The Long Crisis - RIOT PRIME - Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016)

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



The Long Crisis

Riot and crisis arrive together, each the herald of the other. The new era of riot comes into its own not only with the intensification of urban and then suburban rebellions but with the eclipse of worker’s movements, the trend lines of riot and strike first crossing and then diverging in time with the peak and decline of the “long twentieth century” of American hegemony. What has crisis to do with riot, beyond this coincidence and some anxiously diaphanous sense of things falling apart?

The deep relation of riot and crisis is the concern of what remains of this book, not least because of our core argument: crisis signals a shift of capital’s center of gravity into circulation, both theoretically and practically, and riot is in the last instance to be understood as a circulation struggle, of which the price-setting struggle and the surplus rebellion are distinct, if related, forms. In the foregoing chapters this has been hazarded piecemeal and now deserves a systematic unfolding. This is peculiarly necessary, given that crisis most often appears as a punctual event, even as it expresses an underlying and ongoing process in which capital encounters its internal limits and struggles violently in order to overcome them. Crisis is the exclamation point of profound social reorganization. Riots express this changed social organization, address themselves to it, and seek to abolish it and thus themselves.

The Long Downturn, to take up Brenner’s language, is similar to previous declines. This book argues nonetheless that the past four decades might be understood somewhat differently as a Long Crisis. The current period is distinguished from similar passages in previous cycles to the extent that recoveries of the sort seen previously remain from our vantage invisible. Historically, capital has resolved its unfolding contradiction by relocating elsewhere, seeking out a circumstance where production has not yet undermined itself and the accumulation process can begin again on a new and expanded basis. This has the effect of restabilizing the capitalist world-system volatilized by secular crisis. It is not at all clear that this has happened, or is in motion, in the years since the global economic downturn of the late sixties and early seventies. Bids on a new hegemony by East Asian economies and the Eurozone have foundered en route; “emerging economies” appear already too advanced in their productivity to drive accumulation on a global scale by internalizing masses of new labor into industry or the larger category of manufacture.1 Planetary malaise persists, and volatility with it.

This does not mean that relocations and restorations of capital accumulation are impossible. Only at one’s peril does one make strong claims about a historical period while still within it. Thus these remarks must be somewhat provisional, an attempt to develop a reasonably unified account of the era. There is, at least, some agreement about where to start.

“What about 1973-4, then?” wondered Fernand Braudel, great historian of the longue durée. The year 1973 sees the first in a series of oil shocks, the formal withdrawal of the U.S. from its Southeast Asian adventure, and the final collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system setting the stage for increasing trade and current account imbalances; concomitant with these is a global downturn of markets. This is a bare beginning of the ledger. “Is this a short term conjunctural crisis, as most economists seem to think? Or have we had the rare and unenviable privilege of seeing with our own eyes the century begin its turn?”2

The questions are rhetorical. Braudel is assessing “secular cycles,” the longest of economic periods—what Arrighi would clarify as cycles of accumulation led by a state capable of driving material expansion of a world-economy, over which the leading nation achieves hegemony to the extent that its gains are part of systemic profits (and to the extent that it is able to guarantee stability to the interstate system). Both writers reach back to protocapitalist commercial empires for a consideration of four ever-larger and ever-swifter but similarly patterned cycles. For Braudel, one cycle begins as another ends, in the manner of monarchical reigns. In Arrighi’s revised account, they overlap, one hegemon riding its twilight phase of financialization downward to darkness on extended credit even as it finances a rising hegemon’s acceleration toward industrial takeoff.

