With the launching of new material on this website, we are also archiving some articles that the handful of ultras involved in this project have written elsewhere. This is one of those archived pieces, originally published in another location.
“Poverty in itself does not make men into a rabble; a rabble is created only when there is joined to poverty a disposition of mind, an inner indignation against the rich, against society, against the government.”
-G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right
The World’s on Fire, Again
With global capital still passing discontent from continent to continent like a game of hot potato, it’s now an oft-stated adage that we live in an “era of riots.” Blaumachen, a Greek theoretical collective often associated with the communization current, has posted a new article updating its previous analyses of this global trend. Despite accusations of obscurantism leveled at many groups in the milieu, collectives like Blaumachen are at least admirable in their attempt to craft a recognizable analysis of current events out of the more abstract economic and political theory put forward by other theoretical collectives such as Théorie Communiste and Troploin.
In their newest work, Blaumachen propose that the current era of riots exhibits a global unevenness which can be anatomized into four distinct dynamics. This uneven dynamism is evidenced by recent unrest in countries like Sweden, as well as the “IMF miracle” countries, Turkey and Brazil. The mass mobilizations in these countries seem to pose new limits and prospects for global revolt in the present moment.
In Blaumachen’s schema, the global dynamics are as follows:
- Riots of the excluded. These are riots such as those in the Stockholm suburbs this year, across England in 2011, and in the French banlieuesin 2005. Presumably, this also includes things like the Flatbush Rebellion here in the US. Their participants are generally unemployed, homeless and/or immigrant youth, those resigned to a (sub)urban underclass, constantly harassed by police, with little hope of any advancement or even formal incorporation into the legally-recognized economy. These riots take place mainly “in countries which are high in the capitalist hierarchy.”
- Riots of the middle-strata. These are riots, rebellions and occupations such as those across Turkey in 2013, the Squares movement in Greece and Spain in 2011-12, and the revolts of the Arab Spring (presumably excluding events in Libya and Syria). Here participation is more diverse, but the key factor “is that the so-called ‘middle-strata’ are involved, and their ‘democratic’ discourse is constitutive for the movements produced.” These riots “take place mainly in countries in the second zone and the so-called ‘emerging economies,’” though the inclusion of Spain signals that this very geopolitical stratification is increasingly threatened by the deepening of the crisis itself.
- Revindicative movements. These are riots, strikes, mass protests and blockades concentrated mostly in the booming economies of China and Southeast Asia. They take the form of “revindicative” struggles, meaning that they are making specific claims contra capital and winning gains of higher wages, lowered hours, increased safety and benefits, greater environmental regulation, etc. Examples are the massive waves of worker unrest in China, including the Foxconn suicides, strikes and riots of 2009-2013, the Honda strike in 2010, and the recent Hong Kong dock strike/occupation, as well as similar actions by workers in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere.
- State-integrated resistance. This is the least theorized of the categories, though probably the most relevant with recent events in Brazil. This dynamic “concerns the development of the contradictions in Latin American countries, which have managed to integrate resistance to neoliberalism into the state,” apparently covering events in the Populist Latin American governments like Brazil and Argentina, as well as the ostensibly “Socialist” ones, such as Bolivia and Venezuela.
Blaumachen add that, though the first and second dynamics appear increasingly connected and sometimes intersectional, it is not evident if or how the third or fourth dynamic connect with each other or with the first two—though Brazil may be currently overturning this rule. Blaumachen’s focus is instead on the first two dynamics, and specifically on whether or not the state will be able to keep them from catastrophically intersecting in a time of crisis.
Many might oppose this sort of approach entirely, arguing that the imposition of artificial categories onto something as heterogeneous as global mass uprisings is a hopelessly abstracted procedure. The critique has some truth to it, in that we can never hope to reduce peoples’ struggles to our analytic categories—and these categories themselves, if transmuted into a dogma, will tend to blind us to ground changes in the real world. This, of course, happens frequently in vulgar Marxist currents, with people attempting to apply Lenin’s theory of imperialism, for example, as if it were an invariant law of nature, regardless of era or context. But the actual Marxist approach has always sought to be a living one, responsive to (and in fact generated by) peoples’ motion. This motion, of course, cannot be understood without a critical understanding of capitalism’s own fundamental drives—which is not the same as arguing that we ought to reduce the former to the latter.
