The Causality Runs Both Ways: A Conversation with Joshua Clover


Joshua Clover is a poet, professor, communist, and one-time music critic. He’s the author of Riot.Strike.Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, May 2016), a book of political theory whose urgency has only increased in the year and a half since it was published.

The aim of that project, broadly, is to correct popular misconceptions about riots and strikes. Clover starts from the premise that capitalism has alternated throughout history between two main sources of profits: production and circulation. Circulation, embodied by the merchant class, predominated during European exploration and early colonialism. The industrial revolution, launching in the late eighteenth century, drove production to a dominant position. But by the 1970s, the deindustrialization and financialization of the world’s largest economies had put circulation
back in the lead.In the 1800s, the manufacturing boom caused production to outpace trade. But by the 1970s, the deindustrialization and financialization of the world’s largest economies had put circulation back in the lead.

According to Clover, we have to understand riots and strikes as two species of class struggle conditioned by these transformations in global capitalism. Riots, he says, are not just meaningless spasms of violence—historically, they’re attempts to set the price of goods by disrupting markets and circulation. Strikes, by contrast, are demands to set the price of labor in contexts of production. In the late 20th and early 21st century, we’ve seen a resurgence of a new kind of riot, often structured by racialized antagonism. The new riots occur in spaces of circulation where the most oppressed and immiserated members of society increasingly find themselves: ports, airports, freeways, and city squares.

I interviewed Clover last spring when he visited Seattle for an anticapitalist conference called Red May. We discussed how his thinking on riots and strikes had changed since Riot.Strike.Riot was first published, and how he navigates the sometimes-hazy overlap between theory and poetry.


The Rumpus: How is a demonstration like a Black Lives Matter march or the Women’s March related to the riot? Are they germinal riots? Are they opposed to riots?

Joshua Clover: I don’t think they’re germinal riots. I think they’re often the other half of the riot. Riots, if they have any endurance at all, tend to split very quickly into two halves. One group is interested in what we would more famously identify with the riot—fighting the cops, looting stores, and the like—and one side moves toward something more like protest. Certainly that’s what happened in Ferguson, after Michael Brown was murdered by the police. That was a very long riot, by some measures the longest riot in US history, and it split fairly quickly into a collective of mostly young people there who were fighting the cops and alleged to be burning down stores and so on, and then people chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot” while marching in a long circle on West Florissant Avenue, which looked more like a protest.

Those two sides have completely different logics. The protest has a logic I identify as discursive. It wants to communicate with people. It makes demands. It wants to have a popular message, it wants to grow, and it wants to persuade people. As a result, it adopts a posture that is media-friendly, a version of respectability politics. It wants to gain the moral high ground. It tends to turn toward nonviolence. And then there’s the other half, which I refer to as the practical half, which is trying to take care of certain practical goals, things like destroying the power of the police, or making your neighborhood uninhabitable for people you don’t want there. These are quite practical activities.

The same split existed in the Civil Rights Movement. We can think of it as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In the 50s and 60s, the discursive side tended to win out pretty swiftly and effectively, and moved toward being a mass movement. The reasons for that are clear. They were able to win some real concessions. Rioters don’t make demands. Rioters take care of business. But the protest side makes demands, and as we saw in the Civil Rights Movement, they were able to win some limited gains.

Rumpus: You used the word practical, which seems a little counterintuitive, partly because violent resistance can be alienating and frightening for people who aren’t already exposed to violence on a daily basis. There’s the sense that fighting is useless, that it will just get you thrown in jail or killed, none of which sounds very practical. So what do you mean by it?

Clover: By practical, maybe what I mean is the alternate to something being “all talk.” The question of whether you can win substantial social transformation via talk, via persuasion—I don’t think there’s a great record of this. If people think violence is impractical, I would ask them a couple of things. One, what they count as violence. People who oppose violence often defend strikes, forgetting that strikes are historically every bit as violent as riots. They recast history so that strikes were always this ascetic refusal rather than open warfare with private or national military forces, where many, many people died so as to have some possibility of a decent work life, affordable housing, protections—the most practical goals we can imagine. This is the true history of strikes. And as they have grown more passive, they have grown less effective. I think the causality runs both ways there. That’s worth pausing over. So the first question would be how we’re defining what violence is, and how we’re imagining where it takes place.

The other question I would ask: simply to look back in history and show me a fairly large-scale transformation that didn’t involve violence. People often say, “Riots aren’t revolutions.” That’s true. The vast majority of riots never become revolutionary. On the other hand, show me the revolution that started without a riot.

Rumpus: There’s a certain emphasis in the book on riots and strikes as tactics, in other words intentional strategies. But you also go to pains to stress that these struggles are produced by economic circumstances. How do you explain the balance between individual agency and structural conditions in motivating riots and strikes?

Clover: I don’t want to do away with individual will. People do make considered choices about whether they want to fight, and how, and they do so from disparate circumstances. But I think there are two important frameworks in which those choices get made. One, their degree of immiseration. The greatest predictor of who will engage in criminal activity (as defined by the courts) is poverty, which tells us that the decisions people make about how unlawful they’re willing to be are decisively based in their own experience of immiseration. The second framework is that when people choose to act, they inevitably act where they are.

