The Swing, Or, Riot to Strike - RIOT - Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016)

Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016)



The Swing, Or, Riot to Strike

It is impossible, surely, to discover the exact moment when strike overtakes riot in the repertoire. Any such determination would be overconfident about the clarity and punctuality with which forms of struggle develop, diverge, reform. Worse still would be to suggest that one vanishes, to be replaced by the other. Tactics once they are adopted are always at hand, nearer or farther.

Moreover, in seeking the transition, we have the difficulty already set forth. The shift from riot to strike is immanent to a more thoroughgoing and complex shift in the structure of capital ascendant. The strike emerges from the riot—from a mode centered by profit-taking in the market to one centered by surplus-value extraction. That is to say, the strike emerges into the new world of capitalist production, as it must, from the space of circulation. It strides from the sea trailing foam, if not yet quite fully formed. British, American, and French sailors were consistently among the most militant workers in the eighteenth century, rivaling shoemakers (the tradesmen found most consistently among leaders of political disturbances from the seventeenth century through the Paris Commune). The English word strike itself seems to date from 1768, when sailors joined “city artisans and tradesmen—weavers, hatters, sawyers, glass-grinders, and coal heavers—in the fight for better wages, [and] struck their sails and paralyzed the city’s commerce. They ‘unmanned or otherwise prevented from sailing every ship in the Thames.’”1

The derivation of the French term for strike, grève, is even more suggestive—an etymology with the reach of an epic, beginning on a riverbank and ending at the Hôtel de Ville a few centuries later and eighty paces away. It is an old word. Originally it meant a flat area of sand and gravel next to the water, a strand, and so a place where boats unloaded cargo. The most workable grève on the Seine became therefore the main port of Paris.2

It was on the right bank, once the city expanded out from the islands in the river. The open area next to the strand would serve as the city’s central market in the High Middle Ages before the stallkeepers decamped for Les Halles. Unskilled laborers would gather there in search of work, loading and unloading wood and wheat, wine barrels and hay bales: the Place de Grève. The name would last more than 500 years. In 1802, the square became the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, renamed for its main edifice, the home of the mayor, the Thermidorean coup, and, for a brief time, the Commune. Early photographs show that the Communards raised barricades there in part from great wine barrels. A medieval rhyme. Where the market was, the commune will be.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We are down at the port once more, the place that provides the main coordinate for this first section, for the golden age of riot. It is inevitable, because it is practically and logically necessary, that port and market midwife the strike. It is equally inevitable, then, that we will return to the port later in this book, as things swing back from strike to riot. It is a catchment of unused labor amid the great machine of the market. A place of misery and possibility. It is fitting, perhaps, that the Place de Grève will also host a guillotine; the 1835 dictionary associates the word grève with executions. It does not yet mention labor actions.

But the change is already afoot. The rise of capital refines not a few phrases. Chateaubriand, ultra-rightist and inveterate coiner of terms, uses grèviste in 1821; for the moment, it does not quite mean a striker, but rather one who opposes the royalists. His nose for politics is sharp as ever. As the bodies gather in the Place, the unemployed who will be the first army of the June Days, “être en grève” comes to mean “searching for work.” By 1848, following an economic collapse along the length of Europe, “mettre un patron en grève” signifies “refusing to work for the boss.” The modern sense and the modern strike have arrived. The transition is complete.

France arrives there somewhat later than England or the United States for reasons already discussed. The years 1848-1851 are the great pivot, for all their farcical nature. Industrialization will now remake French society at a profound level. Before this passage, puzzlements abound, as they have elsewhere. In 1830, we find “a riot of textile workers occurred in Roubaix; they wanted a raise in pay.” The prosecutor from Douai reports, “They broke the windows in the main shops, where they went in force to ask for written agreements about the raise.” Roubaix had been a textile center since the late Middle Ages, with well-developed labor organization. Shorter and Tilly record this correctly (if ambiguously) as a prelude to the strike in France, remarking that “sometimes workers in one shop walked off the job for a while, and sometimes they tried to get work stoppages in other shops of the same industry,” but more commonly, “the core of their action was a show of strength coupled with the presentation of collective demands concerning the conditions of employment in a particular set of shops. The law of the time forbade almost any sort of collective action by workers.”3

The prosecutor clearly has no language for this. The contents of the very social dispensation in which he is enmeshed are not yet known to him: the arrival onto the stage of the laboring classes. He is stuck on the form. It is an angry mob, after all, even if they are workers mobilizing as workers at their place of employ, demanding better pay. The consequence of this formalism is manifest. “The riot, according to my deputy’s report, does not appear to have any political overtones,” concludes our chronicler. We might suspect that he means the events are not directly related to the July Revolution, two weeks earlier. At the same time, we recognize a common sense on its way to becoming a sleight-of-rhetoric. It does a certain kind of work, this confusion, this peculiar naming habit. Because we can name it as a riot, we can proceed as if its manifest political significance does not exist. One more spasm in the historyless history of the immiserated.