Blaumachen’s analysis, in this context, is clearly driven by this living spirit in Marxist analysis. It follows from peoples’ own momentum in the real world, rather than attempting to simply apply analytical schema (whether drawn from economics or poststructuralism) from above. It avoids the normal Eurocentrism of most insurrectionary material while at the same time acknowledging that the riots within Europe are themselves often linked to distinct racial and class differentials—also implying that these riots are not entirely disconnected from imperial endeavors outside the US and Europe. But it has a few strange omissions. The authors offhandedly dismiss Occupy as simply “an activists’ movement […] not a mass movement,” while never even mentioning radical indigenous struggles and rural uprisings, such as the repeated occupations and blockades in British Columbia and Quebec, Idle No More, recent actions by the Zapatistas and new armed occupations by indigenous groups in Cherán, Mexico.
In other circumstances, such oversights would simply be the result of brevity, with those events assumed to be included somewhere in the schema, in the same way that the Quebec student strikes might be included in the second dynamic without explicitly being mentioned. But the problem here seems to be that none of the four “dynamics of class struggle” actually describe these movements—or, if they arguably do, the inclusion of something like Occupy (for example) into the dynamic actually changes the dynamic itself. A similar phenomenon occurs for the entire gamut of labor conflict and armed struggle in South Asia, as well as massive uprisings which do not so easily fit into the supposed trend for SE Asia, such as the 2010 Red Shirt occupation of central Bangkok, which was hardly just a revindicative movement, and in fact came closer to actual insurrection or civil war than anything in Greece, England or Spain so far. Similarly, womens’ struggles, whether they be mass riots and protests across South Asia, or the increasingly riotous response to recent attempts to ban abortion in the US, are either ignored or presumably subsumed into separate dynamics.
So the first step in refining Blaumachen’s conception might be the addition of a fifth and sixth dynamic of global class struggle:
- Indigenous and Peasant Resistance. This includes everything from the autonomous movements of Chiapas and Michoacán to the remnant Maoist armed struggles in South Asia and the Philippines, Idle No More, indigenous resistance to genocide in the Amazon and the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil.
- Riots against Gender. This includes the many mujerista/feminist struggles that have been (re-)emerging in the last decade, as well as the GLBTQ movement in its various forms, especially those aimed directly at the abolition of gender itself. Many of these have emerged in societies with some sort of peasant agricultural base (or the heritage of one), as has been obvious in the women-led Oaxaca Commune as well as the mass actions against rape across India this last year. Others have had their centers in the high-GDP countries, such as the growing protests against rape culture and the attempt to ban abortions in the US. Still others involve a largely female industrial workforce, particularly in SE Asia, who do not limit their grievances to the production floor.
These new dynamics also intersect with the four above. The Red Shirt occupation, characterized by an alliance between the urban poor and rural peasantry against the urban upper and middle classes (supported by the royalty and the military) represents just such an intersection between the new fifth dynamic and the third, covering revindicative struggles in high-growth economies. Similarly, the mass rebellion in Brazil may well turn into a complex intersection between the first, second, fourth and fifth dynamics, as the MST and other forms of indigenous resistance come into contact with the excluded urban underclass, the revolting middle-strata and the left-wing Populist government led by a former armed guerrilla. The anti-rape protests across India intersect with dynamics of the second and fifth order, while womens’ struggles in China and SE Asia come directly into contact with riots that Blaumachen relegate to the “revindicative” sphere.
But, though potentially useful, the simple addition of ever-more categories does not actually seem to help triangulate a more accurate analysis of what class forces are in motion, much less if, why and how best revolutionaries might intervene in them.
Was Occupy a Riot?
Occupy provides a good example of the above schema’s limitation. Blaumachen dismisses Occupy as an “activists’ movement” with little justification as to what this means or what the qualitative distinction is between a relatively large “activists’ movement” and an authentic mass movement in a country like the United States. Rather than getting into any analytical depth here, the question is simply ignored and class struggle in the heart of global capitalism is dropped from the four dynamics entirely, save where it appears as the action of an excluded minority.
An Occupy Wall Street March protesting the state murder of Troy Davis is attacked by NYPD.
