Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016)
PART 2: STRIKE
Crossed Wires, Or, Strike to Riot
In 1963, the socialist journal Monthly Review gave over the breadth of a double issue to a Detroit auto worker: an accurate descriptor underscoring the common quality of James Boggs’s trajectory, inextricable from his remarkable life. In 1937, following the path of the first Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South to the industrial North and Midwest, Boggs had moved from Alabama to Detroit, where he would live the rest of his life. He would eventually marry Grace Lee, the third leader and theorist of the Johnson-Forrest Tendency along with C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya. The tendency originated within the Workers’ Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party, two Trotskyist groups; it preserved a workerist perspective and had given particular attention to militant wildcat strikes among miners and autoworkers.
Given this cluster of circumstances, affiliations, and commitments, Boggs’s brief foreword to his The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook is startling. It concludes,
I am a factory worker but I know more than just factory work. I know the difference between what would sound right if one lived in a society of logical people and what is right when you live in a society of real people with real differences. It may sound perfectly natural to a highly educated and logical person, even when he hears people saying that there is going to be a big riot, to assume that there will not be a big riot because the authorities have everything under control. But if I kept hearing people say that there was going to be a big riot and I saw one of these logical people standing in the middle, I would tell him he’d better get out of the way because he sure was going to get killed.
Reforms and revolutions are created by the illogical actions of people. Very few logical people ever make reforms and none make revolutions. Rights are what you make and what you take.1
It is a curious passage and not only for its closing gesture of what we might call instrumental irrationality. On the one hand it is a bit opaque; the sudden apparition of the riot is unmotivated to say the least, or disorientingly prescient. Nineteen sixty-three is four years before Detroit’s Great Rebellion, at the time the largest-scale riot in national history. And it is a year before rebellions in Harlem and elsewhere will inaugurate the period in which the “race riot” ascends as a central feature of the U.S.’ political landscape.
On the other hand, the reasoning that moves through the passage is familiar, if one has spent a few moments with the implicit debate’s history. It 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. No less significantly, the passage recovers Luxemburg’s overcoming of prescriptive politics. Its distinction between “what would sound right if one lived in a society of logical people” and “the real” of what actually happens within given social conditions is a version of Luxemburg’s opposition of the politically “desirable” and “historically inevitable.”
Each of them find the particularity of their moment, of its openness, uncertainty, possibility. The sixties give rise to a unique situation of riot and strike, one that is at its most concentrated in Detroit. The situation there has two distinct features. One is the racialization of the riot, or rather, the relationship between riot and racialization. That is the theme of a later chapter. The other, which can scarcely be disarticulated from the matter of race, is the sheer nearness of the two forms of collective action—their coexistence, adjacency, confrontation. This is a revelatory puzzle of the decade, an entanglement that as it develops and clarifies begins to disclose how the riot will not only express but explicate its historical moment.
The most revealing and predictive associations of riot and strike are those with given political-economic conditions that orient capital as a whole and change over time, allowing the forms of action to change in their meaning and their power. This indexing is not absolute; political-economic conditions are not absolutely determining. Rather they suggest both possibilities and limits. The field of social contest is held in tension by, on the one hand, the capacity of humans to “make their own history,” and on the other, “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” It is because of the tension between these forces, between agency and determination, that we find multiple forms of collective action within a given conjuncture. At the same time, because a given set of conditions tilts one way and not another, one among the forms of action will tend to become the leading tactic.
In periods of systemic transformation, there will necessarily be shifts in the leading tactics, and competitions among tactics, as different fractions of society, differently positioned, assay emancipatory struggles. The sixties and seventies in the United States offer an extraordinary study of this phenomenon of transformation, equivalent to what we saw in the early nineteenth century in Great Britain—although here, the wind of change blows in the opposite direction, from the factory back toward the port, the market, the public square. For all the manifest differences, there are resonances of nineteenth-century machine-breaking, as tidal shifts in social production manifest themselves as undecidability and transformation within the repertoire of tactics. With the strike now a distinct and popular tactic, the return of the riot appears at first as a strange and heroic effort to conjoin the two forms of action into a revolutionary process in which the labor struggle and the riot seem two fronts of a single antagonism. “I am a factory worker but I know more than just factory work,” says Boggs; it could be the decade speaking. The decade’s ceaseless struggle and invention, largely centered among a black population bearing the early weight of deindustrialization, is possible only within a very narrow window. It is an effort pursued sidelong, desperately, perhaps behind the back of consciousness, and one ultimately unable to realize itself.
