Inextinguishable Fire: Ferguson and beyond

By R.L., 17 November 2014
Image: Ferguson rebel holds up sign: 'Nice Night 4 a Revolution'

The cop murder of Mike Brown and the subsequent eruption in Ferguson and around the US have raised questions about the value of racialised life and the forms of struggle against race emerging in the face of displacement, immiseration and militarised policing. R.L. traces the coordinates of a militant younger generation that has a different relation to race and class belonging


We are ready to die tonight

Posted on twitter by Anon


We still live in the shadows of the global financial crisis. Now seemingly a distant memory – along with the wave of struggles that trailed in its tracks – the full ramifications of the crisis are still unfolding today. Sluggish worldwide GDP growth rates, high unemployment levels, diffuse immiseration amongst the population…all the while governments bear a purely negative function, engaging in a hodgepodge of ineffective half-measures intended to prevent further social dissolution. In this regard, we very much agree with Endnotes’ analysis of the present as caught in a holding pattern, in which the global crisis of capital has for the moment stalled and the forces of disintegration are kept at bay.[1]

Within the constraints of these circumstances, a growing mass of humanity are being left behind as the economy falters ahead. In order for capitalist society to continue its course, the growing mass of surplus humanity must somehow be ‘integrated’ into class society even despite being socially ‘unnecessary’ to its reproduction. In the absence of any wider social resolution to growing immiseration, the predicament is for now resolved ideologically through criminalisation and practically through punishment. Increasing immiseration, and subsequently exclusion, must therefore be justified and normalised. Rising social inequality becomes framed as a problem of containment and the solution one of increasing control.

The police shooting of Michael Brown resonates all too familiarly within this interim period. However, in contrast to other similar incidences, Ferguson has led to an especially explosive and protracted reaction. Its impact has gone far beyond the small suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, attracting not only those in the immediate vicinity of the town itself, but reverberating all throughout the United States. What factors have made the rebellion in Ferguson particularly extensive? Does the eruption indicate any evolutionary development in the problem of coordination amongst proletarians in light of past struggles? And what does this eruption tell us about our place within the ongoing crisis of the capitalist class relation?



Today, to exist outside any formal relation to capital is to be nothing. This is the essential meaning of the death of Michael Brown and other black youth who have shared the same fate before him. The riots and demonstrations in Ferguson that followed express first and foremost a struggle against this condemnation to nothingness, a contestation over whose life counts for something and whose life counts for nothing.

But this struggle for recognition encounters a barrier based upon the inherent volatility of ‘race’ as a basis for unity. ‘Race’, which has provided the basis of coherence in the participants’ activity is also the basis upon which those very participants are excluded. For ‘race’ is not a state of being but rather the result of a type of social relation, a set of social and material practices of exclusion – that is, racialisation. By way of an inversion, these social and material practices of exclusion are transformed into a naturalised attribute immediately belonging to a subset of the population.[2]

Yet the order in which ‘race’ appears is the reverse of its fabrication. As an ideological element, ‘race’ is presented as a rationale for exclusion, made into its very own justification. In this way, the relationship between racialisation and ‘race’ is very much like traversing a Moebius strip, where cause and effect become indistinguishable. In other words, the thing that is the consequence of the shooting (‘blackness’) is transmuted into its cause; Brown’s ‘race’ appears to be a rationale for his death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. As a consequence, a mutual language of recognition between ‘Whites’ and ‘Blacks’ is made impossible when viewed through this ideological prism, as at any moment one can slip into tautology – ‘they shot him because he was black, he was black and so they shot him’. And thus ‘race’ appears here as an independent attribute, possessing a ‘phantom-like’ objectivity in and of itself.

In order to gain a more adequate conceptualisation of blackness, and ‘race’ more generally, we must attend to the historically specific relation between the capitalist class relation and racialisation. Through what mechanisms does a proletarian ‘become’ black? And more importantly, what are the possible bases in which the dyadic relation between class and ‘race’ can be made inoperable?