But if we actually examine Occupy, it’s clear that more was going on. First, Occupy always had an interrelation with dynamics of the first order. Though it began on September 17th, 2011, Occupy Wall Street only actually became a national phenomenon a week later, when large numbers of people were violently arrested on camera by the NYPD during a march to protest the state-sanctioned execution of Troy Davis.
Moreover, the most radical occupations such as Oakland, from the beginning included a large base among “the excluded”. These occupations had their immediate lineage both in the recent riots against police murder and the 2009 California Student Movement, seeming, in the above schema, simultaneously link Occupy to riots of the excluded as well as the occupations/strikes by students and other members of the “middle-strata” in Greece, Spain, Quebec and elsewhere.
More importantly, as Occupy progressed, it seemed to take on more and more the same international character, though with its own unique characteristics. The West Coast Port Shutdown began to expand the scope of the general economic disruption into national networks of circulation, merging with a cycle of struggles on the waterfront which both preceded Occupy and continued on after it. The Occupations themselves were frequently marked by increasing contact between society’s excluded underclass and the downwardly-mobile younger, whiter protestors who dominated the early movement, which often led to a process of ongoing radicalization.
Even among this downwardly mobile urban professional (“dumpy”) strata, though, most of the participants were hardly “activists,” and many who later became the core of later Occupy (often deemed the die-hard, hanger-on activist crowd) were in fact only recently politicized by Occupy itself. This is something difficult to prove with any statistic or news story. But it is obvious to those of us who participated in various Occupations that, at least in cities like Oakland and Seattle, the majority of the people attending protests, planning events and, eventually, resisting the police were hardly activists. Certainly, pre-existing radical cliques of all sorts intervened in these mobilizations (and were themselves changed by this intervention), but hardly any action was suffocated by activism in the same way as most single-issue campaigns in the US, and the messaging and trajectory were never as miserably dominated by the activist mentality as something like the Anti-Iraq War movement or even the 1999 anti-WTO protests. Certainly, plenty of activist sloganeering attempted to dominate Occupy at various stages, and in many cities may have succeeded—but in certain radical cores this activism short-circuited itself, ultimately leading to a media portrayal of a two-poled national movement, with the more liberal, activistish Occupy Wall Street on one side and, on the other, the unabashedly radical Occupations, centered in Oakland.
If Occupy can be said to have ended at any distinct moment, it was on May Day, 2012, when the focus shifted from Oakland to Seattle, where a hundred-strong black bloc moved through the downtown core smashing banks, federal property and the storefronts of multinational garment corporations while three to four hundred plainclothes protestors cheered. A form of soft martial law was declared for the entire downtown region, with police ordered to move into the crowd and confiscate anything they deemed to be a weapon. By the next march, the total group had doubled in size, leading to renewed battles with police followed by continued growth in the size of the crowd. Based on personal conversations, participants ascertained that many new arrivals had heard about the declaration of martial law and come downtown in order to stand against it.
May Day 2012 was the last big mobilization branded as an “Occupy” action in most cities. In the Pacific Northwest it led to a series of raids against radicals and the initiation of a grand jury for the purpose of socially-mapping the region’s networks of revolutionaries, which led to the months-long imprisonment of several anarchists without charge.
A year later, on May Day 2013, another large anti-capitalist march was attacked by the police, with the participants fighting back, leading to a general escalation in which the police rained teargas, rubber bullets and percussion grenades on the central Pike-Pine corridor and then patrolled the area with an armored vehicle. After the day was over, it became evident that the march this year was composed not so much of the highly-educated “middle-strata,” but of a combination of radicals and homeless and un-or-underemployed youth, putting it much more directly in line with the type of riot Blaumachen identify as a riot of the excluded.
For perspective: the 2013 riot was numerically about as large as the recent riots in the Stockholm suburbs, though it was crushed much quicker by the far more militarized Seattle Police Department, with the city also choosing to imprison many of the arrestees and charge them with serious felonies. The black bloc ‘riot’ of 2012, by comparison, included two to three times as many people early in the day (when most of the targeted property destruction happened).
Riots and the Rebirth of History
Aside from Blaumachen, another important schematization of our era of riots has arisen in the recent work of the communist philosopher, Alain Badiou. Though often criticized (like the communizers) for the abstraction of much of his philosophical work, in his recent book, The Rebirth of History, Badiou has actually given a fairly straightforward and practical anatomy of the recent global uprisings, similar to that of Blaumachen’s.
