This guest piece deals with the growing militancy on the streets in the U.S, and where that militancy is heading. While U&S doesn’t agree with every point made below, we post it in hopes of sparking discussion.
Why Aren’t American Cities On Fire?:
Notes For A Discussion About Riots In The United States
I’m in my mid twenties. Unlike most working class people in my generation, my friend has a car, and I sometimes catch a ride with him to work, if it works out. This buddy of mine works as a welder in one of the last shipyards in the city, a high-paying job for a working class person of my age. Thus, the car.
One day I got a ride with him to work, which for me is a restaurant. Another friend, who had been crashing at my place, also caught a ride with us downtown. At the time, this other friend was unemployed, and tried to support himself through various illegal activities. We all went to the same high school together.
I have an old tape recorder, which my friends let me use to record interesting moments I have with them, and I had it with me on this day. We were shooting the shit along the ride, and the topic of riots came up, as political topics usually do in our conversations. That’s when I pressed the record button. “Imagine if we were in Baltimore when it was going down against the cops!?” asked my unemployed friend. I’m not going to write what the response to that question was, and I have since erased that segment of the recording, as I usually do with any potentially incriminating recordings. The eruption of an anti-police rebellion in Baltimore in April was still fresh in our minds.
My crew of high school friends and I have all despised the cops from a very young age, because we all got harassed by them at some point or another. In this conversation, we wondered what a rebellion would look like in the urban region we live in. After a few minutes of imagining, there was the common sense response, from my welder friend, “yea, well, call me when it happens!” To which I responded, “well, we gotta prepare for it if we’re gonna be ready when the moment comes, right?” There was no surprise that I asked this question. “Right.” I’ve known these two particular friends since I was about ten, so we were all very comfortable talking about this with each other. I pried further, “but how???” After a pause, my unemployed friend said, “practice,” which I remember he said with a completely straight face.
My high-school friends and I cannot speak for the different sections of the working class that we are each organized into—low-wage, high-wage, and unemployed. Nonetheless, I think that the conversation above reflects the specific, contradictory positions that we each occupy as young people within the working class, that massive class of people in capitalist society whose only possession of significant material value is their labor-power (their ability to work for a wage). A member of this class is a “proletariat.” Because proletariats do not own any means of production of their own, in order to subsist within the capitalist system, we are forced to sell our labor-power to the capitalists, that small, yet dominant, class of people who privately own the means of producing wealth. In exchange, we receive some form of a money wage, which contains only a small fraction of the total wealth that we produce, while the capitalists privately appropriate the remaining surplus of wealth.
Highlighted in the conversation above, in general, in the rich nations of the world, it is the unemployed and low-waged proletariats who are the most likely sections of the working class to use insurgent tactics (see below) against the capitalist system, for these proletariats have the most unstable relationship to this system of wage labor. On the other hand, the high-paying sections of the working class in the rich nations are not likely to engage in such tactics, because these proletariats generally do not want to risk getting arrested and losing their considerably stable jobs, with high-wages, overtime pay, pension, car, etc. which are not easy for proletariats to acquire nowadays, contrasted to the Post-World War II era.
For the much larger and younger strata of low-waged proletariats, it is a much different situation. We are often indifferent about our specific jobs, and tend to jump from job to job quite frequently, because we often find ourselves with little to no work in the off season, and because we know that there are many other low-waged jobs out there that are basically the same shit as the jobs we already have. And obviously, the unemployed proletariats tend to have less qualms about using insurgent tactics, because they do not have any job to risk losing. For better or for worse, these are the two sections of the working class who are most likely to act as insurgent elements in the class struggle in the U.S.
By “insurgent,” I mean, illegal and violent tactics which destabilize the power of a ruling class institution. This is at times called “sabotage,” or the “class war.” Some people might protest that violence and illegality are “morally wrong,” or “not necessary.” I would argue that, whether we like it or not, violence and illegality always take place whenever ruling class power is challenged. The state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, therefore, all action against the state is violent and illegitimate from the start, even if little to no violence is actually used.
For reasons I will explore below, I’m convinced that there’s considerable appeal for insurgent tactics among low-waged and unemployed youth, beyond the small groups of militants I am friends with. Yet at the same time, while there certainly are young working class people who participate in and support these tactics, there are many more who do not, and some who are opposed, for many different reasons. Many young people are angry with the police and “the system,” but do not see the greater class enemy—the capitalist class. Many are ambivalent about the question of working class insurgency all together. Others strongly identify with the capitalist system. All in all, most people think that there is little chance for the riots to succeed in practice.
