A Response to “Why Riot?”
A response to Phil Neel’s recent piece “Why Riot?” on the ULTRA website. We hope to initiate healthy debate and engagement around this exciting and important project.
Phil Neel’s bold and exciting piece of agitational material “Why Riot?” raises too many points to engage with one response. It’s raw honesty, sophistication, and visceral appeal speak for themselves. As an initial response I will focus only on its conception of “generations,” an error of the piece which unfortunately seems potentially central to Ultra, and the rectification of which will determine the project’s direction. Admittedly this is not the central focus of Neel’s piece, and while it may seem tangential, I plan to return to Neel’s more central theses once familiarizing myself with his source material, and thereby connect the dots. I will also attempt in the near future to concretize some of the recent history presented below, which is admittedly schematic.
Neel echoes Ultra’s appeal to so-called millennials, or “Generation Zero”: “Our future has been looted. Loot back.” Ultra aims to appeal to this particular “generation” of proletarians, and Neel’s “Why Riot?” is thus far Ultra’s most explicit statement to this effect. Citing Blaumachen’s “age of riots” thesis, the piece is geared those who are not finding political expression through rallying behind demands, or joining/building political groups, but through mass actions of refusal of discipline, illegality, and attack against the forms of appearance of capital, or sites of proletarian social reproduction (smashing windows, short-lived blockages of the points of capital circulation, etc.).
Ultra seeks to be a voice for a new generation, defined as emerging from the 2011 cycle of struggles, and this is a very important and necessary project. However, Neel’s emphasis in “Why Riot?” on a particular generation of proletarian against another is a mistake. It is wrong not from not only a simple class unity perspective (which is itself a valid objection), but more importantly, given how the class is stratified along lines of race, sex, ethnicity, language spoke, gender presentation, and so forth. Further, it is not an accurate history of how the past forty years of economic crisis have impacted the proletariat, nor is it a factual depiction of the present debt crises, both national and consumer. In Neel’s emphatic and effective appeal to the new generation, the “generation” becomes an abstraction from the reality of class society, its causes, its mechanisms, and its history, relying instead on tropes partially borrowed from the US right, which blame the debt and joblessness of this “generation” on the previous one, instead of on capital.
“[O]lder white Americans have simply been the beneficiaries of good timing. They were raised in an era of cheap housing and education, massive state welfare and unprecedented economic ascent following the creative destruction of two world wars and a depression—wars and crises that they themselves didn’t have to live through.”
For a small segment of the white, anglophone, gender conforming, and disproportionately male proletariat, much of this is true. However, the period between 1970 and 2008 was hardly a picnic for the majority of the US proletariat. Much of the capitalist restructuring this piece ascribes to the near present took place in the mid 1970s as a response to that economic crisis, the collapse of the “rust belt” as a vital center of class activity and a relatively high standard of living hit hard in the mid 1970s, and no matter union seniority, these factory closures not discriminate against “generations.” The 1970s and 1980s especially were a period of crisis after crisis, devaluing labor in the public and private sectors, felt disproportionately among women and people of color. The capitalist restructuring preceding the crisis of the mid 1970s was the jump-off for the present moment, restructuring the working class as mobile, “precarious”, and policed violently in urban centers. Through the 1980s and into the mid 2000s, capital responded to crises of production by drawing upon cheap consumer debt to subsidize the diminishing wage, foisting the risks involved in capitalization onto the individual consumer, responsible for meeting this debt, leading to a crisis in 2008 rooted in the consumers inability to meet debt with wages. This has operated in tandem with the downsizing and outright elimination of pensions and austerity measures aimed at public assistance for every generation of Americans, especially threatening to the oldest and most vulnerable among us. Likewise, brutal enclosure in the Middle East and elsewhere has required the vast accumulation of state debt in the US, as capital seeks to devalue labor power and increase resource extraction, the exporting of debt, and the development of markets abroad.
Abstracting from this entirely, Neel appeals to the young:
“[T]he jobs that older Americans hold are not being passed down to us, though their debt is. When they retire, the few remaining secure, living wage and often unionized positions will be eliminated, their components dispersed into three or four different unskilled functions performed by part-time service workers.”
White (anglophone, gender conforming, disproportionately male — I’ll drop this point from here on and consider it given) Americans have become simply “older” Americans. In “Why Riot?” this homogenous mass of “our parents’ generation” has lived off the fat of the land for a long time, and now they unanimously think younger folks (another homogenous mass) are lazy. Neel evokes “Old Economy Steven,” an admittedly funny Internet meme which largely translates to “fuck you dad” while spreading the myth of some golden age of the American workforce in its wake.
“Old Economy Steven” speaks of a very limited segment of the US proletariat.