Whereas Blaumachen separate the riots region-by-region, somewhat homogenizing their unique characteristics by over-emphasizing the national focus and prematurely splitting the analysis between “core” and “periphery” nations, Badiou instead focuses on the content of the riots to determine their dividing lines.
Badiou argues that there are three types of riot: the immediate, the latent and the historical.
- Immediate Riot. This first riot is defined as “unrest among a section of the population, nearly always in the wake of a violent episode of state coercion” (p. 22). A key word here is the “section of the population,” which signifies that this sort of riot normally limits itself to one social subset, often defined by race, age or employment status. The immediate riot is often spearheaded by youth. Geographically, it is “located in the territory of those who take part in it” (p. 23). As in Flatbush or the suburbs of Stockholm, these riots are often unable to spread from their neighborhood base except by spreading to youth in similar situations in other neighborhoods “not by displacement, but by imitation” (as happened in France in 2005, England in 2011 and Sweden in 2013). They are located in the ‘home territory,’ so to speak, of the rioters—even if that be the downtown corridor populated by street youth, as in Seattle in 2013. This is what Badiou calls a “weak localization, an inability of the riot to displace itself” (p. 24). The immediate riot is also “indistinct” in character, making it impossible to “clearly distinguish between what pertains to a partially universalizable intention and what remains confined to a rage with no purpose other than the satisfaction of being able to crystallize and find hateful objects to destroy or consume” (p. 25). This prevents the immediate riot from being directly political or even articulating its own motion to itself, much less cohering around some sort of singular enemy (such as Mubarak’s government in Egypt, for example).
- Latent Riot. The latent riot is not, in strict terms, a “riot” as we think of it. The latent riot often involves some sort of strike, occupation or blockade, though it doesn’t necessarily involve the violent confrontation between the strikers, occupiers or blockaders and the police. In this sense, much of Occupy could be characterized as a very big, often energetic but nonetheless latent riot, which was only ever quasi-riotous, except for a few select instances of targeted, mass property destruction and a few defensive anti-police “riots.” The same can be said of the recent indigenous blockades in Quebec and British Columbia, as well as the breadth of the Idle No More movement—even though the Canadian government has warned that it could grow into an insurrectionary power, it still remains a more or less latent force today. What the latent riot does have, however, is some level of linkage “between several social strata that are generally separated, thus creating on the spot a new subjective type beyond the fragmentation reproduced by both the state and its union appendages” (p. 31). Whether this linkage be between downwardly-mobile middle strata and homeless youth or between students and port workers, the latent riot allows for linkages across social subsets which do not normally exist in the immediate riot.
- Historical Riot. The historical riot grows out of the immediate riot, representing the transformation of the latter “into a pre-political riot.” This happens when the immediate riot’s limited localization is shifted to “the construction of an enduring central site,” such as Tahrir, Taksim or Ratchaprasong. This transforms the time-frame of the riot from the temporary, “wasted” time of the immediate riot into “the extended time of the historical riot, which instead resembles the old sieges of a town, except that it involves laying siege to the state” (p. 34). This also involves a shift from “extension by imitation to qualitative extension” (ibid), where we see a unification that cuts across different social substrata, with students, workers, the unemployed, street youth, housewives, etc. all being drawn into the same site of resistance and often combining their many messages into “a single slogan that envelops all the disparate voices,” (p. 35) such as the demand that the existing government step down.
Important to Badiou’s tripartite schema is his general framing, which argues that “these riotous tendencies [are] characteristic actions of what I shall call intervallic periods,” which are times when “the revolutionary idea of the preceding period, which naturally encountered formidable obstacles—relentless enemies without and a provisional inability to resolve important problems within—is dormant” (p. 39). The riot, as “the guardian of the history of emancipation in intervallic periods” (p. 41), can act as the harbinger of a “rebirth of history,” wherein the revolutionary idea begins again to gain coherence through constant exercises in articulation.