Often people read Riot.Strike.Riot as advocating riots rather than strikes. That is not the case. The book is simply trying to understand what it has meant that people fight where they are, and to grasp shifts in forms of struggle as a story about where people are. It’s also about a great restructuring of what gets called “class composition” at a global level. When people are in a workplace where it’s possible to organize and engage in labor actions, that’s how they fight, and it can be very effective. When people are not in that situation, they fight in other ways. They fight in the marketplace. They gather in the street, the square. One need not prefer one or other. One need only notice that there’s been a meaningful shift in where people are over the last thirty, forty, or fifty years from traditional productive industries—which are easier to organize—toward a kind of work that involves circulation of capital and products, and toward unemployment. People who are in that situation are unlikely to fight somewhere else. They’re going to fight in that space.

So, in a way, I’m trying to mediate between individual agency and structural determination. I accept that people make individual choices, quite thoughtful, quite careful, quite difficult choices, but they don’t make them without constraints that shape what choices are possible and provide the intensity of the push toward choosing.

Rumpus: Does the Trump presidency make a difference for the riot? Or rather, does it make a difference for circulation, given that a salient aspect of Trump’s project is closing borders and limiting the free movement of people and commodities?

Clover: The administration’s focus on these matters underscores the fact that circulation is what’s at stake. I want to have it both ways—to say that I don’t want to overvalue Trump as some historical rupture, and to admit that I do think Trump is an indication of a fairly profound change. But the change started a while ago, and it has taken a while to appear. Global capital, particularly western capital, has been in decline since the late 60s and early 70s. The softness appeared in the 60s, the profit rate fell off the table in 1972–73, and there have been very uneven recoveries, possibly no recovery at all since then, just a series of bubbles. This has been an ongoing weakening of the productive economy of accumulation at a global scale, of capital’s capacity to expand.

For a long time, early industrializing countries were absorptive. They were endlessly able to absorb new labor inputs to keep expanding. This was both an economics and a worldview. Here in the United States, we have the Statue of Liberty sitting in the harbor in New York, which says in huge letters, We stand for absorptive capital. A poetic version: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” But what it means is, Come here, we’ll absorb you. We absorb these inputs and add them to our growing economy, and we manage this with liberal democracy. And it worked for a long time (for the economy, that is—it would be perverse to say it worked for the people it dispossessed and immiserated). But in the 70s, it stopped working. We’ve grown less and less absorptive. This is even truer in the Euro Zone, which at this point is a zero-growth, zero-sum economy. It, too, is no longer absorptive.

What happens when you don’t have an absorptive capitalist economy anymore? You shut borders. The management of labor circulation, is an obvious response to the end of absorption. We’re shifting away from a liberal democratic model, which is simply the management style for absorptive capital, toward a more colonial mode, which is defined by the fact that you’re never going to absorb these colonial subjects into the economy. They’re always going to be managed by force, by the army or the police. The massive incarceration rate that we’ve seen since the 70s, particularly among African Americans, has been a measure of the shift from absorbing people into the wage, a sort of indirect discipline, to this direct domination and state power.

Trump is the great expression of this. His job is to manage the end of absorption. That’s one way to think about the drama of what he represents without getting too invested in him as a causal factor.

Rumpus: You wrote a book of poetry, The Totality for Kids, in which you have a lot to say about cities under twilit capitalism. What interests you about cities in particular, and why poetry as a vehicle for exploring them?

Clover: In some sense, it’s very old-fashioned. Baudelaire says in the introduction to Paris Spleen that he’s fundamentally interested in cities and the innumerable interrelationships one encounters there. So it’s nothing new. They also have that aspect of a complex system.

With The Totality for Kids, if it has a unifying theme, it’s trying to get the feeling of twilit capitalism, and being honest about its pleasures. I’m a Marxist and a communist, but I think we would be ludicrous to deny that capitalism has produced some of the most astonishing pleasures and beauties the world has ever known. So there’s a melancholy that clings to the knowledge it all has to go. Even if one doesn’t have a sense of revolutionary failure, so-called left melancholy, even if one still believes revolution is possible, one knows that revolution will mean bidding farewell to all this. The example I always come back to is Eric B. & Rakim, who are maybe my favorite musicians, impossibly great, and have brought me ceaseless pleasure for twenty-five years now. But that has to go.

Rumpus: Why does it have to go?

Clover: Because I think when capitalism goes there won’t be pop music in the same way. The pressures of pop music, the field and the constraints of pop music, are what make Eric B. & Rakim possible. There might be an Eric B. and there might be a Rakim, but that kind of negotiation with mass media, mass popularity, it just won’t happen; it’s an artifact of world markets, not aesthetic prodigy.. So knowing that the remarkable achievements of pleasures and miracles that we have taken part in and witnessed and enjoyed in our lives, that we’re going to leave those behind, that’s the feeling that was with me as I was writing The Totality for Kids.

