Loot Back: From Whom?

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 A Response to “Why Riot?”
by JF

kiev-old-man-bashed-cop-with-brick

 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.

Neel writes:

“[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-steve-meme

“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.

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5 thoughts on “Loot Back: From Whom?”

  1. Those of us involved in Ultra are working on material that clarifies some of these questions in the long term, including a more substantial engagement with the question of “unity”, how/why class fractions might be fused, leveraged or overcome in different scenarios, how this relates to certain practical questions in the present moment, and expanding on the empirical evidence on the severity of the racial divide in wealth, debt and credit. These questions are not limited to the issue of generations. Similar question are raised around the anti-gentrification blockades of tech companies, for example, when people oppose such actions on the basis that they set one segment of the class against another (“tech workers are workers too”).

    Here are a few notes on the disagreements, still somewhat undeveloped, between the above piece and the position taken in the Why Riot article, and Ultra more generally:

    1. First, we do not believe in the bad faith method of presuming the worst from the opposing position. We point out that it is perfectly possible to read Why Riot as completely consistent with the above narrative given of post-70s restructuring and ballooning debt, despite the above article’s misunderstandings of how consumer and national debt actually functioned in that period (see Notes on the New Housing Question in Endnotes 2 for some clarification). The sections of the article that focus on the generational question are brief and largely rhetorical — but even if taken at face value, they do not oppose such a reading, since they are relatively slight and remain unexpanded.

    2. The above critique does not engage with the empirical evidence offered. This evidence is, in the original article, entirely undeveloped. We aim to develop that further, but still, it is there. The empirical evidence, from a Pew Research summary derived from Census and ACS data, is that average wealth for those under 35 has decreased significantly since the 80s, while average wealth for those 45+ has increased significantly. This means that wealth inequality clearly displays a generational distribution, alongside its racial distribution, to take one example (black and latino homeowners, for instance, were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis). In addition to this, it’s notable that the actual age distribution of the *literal* ruling class of capital-owners is disproportionately within the white Baby Boomer cohort. This is not insignificant, but it also obviously doesn’t mean that all baby boomers are the ruling class, despite this absurd position being attributed to us above. Who are we “looting back from,” then? We’re looting from those who have shit to loot, obviously. Running down foot locker, not the nursing home.

    3. There is a reason that, as recent struggles attest, the young segment of the class is right now largely an active fraction, while the old segment of the class is a largely stagnant fraction. This is not simply an issue of younger people somehow always being more active than the old, as there are numerous examples of older segments of the class being more (or just as) active as their younger counterparts, as when China saw its wave of protests by the elderly being laid off in the deindustrialization of the iron rice bowl in the 1990s. The above critique completely fails to address this most central question: why have these revolts largely been staffed by the young, and the millenials specifically? And why have we seen such minimal participation by those from the baby boomer cohort—except in the Tea Party, of course, which was largely 40-and-over white people? The original article attempts to offer some insight into this question – but the above critique does not even attempt to offer any opposing insight to account for the phenomenon, essentially attempting to obscure the phenomenon itself. We aim to pursue questions raised by the dynamics of the class in the real world—and this means that we start from the position of who is doing what right now and why. We do not start from the ideal, structural position of who should be doing something or who is really oppressed.

    4. Beyond these concrete points, there is also the concern in the above article with the use of rhetoric with a wide appeal. The equation used above is basically: such rhetoric = populism (literally putting us “in league with populists”) = right-wing, potentially reactionary activity. We disagree with this equation. We believe that we can and should make widely accessible rhetorical appeals, we can and should have good-looking aesthetics and we can and should communicate and attract people on a deeply *irrational* level that has nothing to do with communicating the “correct” class consciousness consistent with some pre-given Marxist (this is questionable in and of itself) vision of “unity.” Our method of communication can be used in a larger strategic goal of attracting people to a communist project. This is the approach that we are pursuing, and we aim to talk to broader swaths of regular people, to communicate to them on multiple levels, and to not be worried about always communicating a consciousness perfectly consistent with the ideal model of “unity” evidenced above. We have tapped into a mainstream of discontent, and we are fine with that. Opposed to this we have observed numerous examples of the leftist grouplet soldering itself into its sect, protected by sacred shibboleths of “correct” consciousness, a method effective only in turning the vast majority of people away from its anodyne sanctity for the sake of preserving that sanctity itself.

    5. Obviously the proletariat exists materially. This is a cheap shot, and one often leveled at those within the so-called “communization” milieu. It’s a whole other question whether any unified working-class consciousness in a traditional sense follows from this.