Inevitably, “1973” is a metonym for changes too capacious for a single year to contain. Nonetheless, this dating of “the point at which the secular trend begins to go into decline, in other words, the moment of crisis” has become a matter of broad agreement among historians and theorists of the longue durée, relatively small differences notwithstanding.3 We have already encountered the most dramatic fact, from the perspective of accumulation and hegemony: the secular collapse in profitability and growth, led by the decline of U.S. manufacturing, such that the best years of the downturn are worse than the best years of the boom (with only one or two minor exceptions). We might therefore date the cyclical ascent of finance back to this moment, though not because financial has “pushed out” industrial capital—a conceptual model opening onto the catastrophic idea of good and bad capitalism, or healthy and unhealthy capitalism. Capital is a unitary space of flows seeking investment opportunities that will return the average profit rate. When this requirement can no longer be satisfied by a growing industrial sector, profits are stored in safe havens, or reinvested elsewhere in commercial enterprise and/or financial instruments. Financialization is simply the name for this shift in capital flows. When we note the publication of the most celebrated piece of financial engineering, the Black-Scholes option pricing model, or the opening of the first major derivatives market, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, both in 1973, we must be clear that these are not new artillery that allow the forces of finance to batter down the walls of industry. They are consequences of capital’s need for room to move beyond the industrial sector.

The Arc of Accumulation

Crisis theory addresses the question of why industrial expansion must end and give way to the speculative longueurs of finance in a great redirection of capital flows punctuated by a massive devaluation of value. Arrighi and Brenner, arguably the two most cogent economic historians of the passage peaking in 1973, provide diverging explications of this particular waning of accumulation, based on their differing senses of what capitalism is; both also diverge in some details from Marx’s abstract theory of crisis.

Arrighi’s model is undertheorized, in keeping with his more descriptive account of world-economies. He implies a somewhat eclectic causality relying on a largely Smithian theory of crisis premised on market competition that steadily erodes profit margin. Labor struggles (understood in the manner of Karl Polanyi) offer another squeeze on profits, as does the expense of hegemonic duties as global constable. These motivate investment away from the beleaguered state-industrial nexus toward the international financial markets.

Brenner’s more systematic theorization rests on a model of overproduction in which unchallenged U.S. industrial capacity after World War II eventually confronts competition from more efficient international producers, notably Germany and Japan. With high levels of investment sunk already in fixed capital, the value of which can only be recouped through further commodity manufacture, U.S. firms are unable to scale back on production and so are locked into fratricidal competition for market share. Firms that should be washed out of a sector in a flood of creative destruction meant to open channels for new growth instead stagger onward, often supported by the state, which requires their wealth and labor management for its stability. This leads to “what was effectively a process of overinvestment leading to overcapacity and overproduction in manufacturing on an international scale,” initiating systemic turbulence that has not subsided yet.4

Both of these analyses remain at the level of price, the quantitative level that describes the effective manifestation of crisis. For Marx’s value analysis, the movements of profits are surface phenomena corresponding to an underlying shift in the balance of constant to variable capital: means of production to waged labor, or dead to living labor. Despite countervailing forces, this so-called organic composition of capital tends to rise over time as competition compels increasing productivity, iteratively replacing labor with more efficient machines and labor processes (what the twentieth century knew as Fordism and Taylorism respectively).

This increasing domination of dead over living labor is an expression throughout the social whole of the law of value, as increasing productivity decreases the average amount of socially necessary labor time required to produce commodities. The economic consequences proceed unevenly. Initially, increases in productivity generate high profits that draw further investment and more labor into production. These, in combination, produce further expansion. Over time, however, the rise in the ratio of dead to living labor undermines the capacity for value production, living labor in the production process being the sole source of surplus value. The same dynamic that originally drives accumulation—increasing productivity at the nexus of wage and commodity—also undermines it, until manufacturing capacity and labor capacity can no longer be brought together, and instead empty factories and unemployed populations pile up side by side. This expanded process we call the production of nonproduction. Crisis and decline come not from extrinsic shocks but from capital’s internal limits. We might call this the “arc of accumulation” that charts the contradictions of capital along the axis of historical time. To call it an arc doubtless smooths a jagged ride.5 Moreover, the plot does not express some simply quantitative fact about growth rates or the like. The two sides of the arc, although still arrangements of capitalism and expressions of the value dynamic, are qualitatively different in their social organization in a dialectic of continuity and rupture.

