Beyond strike and riot: the commune as a form-of-life

  • June 20, 2016

Anarchism & Autonomy

The riot, the blockade, the barricade, the occupation. The commune. These are what we will see in the next decades, argues Joshua Clover in his latest book.

This is an abridged excerpt from Joshua Clover new book, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings, which is now out from Verso.

Riots are coming. They are already here, more are on the way, no one doubts it. They deserve an adequate theory. A theory of riot is a theory of crisis. This is true at a vernacular and local level, in moments of shattered glass and fire, wherein riot is taken to be the irruption of a desperate situation, immiseration at its limit, the crisis of a given community or city, of a few hours or days.

Regardless of perspective, riots have achieved an intransigent social centrality. Labor struggles have in the main been diminished to ragged defensive actions, while the riot features increasingly as the central figure of political antagonism, a specter leaping from insurrectionary debates to anxious governmental studies to glossy magazine covers. The names have become ordinal points of our time. The new era of riots has roots in Watts, Newark, Detroit; it passes through Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Los Angeles in 1992, arriving in the global present of São Paulo, Gezi Park, San Lázaro. The proto-revolutionary riot of Tahrir Square, the nearly permanent riot of Exarcheia, the reactionary turn of Euromaidan. In the twilit core: Clichy-sous-Bois, Tottenham, Oakland, Ferguson, Baltimore. Too many to count.

The riot, the blockade, the barricade, the occupation. The commune. These are what we will see in the next five, fifteen, forty years.

The list is not new. It has become a kind of common sense among a few groups that identify themselves with the end of the Program. In my new book, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016), I have tried to set forth the theoretical and historical bases for why further struggles in the sphere of circulation are inevitable in the present circumstances, and how a fuller understanding of this conceptual framework and material history will require grappling with the limits to the most recent wave of struggles, while at the same time trying to draw forth the practical kernel, as it were, from which forthcoming struggles are certain to bloom.

If the square and the street have been the two places of the latest cycle of struggles and the contemporary riot, they both open onto the commune. The commune, however, is not a place in that sense, not a “territorial agglomeration,” as Kropotkin expressed it. Its history has been to escape that designation, even while specific instances take on the names of their sites. One might say it is instead a social relation, a political form, an event. It has been called all of these. We could also suggest that it is a tactic.

Within the transformations of the present, the form of the commune is unthinkable without the modulation from traditional working class to an expanded proletariat. That is to say, it is not oriented by productive laborers, but rather by the heterogeneous population of those without reserves. Like the riot, the commune may feature workers but not necessarily as workers. Kristin Ross argues that the commune is defined in part by the fullness of its relation.

What the commune as political and social medium offered that the factory did not was a broader social scope—one that included women, children, the peasantry, the aged, the unemployed. It comprised not merely the realm of production but both production and consumption.

The commune, then, has a continuity with the riot. It presupposes the impossibility of wage-setting as a means to secure any manner of emancipation. It is likely to be inaugurated, like many struggles in the first era of riots, by those for whom the question of reproduction beyond the wage has long been posed—those who have been socially forged as the bearers of that crisis. “The women were the first to act,” we are reminded by Lissagaray about the Paris Commune, “hardened by the siege—they had had a double ration of misery.” That siege which is gender has never ended.

At the same time, the commune also ruptures from the riot’s basis in price-setting, because provisioning toward subsistence is no longer to be found in such action. It is beyond strike and riot both. In such a situation, the commune emerges not as an “event” but as a tactic of social reproduction. It is critical to understand the commune first as a tactic, as a practice to which theory is adequate. Beyond strike and riot, what distinguishes the problems and possibilities of reproduction from those of production and consumption is this: the commune is a tactic that is also a form of life.

The coming communes will develop where both production and circulation struggles have exhausted themselves. The coming communes are likely to emerge first not in walled cities or in communities of retreat, but in open cities where those excluded from the formal economy and left adrift in circulation now stand watch over the failure of the market to provide their needs. The glacis around Thiers’ Wall is now the Boulevard Periphérique; surplus population gathers now on the ring roads around Lima, Dhaka, and Dar es Salaam. But not just there.

Things fall apart, core and periphery cannot hold. We turn round and round in the night and are consumed by fire. Perhaps the long crisis of capital may reverse; it is a dangerous wager on either side. Within the persistence of crisis, however, the reproduction of capital through the circuit of production and circulation—wage and market—appears increasingly not as possibility for, but limit to, proletarian reproduction. A dead and burning circuit.

Here riot returns late and appears early, both too much and too little. The commune is nothing but the name for the attempt to overcome this limit, a peculiar catastrophe still to come.

Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings has just been published by Verso Books. Order your copy here.

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Joshua Clover

Joshua Clover is Professor of Literature and Critical Theory at the University of California Davis. He is a published poet, scholar, critic and journalist. His latest book is Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016).

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