Struggle and Profit
The strike survives as leading tactic in the industrialized west through the sixties. Much as Engels intimated, it is yoked to economic expansion. Over the course of the twentieth century, the strike attends not economic catastrophe but growth, a fact no less true in the thirties of the Depression and the Popular Front than during the postwar boom, as noted by the sociologist Roberto Franzosi:
Quantitative research has shown beyond doubt, across different institutional settings (sample periods and countries) that strike frequency follows the business cycle and the movement of unemployment in particular—the higher the level of unemployment, the lower the level of strikes.2
For all the clarity of this correlation, the traditional strike’s association with low unemployment is part of a larger dynamic of systemic accumulation and expanding industrialization inexorably linked to high profit rates. Accumulation, it must be remarked, is not a fluent and unvexed process even when viewed from a distance. The long metacycle of productive capital in the west from about 1830 to 1973 is rife with volatility, crises, recessions, and one transfer between hegemonic powers. Within this variegated historical landscape, nonetheless, the correlation between strikes, taut labor markets, industrial expansion, and high profit rates is overwhelming; the causality is logically necessary. It is premised on relative difficulties in replacing labor, capital’s unwillingness to interrupt highly profitable activities, the state’s ability to purchase the domestic peace with social wages, and labor’s capacity to increase its position and its store insofar as there is social surplus to be appropriated.
The sixties in this regard are an unusual period. Profit rates remain historically high. World real GDP growth for the decade is over 5 percent, more than a full percentage point above the preceding and following decades, driven by the Anglosphere and northern Europe, with Japan growing even more swiftly in its accelerated catch-up. Manufacturing net profit rates in the U.S. have peaks equal to, and averages higher than, any other period of the boom.3 Consequently, the “withering away of the strike” across northern Europe, the U.K., the U.S., and Canada foreseen by some economists—wagering that within “mature labor movement … members are not so predisposed toward strikes as they formerly were”—did not come to pass.4
At the same time macroeconomic weakness begins to appear, expansion slowing as the pooling profits seek, increasingly in vain, for a productive outlet, initiating “the signal crisis of the U.S. regime of accumulation of the late 1960s and early 1970s.”5 Corresponding attempts to increase purchasing power lead not to renewed production but to inflation and capital flight, in the lurch toward the crisis of 1973 that would signal the decline of the U.S.-led cycle of accumulation. Brenner tracks the decline of the U.S. industrial sector, and of manufacturing more broadly, in the face of international competition, a phenomenon of which the automakers are, as ever, leading examples. The effect of this decline, “especially given the enormous fraction of the total for the advanced capitalist economies represented by U.S. production—was a major fall in the aggregate profitability of the advanced capitalist economies, located primarily in manufacturing, in the years between 1965 and 1973.”6 That the global slowdown has its basis in a U.S. industrial engine suggests it may be possible to generalize, at least in limited ways, from the U.S. experience.
It is a paradoxical economy, with high productivity shadowed by incipient deindustrialization. Strikes persist: In the United Kingdom, the sixties would see a notable increase in both work stoppages and total working days lost. In the United States, the strike would experience an autumnal flare-up beginning around 1964 and lasting into the seventies—it could not be known that this would be the last golden gleam before winter came for the labor movement at the heart of the capitalist world system.7 At the same time, there is a rapidly ascending visibility of riots on all scales, most famously in the series of “Long Hot Summers.” The new era of riots has not yet arrived in earnest, but the uneven transition has begun.
