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

PART 2: STRIKE

CHAPTER 4

Strike Contra Riot

What kind of other is the strike to the riot? The nineteenth century sets itself to this measure, to the figuring of the relationship. It does so unevenly across western Europe, Great Britain, the United States—insistently, uncertainly, but with consequential results.

This book is not a history of the strike or the labor movement, of the era in which proletarianization denotes agrarian dispossession, industrial expansion, absolute and relative increase of global entrance into the wage, and individual sovereignty as the mode of integration into circuits of accumulation. Nonetheless, these are coordinates of the period into which the golden age of riots dissolves, and from which the new era of riots emerges: the long Monday of the world in which it was always time for work and productive capitalism ran the table on a global scale, in its volatile fashion.

The strike, the dominant tactic of collective action in this period, will want some reckoning—not least because the status of the strike, once it becomes the leading figure for social antagonism, offers a position from which to reflect on the riot. Each action clarifies the structure and dynamic of the other, each betrays changes within the lurching, subterranean metamorphoses of capital. This is true not just in some absolute way according to which the truth of each can be contrasted, but also according to political conceptions of the pair and of the pairing—what we might call ideologies of riot and strike.

In the previous chapter, we proposed the broadest possible understanding of a strike: a struggle over the price of labor power and over employment itself, conducted by workers as workers in the sphere of production. These features might be abstracted and extended to any action oriented by them. This strike arrives early, coexisting with the riot as it gathers its powers.

This is obviously overbroad. A thought experiment, let’s say. Certainly it is at odds with conventional understandings developed since the nineteenth century, which offer a far narrower gate through which a tactic must pass to earn the name. The narrow strike is generally defined according to a self-naming or self-recognition, which must be coupled with a particular bodily and political comportment: orderly, anchored in place, disciplined, legalistic, characterized by refusal. Forms of appearance, in short, that might be discerned by a casual observer. If an episode fails or exceeds these standards, it is deemed not to be a strike. (We might think of the Coal Field Strikes of 1913–1914, which at some point in the concerted series of strikes became the Colorado Coalfield War and then the Ludlow Massacre.) Or, as happens over and over, the events that do not correspond to this model of the strike are effaced so that the name strike can preserve its claims. Who now recalls as strikes the risings of Lyon textile workers in 1831 and 1834, which demanded wages, work, and justice for jailed leaders by way of barricades and guerilla fighting? This strike arrives late. The transition period is much longer. Except, as we shall see, there is no transition at all.

Marx himself notes that 1830 marks the shift in France from a state of landlords to one of capitalists. Hobsbawm generalizes the date as a turning point for “working-class consciousness” in the home countries of the two bourgeois and industrial revolutions, a new situation that “certainly came into existence between 1815 and 1848.” For him, “in Britain and Western Europe in general [1830] dates the beginning of those decades of crisis in the development of the new society which conclude with the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and the gigantic economic leap forward after 1851.1

The temporality there is complex but gets at the belatedness of the strike in its narrow sense. By general agreement, the strike does not have any real existence up to 1830 or in truth for a good while after. Shorter and Tilly are the partial exception. Strike does not appear in the index of The Making of the English Working Class. John Rule’s careful study of English labor from 1750 to 1850 rarely mentions the strike, and within this period the strike in his telling is not yet clarified, still in ambiguous relation to intimidation, machine-breaking, and other nonstrike activities—the destined set of elisions that characterize the era. These facts tell us as much about the era’s self-identifications as they do about its historians. Rudé’s famous survey of 1730–1848 has under the entry Strike a redirection: “See labor disputes, Luddism, London, Paris.”2 No doubt these are all things one should see. The force of the substitution is to suggest that we should locate the strike as a delayed development within the larger genre of the labor dispute, a development that, as of 1848, had not yet appeared.

It would be foolish to dispute such a conclusion. Certainly that is the position presented persuasively by Shorter and Tilly:

In concentrating on the strike, we exclude a number of the other forms of conflict and of collective action (the two are by no means synonymous) … That is convenient, since the strike is one of the easier forms of action to identify, trace and describe. The other forms of conflict, protest and self-expression which one might plausibly use to get some sense of changing orientations of workers include machine-breaking, sabotage, brawling, demonstrating, pamphlet-writing, perhaps turnover and absenteeism as well; all of them are much harder to pin down than strikes. The other forms of collective action workers have employed to accomplish common ends include the organization of political parties, mutual aid societies, conspiratorial groups, labor unions, insurance plans and many other cooperative ventures.3

The preservation of collective action’s many modes, of the creativity of antagonism, is a vital task. But there are difficulties here as well, qualitative puzzles arising beyond the realm of quantitative scholarship. A first suggestion of the difficulty is the tendency to locate the strike’s appearance at the inflection point where it becomes the lead tactic, rather than at the moment of its entrance into the theater of struggle. This has the effect of intimating an overly clear historical break between riot and strike. Moreover, the generic account in which strike comes into being as something like a condensation of the labor dispute conceals, surely against the intentions of our most deft historians, the strike’s emergence from the riot, from circulation struggles. Rather than being complementary and genealogically conjoined, the two tactics are rigidly demarcated both in their nature and in their history, and set in opposition. This will later prove to be a problem for those trying to understand the riot’s return.