In the long twentieth century, the arc of accumulation has seen first the “unprecedented transfer of population from agriculture to industry,” and then, in a great reversal, deindustrialization moving population out of industry and out of the production process more generally into either service work or under- and unemployment.6 These are social reorganizations on a global scale.

Despite their differing analyses of causation both Brenner and Arrighi succeed in excavating the strong relation between the logical account of self-undermining accumulation and the historical account of capitalist cycles, particularly of the current cycle on which they focus. That is, for all its metaphysical subtleties, the debate regarding the so-called Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall has a sufficient correspondence to the rises and falls that Arrighi has brought forth so comprehensively. Arrighi’s account begins with Marx’s formula for expanded reproduction of capital, MCM´ (money-capital-money´): money’s compulsory itinerary from the perspective of the capitalist, passing into commodity production if and only if the resulting commodities can be sold at a higher price—for the capitalist remains a capitalist only if this can be arranged. Arrighi’s novelty is then to displace this logical process onto the empirical history of his “long centuries.” He identifies “the alternation of epochs of material expansion (MC phases of capital accumulation) with phases of financial rebirth and expansion (CM´ phases).” He narrates this phase shift via his temporal opposition of MC and CM´ periods:

In phases of material expansion money capital “sets in motion” an increasing mass of commodities (including commoditized labor-power and gifts of nature); and in phases of financial expansion an increasing mass of money capital “sets itself free” from its commodity form, and accumulation proceeds through financial deals (as in Marx’s abridged formula MM´). Together, the two epochs or phases constitute a full systemic cycle of accumulation (MCM´).7

In the age of modern capitalism, this phase of material expansion is cognate with industrial growth. In such a phase, the main action is the purchase of labor power and of means of production toward the making of commodities—that is to say, valorization within the production process. In the period of financial expansion, the main action is the sale of these commodities toward realization of the value they bear—that is, capital recenters on the marketplace, on exchange and consumption. This is the sense of an era of circulation from the perspective of capital: as production’s capacity for generating high profits declines, capital shifts its investments toward realization in the immediate present of both extant value, and of value allegedly waiting to be generated in the future.

This might be formulated differently. Crisis bursts forth at the moment that profit and expectation of profit cease flowing from manufacturing. In that moment, creditors seek to collect on their debts before the debtors become destitute; debtor firms are in turn compelled to cease reinvesting in production while frantically hawking their wares in the marketplace to meet their obligations. Or we might narrate matters as previously mentioned: the money available for reinvestment ceases moving when manufacturing profits fall below a certain threshold, and increasingly comes to rest in banks, marking time while awaiting sufficiently tempting investment opportunities. This moment of immobility is the moment of crisis; when capital begins to move again, it seeks out both commerce and claims on future value, what Marx calls fictitious capital. A suggestive example from the present era is the extent to which surviving U.S. automakers increasingly derive profits not from production but from financing consumer purchases through in-house credit arms. Again we see that financial expansion is industrial contraction viewed from a different position. And again we have narrated in different terms the same shift from valorization to realization, production to circulation.

Modern capitalism has seen two arcs, British and U.S.-centered, the latter rising as the former declines. Each has its own particularities. They can at the same time be synthesized into one longer arc. From the first takeoff until the recent decline there has always been an engine of global accumulation churning away. From roughly 1830 to 1973 there was a core of productive capital in the west with its ratcheting systemic expansion. It is according to this that we earlier called the period from the eighteenth century to the present a metacycle, a great arc of accumulation in the capitalist world-system following the course of circulation-production-circulation prime.

The period of circulation prime, the social reorganization of Long Crisis, conditions the decline of the strike and the new era of riots in two distinct if inevitably related ways: the spatialization of the economy, and the recomposition of the capital/class relation. Let us take them one at a time, before reuniting them at the end.