The anti-police rebellion that exploded in Baltimore, like others before it in recent years, confirmed once again that while some of us might support these tactics, nobody has the practical capacity to use them in a strategic manner. To even begin to develop a strategic approach to insurgent tactics, there would first have to be an analysis of the present circumstances of class conflict in the United States. With the proper evaluation of the context, and later on, with a consideration of the strategic questions which emerge from this context, the practical capacity for using insurgent tactics can begin to be constructed on a solid foundation.
I do not claim to have all the answers. But if there is going to be a strategic discussion about riots in the United States, a discussion about how to understand the riots, participate in them, and develop them, then I think these are some good starting points. It is my hope that fellow militants will engage with what I am putting forward.
Why The Riots Will Continue
Oakland. Anaheim. Flatbush. Ferguson. Baltimore. These riots against the police, which have increased in frequency over the past three years, reflect the potential for more insurgent struggles in the immediate future. This is the case for a number of reasons.
First, on a subjective level, there are significant numbers of young working class people who recognize the advantages of using insurgent tactics in direct response to ruling class violence. A significant layer of young people have internalized the fact that if it weren’t for riots, no one would give a damn about more black lives being taken by the U.S. police state. Numerous times over the past few years, people have seen that, on their own, legally permitted protests, vigils, marches, etc. fail to change the balance of power. It was the added element of insurgent tactics which stimulated the uprisings. Of course, many young proletariats do not explicitly understand this, but nevertheless, the riots show that there are those who do. This perspective among working class youth, marginal as it might seem, signals the potential for more rebellions in the future.
Second, on the objective level, proletarian existence in the United States is characterized by a number of interrelated factors: growing poverty and unemployment, with most of the job growth taking place in the low-wage, retail and service economies; an eroding social welfare state (i.e. reductions in government funding for unemployment benefits, food-stamps, public schools, etc.); and an expanding punitive state (i.e. police, courts, jails, prisons, etc.). Any urban space with increasing poverty and unemployment, an expanding punitive state, and a declining welfare state, is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
Certain objections might be raised here, that it is entirely possible that the left wing of capital could reduce the power of the punitive state, primarily through de-carceration, especially given the repeal of Rockefeller drug laws in NYC in 2009; the release of a few thousand prisoners in California due to overcrowding since 2011; California prison reform in 2014 making non-violent offenders eligible for release; growth of “alternative to incarceration” programs in NYC; recommendations from Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, for “alternatives to arrest” practices in local police departments; Obama pardoning more inmates than any previous president; generally, mass incarceration becoming an increasing topic of liberal discussion. These are certainly new forms of capitalist statecraft, which could very well increase in the future for the carceral state. Nonetheless, they continue to be the exception to the norm. Even if there are limited signs of its contraction, and despite the bourgeois-democratic innovations, the U.S. punitive state, particularly the policing wing, continues to be one of the largest and most antagonistic among the wealthy nations of the world.
Other objections could also be raised that the ongoing structural crisis of U.S. capitalism does not necessarily guarantee more riots. This is absolutely true. But my point is this: given the ongoing structural trends within the working class that have been unfolding since the 1970s (the shift to the retail-service industries, the growth of unemployment, heavier policing, and the gutting of social services) which are not going away anytime soon, coupled with the militant ways in which young people have been struggling against the police state in recent years—given this conjuncture of objective and subjective circumstances—it is likely that the riots will keep coming.
I am part of a generation of proletariats who have nothing but increasingly negative experiences with the established order. We have very few positive experiences with the state, especially law enforcement (police, judges, parole officers, etc). We get harassed by the law for petty, non-violent offenses, and often for no reason at all except for the color of our skin, or appearance of our gender. We have boring, low-wage jobs (if we can get a job at all), that usually don’t last more than a few seasons.
By disrespecting and fighting the cops, by vandalizing and looting ruling class property, young proletariats in the United States are engaging in a praxis that directly reflects the conditions of their existence under modern capitalism. But young black proletariats, above all others, have shown that they are willing to fight to completely throw off this system which is suffocating them.
Harbingers of Things to Come
These low-level insurgent tactics I am describing correspond to a practical reality which working class people are responding to on their own, through their own initiative. Proletarian youth are also using insurgent tactics in China, Mexico, Ireland, Brazil, Greece, India, Egypt, South Africa. Everywhere.