Spectacle and Discipline

The opposition of riot and strike is an avowed project of the nineteenth century persisting in various quarters thereafter. The binary is produced successfully some time around midcentury. Consider the distance between the Bull Ring Riots of 1839 and the Flint Glassmaker’s Strike two decades later. Each ought to be recognized as exemplary of its genre. The former began with a series of political meetings held in Birmingham’s Bull Ring market district. On July 4, the mayor and magistrates arrived and read the Riot Act, at which point police summoned from London set upon the crowd in ways that would draw broad and inevitable comparisons to Peterloo. Accordingly, a riot ensued. “Windows were smashed by bricks and hard lumps of sugar looted from Bourne’s grocery before it was torched, and shuttered windows were attacked with iron bars torn from the fence,” leaving wreckage enough that “the Duke of Wellington went so far as to compare Birmingham to cities he had seen sacked on the continent during his military campaigns.”4 More riots followed, in Birmingham and elsewhere.

In parallel with the rise of glass architecture, window-breaking came in the nineteenth century to define what Ian Hayward calls the “spectacular riot.” In a canny comparison, Isobel Armstrong sets the 1839 riots against the successful strike of the Flint Glassmakers, begun in factories across several cities in December 1858 and extending into the new year. The strike, greatly debated both within the trade union and without, defines itself precisely against the riotous habits of 1839 et al. This is no wonder, given its constituency: “The practice of glass-breaking had no hold on the glassworkers and their disciplined strike.”5 In this, its self-conception is paradigmatic of the modern labor action. The strike is exactly what the riot is not.

There can be little dispute that these two events are rightly named. The earlier is not the echt-form of the food riot, by then decades past its peak and decline. But it is close enough—not least for its launch from the marketplace, looting including seizure of foodstuffs, bloody battles with the state, and so on. The later action follows the format of strike in every regard. There is no mystery why it should wish so insistently to distinguish itself from the riot, given its need to make claims of legitimacy both against state repression and for support from other trade unions. By this juncture, the clear demarcation between—and indeed the contraposition of—strike and riot has become true.

This might be understood as the ideology of collective action cemented in the period, in which riot and strike take on a political opposition and even antagonism. The argument here is that this opposition is possible precisely because the two actions have been defined entirely according to their forms of appearance, which are taken to provide clear knowledge of their politics, their social content. Walter Benjamin remarks, “It is the peculiarity of technological forms of production (as opposed to art forms) that their progress and their success are proportionate to the transparency of their social content. (Hence glass architecture.)”6 Industrial production, progress, glass architecture. This is the world of the strike. The ideology of collective action holds to this idea of transparency—that by peering at the surface one can see directly to the depths, have immediate access to social content. The strike becomes the strike via being formalized against the riot. It is order itself, the unbroken window. 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 knows what the riot wants. It wants nothing but its own disorder, its bright opacity. Glints and shards of shattered glass.

The purpose is not to suggest that beneath this ideology there is a contrary truth; this is not how ideology works. We ought not suggest that riot and strike are one, or even close. The division of riot and strike is necessary and even obvious, and built on the most material changes in the political economy of the era. Rather, the hope is to be attentive to the risks of what might be lost by setting them in rigid and static opposition. In losing the history whereby strike emerges from riot, we lose the process of transformation itself and are left instead with its resultants standing before us as givens. This presents limits for adequate periodization within the history of capital. “Capitalism” is not a homogenous thing. Neither is it a politely serial phenomenon, one synchronic situation following discretely on another. Fredric Jameson, in his epochal literary methodology, insists (at a different scale), “What is synchronic is the ‘concept’ of the mode of production; the moment of the historical coexistence of several modes of production is not synchronic in this sense, but open to history in a dialectical way.”7 It is precisely the synchronization—riot’s with one phase of capital’s development, strike’s with another, a break between them—that obscures this situation. If our dating suggests that the era of riot ends before that of strike begins, this cannot offer full testimony on the shifting balance within capital itself, the changes ongoingly wrought by value’s self-undermining dynamic.