The Spatialization of Struggle

Riots are originally struggles over the price of goods, that is, struggles over reproduction outside the wage but still suspended in the market. They are “struggles to control space” and passage through it; there is a slant rhyme between the paradigmatic export riot at King’s Lynn in 1347 and the massive blockade at the Port of Oakland in 2011.8 The control over space takes many forms, often involving efforts to drive police from the commercial districts they defend. Riots are obsessed with buildings, with plazas and passages, with massing in the square and the streets. Hobsbawm devotes a chapter of his book Revolutionaries to urbanism’s role in insurrection. There is something architectural about a riot, which is to say spatial. The barricade, that great instrument of riot, finds its origins in the chaining off of neighborhoods against incursion; the rise of the barricade is nothing but the rise of the first era of riot, receding after the Spring of Nations in 1848.9 The new wide boulevards of the nineteenth century are, in telling after telling, designed to bring an end to barricade and riot both; industrial growth will in the end do a better job of it.

The practical spatiality of riot corresponds to a theoretical distinction. The abstract logic of production is temporal, the abstract logic of circulation spatial. Production is organized by value, by the valorization of commodities, and this value is regulated by the socially necessary labor time. It is through this time that both sides reproduce themselves. In production, both capital and its antagonists struggle over this time—its duration, its price. The strike is a temporal struggle.

Once the temporal value of living labor comes to rest in the commodity, it becomes objectified, spatialized. Circulation is organized by price, by the realization of surplus value as profit when commodities exchange places. This is a conceptually thorny formulation, as is apparent from Marx’s exposition:

Money is now objectified labor, whether it possesses the form of money or of a particular commodity. No objective mode of being of labor is opposed to capital, but all of them appear as possible modes of existence for it, which it can assume through a simple change in form, going from the money form over into the commodity form. The only antithesis to objectified labor is unobjectified labor; in antithesis to objectivized labor, subjectified labor. Or that labor that is present in time, living, in antithesis to labor past in time, but existing in space. As labor that is present in time, unobjectified (and thus also not yet objectified), this can only be present as capacity, possibility, ability, as labor-capacity of the living subject.10

In thinking through the logical relationship of labor and commodities, Marx arrives at the antithesis of unobjectified and objectified labor. On the one side, labor power which has not yet been transferred to a commodity in the production process; on the other, the value objectified in commodities that now enter into the space of circulation, themselves spatial objects. The rise in the ratio of constant to variable capital, dead to living labor, is the process of spatialization itself, and thus the transformation of temporal to spatial struggles.

This distinction exists at the practical level as well, regarding circulation in the concrete sense: transport, communications, finance. Marx famously speaks of “the annihilation of space by time.” This has often been understood as asserting the growing irrelevance of spatial relations to capital. The opposite is the case. Marx argues that space presents itself as the fundamental problem for exchange, and the more capital rests on exchange, the more space poses problems to be overcome:

Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange—of the means of communication and transport—the annihilation of space by time—becomes an extraordinary necessity for it. Only insofar as the direct product can be realized in distant markets in mass quantities in proportion to reductions in the transport costs, and only insofar as at the same time the means of communication and transport themselves can yield spheres of realization for labor, driven by capital; only insofar as commercial traffic takes place in massive volume—in which more than necessary labor is replaced—only to that extent is the production of cheap means of communication and transport a condition for production based on capital, and promoted by it for that reason.11

Readers will likely know the often tedious debates about whether this passage suggests that circulation is internalized to production, or whether this is only an appearance and the works and wares of circulation are, as Marx continues, “a condition for the production process”—a quite different claim.12 For our purposes, the significance is the same. This is particularly the case as we are not claiming that struggles in circulation have privileged relation to value production. In the shift that follows crisis, capital, unable to generate adequate surplus value or growth through conventional manufacturing production, is compelled into the space of circulation to compete for profits there, by decreasing its costs and increasing turnover time for an ever greater volume of commodities. Struggles in this space are thus central to each given capital’s ongoing existence. There is scant intimation that this generates accumulation in the manner of industrial production.

And yet this is the unmistakable fate of capital post-1973, rendering “our present as fundamentally a time of logistics space.”13 This systemic reorganization, Jasper Bernes notes, “indexes the subordination of production to the conditions of circulation, the becoming-hegemonic of those aspects of the production process that involve circulation.” There will be implications in this development for contemporary struggles. “Logistics is capital’s art of war, a series of techniques for intercapitalist and interstate competition.”14 It will require a counterart that adapts itself to this transformed terrain but one that also recognizes logistics space as peculiarly structured by capital’s needs, the sort of machinery that the proletariat may not simply lay hold of and wield for its own purposes.

