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Joshua Clover on Riots, Crisis, and Prisons

Joshua Clover discusses rebellion and incarceration in relation to the recurrent crisis of state and capital with Rustbelt Abolition Radio.

Joshua Clover22 November 2018

Joshua Clover on Riots, Crisis, and Prisons

Rustbelt Abolition Radio is an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan. Each episode explores the ongoing struggles to abolish the carceral state. Listen to the show by visiting


a Maria : This is a Maria and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement building project based in Detroit, Michigan. Joshua Clover is a professor of literature and critical theory at the University of California Davis and author of Riot. Strike. Riot, and today he’s joining Alejo and I in Buenos Aires to discuss rebellion and incarceration in relation to the recurrent crisis of state and capital. Welcome Joshua, and thank you for joining us.

Joshua Clover: Thank you for having me.

a Maria : So, we often begin our episodes on a more biographical note. Your academic formation is in poetry, right?

Joshua Clover: If I have an academic formation it’s in poetry, yeah!

a Maria : Ok, so one could say that there is a certain poesis in riots too, a certain force of creation, which is also to say, a certain force of destruction. Can you tell us a little bit about the circumstances in which a poet finds themselves writing a book about?

Joshua Clover: I could definitely go for the full 25 minutes on that question, but I’ll try not to. The first thing I’ll say is. I’ll say my slightly grumpy historical thing, which is, it seems strange to people now, especially I think in the United States where there’s an idea of poets that’s quite curious. Why would a poet possibly be writing on, on these matters? If you go back to the 19th century, a fine century, not the best century, but it was okay…. Every major political economist published a book of poetry. Marx published a book of poetry. Mill published a book of poetry. Samuel Bailey, who was sort of, the progenitor of marginalist economics, published a book of poetry. It’s actually quite common– the association of poetry and political economy, poetry and these kinds of social sciences. And it’s only in the 20th century and only in certain places in the world that, that sense of, that linkage gets broken.

Joshua Clover: So in some sense, I think I’m just doing quite a common thing that feels peculiar in a certain place in time. That said, there I am in that place in time. So I understand how it seems strange. Certainly for me as someone who wrote poetry, writes poetry, and writes about poetry. I think I did run into sort of a crisis of conscience. I believed, I think, a quite liberal set of things about what literature could do for the world and transform people’s hearts and minds. At the same time, I was trying to take seriously the historical materialist project– which is maybe more skeptical about the precedence of ideas and material relations. And I was running up against that limit. So that was sort of hovering in the air. I was continuing my own studies of Marx, of Marxist studies, of political economy in a fairly, as ambitious a sense as I could. I also have an undergraduate degree in science. So I’m sort of interested in the formalization of it all. And so these things were all happening around the time of 2008 economic crisis in the United States. And I decided I really wanted to understand how finance worked. And, from the bourgeois perspective, like what these things were people were talking about. And so I threw myself into the study of that. You know, not as a poet so much, but as a, as a person. And I was continuing my poetry scholarship alongside. And then, while these things were happening these various events started to happen in the Bay Area where I live. There was a lot of, several riots in 2009 in Oakland and Berkeley. By 2011. you had Occupy Oakland, the port blockade and various things. So these are the contexts in which I was then trying to apply my studies in sort of theories of value– not to abstract, sort of structures of consciousness, — but to these practical activities people are engaging in the streets. So that’s where I ended up being a person who writes about riots.

a Maria : Often, in the United States, the word “riot” pejoratively defines reprehensible activity. So even comrades on “the left,” for instance, insist that the 1967 Detroit riots be instead called a “rebellion”, given that “riot” is the word used by the state to undermine the political character of the riot. You, on the other hand, find that the riot is a terrain of struggle. We should not cede the word to the state to define it for us. Anc can you talk about why do you think the distinction is an important one?