In her study of the carceral state in California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore limns the way that a racialized population mobilizes between local oppressions and systematic collapse:
The 1965 Watts Rebellion was a conscious enactment of opposition (even if “spontaneous” in a Leninist sense) to inequality in Los Angeles, where everyday apartheid was forcibly renewed by police under the direction of the unabashedly white supremacist Chief William Parker. In Oakland, the Black Panther Party was conceived as a dramatic, highly disciplined, and easy-to-emulate challenge to local police brutality. Militant Black urban antiracist organizing that focused on attacking the concrete ways in which “race … is the modality through which class is lived” emerged from many decades of struggle in the bloody crucible of revolution against both southern apartheid and its doppelgänger in northern cities …
In 1967 the system began to come apart symbolically and materially. During the Summer of Love, as thousands of flower children flocked to San Francisco to repudiate the establishment, California lined up its anti-antiracist coercive forces behind the vanguard Panther Gun Bill—all of this at the same time that the rate of profit began its spectacular decline.8
Even the famously anodyne Kerner Report, commissioned by Lyndon Johnson after the Newark riots and the Great Rebellion in 1967, registers “a gradual shift in both tactics and goals” within black protest “from legal to direct action, from middle and upper class to mass action … from appealing to the sense of fair play of white Americans to demands based upon the power of the black ghetto.”9
The contours of the modern riot, riot prime, here begin to stand clear. While sharing certain characteristics and logics with older riots, it enters into a very different historical situation and confronts an alien landscape. It is crucial therefore to note that the sequence riot-strike-riot prime does not suggest a simple historical oscillation but a long and arching development that both exhausts and retrieves forms as the contents and contexts of struggle change. Because this trajectory traces broader social changes that occur in different degrees across the overdeveloped world, certain kinships can be observed despite national or regional differences, for example among riots in the United Kingdom and France.
Riot prime in the United States is a new phase of racialized struggle emerging from and against the history of the more reform-oriented Civil Rights movement that by 1965 has largely won the victories it will win. The new riot’s racialization stands out even more clearly against the backdrop of organized labor, not least for this backdrop’s coded whiteness. Routinely precipitated by the violence of state actors and their ensuing impunity, riot prime must be thought of not only in the context of racial state violence but also, for example, in that of the aggressive racism of the AFL craft unions, which succeeded in deferring the formation of any black-led unions until the 1925 charter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. That is to say, the blackness of the riot appears not just as a vexed continuity with the Civil Rights movement against the antiblackness of the state but also against the whiteness of the strike. This comes to structure common sense itself—despite the long history of contrary examples on either side of the supposed binary, from the white-on-white “nativist” riots in the nineteenth century and the wave of anti-Asian attacks following the Chinese Exclusion Act down to the Delano Grape Growers Strike.
There is an evident paradox. On the one hand, the subject of the contemporary riot in the west is consistently racialized, and longstanding patterns of racialized violence, containment, and abjection are inseparable from the development of the modern riot. On the other, the absolute and eventually naturalized identification of tactic with race will turn out to be a destructive mistake, a confusion of correlation and cause—as if blackness itself were the origin of riot. Janet Abu-Lughod underscores the limits of the term “race riot,” noting the constructedness of race and, further, the inadequacy of the term riot against the more openly political senses available to the language of uprising and rebellion. In the end she retains it “because it has an apparently clear reference in the literature to interracial violence, whether initiated by collectivities of whites against blacks or by collectivities of blacks against whites.”10 Significantly, the history of race riots in the United States begins with whites disciplining insubordinate other populations. The “Red Summer” of 1919, which would help forge profound but now largely forgotten bonds between U.S. blacks and socialist and communist organizations, is the best-known but scarcely the only example, itself bracketed within “an extraordinary wave of mass violence directed toward blacks between 1919 and 1923.”11 By the second half of the twentieth century, race riot summons images of spontaneous black violence. It is only then that the term comes to stand for riot as such. The rhetorical convergence is crude and effective. The purportedly thoughtless and natural character of riot, lacking reason, organization, and political mediation, is aligned with the racist tradition wherein racialized subjects are figured as natural, animalistic, irrational, immediate.