This abstraction is further complicated by the reality of how the current crisis is affecting older workers in the present . (One example typical of hundreds like it.) Neel’s sequencing here, in which “older Americans” simply give up their secure, living wage jobs in order to retire, at which point these jobs become splintered into a number of precarious low wage jobs, abstracts from the fact that these positions are often being eliminated, not given up, and that their previous holders are moving not to some idyllic retirement from which they scorn millennials as lazy etc., but into competition with millennials for the same crappy jobs service jobs, often with milennials in a position of advantage due to their age, technological literacy, etc.
Never mind that the present crisis of elder care in the United States, in tandem with the austerity imposed on “Generation Zero,” confines low income seniors to nightmarish nursing homes, not unlike factories for patients and workers (as captured in its sober reality by JM in the fantastic Caring, A Labor of Stolen Time). A class-based analysis easily identifies the division between patients and laborers in these facilities–a division between generations, among other differentials–as an effective tool of management, and an obstacle to be overcome by communist praxis.
At the risk of being uncharitable, it is necessary to note how this disdain and dismissal of solidarity across generations mirrors the current conservative approach to elder care for low income people under austerity conditions in the US. In a word: fuck them. Their decisions got them where they are.
Finally, equally untenable is the idea that “we” inherit the debt of these “older Americans,” rather inheriting (or more accurately, being disciplined under the auspice of) the debt capital accrued during this period through its increasing unwillingness to reproduce the proletariat with the wage, and reliance instead on cheap consumer debt and increased liquidity instead. In league with the populists of the US right, Neel suggests subjective responsibility for the present “national debt” can be placed on this abstract category of “older Americans” instead of on capital. In Chapter 31 of Capital Volume 1 Marx presents some thoughts on the “public” debt and its role in the accumulation of capital:
The public debt becomes one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation. As with the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, it endows barren money with the power of breeding and thus turns it into capital, without the necessity of its exposing itself to the troubles and risks inseparable from its employment in industry or even in usury. The state creditors actually give nothing away, for the sum lent is transformed into public bonds, easily negotiable, which go on functioning in their hands just as so much hard cash would. But further, apart from the class of lazy annuitants thus created, and from the improvised wealth of the financiers, middlemen between the government and the nation – as also apart from the tax-farmers, merchants, private manufacturers, to whom a good part of every national loan renders the service of a capital fallen from heaven – the national debt has given rise to joint-stock companies, to dealings in negotiable effects of all kinds, and to speculation: in a word to stock-exchange gambling and the modern bankocracy (Penguin 919).
Debt is not the means by which one generation of the proletarian loots the future of another but a means of accumulation within the present period, shifting onto the consumer the burden of circulating capital from the consumptive back to the productive departments, and hitting the consumer hardest of all when this cannot be done due to low wages.
Marx is even more explicit in a stray footnote on national debt (which I’ve always suspected was meant for the above section) reprinted in the Appendix, casting doubt on the fact that the future can be looted by one “generation” of the proletariat, except only in the case of the individual proletarian looting their own future through assuming debt:
[T]he talk of eliminating the present burden by means over government debts which put them on the shoulders of future generations. When B lends A goods either in reality or in appearance, A can give him a promissory note on the products of the future, just as there are poets and composers of the future. But A and B together never consume an atom of the produce of the future. Every age must pay its own way. A worker on the other hand, is able to spend in advance this year the labor of the next three. (Penguin 1084)
I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of the debt under capital, nor the hard/fast distinction between national debt and consumer debt (as a respondent should school me on if I’ve vulgarized any of this), especially since so much of the latter is subsidized by the former. However it is safe to say that one generation of proletarians has not looted the future of another. In a particularly problematic passage Neel writes:
“In the long term, this means that, after having been roundly robbed in almost every respect by our parents’ generation, our own future holds nothing more than the hope that we might be employed in two or three separate part-time, no-promotion positions in the few growth sectors, such as healthcare, where we can have the privilege of being paid minimum wage to wipe the asses of the generation that robbed us.”
In the specific example of health care we see how dangerous such careless analysis can be. The site of health care in the United States is a foreground of austerity measures aimed especially at the most powerless proletarians, but the class as a whole. The divide between patients and care workers, enforced by unions and politicians in order to keep their struggles contained and managed, is an obstacle to the kind of transformative struggles needed to communize health care institutions. The patients cared for by minimum wage workers are most often the most powerless in society, abandoned to failing institutions, neglected, abused, and ever put at odds with the increasingly abject workers for whom their care is made like factory work. Effective class struggle in these institutions must be conducted through solidarity across the distinction of “patient” and “worker”– distinctions which the unions, politicians, and bosses seek to reify–but most importantly, across generations. Cross generation alliances are a central component of any effective anti-austerity struggle.