“TO THE LABOURING CLASSES,” as handbills once began:

The Gentlemen, Yeomanry, Farmers, and others, having made known to you their intention of increasing your Wages to a satisfactory extent; and it having been good Sense that it will be most beneficial to your own permanent Interests to return to your usual honest occupations, and to withdraw yourselves from practices which tend to destroy the Property from whence the very means of your additional Wages are to be supplied.4

This particular posting comes from Berkshire’s magistrates; only two English counties handed down more death sentences to “Swing riot” participants, and none imprisoned so many. It is meant to soothe the real followers of the mythical Captain Swing during the wave of machine-breaking begun in the fall of 1830. In the event of it, the Swing riots would last into the next year. The laboring classes at this point are still plural, the fractions set loose by the wreck of feudalism, still in process of being forged into “the working class.” Thompson reckons 1790-1832 as the crucible, wherein we find as well that more durable episode of machine-breaking, the Luddite uprisings of 1811-1813.

Over and over, Swing is about threshing machines. Equally, “Luddite attacks were confined to particular industrial objectives: the destruction of power-looms (Lancashire), shearing-frames (Yorkshire), and resistance to the breakdown of custom in the Midland framework-knitting industry.”5

We have encountered already the drive-train, which, turned by agrarian advances, will spin the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. The race for productivity, the very basis of capitalist development, means the replacement of labor power with means of production, living labor with dead, variable capital with constant. Increasing productivity tends to increase wages, which in turn forces further labor-saving advances. In parallel, masses of in-servants are thrown onto the labor market: rising costs of agricultural produce persuade employers to abandon residual work-in-kind arrangements for wages, passing on inflation to workers. The agrarian labor loosed by enclosure depresses those same wages even as industry strides the landscape in seven-league boots.

As the wage generalizes itself, the marketplace begins to surrender its social centrality. The physical space subject in part to communal control gives way to “the mysteries of a ‘self-regulating’ market, the price mechanism, and the subordination of all communal values to the imperative of profit.”6 Shortly, “the characteristic member of the rural poor was now a landless proletarian, relying almost exclusively on wage-labor or on the Poor Law for his or her living.”7 The Poor Law is a reminder, in light of previous discussions, that zero is a wage, too, though one that will need supplement if its recipients are to be kept in available reserve.

Amid this arise General Ludd and Captain Swing, one leading sallies against the textile industries, the other in the agrarian theater of combat. Both movements described themselves in military terms, never better than in a letter “Signed by the General of the Army of Redressers Ned Ludd Clerk.” They took oaths, stocked arms. Sustained and popular, that they were real uprisings can scarcely be debated. Their spans were various. They had no single activity. In the Swing riots alone, “arson, threatening letters, ‘inflammatory’ handbills and posters, ‘robbery,’ wages meetings, assaults on overseers, parsons and landlords, and the destruction of different types of machinery all played their part.” For all this variability of form, the content is steady. “Behind these multiform activities, the basic aims of laborers were singularly consistent: to attain a minimum living wage and to end rural unemployment.”8 No less clear were the Luddites, whose “demands included a legal minimum wage; the control of the ‘sweating’ of women or juveniles; arbitration; the engagement by the masters to find work for skilled men made redundant by machinery; the prohibition of shoddy work; the right to open trade union combination.”9

We should not suggest that the two great episodes of machine-breaking are identical. Their grounds are different. For all their linkage, the agricultural and industrial worlds in Great Britain are at odds; the obdurate battles over the Corn Laws underscore the contrary interests of country and town. Kirkpatrick Sale titles his study Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution; could one say the same of the Swing rioters?10 But it is misleading, if in keeping with half of Thompson’s spirit, to reckon the revolts as backward-facing defenses of custom. Again we confront the question of the practical, of necessity. Often enough the Luddites put matters in ways hard to mistake, affirming their right and intention to “break and destroy all manner of frames whatsoever that do not pay the regular price heretofore agreed.” A list is attached to this communiqué; machines that displace no workers will be left intact.11 Ludd and Swing doubtless share a sense of dangerously shifting ground, of a life-world under duress. Yet they are conjoined, in the minimal formula, by downward pressure on wages and the threat of technological unemployment. And it is here that the puzzle of classification asserts itself.

Officials, predictably, wish to grant them insurrectionary force only when necessary to levy increased penalties. For the most part the great episodes of machine-breaking will be recorded as riots by observers, at the time and later. After all, laws give names, and often enough it is the crime of riot for which the armies of Ludd and Swing are prosecuted (though a specific bill rendering frame-breaking a capital crime will be passed early on). Nottingham magistrates report “an outrageous spirit of tumult and of riot” in the early days of Ludd, setting forth the terms of art for Riot Act convictions.

Occasionally the name seems fitting, for example applied to the forcing of money and provisions. The actual episodes, for all their variety, often resemble the riot formally—in their tone, momentum, wildness. And yet. It should be impossible to look at those demands and not recognize the strike in formation. They concern only employment, better wages, better working conditions, legal protections. If we are searching for the wellspring of the great confusion between the underlying nature of collective struggle and its appearance, we need look no further than these events.