Cities are an example of that. They’re often horrifying, often gross, there’s often the sense that you got there too late. They’re also astonishing. I’ve moved to cities and wept for their beauty. But they have to go, too.

Rumpus: In your poem “Their Ambiguity,” you quote the situationist Raoul Vaneigem saying, “When a poem by Mallarmé becomes the sole explanation for an act of revolt, then poetry and revolution will have overcome their ambiguity.” You also talk in Riot.Strike.Riot about how the last stanza of Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy” has been taken up as a battle cry by various insurrectionary movements throughout history. Can you elaborate a bit on whether and how literature can “be political,” or maybe more specifically on the role of poetry in anti-capitalist struggle?

Clover: I don’t want to be hubristic about art’s possibilities. I don’t think that art has a causal relationship to revolution. I do think it’s a way people coordinate or orient their own often-inchoate experiences, sometimes willfully. With “The Masque of Anarchy,” one of the things I note is that many political movements over time have made use of it as a way to orient themselves and to narrate what they were doing.

The most important quote about poetry and politics that I know is from a different situationist, Guy Debord. He was locked in a debate with the French Surrealists, many of whom by the 40s and 50s were part of the French communist party apparatus. Many Surrealists eventually argued for instrumentalizing art for political ends. Debord countered, “I don’t want to put poetry in the service of revolution. I want to put revolution in the service of poetry.”

It took me a little bit to get Debord’s point. But I actually think it’s the most ambitious thing you could say for poetry. Not “poetry will lead us to revolution,” but neither “art is autonomous and must be protected from politics.” Instead, “what poetry could be, we as yet have no idea.” Because in our current situation—in the current domination in which we live—poetry is a hobbled, broken thing, and a registration of our damaged world. If we wanted to set poetry free to be all that it could be (I know that’s a terrible slogan from the US military), we would have to change the world first. To get the kind of poetry that poetry deserves, we need to destroy capitalism. I think that’s Debord’s argument. I’m not sure he was right about as many things as I once thought, but I think he’s right about that.

Rumpus: Riot.Strike.Riot begins with the claim, “Theory is immanent in struggle.” Yet a great deal of theory is written, published, and circulated in spaces that aren’t the scene of the riot, spatially or socially. I’m not trying to say that academics can’t be rioters or rioters can’t read theory. But I do wonder how there can be a non-didactic theory of riots when so much of this theory—the theory that’s most likely to reach people who aren’t engaged in riots—resides in academic discourses that are difficult for many people to take part in.

Clover: Over the last few decades, I’ve grown more skeptical about a few things in which I used to have more faith. I believe as much in the necessity of, and the possibility of, revolution as I ever did. At the same time, I’ve grown more skeptical about poetry’s role in it or art’s contribution to it, and I’ve grown more skeptical about the university. Universities are big companies, and they’re disciplinary in the way that any big institution is. With some degree of surprise and disappointment, I’ve found that the political militancy that I would have hoped for from colleagues has been mostly lacking, that the professoriate has mostly been fairly repressive of what I take to be necessary politics. Organizing with students, which I often like to do, has its own difficulties. The turnover makes sustaining a political tradition difficult. So I’m less optimistic about the university as a space of struggle than I once was.

I realize this isn’t quite answering your question, which is what to do about the separation of theory and practice that the university takes part in. I may just be part of the problem! The university is one of various funding structures by which people who want to do theoretical work stay alive, the same way that people go to grad school, not because they think it’s going to change the world but because there’s no patron system anymore, and they need some scaffolding of support while they’re trying to figure out how they can proceed in their lives. I think that’s utterly legit. A lot of our better theorists and thinkers, that’s what the university is for them. That said, the question of how not to be recuperated and subsumed by this system of neo-patronage is a real question.

But I want to end with an optimistic thought. Even as I’ve become more reticent about the political possibilities of the academic space, I want to note that students have played significant roles in insurrectionary activity across the globe for decades and centuries, and I don’t think that we’ve crossed some threshold where that’s never going to happen again. We still need to take the university space quite seriously.

There are places in the world where it’s easier than in the US to be a person who produces theory and not require the university for sustenance. And there are still places in the world where there is lively poetry communities largely divorced from academia. That’s been destroyed in the US. In the US, famously, there were a lot of counter-spaces that lasted into the 60s and 70s, like the Black Arts Movement. They were systematically broken, often by the government, and the workshop arose in their place. That’s been true of spaces where people are trying to puzzle through theories of political struggle as well. We want to be attentive to these histories, and the consequences of these restructurings, more than we want to say, dismissively, “Oh, academic elites!” My point is that the alienation of theory and practice, intellectual and manual labor, is a real issue, but it’s the outcome of social domination; it’s sort of a mistake to blame it on the subjects of that domination.


Author photograph © Emma Stough.

Jack Chelgren lives in Seattle. He writes about poetry, aesthetics, and political theory. For two years, he was an assistant editor at Poetry Northwest. More from this author →