Revolutions Per Minute
In 1968, the Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity deadlocked over an invitation to its international conference in 1968: a Black Panther or someone from the radical labor movement in Detroit? Their great good fortune was to discover that John Watson was a central member of both the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the leading Black Power group. This situation would not last. “Watson’s membership in two separate revolutionary organizations, DRUM and the Panthers, represented a short-lived compromise between revolutionary forces in Detroit and California” which would collapse soon after.12
This moment is the crux of a mercurial political sequence. Even the most foreshortened recounting offers a sense of the rapid turnover of revolutionary formations. The prehistory must include the rise of U.S. industrialization in Detroit, as well as the founding there of the Nation of Islam, led by unemployed autoworker Elijah Muhammad. Between 1920 and 1970, Detroit’s black population increases from 4 to 45 percent; this is the most dramatic locus of a broader internalization of black labor into the industrial proletariat, itself a motive force in the successes of Civil Rights movement and the fraying of formal Jim Crow.13 The early sixties see the development of UHURU, an active chapter of the national Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), and in 1966 the founding of the Detroit chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Then the Great Rebellion in the summer of 1967, featuring among other things a number of rooftop snipers warding off the police. In the autumn of Detroit’s discontent, the Inner City Voice, a black militant newspaper led by Watson out of Wayne State University offices, becomes a nexus for various militant struggles; its staff includes figures central to all of the period’s groupings. The next year, DRUM forms and then several other RUMs; in 1969 they conjoin as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). In 1970, the Detroit chapter of the Panthers is shut down, perhaps on orders from the powerful Chicago chapter; well before this, “the ideological tensions between the Panthers and the League had become public knowledge.”14 In 1970 the LRBW begins an extended and painful scission, divided among tendencies supporting struggle on the cultural front, parliamentary engagement, formation of workers’ councils, and a black vanguardist party. By 1972, the remainder of the LRBW affiliates with the Communist League and ceases to exist as an autonomous entity. Insofar as it is ever possible to make punctual claims, the sequence is over, and with it, the long sixties.15
Much has been written about this rise and fall. Less attention has been paid to the sequence’s most remarkable feature, which is the very thing that makes it a sequence rather than a chaotic aggregate of groups, parties, interests, and counterinstitutions, each synchronically related to disparate phenomena elsewhere. This is the tenuous commingling of militant organized labor and Black Power.
The enabling conditions for the sequence, in the first instance, include black labor’s simultaneous entry into, and marginalization within, the core of the industrial sector. On the one hand, “the black revolution of the 1960s had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system—the point of mass production, the assembly line.”16 On the other, the force of this arrival had been blunted by the traditional unions, whose seniority system effectively gave “legal force to the white male monopoly of the better jobs,” in the words of an anonymous author, who continues,
In this wasteland of labor’s twisted hopes, where else could redemption come than from among those whose interests were at every turn sacrificed so that another, more favored group could make its peace with the masters? Where else, indeed, but from among the black workers at the automobile manufacturing infernos of the city of Detroit?17
All of this goes toward contextualizing what we might call the “militant black strike.” It is a version of the wildcat strike assayed beyond the white-centered traditional unions. It takes its authority in no small part from the urban conflagrations of riot in Detroit and elsewhere—from struggles, that is, not based in shared labor conditions, but rather in a distance from the labor market, in the confrontational struggle for social reproduction outside the sphere of production.
In a similar vein, the riot draws lessons from the tradition of the strike. Writing in the spring of 1967, Black Panther theorist Huey P. Newton is skeptical about the riot:
We are still in the elementary stage of throwing rocks, sticks, empty wine bottles and beer cans at racist cops who lie in wait for a chance to murder unarmed black people … We can no longer afford the dubious luxury of the terrible casualties wantonly inflicted upon us by the cops during these rebellions.18
He is no proponent of labor struggles, however. His question is how to pass through the riot to more effective combat, and toward this he calls for the “Vanguard Party”—that is to say, toward kinds of order and discipline inherited from the organizing of proletarian labor and agricultural peasantry. It is characteristic of the period that both riot and strike, seeking to overleap their own limits, proceed alongside each other. Each seems to require the other to appear as revolutionary.