Let us make the argument clearly, not least because it is an argument about confusion. It is only within this period of historical transition that the contours of riot and strike can stand finally clear in their delineations, exactly because it is only in such periods that the two can be placed in such close quarters, admixed, and in the end clarified. Or to put this another way, machine-breaking is what the swing from riot to strike looks like. No doubt it looks backward, “the last chapter of a story which begins in the 14th and 15th centuries.”12 But this insistence on custom, on the fight against the future, misses that part of machine-breaking that is invention, which anticipates. It is no less a first chapter of confrontational workplace politics that have not ended. It is only in a period of transition that such a shocking and novel hybrid, one foot in enclosure and food riots, one foot in factory legislation and struggles over the working day, might arise. “We are coming to the end of one tradition, and the new tradition has scarcely emerged,” writes Thompson.13 In such a circumstance it is inevitable that tactics will proliferate as people try solutions to a new set of problems, borrowing their forms from the old repertoire—just as capital draws its forms from commerce until the new content is ready to go forth by day.

It is precisely the transition from marketplace to workplace, from the price of goods 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. They move together. The close rhythm of this double change provides the historical ground for a political-economic argument that defines riot and strike adequately in their historical fullness—defines them 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.

The Many

Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few—

—Percy Bysshe Shelley,
“The Masque of Anarchy”

If one went searching for a red thread running through the sequence riot-strike-riot prime, one could do worse than to follow the fate of Shelley’s poem, composed for “a little volume of popular songs wholly political.”14 The poem narrates the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, named with some irony after Waterloo, fought four years earlier. It is the middle of Thompson’s crucible, then. England is in famine and depression. The food riot, having peaked by all accounts in 1800-1, is in retreat. The end of the Napoleonic wars has thrown a great mass of bodies onto a labor market unable to absorb them. Indigency in England stands at 15 percent, and emigration at historical highs.

It is against this backdrop that 60,000 gather in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester seeking parliamentary reforms, mostly regarding suffrage. The Riot Act is read. In the cavalry charge immediately following, more than a dozen demonstrators are killed, hundreds wounded. Moral outrage seizes the nation. In Italy, Shelley constructs his poem from newspaper reports.

It would be hard to name Peterloo itself a riot in the sense the word had developed over the preceding centuries. It is close in certain ways. The great assembly gathers in the agora. The term and the legal code are used in any case; it is the representational category people have to hand. Certainly there were gatherings that can more properly be called riots over the following days in surrounding cities. But the eighteenth-century riot has in main reached its limit and burst. The mass gathering in the square will tilt toward revolution or nothing, pressed against the impossibility of the practical demand when even calls for reform are met with deadly violence. This is where the poem begins. The shift away from riot has already begun. James Chandler writes,

All this is to say that Peterloo-like “the French Revolution” on a higher scale or perhaps even “Romanticism” itself on a scale yet higher still—names an event of indeterminate duration that marks a major transformation in the practices of modern literary and political representation, one understood in its moment to have revolutionary potential.15

But the poem is not published until 1832, at the far end of our first swing. The final stanza of the long poem will become a kind of marching song for struggle after struggle. It is taken up shortly by the Chartists, who in 1842 lurch close to the first general strike. The time of labor has begun. In 1911, Pauline Newman will orient her organizing speeches for the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union with Shelley’s phrases. But there will be further swings. In 2010, the poem is repatriated when students and others fighting fatal cuts to the social wage storm and occupy 30 Millbank, the Conservative Party headquarters in London. Shelley’s final stanza is cited repeatedly in the following days, the red thread returning in the long season that includes the movement of the squares, the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring—the return of the riot.

The final stanza adds a last line to a quatrain appearing earlier, glancing away from the poem’s bedrock pacifism: “Ye are many—they are few.”16 It might be possible to persuade you that the sounds in the first line, rise/lions/after, want you to hear the word riot. It is hard not to. It is hard not to hear in the poem’s association of “Anarchy” with the corrupt state rather than with the state’s antagonists a precursor to the dialectical inversion with which we began this book: “A violent order is a disorder; and A great disorder is an order. These two things are one.” But Shelley’s last line asks a simpler or perhaps far more intractably complex question, that of the many.

The popular and the political, as he insisted. Crowds and power, in Canetti’s pithy formula. Masses, classes, mob, multitude. Subjects, citizens, the people. The sense of social antagonism and metamorphosis, the sense of (to risk that portentous substantialization) the political: This cannot be extricated from the sense of the many, and what it is that might give them a unity, be it self-declared or spectral. This is hardly the place for a survey of the literature. Instead, a simple proposition: that riot and strike have served as, among other things, metonyms for this matter within a given moment.

This is another way to limn what is grasped in the idea of a repertoire of collective action and of identifying a lead tactic within it. These tactics, and the changes among them, are expressions of the social mass and its recompositions, which in turn form and transform from given material bases. To put this otherwise, the riot is not an isolated and singular event; it is both a real fraction of and a figure for the many to which it is always adjacent. It is the many’s internal relation externalized under certain conditions. This is true of the strike as well. To understand the transformations in the sequence riot-strike-riot prime is to see into the changes of the many, see what might be comprehended in them.