In the United States, by their independent activity, black militants have been attacking ruling class institutions in their most immediate, antagonistic forms, namely the police and capitalists that operate in proletarian neighborhoods. We saw young black people fighting the cops in the streets of Flatbush in 2013. We saw it again in Ferguson in 2014, but for a longer period of time, and over a larger territory, with the added element of looting capitalist property. The recent events in Baltimore represent an intensification in the use of insurgent tactics (fighting the cops and looting the capitalists), even if the rebellion was of a shorter duration than Ferguson.
Many people see these riots as marginal forms of resistance which do not significantly challenge capitalist power, since the riots only temporarily disrupt the zones of confinement that are imposed on black proletariats. However, my point is not that the riots can automatically overthrow capitalism. Rather, my point is that the riots signal the emergence of a new cycle of class conflict in the United States, a cycle from which insurgent projects can be built.
Historically, autonomous black struggles tend to appear on the cutting-edge of the class struggle when a new cycle of social crisis begins to emerge. This general dynamic was brilliantly theorized by C.L.R. James in many of his writings about the struggles of black Americans. The dynamic was most evident in the lead up to the Civil War, but was also evident in the struggles that immediately precipitated the American War of Independence, and in the urban rebellions of the 1950s and 60s. In the United States, black revolts have historically acted as a sort of harbinger of things to come, reflecting the emergence of new eras of class conflict. Today we find ourselves in the early stages of such an era.
Towards Proletarian Insurgency in the U.S.
Given that the United States is not yet in a revolutionary period, there cannot be a fully cohesive strategy for proletarian insurgency in this country. The most I can do is outline what I think is the best way to engage in these insurgent struggles. The specifics of an insurgent strategy will have to come from the dynamics of the class struggle as it is configured in different areas.
How can militants develop their tactical capacity for insurgent struggle? What are the best features of the insurgent method? What are its limitations? These are the sort of questions I will explore below.
In this historical period, when riots are the order of the day, people who want a revolution should be coming together to build the practical capacity to use insurgent tactics in their local base areas, particularly in the context of a rebellion against the police. The immediate objective is to develop the capability to use insurgent tactics in a strategic manner. If this objective is achieved, and if a low scale anti-capitalist insurgency can be sustained, emerging out of an upsurge of proletarian resistance, this can then become a means to even greater historical objectives, such as insurrection against the punitive state, large-scale looting of commodities, and the building of new mode of social reproduction. Thus, the long term objectives of overthrowing capitalism and building a new existence, can emerge from the more immediate, insurgent objectives.
The development of the generalized readiness and willingness to wage an insurgency against capitalism is in the last instance shaped by the changing circumstances of history. At the same time, it is also true that groups of people can influence the process of history if they can intervene in the right place, at the right time. If the group has an analysis of the historical circumstances, if they are cultivating their tactical capacity, and their evaluation of that capacity is correct, if they have developed strong political relationships in a lower-class neighborhood, then they are building the political will and practical capacity for class war in a specific space, at a strategic time.
On a tactical level, if groups of militants are going to become proficient in using insurgent tactics, and maintain that capacity for the right occasion, then they will have to continually practice how to throw projectiles, how to engage in hand-to-hand combat, how to de-arrest people, how to make barricades, how to evade and escape, and how to use first aid techniques. Besides tactical training, insurgent tactical capacity also entails a familiarity with the method of insurgent struggle. Militants should start with actions that are smaller, more isolated/controlled, and less risky, and over time build the collective capacity to engage in bolder, more disruptive actions.
Generally, insurgent tactics are most effective when they stem from an underlying class conflict. If these tactics are used in isolation from broader class tensions, then they tend to have little impact or influence beyond small groups of militants. Thus, insurgent tactics should be embedded within a larger class struggle that contains a complex mosaic of many different forms of struggle, legal and illegal: street riots against the police; occupations of buildings and other spaces; sabotage and looting of ruling class property; blockades of highways, railroads, ports; political education, research and study groups; and even full-scale uprisings and insurgencies.
If militants are going to organize themselves for the long term, it is important for them to always keep in mind that insurgent tactics are not the only tactics of the class struggle that matter. Insurgent objectives and methods of resistance always circulate within a larger constellation of activities, which are often for the most part legal, aboveground activities. This why it is so important that insurgents develop relationships with people in public, aboveground networks, and coordinate insurgent actions in relation to the aboveground struggle.
Ideally, insurgent actions should be carried out by a network of various small affinity groups, each made up of 2-4 individuals, whose actions are meshed within large-scale political agitation and propaganda activities, public occupations and blockades, information gathering and research activities.