This concurrence cannot be recognized as such by official observers. The Kerner Report, using the rubric of “disorders,” offers this description of the Great Rebellion: “A spirit of carefree nihilism was taking hold. To riot and destroy appeared more and more to become ends in themselves. Late Sunday afternoon it appeared to one observer that the young people were ‘dancing amidst the flames.’”19
This cannot but harmonize with the “infernos” of labor described above. Everything is burning. Alongside the large-scale increase in black labor, black unemployment after World War II hovers between 150 and 400 percent higher than white, and significantly above nonwhite Hispanic as well.20 Detroit’s overall population peaks in 1950 and begins a fairly steep decline; the city ceases to grow economically around 1960, even as the demographic shift continues.21 The racial burden of deindustrialization is further freighted by the “last hired, first fired” union policies which reverse the second Great Migration in an ongoing Great Exclusion. Thus we see two trends: a still-dominant manufacturing economy internalizing black labor, but beginning its decline and unable to absorb in full the demographic influx. This implies an increase in both employed and surplus black populations, subject to differential dispossessions. But these tendencies are moving in opposite directions. In the period 1965-1973 the trend lines cross like wires sparking and Detroit sees the intensification of conditions for both riot and strike, centered within the black community. This is the situation as the sixties accelerate, and the basis for the political sequence that unfolds, even if it cannot endure.
By 1970, the sequence’s opening has already begun to close:
[The League] believed that the Oakland-based Black Panther Party was moving in the wrong direction by concentrating on organizing lumpen elements of the Black community. The League did not believe that a successful movement could be based upon the lumpen, as they lack a potential source of power. The League believed that Black workers were the most promising base for a successful Black movement because of the potential power derived from ability to disrupt industrial production.22
The ideological debate about the proper revolutionary subject (to which we will return), with its seeming regional differences, rests on the fates of the subjects themselves. Already in 1963, Boggs had diagnosed the production of nonproduction and surplus population, and the extent to which it was bound to unmake labor organization. His remarks mark the distance from 1919, when the African Blood Brotherhood (the earliest league of black communists in the U.S.) could include as part of its basic program a demand for “Industrial Development.”23 He writes,
Automation replaces men. This of course is nothing new. What is new is that now, unlike most earlier periods, the displaced men have nowhere to go. The farmers displaced by mechanization of the farms in the 20s could go to the cities and man the assembly line … in the United States, with automation coming in when industry has already reached the point that it can supply consumer demand, the question of what to do with the surplus people who are the expendables of automation becomes more and more critical every day.24
The editors of the special issue are at pains to disagree, insisting that “as productive labor becomes ever more fruitful and less needed,” capital will develop other sectors, create “directly and indirectly, other areas of employment—in salesmanship, entertainment, speculation (legal and illegal), personal service, and so on. Some of the jobs thus provided also succumb to automation, but the process of proliferation is not halted.”25 This will have some truth to it; those sectors by and large do see periods of growth as deindustrialization progresses. Not enough, however, to generate the taut labor markets that strikes require—much less to restore capital accumulation at sufficient levels, said labor being largely unproductive in the first place.
Detroit is unique in this period not for the extent to which it is an exception in the historical trajectory of conditions for riot and strike, but in the way that it is a laboratorial clarification of a dynamic proceeding unevenly across the overdeveloped world, a dynamic based in the great transformation of capitalism that will be known as deindustrialization, accompanied by waning accumulation and changes in the global division of labor and of nonlabor. If militant labor organization seems to prevail in Detroit around 1970, it is in the longer run undermined. By 2005, African Americans will make up more than 80 percent of Detroit’s population, and at least one quarter of them will be jobless.26 Boggs’s forecast will in the end capture the reality of the situation.
For all that, it is difficult to emphasize adequately the significance of the effort in this period to merge not just different agendas or goals but different political procedures—to harness riot and strike together, not only as tactics but as modalities.
