Riots and Neoliberalism

In Riot. Strike. Riot. The New Era of UprisingsJoshua Clover argues that riots have taken off and will continue with intensity due in large part to the fact that capital can no longer afford to buy off the social peace. Capital no longer has the need to invest in producing a situation of social stability among its pool of potential labor. This is tied to the stage of capitalist development we are currently living in. Within our present moment, the riot will only gather steam and the militarization of dissent will not be able to contain the riots. These riots, which we can periodize in their latest and most recent sequence beginning in 2011 in London and continuing up to the more recent Baltimore 2015 riots have an interesting relationship to the movement of the squares: Occupy, Taqsim, Tahrir and others. These riots also have a relation to the political movements and parties which have appeared in their wake: PODEMOS, Syriza’s rise, the Five Star Movement in Italy etc.

This relation presents a contradiction between two forms of struggle. The riot is principally on the side of an anti-capitalist impulse, what Clover calls “circulation riots” while the movement of the squares and their vague/nascent parties are primarily anti-neoliberal movements. How do we theorize both of these forms of struggle? 

First, let’s turn to the riot. Clover shows that the riot as the primary form of struggle is something that is specific to financial capitalism, and we can historically identify different financial periods of capitalist development in previous world-systems under the Venetian and British world-systems, where the riot emerged. The logic basically goes like this:  once the base of material production erodes and money begins to make money off of money (i.e. financial capitalism) that world system moves from the strike to the riot as the primary mode of struggle on behalf of the surplus worker population. The strike is about specific demands located at the level of the factory. Under financial capital, the factory moves to the sphere of circulation, which is why our riots today see blockades of shipment, of transportation and of looting shops.

This historical framework of financial capitalism and riots has been put forward by Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi and the world-system theorists throughout the 1990’s, but Clover adds a few important twists and locates the riot as particularly seminal during this period of capitalism. As background, the world-systems theorists argue that in today’s constellation of American hegemony, we are witnessing a waning of the entire world-system in such a manner that we may be entering into an entirely different configuration of the world-system that has no historical analogue. In other words, with the death of financial capitalism in America, which is dependent in large measure on the degree to which the accumulation of capital proceeds in its current mode and also on the extent to which America is able to remain in its position of hegemony, which today consists of military hegemony and some degree of cultural hegemony. 

I must confess: I have not yet finished Clover’s book, but I have interviewed him twice over the last two years for Insurrections as he was writing the book. The last time we spoke was in April 2016, and in our conversation, he rejected the idea that capital carries with it an ideology that compels subjects to follow or adopt it. I disagree with this assessment and I follow some more recent literature on the ideology of neoliberalism to make my case. I want to argue that today’s struggles are very much tied to the ideology of neoliberalism, particularly the disaffected and educated class of professionals and students that are subjectivated into these movements.

I contend that the riot, as a momentary and aleatory figure of struggle, is most certainly directed towards the sphere of circulation, as Clover maintains, but what comes out of the post-riot is a facing of and a struggle against the regime of power which subjects must return to and face as part of their everyday lives. This is the regime of neoliberalism, which is an assault on everyday life as such. Yes, the wage labour regiment is a part of this, and yes we can identify lines of continuity with capitalist exploitation stretching back to post French revolution. But neoliberalism is a new form of this exploitation. It leads many anarchist thinkers such as Bifo to view the current movement of riots as struggles over affect, a resistance to the degradation and shame of contemporary neoliberal life and the riot or movement activity is a way to fight off this depression.

As I noted before, the parties and movements mentioned above should be understood as anti-neoliberal, rather than anti-capitalist. As Perry Anderson points out, today’s anti-systemic movements of the right are in fact more anti-capital than are their left counterpart movements. The right parties throughout Europe call for alternative currency to the Euro (something the left movements aren’t comfortable proposing with the exception of the Five Star Movement) and the right parties have much wider support from the workers throughout Europe than does the left movements.

The Rise and Decline of the Neoliberal Opt-In

The riot functions as a handmaiden to these left movements, and as Clover notes, one of the signs of the riots success is the potential unification of two populations in the riot: those excluded from work, or the surplus population, and those excluded from the promise of a socially stable existence; students and disgruntled professionals. It is this latter, more educated demographic, that capital presents what I am calling the opt-in model. The opt-in is the ideological attempt to induce subjects into voluntary relations of self-governance realized through the market. The neoliberal version of the opt-in compels subjects to adopt a certain mode of self-realization, which means that one must accept the inevitability of capitalist realism and resign oneself to the shattered promise of the neoliberal vision of man’s social realization. The neoliberal opt-in argues that man’s self-realization occurs via the market. But the opt-in dies when the hegemony of the market dies and we are currently witnessing the waning of the efficacy of the opt-in.

The opt-in is based on the premise that the individual can flourish as an independent node of wealth-making, which comes in the avatar of the entrepreneur. One of the hallmarks of neoliberal ideology that we find in the writings of Hayek and Von Mises is that the market is treated as a field of self-discovery, a process of learning. The promise the neoliberals present is thus a limited and and particular form of self-realization that seeks to make economic relations internal to the market mechanism as the foundation of ‘society as a whole’. To achieve this opt-in, the neoliberals must maintain their motto of “free economy, strong state!”

As Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval argue in The New Way of the World, neoliberalism is a result in a change in capitalism that was taken advantage of by the rulers. The main way we must understand neoliberalism is through the deployment of techniques of discipline and systems of compulsion, economic and social that sought to compel individuals to govern themselves. The neoliberal document called the Trilateral Commission as far back as 1973 pointed to a large swath of absolutely apathetic citizens who must remain that way. We should not forget that this anti-democratic tendency is a hallmark of neoliberalism.

The other hallmark of neoliberalism is competition which has come to serve as the negative mode of discipline; “competition comes to serve as a mode of internalizing the constraints of capital’s profitability, making it possible to reduce the chain of command and constant control by means of intermediate supervision, introducing unlimited disciplinary pressure” write Dardot and Laval. It is no longer about guiding structures but about guiding people with knowledge so that they produce as much as possible. Everyone is the instrument of themselves. To achieve the opt-in, neoliberal policies were implemented, not out of market fundamentalism but out of management techniques, as such, we should understand neoliberalism as a switch in bureaucratic rationalization rather than as a withdrawal of the state. The state is stronger than ever in neoliberalism.

Starting in the early 1970’s, before neoliberalim was adopted and implemented, the new left began to adopt its fundamental realism, it accepted Thatcher’s statement before she made it, that there is no alternative. But today, in the form of these movements, many of which have already failed (Syriza, for example) what they are challenging is the neoliberal social bond that was based on human capital and equality of opportunity and individual responsibility and not on the prior Keynesian bond founded on solidarity and greater equality. The neoliberal bond tried to work against all of this logic, and it remains tied to the matrices of the promise of Keynesian capitalism.

The riot operates outside of this logic all together, but it comes into contact with the anti-neoliberal movements. The rise of the Sanders movement in the U.S. is the latest form of this anti-neoliberal tendency in the west. It is clear that the opt-in is defective today. Capital has retreated both its surplus labor force and its tools for coercive opt-in have all but proven to be unappealing. But what is not clear is how these two forms of struggle will interact.


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