Badiou explicitly notes that today is not the era of riots, so much as an era of riots, markedly similar to the period 1815-1850 which preceded the last cycle of the revolutionary idea (beginning with the communist response to the revolutions of 1848 and then, later, the Paris Commune). The riots of these intervallic periods, existing in times of massive repression when the ideology of the oppressors is hegemonic, are inherently marked by the failures of the previously dominant revolutionary idea and are usually stuck within its limits—with today’s riots, strikes and occupations echoing similar events in the summer of ’68, at the beginning of the end of the last revolutionary cycle. Similarly, in Paris in 1848, different radical forces explained themselves in the terms set by the republican tradition, and it was not until the conscious, organized building-up of a communist idea of emancipation contra the liberal one that the mass movements could torque themselves out of this historical suffocation.
For Badiou, then, the myriad dynamics of the present moment may not be defined so much on a nation-by-nation or region-by-region basis as on their specific conjunctural qualities. In this sense, events in Thailand, Turkey, Tunisia, Greece, Michoacán and, maybe, Spain and Brazil each contain the unique combinations that make for an historical riot, regardless of their particular region—though certainly still determined by their relative positions on the global capitalist hierarchy. Similarly, the latent riot helps to better define everything from Idle No More (and the indigenous blockades and other resistance which preceded and followed it) to the Quebec Student movement, Occupy in the US, the Chilé student movement, and even possibly the state-facilitated populist “socialism” of certain Latin American countries.
Where do the Faultlines Converge?
Combining both Blaumachen’s and Badiou’s criteria, then, the most volatile potential may not lie in the already-existing historical riots in Thailand, Egypt, Turkey, or, now, Brazil, but in the potential contact points between latent riots in the high-GDP nations and the riots of the excluded in those same nations. As argued above for Occupy, there are already major interlinkages between the two, with the radical base of Occupy Oakland and Occupy Seattle, for example, being already largely forged out of previous struggles against state murders perpetrated against the excluded. Later, in the crushing of Occupy, US cities actively repurposed legislation originally designed for social exclusion in order to silence explicit dissent by those formally outside of the excluded population.
This is part of an evolving trend wherein the War on Drugs apparatus of draconian sentencing, racial profiling and militarization of municipal police forces has begun to fuse into the War on Terror apparatus, designed to target groups by ideology, resulting in early entrapment schemes against radicals in the Green Scare and RNC protests and the recent raids and grand juries targeting anarchists in the Pacific Northwest. This clearly shows either an extension of the category of the excluded to include radicals, as was common in the Social Revolutionary years of the 1880s and 90s, or the expansion of social-control mechanisms designed for minority and “surplus” populations to (again) repress discontent generally—with a police state that has justified its existence in terms of protecting the “middle strata” from the “dangerous” racial and immigrant undercaste(s) now being used to repress those in that middle-strata who are either coming to revolutionary consciousness or simply resisting the dissolution of that middle-strata itself.
Blaumachen touches on this when they note the unique position of a country like Spain, which seems to break the pattern by having a riot of the middle strata occur in a nation well up the capitalist hierarchy. As they say: “The fact that a country which does not belong in these [second-tier or “emerging economy”] zones, Spain, is part of this grouping suggests that the crisis affirms the undermining of this stratification, which had already taken place over the course of this cycle of accumulation (from the crisis of the ‘70s up to about 2008).” In Badiou’s schema, Spain is a situation in which a latent riot became decreasingly latent over time—one of the first few examples of a latent riot with potential to seed immediate riots in the short term and expand into an historical riot in the long term. Greece would be another good case study in this respect, depending on whether or not the rise of SYRIZA dampens or enhances insurrectionary energies.
But Blaumachen also seems to be plainly wrong, at least for the US, when they remark that “these dynamics have not yet come into play in the very core (USA-Germany).” In fact, a country like the United States seems very much caught up in these dynamics, with levels of poverty and immiseration often comparable to those in the “undeveloped” world, though distributed unevenly, a massive resource-extraction base which is entering into a renewed cycle of accumulation, and, of course, an almost exponentially deepening austerity, stripping away the last guarantees of social welfare or even any hope at becoming some sort of skilled laborer for all those in “generation fucked.” Occupy was one outgrowth of this, as are the repeated uprisings of the excluded, as in Flatbush.
Similarly, in Canada we see simultaneous rebellions of the middle-strata (in Quebec) and the indigenous, both latent to varying degrees and often directly responsive to the same kind of renewed resource-extraction base gaining dominance in the US—this time with strong foreign-direct investment by Chinese billionaires like Li Ka-shing, who also owns majority shares in the Hutchinson Whampoa conglomerate that controls the ports in Hong Kong where workers struck earlier this year.
