certain limit in it: It risks dampening our curiosity for the micropolitical potential in situations that don’t fall on the right side of the dichotomies Clover draws. This becomes very clear when we think about la PAH from this perspective.

La PAH is a communist movement in the sense that it is a kind of “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”; it is a micropolitical communism, that abolishes the private shame and fear associated with debt and replaces it with a communist ethics of mutual aid and mutual care. In la PAH, the demand for decent housing works as an empty signifier that brings together people who risk a complete dispossession. Its an object that for many members expands from a practical demand (housing) to the cultivation of an ethic (mutual aid) and the valorization of that ethic as the basis for all human interactions. It is a limited form of the commune if there ever was anything close to it in Europe during the past years. In Clovers own words, “a tactic which is also a form of life” (191), destroying what separates us from our power. This reading is more directed at the geometry of affects at play in a given social situation. In the case of la PAH, the real cruel optimism is that of the relationship between the bank and the mortgage holder, where the mortgage worked as an empty promise for a better future, later to be replaced by different refinancing schemes or foreclosure plans. La PAH works to overcome the sad passions that prevent mortgage holders to go to war with their banks, establishing a collective joy of the dispossessed.

But even in la PAH we find a limit, not unlike the one Clover points out through the riot-police dialectic. The delimiting of the group to the issue of housing is both necessary for its existence and an inevitable limit that must be crossed. The question of the commune remains ultimately implicit, and making it explicit remains the enigma to be answered – not once and for all, but all the time. As Clover also points out, there’s no quick fix, no single Event that will make it transpire, only, to quote some American friends, a steady “accumulation of small realities”. But what’s easily clouded if we stick to the argument Clover makes, is how the process of becoming common can happen anywhere and at any time. Finding those moments and places in every situation, is the real challenge we need to face. And however we set upon this road, it’s clear that it must be a past of joyful encounters, of building our power. In the words of Deleuze:

The affects of joy are like a springboard, they make us pass through something that we would never have been able to pass if there had only been sadnesses. (10)

That’s all for now. I might return to Riot.Strike.Riot and la PAH through the theme of the ‘spatiality’ of the riot’, which I didn’t have time to write about now, or I might not. If you want to discuss these issues, come to my presentation at 9 AM on the 24th of March in Tampere or write a comment below.

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