When one segment of the proletariat is mobilized against another, especially when the latter has been scapegoated for an economic crisis, the specter of populism is upon us. In “Why Riot?” this is never corrected. Neel’s attempts to appeal for solidarity are foreclosed in advance:
The riot affirms our power in a profoundly direct way. By “our” power I mean, first, the power of those who have been and are continually fucked-over by the world as it presently is, though these groups by no means all experience this in the same way and to the same degree—the low-wage service workers, the prisoners, the migrant laborers, the indebted, unemployed graduates, the suicidal paper-pushers, the 农民工on the assembly line, the child slaves of Nestle cocoa plantations, my childhood friends who never got out of the trailer or off the rez. But I also mean the power of our generation: the millenials, a label that already implies the apocalyptic ambiance of our era. Or, more colloquially: Generation Fucked, because, well, obviously.
Having read a good amount of the communist theory coming off of the Continent right now, I understand abstractly why Neel is not using “class” rhetoric. As capital increasingly expels workers from its reproduction, and the “classical workers movement” (a fiction in itself — a topic for another day) has forfeited any credibility, US strikes continue to occur in record lows, unemployment soars, and the available jobs for most are nothing worth claiming–instead drudgery to be forgotten upon clocking out, the “worker” identity may seem like an anachronism. Further, in the mass uprisings of the past decade, the figure of the insurgent worker has been nowhere affirmed. Instead, proletarians attack institutions of their discipline and reproduction, often stopping at the form of appearance (a window) of a form of appearance (a bank). Nowhere have these struggles bridge the chasm separating them from the productive sphere of society. And this, according to Théorie Communiste’s “The Glass Floor,” and echoed in many quarters, constitutes their limit.
It is distinctly possible that my own invocation of the “worker” identity and the “proletariat,” etc., is anachronistic in the present period that I will quietly shed in the years to come, reminded of it to gales of laughter at a future date. If the proletarian identity is in fact a limit menacing the struggles of the future, and promises only the demand to reassert the capital relationship, it is one which every revolutionary should hastily dispense with. This needs to be the object of careful practice, study, and analysis–especially for those of us in the US, of the US Occupy movement which casts doubt on the much vaunted twilight of “radical democratism” put forward by TC, Blaumachen, and others, given its hybrid form of (partial) rejection of demands, with a fixation on democratic formalism and experimentation with prefigurative politics. (The author can only speak first-hand of Occupy Wall Street but this seems common across the country, present where not prevalent.)
I remain skeptical that the proletariat exists any less in material reality due to an ebb in worker identification with it, and more so skeptical that it can be dispensed with in future struggles without lapsing into the kind of populism which Neel ultimately offers in its place. The direction Ultra takes will be determined by a better response to this question than Neel has offered in “Why Riot?”. In a recent discussion, a comrade remarked: “You don’t get to decide what you are. Capital does.” The proletariat can call itself whatever it wants but its still the proletariat, materially speaking, and fragmenting it along abstract lines of generation is reactionary to the imperative to build its power toward smashing its material reality. This is not to discount the incredibly nuanced way in which the class is stratified and hierarchized, but to resist abstraction from the class altogether.
It is not simply that, as a quaint prophet of the “classical workers movement” put it,
Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.
It is that here, in attempting to abstract from the proletariat, Neel’s definition of power, the grand conclusion of this piece, lapses into the kind of weak populism which I know him to be a stellar critic of elsewhere: “The question of power, though, isn’t simply a question of the devolution of power to the majority of people, though this is the ultimate goal.”
No matter its affective weight in engaging the apathetic, aesthetically inclined and politically disinterested Vice Media crowd of the “generation” Neel and I share, “Why Riot?” abstracts from the reality of the class in a way unhelpful for building its capacities, and dangerous in its populist undertones. If this talk of generations is simply a rhetorical appeal, it has given up too much for this purpose and should be reconsidered. Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto as a means to popularize communism, not to thereby invert its content. If the figure of the “generation” represents Neel’s position and the position of Ultra, it must be debated.
Finally, at the risk of being maudlin, my own political development and that of the projects I cherish most dearly are the result of collaboration with older revolutionaries, some of whom have remained dedicated to the struggle for upwards of twice my entire lifetime. The perspectives, critiques, challenges, and living history of older generations are to the young revolutionaries of today an invaluable treasure. And this is only a small reminder of the vibrant class struggle that has accompanied every generation since the earliest inception of capitalism. Just as every generation may forget that it didn’t invent sex, ours can’t afford to forget that we didn’t invent struggle. The struggles of the past half century and beyond did not loot our future, but have helped illuminate it.