Joshua Clover: I’m not sure it is an important one, hah! Which is to say: I think if people want to call what they’ve done a rebellion or insurrection, it’s certainly not my place to stop them or disagree with them. In a way, I don’t want to have a debate with them. They’re already doing their thing. I want to have a debate exactly with the people you mentioned who treat the term as pejorative or exclude the riot from the political. So, from the state’s perspective, riots are just bad, disorderly, evil, pernicious, destructive. And from a traditional left perspective, also, they’re sort of exterior to politics. They’re spontaneous. They’re just momentary responses to temporary stimulus. And I wanted to argue with both those positions at once, to say: well, fine, I accept there’s this thing that you call a riot. Let’s try and understand what it really is, what it’s contexts are, how it works, why we see them in some places and times more than others, and try and grasp them in their fullness, even as we admit that, that they exist as this phenomenon that we can both agree on. So, for me, that was an important project. It was to take back, not the word, but the set of concepts underlying the word from both the state and the orthodox left. But at the same time, that’s by way of saying: yes, they’re both true. That thing you call a riot and the people who call it an uprising are both correct. But let’s see not how to properly choose the right word but to see what the phenomenon is that both those terms can designate.

Alejo Stark: So going on with this point, I think it’s fair to say that your book, Riot. Strike. Riot is one that attempts to propose a “theory” of contemporary riots — such as Ferguson 2014 and Baltimore 2015 — as they relate to the recurring crises of capital. One key concept that you inherit from Marx and that allows you to think the relation between crisis and riots is that of the relative surplus population. However, we cannot think of contemporary riots without thinking about race. So you specifically talk about racialized surplus populations. Can you tell us more about the importance of this concept to think contemporary struggles?

Joshua Clover: Yeah, it’s really fundamental and it’s a way of trying at once to get past a confusing appearance without abandoning the thing that brings that appearance into being. So, what I refer to as the first era of riots — in the sort of early industrializing nations, the capitalist core–those are mostly around you famously around, the prices of food, “bread riots,” and so on and so forth. But in the current era of riots, the riot consistently appears as a “race riot.” And it’s a challenge to link those two things and trying to understand that relationship rather than saying these are two just utterly distinct phenomenon that happened to share a word. That’s in some sense the project of the book. And in getting to that, I was trying to understand the reason that racialized populations in the United States –often identified as Black populations– but not exclusively at all. What those populations shared with the immiserated and starving populations in the British countryside in 1740. And the answer is some things and not all things. The question is how a certain portion of the population comes to be excluded from the formal wage, from access to the wage, which is on the one hand, means that they are excluded from consistent and regular access to a paycheck to buy things, but also means they’re excluded from certain political activities like the strike. And in the United States — but not just the United States, we have many good examples in Western Europe and Scandinavia– that exclusion happens along racialized lines over and over again through a vast series of policies. In the US, you have Jim Crow. In the fifties, you have extended efforts by the labor unions to keep Black workers out of the unions. Once they do get in, you get “last hired first fired” policy. So, when deindustrialization begins, which happens earlier than people think — in the US, deindustrialiation, the first sort of hints of it start to happen around 1960 in Newark and Detroit and places like this. When deindustrialization starts to happen, and relatively speaking, the economy starts to shed industrial jobs, it excludes racialized populations, specially Black people first. So you get this population that, on the one hand, you can say abstractly, they’ve been pushed into the marketplace, but out of the wage, into the space of circulation, as I say, and out of production, but concretely, are also, you know, Black Americans. You know, in Detroit, you couldn’t find a better example. So the relative surplus population as an abstract category tends to line up with the concrete phenomenon of race in ways that are devastating and are a classic expression of ongoing racism.

Alejo Stark: So, you know, you also inherit that sense of race and racialization process from the work of Stuart Hall but also Ruth Wilson Gilmore, right? In which, the formulation of Stuart Hall is: “race is the modality through which class is lived.” You keep the form of this and instead argue that “riot is the modality through which surplus is lived.” In a sense, evoking the relative surplus population. Some might argue that race exceeds these so called “economic determinations,” let’s say. In particular, Orlando Patterson and then Frank Wilderson talk about gratuitous violence which points to the importance of a libidinal economy rather than political economy. There are also some attempts to think race as existing, as it were, “outside” the capitalist relations. Or, at least, that’s what proposed. However, I think you think of race with Gilmore and others, as what I might call the relative autonomy of race. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you’re thinking about race (or processes of racialization more specifically)?