One goal of revolutionaries in these high-GDP zones should be to aid in building cross-strata participation in these riots and rebellions as well as deepening them when they happen, pushing latent riots to become a little less latent and a little more riot. Blaumachen’s analysis makes this often seem redundant or unnecessary, since these countries will either be ready for such action (and generate it naturally) or not—we ought to, however, hold strong to the thesis that the present moment contains possibility, but not guarantee, and that revolutionaries must act as vicars of the future in the present.
The fact is clear enough, anyways, that many of us to some degree belong to those excluded underclasses and downwardly-mobile middle strata and, whether we like it or not, are “fusing with the people” simply by being dumped into the low-wage and black-market economies—in this case the question of a (party-less) “vanguard” force within the proletariat is nothing more than a chicken-and-egg conundrum between peoples’ motion and consciousness, with crisis preceding both nonetheless.
More importantly, we ought to take Badiou’s message to heart and begin seeking out the early rudiments of a new revolutionary discipline in the shadows of the present. This means approaching these riots critically, as problematics of organization, though clearly unsolvable through the application of inherited (and distorted) blueprints from eras long past or a resignation to the serendipitous guarantee of the multitude’s inherent arc toward communism. Despite plenty of criticisms based on misapprehensions of Badiou’s basic argument, this does not entail a simple endorsement of “more hierarchy” in the name of an intellectually-abstracted “Idea.” The revolutionary idea is itself only projected forward by the engaged practice of revolutionaries embedded among people in motion—history does not pre-exist or continue on after the struggles which compose it, and it can, indeed, die in times of stagnation before being “reborn.”
The Zapatistas are one example (by no means perfect) of how revolutionaries might work through the problematic posed by a particular rebellion (in this case the continuous rebellion of the indigenous peoples of southern Mexico, which pre-existed the coming of the urban Marxist guerrillas from the north by several hundred years). But it is impossible to then assume, as many Autonomists do, that the forms established by the Zapatistas can just generalize globally through internet-fueled resonance and remain sufficient methods of organization, with minor tweaks, regardless of the concrete situation. The Zapatistas’ forms of organization, themselves not without problems, were the disciplined outcome of a confrontation and fusion with a particular rebellion (of the 5th and 6th dynamics, added to Blaumachen’s list above). We must engage in a similar procedure for the dynamics which exist in our own countries, and we should not assume that these will necessarily be cut from the same cloth as the EZLN (or the Naxalites, the Nepali Maoists, etc.).
This is by no means to say that each of the dynamics is equal. They are each weighted very differently, both in their capacity to threaten the basic structure of global capitalism and in their potential to merge with different dynamics and jump across social strata. It’s in this sense that Blaumachen and Badiou come up lacking, both having hence left riots and rebellions across Asia almost entirely un- or undertheorized.
Considering that Asia itself contains nearly half the world’s population (and a major portion of its manufacturing power), it is not an insignificant distinction that most of the riots in China, for example, have a revindicative character—they make (and often win) specific demands of capital, and have thus far been successful in gradually extending social welfare to more and more workers, even those who hold rural hukou status. As manufacturing begins to penetrate Vietnam and Cambodia, there is hardly a lag anymore between the founding of Special Economic Zones and the beginning of mass strikes by the (often largely female) factory workers, demanding higher pay, fewer hours and increased benefits. More importantly, these are riots which exist without preceding crisis—in China perpetrated by a younger generation of (migrant) laborers who have never experienced anything but economic growth.
This means that, more than anything, revolutionaries must understand the changing nature of global capital on the global scale—not limiting ourselves to the romantic fascination with riots in the high-GDP countries and their immediate periphery. A huge part of this project will be to begin a sustained focus on the dynamics that exist outside of the US-Euro “core” (to the extent that it still exists as such), how these dynamics could potentially enhance or undercut revolutionary dynamics elsewhere (Chinese investment in Canada and Eastern Europe would be good case studies) and how all of this stratifies itself across different activity spheres within capitalism. Badiou and Blaumachen offer, at the very least, a good starting point for this critical project, which can be built on for the future.