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McKenzie Wark: 'The Logic of Riots'

McKenzie Wark16 August 2011

Riots have their own logic. Both those who celebrate and decry them tend to think of riots as irrational outbursts, which can be channeled back towards order either by offering a few concessions or by sending in more police. There is invariably some moralizing that goes along with all this, none of it terribly helpful for understanding why riots are a constant of modern urban life rather than some inexplicable exception.

There's a short text that always does the rounds whenever riots occur again. It was written by Guy Debord, legendary co-founder of the Situationist International, and bearing the jargon-heavy title of ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy.' These days you don't have to hunt around for the photocopies passed from hand to hand, it can be easily googled. Its subject is the Watts riots of 1965. Its leading provocation, and the reason for its underground popularity, is this: "But who has defended the rioters of Watts in the terms they deserve?

"The Los Angeles revolt was a revolt against the commodity," Debord said. It was at least partly so. "The flames of Watts consumed consumption." In the spectacle of consumer society advertises a life in which all that is good appears on television and all that appears on television is good. This constant circulation of images of the consumer lifestyle, which came into its own in the sixties, could but be a cruel reminder for African Americans in particular of the inequities underlying such images.

The spectacle of consumable life ranks goods in order of their desirability. The fancy brands are so much better than generic knock-offs. But this is also an order that ranks its subjects. To be Black in the sixties is to be at the bottom of the visible order. Just as the ranking of which are the better brands changes over time, so too does the league table of desirable kinds of people. You have your Kate Middletons, and then you have your chavs.

The Watts riot was a moment when African Americans saw through this hierarchy of images. As Debord says: "they demand the egalitarian realization of the American spectacle of everyday life." This is a constant of the modern riot. Those who are told, at one and the same time, that these and the things they should desire, but that they themselves are not desirable, will periodically get the message, and respond in kind. Like the Watts rioters, they see the swag on offer - and loot it.

The signature Situationist concept for such - recurring - events is potlatch. Where Marx compared the transformation of the object of labor into a commodity to a transubstantiation, the Situationists were interested in a kind of reverse miracle, by which the thing lost its status as commodity and became the gift. The looted object is no longer a commodity. But the perversity of the gesture is that its seizure does not break the spell of exchange and return to things their value. Rather, looting takes the spectacle at its word. In the spectacle, what is good appears and what appears is good. The looter jumps the gap between desire and the commodity. The looter takes desires for necessity, and necessity for their desires, but freeing the commodity from exchange does not expunge exchange from the commodity.

The riot contains a quite contrary movement as well - arson. The arsonist is not quite the same as the looter. The arsonist's is a negative relation to what appears, particularly to the built environment. The arsonist's actions are marked by the refusal of spectacular form. Enormous energy is being withdrawn from the labor process and it finds no other outlet than in aggression prompted by dissatisfaction. In the riot, that aggression turns against two of its sources: against the time of the commodity form; against an alienating urban space.

Looting and arson are recurring events within what the Situationists called the "overdeveloped world." They are the mark of overdevelopment, of the quantitative expansion of production outstripping the qualitative transformation of everyday life, of desires spinning their wheels, without traction in the elaboration of needs. The proximate causes may vary, and are usually to do with the thuggery of the police and the indifference of the state.

What the Situationists point to is the consistency and persistence of what follows, the twin forks of seize it all, or burn it down. Sometimes, the riot takes a different form, and passes toward rebellion, even toward revolution, or perhaps those in the middle of it think it does. This is why May ‘68 has a special place in not only the theory but also the mythology of the Situationists. It was more than a riot. It was the fabled general strike.

There is a lot that is missing from Debord's account of Watts: The thirty dead, the thousand injured, the four thousand arrests. Still, it might have interested him that later investigations upheld his hunch that while the riots were leaderless they were not without organization. Impromptu meetings in the park after dark coordinated movements, for example. Riots are neither irrational, spontaneous outbursts, nor the secret workings of some conspiracy or other.

They, are rather, the working out of an inner tension in commodified life. That tension is usually finessed through the fine idea that if everyone just knuckles under and does their best, all will be well. The yawning gap between the promise of the spectacle and its actuality can be narrowed with hard work and a bit of luck. When that carrot turns out to be a rotten promise, then there's nothing for it but the stick. The modern, spectacular society would prefer to be loved, but when push comes to shoved it will settle for being feared.

Filed under: articles, riots