The massive finance-fueled build-out of global shipping and containerization, arguably the single most foundational project for capital in the era, signals the sea change. It is presaged by the regularization of intermodal shipping containers (having been perfected to address logistical problems of the Vietnam War) via a series of agreements from 1968 to 1970 and deregulation of transport in the following decade.15 The Center for Transportation & Logistics is established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973: “a world leader in supply chain management education and research.”16 Just-In-Time manufacturing, which becomes generalized in the seventies, is the methodological aspect of the same change. Developed in the Japanese auto industry, it is the other of the U.S. auto industry’s Fordist paradigm, discovering efficiencies less in the organization of production than in circulation, inventory, exchange: an interlocking set of practices the core of which constitutes a kind of supply-chain Taylorism.

The correspondence of these developments with industrial crisis verges on absolute. Expressions of this interlocking motion are numerous. In April 1973, Federal Express delivers its first package; forty years into the Long Crisis, FedEx will have the fourth-largest fleet and be by freight the largest airline in the world.17

The End of the Program

The circulatory shift is an economic restructuring that both drives and rests on a massive social reorganization, a recomposition of capital and class. This transforms the political horizons profoundly, and with them the forms of struggle. The underlying changes have proved opaque to some observers. One, writing in the democratic socialist journal Jacobin, discovers in 2015 that “the U.S. economy revolves around the sprawling logistics industry” and can conclude only, “after three decades of gut-wrenching changes to the industrial economy, I believe that socialists can, once again, have an industrial strategy in the United States.”18 Another proffer from the same venue notices the same transformation “particularly in lean production and just-in-time inventories,” and recognizes the resulting importance of “focusing on these distribution points” so as to “blockade distribution.” The author recommends toward this purpose the organization of “strategically placed groups of workers.”

These instances correctly recognize the vast transfer of labor from industrial production into the space of circulation, distribution, exchange. However, the significance of this as an aspect of a thoroughgoing social restructuring is neglected. One could forgive a reader for being perplexed as to why the hollowing out of the industrial sector, the historical basis for socialist organizing, would call for “an industrial strategy” once again. One might in turn ask why “blockading distribution,” precisely the tactic of nonworkers both logically and historically, demands “groups of workers.” From this perspective, no matter the problem, the solution is always the same: industrial labor organization. It is always the time of strike.

One might argue that circulation workers are somehow more difficult to organize, that something peculiar to the new workplace excludes the possibility. There are reasons to believe such a thing. In addition to disaggregation and deskilling as barriers to organization, the traditional downing of tools presupposes a sense of moral possession by the workers of their equipment, a remnant of artisanal and craft cultures that provides a legitimating function alien to the realm of circulation. That said, there is no argument here against such organizing. The 1997 UPS strike shows such things are possible. It is inevitable that a growing percentage of the vanishingly few strikes will be in circulation, and that labor actions will shift toward circulation struggles, as a practical matter. Consider the illustrative tactical shift on the part of French trade unions, for example when French oil refineries and petroleum depots were blockaded for two weeks in 2010.19 More broadly, normative arguments about what people who struggle should do miss the most basic truth. People will struggle where they are.

Our argument is that people are somewhere else. And further that the explosion of such workplaces is symptomatic of a larger restructuring which augurs poorly for the potential of such organizing. Labor in the overdeveloped world has not simply shifted its center of gravity in some neutral sense. Its relation to accumulation is profoundly changed, and against this change a demand for unchanged forms of action seems at best a failure of understanding. A class politics of even the most recondite or reductionist variety is now compelled to refigure itself according to these great political-economic transformations or consign itself to the endless role-playing of a backdated romance to which the perfume of 1917 always clings.

Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara summarizes these ritualistic politics. He recognizes that it “might be helpful to consider the ways in which the current situation resembles a return to pre-Fordism”; given the resemblance, the politics on offer then must surely still obtain, and “sometimes new crises have to be confronted with old vocabulary.”20 But which old vocabulary is that, and why would it demand the same set of strategies these thinkers have been propounding for more than a century without variation? We might note here a simple error in grasping the character of the arc of accumulation. It supposes that a point on the descent would be historically identical to a point on the ascent simply because they were at the same height (of profit or unemployment rate, etc.). This misprision does not take into account the vector: 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. The conditions that historically enable the socialist vocabulary—real accumulation, a taut labor market, the possibility of gaining power by appropriating a share of that accumulation, an expanding industrial proletariat—no longer obtain. The progressive gains that might empower and embolden the mass party depending on labor organizing are no longer within reach as they were during economic growth, expansion, and boom. This is part of a broader shift: “The year 1978,” as a business historian succinctly noted, was “Waterloo for unions, regulators, Keynesian tax reformers.”21

Perhaps we might concede that Sunkara is half right. It is inevitably the case that we will understand new moments first through old vocabularies. But we are farther along the arc than he can suppose, and so might need to reach back for a rather older lexicon and make it new. It is earlier than we think. Which is to say, it is a good deal later.

The waning of the labor movement in the west needs little narration here. Counternarratives, particularly those that suggest the decline results from ideological combat, failures of will, or strategic errors, have by now been subjected to what Marx called the practical criticism of the real. The basic data are well known. Arguably the clearest is the collapse toward zero of strikes involving more than 1,000 workers beginning in the late seventies. For those skeptical of that measure (which correlates poorly with unionization), the situation might be rendered thus: in the United States after 1981, only three years exceed 10 million cumulative days idle from strike actions, with several years below 1 million. From 1947 to 1981, the figure exceeds 10 million every single year, averaging more than twice that.22

We might find a decisive moment by returning once more to Detroit and to 1973, where “for the first time in the history of the UAW, the union mobilized to keep a plant open.”23 This will swiftly become the paradigm for labor organizing, wanted or not. With the hollowing-out of the industrial sector and the loss of profitability, the main threat for both capital and labor is that a given firm will cease to exist. And, at a larger scale, that capital’s own capacity for self-reproduction will collapse. From that point on, struggles against capital can only be against capital’s existence, rather than for the empowering of labor. Capital and labor find themselves now in collaboration to preserve capital’s self-reproduction, to preserve the labor relation along with the firm’s viability. This provides near-absolute limits for bargaining.

We might call it “the affirmation trap,” in which labor is locked into the position of affirming its own exploitation under the guise of survival. It is a version of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism.” Optimism is cruel in an ever more common situation:

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.24

Surely this describes with exactitude not just any relation, but the exigencies of the labor relation in the Long Crisis. The affirmation trap is cruel optimism at its most obdurate stratum, existing independently of libidinal attachments, its compulsions involving no misrecognition. The sustaining pleasures are food and shelter.

Caught in the affirmation trap, labor ceases to be the antithesis of capital. This might be seen as the ironic endgame of the very affirmation that defines the socialist horizon of struggle, in which “revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalized self-management, or a ‘society of associated producers.’”25

These are the terms in which the group Théorie Communiste defines “programmatism,” the central model of class-based revolutionary struggle in the twentieth century. Moishe Postone identifies programmatism (he does not use the term) with “traditional Marxism” that, he argues, misrecognizes the basis of capitalism as ownership of the means of production, while treating productive labor as “the transhistorical source of wealth and the basis of social constitution.” Seizure of the means of production therefore preserves the capitalist form of wealth while redistributing it socially, and so “traditional Marxism replaces Marx’s critique of the mode of production and distribution with a critique of the mode of distribution alone.”26 Thus the distinction used here between socialism and communism: the former indicating this distributionist model, the latter indicating the abolition of the economy and the end of the indexical relation between one’s labor and any relation or access to social wealth.