Joshua Clover: So yeah, you know, I think I heard you use that phrase two days ago, which is the first time we met and I found it extremely useful and I wish you’d pass it along to me a couple of years before — it would have helped me as I was thinking through the set of problems. One thing I’ll say, in general, is that as a political matter, it seems to me that the clear question posed to us is how not to have to choose between these two positions. You know, Afro Pessimism, the tradition of Wilderson and so on that you mentioned, I think there’s real reasons why it has so much intellectual traction now, why people are so interested in it and it would be absurd to dismiss it. At the same time, I’m thrown by the political implication that there’s no possibility of political solidarity between the Black population, the bearers of social death– that’s the phrase he takes from Patterson– and other populations. And it seems to me that if there’s any horizon of revolutionary struggle, it’s going to be because those solidarities, alliances, affiliations, organizational unities are possible. I would absolutely agree that political economic determinations can’t explain all phenomena of race. That seems obviously true to me. Moreover, it seems clear to me that despite some arguments to the contrary, race and racism, preexist capitalism. It’s a thing that capital seizes upon and makes use of particularly to produce differential valuing of human life. So it can extract more surplus value by sort of arbitraging people’s actual worth against each other as it’s produced by state violence. So I think there’s a way we can think about the two of them together without having to fall into a debate about what the primary contradiction is and what’s epiphenomenal. I actually don’t think we have to choose. I think we can look at the problem and the problematic from different positions. So even if one is trying to think from within a framework of critical political economy one phrase I think I tried to make use of was: “the political economy of social death.” So this category of social death– how could we think about that as being produced and reproduced by the needs, as it were, of capital to expand? Which is not to say that capital causes race. I definitely don’t want to make that claim. Capital profits from race. It’s in fact a fundamental way that capital profits. It’s fundamental to capital that it profits from race. So it’s greatly in its interest to help reproduce it, to reproduce that condition of social death, even if it did not invent it. So I just don’t think we need to choose, but we can see how these phenomena not intersect but collaborate.

a Maria : So as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others have shown, the prison population in the United States is predominantly drawn from this racialized surplus population. Therefore, there’s an overlap in the figure of contemporary rights, in Riot Strike Riot, you write that the riot is the other of incarceration. If the state solution to the problem of crisis and surplus is prison, carceral management, the riot is a contest entered directly against the solution. A counterproposal of unmanageability. Can you tell us more about how you think the relationship between the prison and the riot?

Joshua Clover: No, I think I said it as well as I could there. I mean, I can try and expand on that. I’m not sure if I’ll be telling you anything you don’t already know. The racialization of the prison population and the racialization of the population of riot are the same phenomenon — and that’s really, really important to say. You know, increasingly as the sort of nexus of state and capital is unable to absorb people into the wage and the particular discipline, the wage offers like that, that we forget many people, especially poor people can be made to feel so desperate for and grateful for the wage because it’s the way to access what they needed to stay alive. That it’s easy not to recognize it as the fundamental form of discipline for people who require it, right? It tells you what time to get up in the morning and it tells you what time to go to bed at night.

Joshua Clover: It tells you what to do in between those hours and so on. So it’s an incredible form of discipline. But when the wage stops working as a form of discipline, when you decide that instead there’s not any more room to include more workers and the disposable, the excluded, are going to be black people, Latinx people — and you start to exclude those. Then you need some other form of discipline. So then you have this population. And then the question is how will they be disciplined and can you discipline all of them? Can you jail all of them? And if you can’t, then the remainder — and clearly you can’t, no matter how immense the state infrastructure is for incarceration, you simply can’t imprison everyone. And the question is, that population then that is subject to neither disciplined, that has escape these things — they’re not going to do anything but fight, in that situation of immiseration, all you can do is die or fight. And how are they going to fight? And, and you know, the book is for them.