Riot as Modality
What might it mean, having worked to rearticulate the riot’s significance as a form of collective action, to now suggest it is a political modality? For example, what might it mean to suggest that the Panthers are on the side of riot, even if Huey Newton had little faith in such activities? This ambiguity permeates the pages of The Black Panther newspaper. A month after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and the separate police killing of Panther Lil’ Bobby Hutton) and the immediate cascade of riots, Eldridge Cleaver titles his “Dig This” column “Credo for Rioters and Looters” and offers an enthusiastically apocalyptic narrative; the facing page features a large drawing by Matilaba in which two cops arrest or possibly lynch a black youth while three militants with berets, jackets, and rifles ready themselves around a corner. Bold lettering across the illustration’s top says “NO MORE RIOTS”; along the side, “TWO’S AND THREE’S.”27
A first step might be to remark that riot already has a basis in alternative kinds of social cooperation. Robin D. G. Kelley remarks about the Watts uprising of 1965 that “the rebellion grew not from chaos but from a mobilized community” that had hosted a wide array of groups, clubs, more and less formal organizations; as noted above, the same was true in Detroit (and surely elsewhere). In Watts the riots signaled a shift in which “the earlier civil rights orientation gave way to a political culture of Black Power and cultural alternatives to middle-class assimilation.” The riots were continuous with a larger political development. So in one case, “soon after the rebellion, radicalized street gangs formed the Sons of Watts and later joined the Black Panther Party.”28
This continuity between Black Power and riot rests below the surface of policies and plans. They share a circumstance and a purpose: “The riot that’s goin’ on is a party for self-defense,” in the words of Fred Moten, himself a theorist of blackness as surplus.29 The sense of linkage is perhaps clearer if we return to the baseline formulation of riots and strikes as circulation and production struggles respectively. That is what the data of this chapter have been narrating: the initial and veiled decline in U.S. and global production, the germinal shift of bodies and capital into the world of circulation. The political sequence narrates it no less clearly; the status of the riot/strike dynamic in this period serves as a clear window into the period’s political economy. Indeed, riot and strike have their full social power because they bear—along with the desires of their participants, their immiserations and negations—the logic of these larger categories. One might say that riot and strike are collective personifications of circulation and production at the limit.
Thus the central passage of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “Riot,” wherein John Cabot of the Brahmin name and luxurious appurtenances, “all whitebluerose below his golden hair,” faces his end:
Because the Negroes were coming down the street.
Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks.
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.
And not detainable. And not discreet.30
The poem follows the Chicago riots of 1968. There is no labor, only blackness; it is Boggs’s future, not his editors’. There is John Cabot’s conspicuous consumption, and the unmanageable motion of “the Negroes” through urban passageways. Market and thoroughfare. One could scarcely ask for a better figure of bodies moved into circulation, of circulation as such. The deferred rhyme carries it, coming down the street not detainable and not discreet. Neither are they discrete. At once ordered and not, “rough ranks,” they become ambient blackness, blackness filling and overfilling the space of social existence. Cabot prays that “the blackness” not touch him, but “on It drove / and breathed on him: and touched him.”
It is difficult to discern whether this series of transfers exists at the level of Cabot’s consciousness or of the poem’s. Both, in the end. Cabot is not in fact mistaken about his fate. Negroes are blackness is riot. At least in 1968. Insofar as riot is a category recognized by state, law, and market, blacks coming down the street will always be a riot, or the moment before, or the moment after. Both socially and economically, blackness here is surplus—to the state, the law, the market. It promises always to exceed order, regulation. The riot is an instance of black life in its exclusions and at the same time in its character as surplus, cordoned into the noisy sphere of circulation, forced there to defend itself against the social and bodily death on offer. A surplus rebellion.
It is no wonder that it provides the basis then for an imaginary of struggle. This vision circulates in the period’s fiction, which featured “a remarkable proliferation of novels by African-American authors projecting the possibility of large-scale, catastrophic race war from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.”31 This speculative leap might usefully clarify Newton’s position. He is skeptical of the riot’s limits, but for reasons quite contrary to the reasons of those who insist on the course of labor organization. Newton, no less than Boggs in his analysis, recognizes that the terrain of contest marked out by riot is inevitable—that riot is not an errancy from some true path but exists on the course along which struggle will unfold. It cannot be refused. The riot can do only one thing, and that is expand.
