“From Metaphysics To Politics” is an insightful attempt to resituate our understanding of the riot. While occasionally mentioning the riot’s “paroxystic” nature, over all its insistence on riot as “total social fact” which expresses and draws into itself the entangled unity of social relations, endeavors to extricate the riot from a “spasmodic view of popular history” which renders them largely unthinkable.
As presented, this total social fact is rather one-sided — not in the sense of predisposed toward an opinion, but in attending almost exclusively to the subjective aspect of the riot, the experience of and effects on the riot’s subjects, et cetera. Corresponding to this, the essay is greatly attentive to discursive aspects of riot. It begins from “the riot as a situated and situating biographical moment, a personal experience which is both signifying and significant”. This focus recurs throughout, and is consolidated toward the conclusion:
By enlarging the empirical scope of what rioters actually somatise, experience, rationalize and exchange altogether, total rioting calls for urgent attention to the way that public discontent is intimately connected to the social world it criticizes… Rioting is a paroxystic attempt to make and unmake society at the same time and has become the pinnacle of the political socialization process for many young men in the banlieues.
Discontent, criticism, socialization. Working from the individual outward, this framing via the affects, discourse, and ideological effects for subjects has a profound effect on how we are able to understand what a riot is, and what it does. “In France, vandalism against schools and bus stops showed the extent to which education and public services matter for people who feel marginalized in a society where cultural capital is a key source of legitimacy,” we learn. Correspondingly, “during the UK 2011 riots looting played a similar structural role for rioters against the backdrop of consumption as a marker of status.” In short, the common activities of riot exist to signify, and arise from an understanding of broader social significations such as legitimacy, marginalization, status, and so on. This line of reasoning reaches its logical end with the assertion that “Burning cars and throwing stones is a way to stand out and to fit in by catching public attention.”
Here we must take our distance to notice what is lost in this one-sided view. Given the long history of the riot and its contemporary mutations, it verges on the absurd to suggest that looting is in main a symbolic act, that attacks on schools are symbolic requests for better schools, that attacking cars or cops is a bid for attention or a kind of social positioning. I suspect that people mostly fight cops because cops are the physical enemy, charged with disciplining their community via incarceration and direct violence. I further suspect that people attack schools because they are, for the great majority of the population, polite prisons. And I am peculiarly confident that people engage in looting not out of self-recognition as consumers but out of want. Here Truong aligns himself with the conservative just-so story complaining that looters act with inadequate self-interest in their choices (as if, had they only taken legumes and warm clothing, bourgeois opinion would smile benignly upon them). Against this transparently hypocritical discourse, there is about seven centuries of evidence, in France and the UK, that want-based looting is an orienting activity of riot, whatever the initiating incident.
This is true precisely because the riot is a total social fact. Like the social itself, the riot is two-sided. It discloses a great ensemble of objective aspects. Most powerful among them is the way in which the population of riot is market-dependent without direct access to the wage, “surplus” to the formal economy in a technical sense. The objective force of this is expressed socially in numerous ways. For example, unemployment is organized through a series of race-based practices which ensure that the category of surplus population will be racialized (in Europe, this appears via the figure of the immigrant or refugee). Fatally free from the discipline of the wage, this population is guaranteed to encounter heavy police discipline and high incarceration rates as a social management strategy — hence the consistency of the initiating incident and the heightened antagonism with police. At the same time, such a population is unable to struggle for better social position via labor organizing. And finally, such a population is certain to experience a broad shortfall between consumption needs and purchasing power. The riot is a dimension of these objective social conditions. And of course this objectivity extends more broadly: we might speak of the political-economic trajectories which produce rising surplus populations in the first place. This would require us to have a theory of capitalism more broadly, in addition to some idea of institutions and the abstraction of “society.”
Here I do not mean to dismiss the subjective character of riot, nor Truong’s accounts of his subjects’ conscious experiences. These are serious things. I simply mean to note that when we abandon a two-sided, dialectical account of social existence and of the riot, certain critical aspects vanish from sight. These include, most signficantly, the degree to which riotous activities are first and foremost practical: located in community self-defense, in the meeting of needs, and in the attempt to break the power of immiserating sites and apparatuses. Lacking this view, the riot returns to being a struggle for recognition which can be completed with acts of social inclusion. This understanding risks consolidating the qualitative distinction between riot and rebellion or insurrection or revolution. Contrarily, both logic and history suggest that these names are rather continuous, and that understanding this continuity within the rupture of the riot is the horizon for thinking its politics.
Joshua Clover is a professor at the University of California Davis. He is a published poet, scholar, critic, and journalist. We interviewed him about his book Riot. Strike. Riot here.