Alejo Stark: So, you know, you probably have heard about the prison strikes that have rocked prisons in the United States in 2018, in 2016. I think people on the inside are thinking of the striking of a very broad sense. And so, you know, not only including the stoppage of labor as it was a case in 2016 in 2018, you have a variety of tactics that sought to mostly just interrupt or disrupt the carceral state apparatus. So I wondering how you were thinking, you know, to what extent might we think with the model that you’ve proposed, what the theory of riots and the relation between crisis, racialized surplus populations and the carceral might tell us about these strikes.

Joshua Clover: So I’ll call again on — We’ve, we’ve invoked Ruth Wilson Gilmore a couple of times and I’ll invoke her one more time. She has, I think along with Craig Gilmore, they might have written it this, this quite a scathing review of the movie 13, which is this movie with argument is that the new prison system is actually the new slavery, the hyper incarceration of black people is a form of enslavement toward getting free or extremely low paid work. And their critique of this is, is that, well, this exaggerates the role of the for profit prison industry, which is quite small and we really can’t understand the prison system via its generation of profits for capital. Maybe it does some small bit, but we can’t really understand it in that way. And we need to understand it as a mode of disciplinary control over these populations that can’t be controlled otherwise, a way of managing surpluses — her language that I draw on quite heavily.

Joshua Clover: So if we accept that and I’m pretty persuaded by it and if you’ve ever talked with Ruthie, you’ll be persuaded too. I’m pretty persuaded by this. And if you are, then it’s difficult, if one is insisting on technical language to think of a prison strike as a strike, at the same time one understands why people choose this language over and over again. The strike for many signifies a kind of refusal and refusal is one of the great powers we have. It sort of reaffirms this moment of bodily autonomy — like you may have this power to dominate me fairly absolutely, but if I simply refuse to move, it’s pretty hard for you to make me do things. So that power of refusal that begins with bodily autonomy is significant for people. And that’s part of the reason people draw in the language of strike.

Joshua Clover: Historically, the term strike has a lot of charisma because it seemed very effective in, you know, 1905 or 1917 or in the 1930s and so on. We’ve obviously seen a great waning of the labor strike in the United States since the seventies that’s continuing and we can imagine that in 50 years the strike as a sort of framework won’t have the same charisma and people won’t feel so compelled to say X strike, Y strike Z strike. For the moment it does. And I understand that. So I understand why people choose that language, but I think as you suggest, it might be useful to see past that language to the actual processes that are going on, much of which seemed to involve trying to interfere with or interrupt the smooth reproduction of the functioning of systems, interrupt the flow of goods and services in various places.

Joshua Clover: This is why Riot and Strike are these marquee names, but I really am more interested in the larger categories that they’re metonymy for the production struggle for the strike and the circulation struggle for the riot and to think about what the prisoners are doing. And here I should note that I think you’re actually more thoughtful about this than I am. You spent more time and are quite insightful about it and in some ways I’m just repeating things I’ve learned from you — but the things that are going on inside the prison do seem to me to overflow the category of refusal of work stoppage and to engage in other kinds of interferences are interruptions or confrontations with the reproduction of that particular system, the prison system, the local prison, the larger prison system. So it might be useful to try and understand what’s happening there in some framework beyond this strike.

a Maria : I feel like there’s so many other things that we could ask. But since we’re bumping up against time, is there anything specifically that you wanted to include that we haven’t gotten a chance to talk about yet?

Joshua Clover: Well, yes, but it’s sort of self interested. So when we have these conversations, it’s an interesting opportunity to revisit the things I was trying to think about in the book and when I revisit them, I also re-encounter, the incompleteness of the things I was trying to think about. We always have to be okay with incompleteness. Life is finite. Thousand page books are tedious. I tried to keep it short. I knew I was leaving a lot of things out. But so, you know, the last thing I would say is, if this inspires in you or your listeners a sense of avenues that need to be explored, or reckoned with further or reconsidered, I would love to hear it because I want to continue my thinking, but I can use all the help I can get.

a Maria : Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us on the show today and also for the excellent work.

Joshua Clover: It was really a pleasure to be with you. Thanks very much.