In the United States, those who count for nothing have been historically defined as black. The value of one’s life within capitalist society presupposes that one is capable of producing value, that one has a socially recognised use value – that is, in possession of the commodity labour power. But what’s more, this labour power must also be qualified as a specifically human labour power.

Let us reiterate Marx’s definition of this peculiar commodity: labour power is simply the formal capacity to work, the potentiality to labour – ‘the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use value of any description’.[3] Labour power is all that remains for the worker dispossessed of the means of subsistence and production. But would it be possible for the commodity labour power itself to be dispossessed? What would remain then?

When the commodity labour power no longer exists, the human container that would have possessed this labour power endures as an empty shell. All that is left is a physical residuum, an inert fleshy materiality that marks the lack of labour power, a purely physical existence without a subjectivity. The human container is desocialised, or in other words, a thing that is without any social utility. Ultimately this purely physical existence is reduced to mere appearance, in which the phenotypical attribute comes to mediate and determine the form of social existence of this human container once it is integrated into the class relation. Consequently, ‘blackness’ appears as a representation of the lack of labour power, its positive instantiation. The phenotypical attribute ‘blackness’ comes to naturalise this lack as an inherent attribute of the human container itself whereas it is merely the social representation of the absence of labour power.

Unable to be completely integrated into the class relation, this fraction of the population cannot be qualified as even being properly proletarian, since being a proletarian presupposes at the very least ownership of the commodity labour power. Thus, the excluded are not only barred from the labour market, but are deprived of the commodity labour power itself. In this sense, there occurs an internal differentiation in the reproduction of the class relation: on the one hand, there is the social reproduction of labour power and on the other hand, the asocial physical reproduction of human beings.

This fraction of the unwaged population is therefore relegated to a continual process of de-proletarianisation, whereby the social reproduction of labour power is separated from the reproduction of purely physical beings. Consequently, this separation of the socially recognised aspect of human labour power results in a desocialisation of proletarians, in which the objectivity of the body remains as mere residue. As a result of this general movement, a fraction of the population are racialised as ‘black’ and thus excluded from the class relation.

This relegation at the margins of the labour markets is what Marx had called pauperism, whereby sections of the proletariat are subjected to persistent immiseration. However, the process of relative pauperisation in the United States has historically tended to assume the form of racialisation of the distinct sections of the proletariat. Pauperism, as an objective tendency of exclusion immanent to capital accumulation, takes on the form of appearance of blackness, which becomes the prime marker of exclusion. Historically, black unemployment has always been two thirds higher than white unemployment, this gap having been maintained over the course of the past several decades.[4]

Within the present moment, pauperisation becomes absolute. The non-reproduction of the class relation is an objective situation produced by capital itself, but yet this tendency towards non-reproduction is confronted by the state and moreover law, whose task is to suture this gap. In this way, the structural position of those racialised as black objectively embodies the immanent tendency of capital’s non-reproduction, in which the face-to-face between capital and labour breaks down. Pauperisation – that is, exclusion from the class relation – must be made legible, which in turn produces the racialisation of black identity.

Thus for the excluded, class belonging is produced externally as a constraint; but its production takes on the form of a racialisation, which subsequently makes ‘race’ into an autonomous subject. The various eruptions of the excluded that have punctuated the post-crisis period are various attempts to undo this racialisation, to make the mechanisms of this process visible, and in the American context, to ultimately contest racialisation and black identity as not simply a particular issue, but rather a foundational element of capital accumulation.

As a result, there is a contradictory tension produced within the eruption of Ferguson, in which class belonging takes on the form of appearance of black identity. This is the realisation of black identity against capital, whether it is in order to be integrated into the class relation, or as an oppositional political force in conflict with capital. But this essentially reifies the process of racialisation into an autonomous racialised subject. On the other hand, there is the tendency toward the abolition of the racialised subject, but on the basis of a fundamental non-belonging, the incapacity to belong to any class. In both cases, the production of black identity appears as an autonomous thing, which comes to represent a lack of relation to any class, as not belonging to any particular class.