    6. We understand that some of your organization’s members have been and currently are organizing in the healthcare industry. Many of us have had similar experiences, and don’t intend to demean this labor or belittle the plight of the discarded workers left in miserable nursing homes. Cross-generational allegiances are, of course, a necessary component in the tactical advance of any given fight, especially in these industries. In fact, it is the jump across generations that usually signals the true generalization of a revolt, as we saw in Egypt. But such allegiances are of necessity uneven, and they must take place on the terms of the most radical segment of the allegiance itself. In our era, this means that they must take place on the terms of the youth, and the youth must be leading this drive, not tailing the efforts of old leftists.

    1. Hey NPC,

      I’m not sure what else I could have said to the importance of experiments like the ULTRA website to mapping / analyzing / tapping into the youth-led movements of the last cycle of struggles and the particularities of contemporary class composition. As stated in the introduction, the above piece is modestly aimed at your rhetoric of “generations”. Most of your response seems to be that I fail to solve the problems you are setting out to solve, or that I have it out for ULTRA etc., and that hardly seems fair. I’ll respond to the substance of the disagreement. (I’m still trying to figure out where we may disagree more fundamentally, so again pardon the superficiality.)

      You say:

      “We believe that we can and should make widely accessible rhetorical appeals, we can and should have good-looking aesthetics and we can and should communicate and attract people on a deeply *irrational* level that has nothing to do with communicating the “correct” class consciousness consistent with some pre-given Marxist (this is questionable in and of itself) vision of “unity.” Our method of communication can be used in a larger strategic goal of attracting people to a communist project. This is the approach that we are pursuing, and we aim to talk to broader swaths of regular people, to communicate to them on multiple levels, and to not be worried about always communicating a consciousness perfectly consistent with the ideal model of “unity” evidenced above.”

      First of, nobody is dissing your style. The site looks hot.

      Second, there is a difference between not “communicating consciousness perfectly”, and communicating a line that runs counter to class consciousness, e.g. a particular segment of the class is to blame for an economic crisis. This is the humble point I set out to make. I didn’t expect to be met with such opposition since the “ass-wiping” line and a few others seem so indefensible and obfuscatory. You surely encountered as many obfuscatory explanations for the crisis at Occupy camps as I did, and found how detrimental to the struggle they can be when things get hot.

      Myself nor anyone else in U/S doubts the importance of analyzing class fractions and contradictions within the class. Your thoughtful response illustrate your very sophisticated engagement with these questions, which has not yet been translated into mass rhetoric (which is fine! as you may point out, I haven’t done it either!).

      And nobody is saying that the left is doing a great job communicating revolutionary ideas, and experiments are desperately needed. What is NOT needed is rhetoric that flatters the “irrational” desire to scapegoat particular segments of the class, especially with regards to the source of the crisis. If you think the “irrational” within working class people is something that can be drawn upon for political purposes and then controlled or clarified later on, this may be the source of a deeper political disagreement.

      As stated above, I am unsure how central your conception of one generation “looting the future” of another is to the ULTRA project. If it is central that you play one class fraction against another, instead of proceeding from the material premise of class fractions to the necessary project of class unity, then the project is fundamentally flawed. If this is not important, you should dispense with this language and not allow it to hinder an otherwise admirable propaganda website. As revolutionaries it is our responsibility now to foster a higher level of consciousness among the class, not to further obfuscate the source of economic crisis, ESPECIALLY in popular experiments in propaganda.

      As for the material existence of the class — again, its unclear what more I could have said to the credit of the “communisation” project, including what I considered a charitable summary of the current’s loosely defined position. However, the question remains whether the present lack of working class identity is a momentary result of class decomposition which must be struggled against, or a permanent reality which we must embrace. It seems that you side with the latter and I with the former. We can blast theory at each other all day but only time will tell. With the exception of the latest issue of Endnotes, I know this tendency to provide top notch theoretical analysis (grounded in a close adherence to all three volumes of Capital, which seems to be lost on a lot of folks in the US), but abstract from practical questions almost entirely beyond vague imperatives to launch a global revolution to eliminate all mediation (I agree!!!).

      It feels a bit silly debating a point so superficial as rhetoric, since as I said initially, your analysis is generally quite good and deserves to be circulated widely. If your website is introducing tons of new folks to communism that’s great. But pushing a line that actively reinforces the dissolution of working class solidarity is to me counterproductive.

      In solidarity,

      JF

      1. JF,

        I think that you rightly point to the question of whether or not there exists a self-affirmable working class consciousness in the present moment as the crux of the debate here. All the other points are contingent from this to some extent.

        With that said, the following assertion demands an argument addressing the above debate in oder to back it up.

        “If it is central that you play one class fraction against another, instead of proceeding from the material premise of class fractions to the necessary project of class unity, then the project is fundamentally flawed.”

        Would you care to expand on your issues with Endnotes #3 here briefly?

        Dozer

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