To say that one is lodged within a world in which riot is the form of collective action through which struggle must pass—that it is an instance of a full and complex social collectivity—is to encounter riot as social modality. When the material substrate of daily life is the pooling of populations in circulation, in informal economies—a collective population rendered surplus and forced to confront the problem of reproduction in the marketplace rather than in the formal wage—in this situation, any gathering on the corner, in the street, in the square can be understood as a riot. Unlike the strike, it is hard to tell when and where the riot starts and ends. This is part of what allows the riot to function both as a particular event and as a kind of holographic miniature of an entire situation, a world-picture.
If this account seems to aerosolize the riot, this is in keeping with the circumstance riot prime confronts. 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. These technologies of control remain incomplete and at a distance in 1740. Contrarily, the postindustrial riot finds only a sampling of commodities in the local shops. Looting seizes upon this as it must: the truth of the old riot, the setting of prices at zero. As Tom Hayden recognized in the first extended treatment of the 1967 Newark rebellion:
The riot was more effective against gouging merchants than organized protest had ever been. The year before a survey was started to check on merchants who weighted their scales. The survey collapsed because of disinterest: people needed power, not proof.32
It remains a core activity, clearly continuous with the interventions of the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, the new riot discovers, as it goes to set the price of goods, that the economy as such has receded into planetary logistics and the global division of labor into the ether of finance. The police, however, are to be found on every corner.
The distance between riot and riot prime, the two emissaries of circulation struggles, thus seems at first to be the difference between price-setting and not, or between struggle in the market and struggle with the state. These aspects, we have been suggesting, are not so easily separated, either practically or theoretically. In considering the new riot, Georgakas and Surkin conclude that
The violence of 1967 was significantly different from that of the earlier Detroit explosions. The riots of 1833, 1863, and 1943 had been conflicts between the races. The 1967 Rebellion was a conflict between blacks and state power. In 1943, whites were on the offensive and rode around town in cars looking for easy black targets. In 1967, blacks were on the offensive and their major target was property. In some neighborhoods, Appalachians, students, and other whites took part in the action alongside blacks as their partners. Numerous photos show systematic and integrated looting, which the rebels called “shopping for free.”33
Janet Abu-Lughod notes that this shift in the object of the riot also describes the rebellions in Harlem and Watts, while insisting that those were “not just about police brutality, however. Both occurred in the context of an economic recession whose effect appeared first in black areas but subsequently spread to the wider U.S. economy,” just as in Detroit.34
In short, the conceptual distinction between state and economic violence is elusive. Guy Debord, assessing the Watts rebellion, theorizes the double confrontation with state and property and their changing positions. “Society finds in looting its natural response to the unnatural and inhuman abundance of commodities,” he writes. This has been consistently misunderstood as suggesting that looting is a hyperbolic realization of consumer ideology (a common refrain from liberal commentators), despite what Debord says immediately after: “It [looting] instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes its ultimate logic: the army, the police and the other specialized forces possessed of the state’s monopoly on armed violence.”35 Perhaps this exposure is the purpose of looting, as Bruno Bosteels has argued, should one seek in French theory the discursive import of riot.36 At the same time, looting is certainly continuous with the practical history of price-setting. Either way, Debord captures something about the overdeveloped world and its apparent abstraction. The police now stand in the place of the economy, the violence of the commodity made flesh. In the burning world of the last instance they are fungible:
What is a policeman? He is the commodity’s active servant, the man fully subsumed by the commodity, by whose efforts a given product of human labor remains a commodity with the magical property of being paid for, not merely a refrigerator or rifle—something blind, passive, insensate, subject to the first person ready to make use of it. Behind the humiliation of being subject to police, Blacks reject the humiliation of being subject to commodities.37
The simplest formula is this. 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. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!