The riots were first and foremost a response to this intensifying processes of immiseration taking place since the beginning of the 2000s. A relatively small suburb at the periphery of the city of St. Louis, Ferguson was not a blighted inner-city ghetto but was home to middle-income and working class blacks. As mentioned in various accounts of its social and economic situation, Ferguson had just recently experienced an extensive decline in living standards. Median household income dropped 25 percent in the past decade while 1 in 4 residents live below the federal poverty line. During that same period of time unemployment doubled to 13 percent.

But other cities like Ferguson abound in St. Louis County. As already noted by various accounts, Ferguson represents a paradigmatic instance in the suburbanisation of poverty that has dispersed throughout the United States over the past several decades.[5] Unlike inner-city ghettos that have been entrenched in poverty since the turn of the 1970s, Ferguson is a suburb that has recently been undergoing an economic and racial transition.[6] Just in the past decade alone the demographic composition has markedly shifted from predominantly white neighbourhoods to predominantly black neighbourhoods.

While concentrated poverty is still very much a feature of the urban environment, and has moreover intensified over the past several decades, immiseration in suburban areas has seen an even more pronounced increase, experiencing a 65 percent growth of the poor population from 2000 to 2012 in major metropolitan areas. The Midwest and the South are regions particularly affected by this trend where the growth of the poor population during the same time period has been well over 100 percent.[7]

A similar trend is seen in other high-income countries, where the rise of suburban poverty has contributed to the outbreak of social unrest by marginalised populations. Paris in 2005 is a case in point. In Sweden, unrest flared in the suburbs of Stockholm in 2013, which was preceded by riots in Malmö in 2008 and a spate of riots in Stockholm 2010 and 2012. The three largest metropolitan areas – Stockholm, Göteborg, and Malmö – have seen a considerable increase in population density concentrating in the suburbs in contrast to the urban core.[8]

However, the other side of the story in the suburbanisation of poverty is the steady flight of capital over the past several decades. From 1980 to 2000, the change in manufacturing jobs for the outlying metropolitan area of St. Louis County grew 38 percent while the central county lost 24 percent of manufacturing jobs. However, during the first decade of the 2000s, central and outlying metropolitan areas both lost 41 percent and 23 percent of manufacturing jobs, respectively. From a longer-term perspective, the flight of core manufacturing industries, and consequently employment, from the inner-city to the suburbs then into the exurbs left a trail of localities where those who could not keep up with capital’s flight were left behind. The complementary process of white flight accompanied this movement, which had historically began during the early 1960s when white families moved to the suburbs.

Thus as capital moved away from the inner city of St. Louis to the peripheries, it left behind a trail of urban deterioration, blight, and municipal government retrenchment. In attempting to combat this situation, city officials instated an urban renewal programme that planned to renovate large sections of the city. But this plan was largely unsuccessful, resulting in simply displacing black families from the inner-city to other nearby suburban neighbourhoods. The demolition of the historic Pruit-Igoe housing project in the early 1970s signalled the beginning of this extensive pattern of displacement of black households, distributing many across the sprawling suburban landscape at the outer edges of the St. Louis City.

Compulsory internal migration within St. Louis County became a more common phenomenon, as established black neighbourhoods that had once been home to several generations of black families were steadily displaced, forcing residents on the move.

A prime example of this phenomenon is the city of Kinloch, where lifelong residents were forced to move due to a buyout programme initiated by the St. Louis City aiming to expand the runway for the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. From 1980 to 2014, the population decreased from 4000 people to less than 300. Former residents were scattered throughout the greater County while Kinloch has been reduced to a blighted area while the airport runway has yet to be constructed.[9] Many of the former residents of Kinloch are now located in Ferguson and other surrounding suburbs.