Armstrong strains to overcome this limit, to leap across the dead space opened between riot and strike. From earlier riots she educes what she calls “the three cardinal principles of the grammar of glass-breaking—collective action, the body as property, and the refusal of abstraction”; these she finds reemergent in the later strike.8 This is a subtle reading and insightful about crucial matters, not least the rejection of what she calls the patrician window-breaking code, in which “window-breaking is a nonformal act of violence, a certain style of crime without a content.”9

And yet Armstrong’s grammar retains a certain formalism, a certain discursive focus—as does Hayward’s idea of the spectacular riot, which in the first instance might be grasped as a riposte to the new spectacle of urban, industrial modernity. The social content of both riot and strike cannot be limited to the principles of the participants, their affects and beliefs. What then is the strike’s social content? It is twofold. As noted, it is labor’s confrontation with capital in an attempt to set the price of labor power (against the zero price of unemployment). But the social content of the strike is also productivity itself, and this is all-important. It is not “capitalism” in some abstract or general sense from which the strike depends. Neither can it be reduced to the particular miseries of industrialism’s machine-life, though nobody could doubt that these are a brutal spur. It is rather the set of changes attendant on the traverse from commercial to industrial capital that drive the many toward the newly productive sectors and that drive capital to concentrate itself there as well—just as the many were previously driven into the market for subsistence in an uneven global process.

An evident if often neglected fact is that the limited, demand-based strike’s effectiveness by and large coincides not with capital’s frailty but with its vitality, when the wage-commodity circuit is yielding surplus value and accumulation. When production is not expanding, a capitalist has less interest in preserving its continuity and may endeavor to outlast strikers. “But to argue that an employer could outlast his striking workers,” notes John Rule about early English strikes, “is not to say that it was always in his interest to do so. He would not want to forgo the high profits available from expanding output on a rising market. In such conditions it was more rational to concede than resist demands.”10

Too Much and Too Little

Thus the category of production struggles, for which strike is archetype. The strike is the form of collective action proper to the productive phase of capital. It comes into being before that, tests itself against the world, but is able to realize itself only with capital’s period of accumulation. This phase does not arrive punctually or autonomously when commercial or circulation-centered capital has exhausted itself, but rather emerges from and remains entwined with it. Production and circulation stand in a classically dialectical relation: both opposed and mutually constitutive, their contradiction (the contradiction between value and price) holding them in conjoined motion. The strike’s source is the transformation that moves bodies and capital into the sphere of production. Not all of them, not all of it, we will continue to insist. But past a certain threshold. The strike emerges from circulation, but it becomes the leading tactic when the threshold is passed, when a quantitative change in the structure of the economy becomes qualitative. In the end, matters might be formulated thus: 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.

The purification and autonomization of the strike in the nineteenth century is therefore one-sided; it holds only the opposition of production and circulation, without their unity. That is to say, in the dialectic of continuity and break, the setting of strike against riot is necessary but insufficient, tilting too far toward a break, toward discontinuity and formal opposition. It will be important to recognize the moments when that continuity, now hidden behind the veil of historical change, becomes visible.

We might return to 1839 simply to recover the heterogeneity of the moment. The political meetings that inspire the violence are Chartist gatherings, naturally. Standard-bearers of Shelley’s many, they are the most advanced labor organization in Britain. Their paper, The North Star, prints “To The People”—the passage from “Masque of Anarchy” including the famous verse—in April 1839. In May it prints a poem by “E.H. (A Factory Girl of Stalybridge),” and in June an anonymous poem, “Lines by a Factory Operative.” This is the current issue when the Bull Ring Riots begin.11

The organized labor movement is already well along. As Eric Hobsbawm has it,

In Britain the attempts to link all laboring men together in “general trades’ unions,” i.e., to break through the sectional and local isolation of particular groups of workers to the national, perhaps even the universal solidarity of the laboring class, began in 1818 and were pursued with feverish intensity between 1829 and 1834.12

So it is not so easy to get a fix on the politics of the Bull Ring. This uncertainty will pale against the events of three years later, perhaps the most undecidable in Great Britain’s nineteenth century. The mystery is all there in a single sentence: “The point of spontaneous social combustion in Britain was reached in the unplanned Chartist general strike of the summer of 1842 (the so-called ‘plug riots’).”13

“Spontaneous,” “unplanned.” We will want to mark these words; we know all too well they mean the riot. The episode leaps from the Staffordshire miners to factories, mills, and mines across Great Britain, finally gathering more than a million workers into its sweep. It bears the basic features of the labor strike rather perfectly: It takes the form of work refusal. Following on three years of industrial breakdown, its main demands, passed as resolutions throughout the action, concern the length of the working day and the restoration of wages to 1820 levels, as well as rent reductions. Hobsbawm continues to insist, however, that it is both too much strike and too little: “The general strike proved inapplicable under Chartism, except (in 1842) as a spontaneously spreading hunger-riot.”14 In all of this, he seems anxious to recognize that the strike and riot might be continuous while still trying to preserve an idea of the pure strike as something else again. It’s a muddle. But that muddle is the truth of things.

These slippages are the inevitable outcome of letting form stand too easily for content. They are also signs of Jameson’s coexistence, of the presence of tensions within the diachronic spiral of capital. As such, they make other moments of coexistence, other moments of metamorphosis within capital and thus in its forms of collective action, thinkable. Since the weight of this book tilts toward thinking a complementary metamorphosis in the present, this is suggestive indeed.