It should always be kept in mind that the best insurgent tactics are offensive, and should never be used with the intention of holding any ground whatsoever. The targets of insurgent actions should always be attacked by surprise, only when the insurgents have the advantage in the situation, and these actions should always be followed by a rapid withdrawal. If not, insurgent actions will lead to little more than injuries, arrests, and endless legal support campaigns. If an insurgency is going to spread among the proletariat class and be perceived as having a chance for success in the long run, then offensive victories must outweigh defensive maneuvers. Successful insurgent actions, where militants attack a ruling class institution and avoid arrest, increase the appeal of the insurgency, and make people more willing to provide support.
The method of a successful insurgent action, then, is characterized by information gathering and scouting of the target area; secret movement to the area; brief, offensive action; followed by quick disengagement, and swift, deceptive withdrawal from the area; all of this with the action being timed for maximum political effect, and preceded and followed by political agitation and propaganda that explains the purpose of the action. These principles generally apply just as much for mass riot situations as well as for more isolated, day to day actions.
If the coming riots and rebellions are going to develop into insurrections and insurgencies, then there needs to be an insurgent network that is prepared to mobilize into action when these ruptures emerge, which can continually act over time, in an organized and strategic way, in order to intensify the conflict and to push it in a more revolutionary direction. It is not enough to only take action in the moment of upsurge and following it. As I said to my friend in the conversation I described in the beginning of this piece: “…we gotta prepare for it if we’re gonna be ready when the moment comes…” Proletarian militants should be preparing themselves as much as possible, so that when the next riot pops off, they have the capacity to extend the conflict into a war to wear out and demoralize the capitalist power structure over time.
A protracted insurgency is needed for a number of reasons. For one, time is needed to allow for the inherent weaknesses of the capitalist system to accumulate under the stress of class war. One way this happens is by dispersing and stretching the enemy over space, thus forcing it to exhaust its resources, which of course takes time. While insurgencies are often already multi-polar, encompassing multiple strong points in different neighborhoods or regions, militants should nonetheless aim to generalize and spread their actions as much as possible over time, in order to wear out the capitalist state.
Time is also needed to develop a base of resistance, for without the support and commitment of a substantial section of people, there can be no insurgency. Besides witnessing the success of insurgent actions over time, individuals are also more willing to invest themselves in an insurgency when they have the material, moral, and intellectual support of a network that provides them with the tools they need to actively and effectively participate in that movement.
Moreover, anti-capitalist insurgency is not only about attacking and looting capitalist institutions. It is also a struggle to build a new mode of production and social reproduction, which of course requires a long period of time, sometimes lasting years and even decades.
Once an proletarian insurgency has been initiated and sustained, at a more developed stage in the conflict, when the class struggle is at a peak, when the ruling class is divided and weak, it could be strategic to organize a large-scale assault (what is known as an insurrection) against the state in a specific area. Unlike riots, which are more organic forms of class conflict, and unlike an insurgency, which is by nature low-intensity and protracted, an insurrection occurs for a limited period of time, and represents the highest leap in the use of insurgent tactics. History has proven time and time again that an insurrection can only succeed in a particular city or region, during a period in which there is an upsurge of the class struggle in that area. During a period of heightened resistance, the state has lost considerable power and influence over the population, which allows for the insurgents to undertake bolder actions and have more of a political influence.
Any attempt at an insurrectionary assault, or a protracted insurgency, will be disastrous and will not last long, if the elements I outline are not present. It must always be kept in mind that there are certain limitations and vulnerabilities inherent to any insurgency. Some of these are:
- Limited capabilities for defending or holding a particular location.
- Lack of training, equipment, weapons, and supplies.
- Dependence on precise, timely and accurate information.
- Necessity for constant mobility.
- The need for secrecy and tight security.
- Decentralization and dispersion of affinity groups impedes communication and reaction time.
- Infiltration by police informants.
- Inconsistencies in the ideological narrative and political strategy.
- Internal divisions and factions within the movement.
- The need to maintain momentum.
- The risk of death, injury, imprisonment, and the risk of having to go underground, or into exile.
- The entire project is dependent upon the development of the class struggle and the self-activity of the working class.
 Writings by CLR James that highlight this question: The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US. The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the U.S. The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States.
 W.E.B Dubois, Black Reconstruction.
 See The Many Headed Hydra, by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.
 Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution, by Marvin Surkin and Dan Georgakas.