This “traditional Marxism” must be taken historically. The socialist horizon of programmatism should not be understood as an analytical or moral failing, nor as a kind of stopping short; there would be a passage from socialism to communism (or from a lower to higher phase of communism, as Marx has it in Critique of the Gotha Program). Rather, it accurately refracts the real conditions of the world in which it arises. It is a struggle against capital “seen from the point of view of the worker, i.e., from the point of view of the cycle of productive capitalism,” in the words of Gilles Dauvé.27 That is to say, it arises with the rising power of industrial labor, which is why workers in this sector are able to stand as the revolutionary class fraction. Their growth is capital’s expansion. This does not, however, imply an immutable standpoint or form of struggle: “the centrality of proletarian labor to Marx’s analysis of capitalism should not be taken as an affirmative evaluation on his part of its ontological primacy to social life, or as part of an argument that workers are the most oppressed group in society.”28

It is from the far side of accumulation’s rainbow that programmatism’s historical limits become evident. When the class fraction that centered the program era no longer exerts a peculiar power over capital, such a course of struggle is foreclosed. This outcome is not the consequence of political wiles, of some nefarious policy deployment under the heading of “neoliberalism.” It is capital’s own self-transformation from the perspective of labor—labor forced now to affirm capital in the same gesture through which it affirms its own being. It is precisely this struggle for self-preservation, what Théorie Communiste calls “class belonging as an external constraint,” which is the limit for labor struggles as revolutionary engine.29 Wage demands, once imagined to offer advantage or even leverage toward the abolition of class, must now be fitted to the needs of capital’s self-reproduction as that self-reproduction enters into crisis. In its twilit lassitude, the working class is reduced to reproducing little beyond the conditions of its own immiseration. The wage struggle retains its legitimacy as a claim on survival—wage, wage against the dying of the light—but at the same time legitimates capital. It has no beyond.


The riot seeks to preserve nothing, to affirm nothing but for perhaps a shared antagonist, a shared misery, a shared negation. It lacks a program. Under the heading “This was not a movement,” one commentator on the 2011 London riots writes,

In the August unrest, nothing in the situation of its protagonists was worth defending: neighborhood, residency, community, ethnicity and race, were all revealed as aspects of capital’s reproduction, which produces these proletarians as actual paupers … The language of the riots was not the positive language of the “movement,” social change, demands or politics, but the negative language of vandalism. What happened was a lot of destruction, nothing was built, no plans, no strategies.30

This is for many observers riot’s most unsettling characteristic. In the face of this, the demand for a program, the demand for demands, is itself a familiar demand, the death rattle of prescriptive politics. It will not be met. But this is not to say riot lacks determinations. In fact, the riot is astonishingly overdetermined by the array of historical transformations that make the particular genre of antagonism we call circulation struggles inevitable.

A summary will be useful. The social surplus accompanying accumulation has dwindled, and with it the capacity of capital and state to meet demands for both direct and social wages, occasional exceptions notwithstanding. The wage demand is foreclosed as anything but a rearguard action inseparable from the affirmation of capital’s being. Capital has shifted its hopes for profit into the space of circulation, and thus shifted its vulnerability there. Labor has shifted into circulation with it. So has nonlabor: the under- and unemployed, those left to informal economies, those left to molder. This deindustrialization has been dramatically racialized.

The death of the wage demand spells the fading of production struggles unified by the participants’ shared role as wage labor. At the same time, the circulation struggle has no logical requirement that its participants be workers. If labor has the immediate access and legitimacy to interrupt production in the factory, anyone can liberate a marketplace, close a road, close a port. As in the eighteenth century, rioters may be workers, but they do not appear as workers; participants are not unified by their possession of jobs but by their more general dispossession. Into the space of the market they go, struggling for reproduction beyond the wage. This is the definition we offered in the introduction, come round again.

Perhaps, then, “overdetermination” gets it wrong. A new situation for social contest has been generated. A new arrangement of population through the same motion generates circulation workers and nonworkers, who happen to share a relation to that situation of contest. This shift in forms of collective action is one of dialectical deftness. But the dialectic needs the proletariat, and have we not just declared the working class dead?