This pattern of displacement has consequently circulated a diffuse black community sprawling across North St. Louis County: ‘many black residents wound up renting, moving often and never acquiring home equity or savings to bequeath to their children. The areas where they lived had no tax base, inadequate schools and no appeal to local businesses that could have provided jobs.’[10]

This follows a broader trend in the United States, in which the principal asset for families is home ownership. Whereas 73 percent of white families are home owners, only around 44 percent of black families own homes. In Ferguson the subprime mortgage crisis hit black households particularly hard. More than half of mortgages are underwater (where the market valuation of the property is below the amount paid on the mortgage). Consequently, more black families have been forced into the rental market, where real estate properties are owned by small to medium-sized investment firms, many of which are located out of state.[11] Many black households have seen a marked decline in their savings and assets. The median household income for black households is currently placed around $35K, whereas for white households it stands at $59K.[12]

Forced migration has been a result of the restructuring in the relationship between production and reproduction more generally, which is most concretely expressed in the spatial distance between workplace and neighbourhood. Suburbs become poverty traps as proletarians are either stuck working minimum wage jobs in the low-waged service industry, or search for jobs in other wealthier areas. Therefore, in order to find a decent paying job, one must be able to either move with the jobs, or be willing to travel further for these jobs. Whereas in a prior period the relationship between production and reproduction were spatially connected, today this relationship has become increasingly fractured.



In the high-income countries, the immiseration of the suburbs is a particular moment in the more general restructuring of the urban terrain over the past several decades. In the US, large portions of the automotive industry relocated to the South, chiefly due to incentives such as low wage rates and right-to-work laws offered by Southern states.[13] Industrial manufacturing has shifted away from the centre of metropolitan areas, instead clustering at the outermost exurban peripheries. Manufacturing plants have furthermore been significantly reduced in scale by employing smaller numbers of workers due to the latest technological developments in fixed capital – the average manufacturing plant has around 57 employees.[14] Part of the rationale behind this is increased mobility where enterprises can quickly move their fixed capital if required by the contingencies of the market.

With the dissemination of industrial manufacturing outwards toward the metropolitan peripheries throughout the 1980s and 1990s the city centres have been emptied out and primed for redevelopment. The restructuring of productive capital has compelled urban redevelopment to follow suit, as a result making the city one of the prime arenas of conflict. The year 2007 was a watershed year, for it not only bore the financial crisis, but also marked a significant point in urban development. For the first time in human history more than half of the world’s population lived in cities. What is more, the pace of urbanisation is expected to pick up, especially in emerging economies. Thus it is sensible that urbanisation has become a significant point of conflict. Rapid urbanisation projects, such as the quickly proliferating megacities in China, for instance, and the extensive conflict over the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Turkey have brought to the fore the shifting role of cities in relationship to the global economy.

The decentralisation of industrial manufacturing across the world vis-a-vis global supply chains has produced a tightly linked international division of labour. New urban centres have cropped up in emerging economies as a result of new distributions in productive capital. Noting the rearrangements in the global geographical distribution of production, Geographer Neil Smith writes that:

systems of production previously territorialized at the (subnational) regional scale were increasingly cut loose from their definitive national context, resulting not just in the waves of deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s but in wholesale restructuring and destructuring as part of a reworking of established scale hierarchies. As a result, production systems have been downscaled. The territorialization of production increasingly centers on extended metropolitan centers, rather than on larger regions: the metropolitan scale again comes to dominate the regional scale, rather than the other way around.[15] (emphasis added)

Historically the core sectors of economic growth based on large-scale industrial manufacturing were regionally distributed, represented by areas such as the Rust Belt in the United States, or the Ruhr region in Germany. Today, however, the spatial distribution of capital accumulation has been fundamentally redistributed. Metropolitan centres, once home to industrial production, have been hollowed out and redeveloped. These centres are now occupied by the growing tech and innovation sector, which has become the primary motor of economic growth in many metropolitan localities.

The basis for this regional re-distribution of production can be traced back to the New Federalism instated during the 1980s, which aimed to restore autonomy to states at the subnational level after the federal government’s overarching authority since the New Deal. While the intention was to restore power at the subnational level, what resulted was more of a confusion in the distribution of power between the federal and state levels and a fragmentation of the national economy. The funding of public programmes, such as education, and safety nets, were devolved from the federal level to the state and municipal level, while local metropolitan economies were exposed and made vulnerable to the volatilities of the global market. Each metropolitan locality was thus left to fend for itself, saddled with the responsibility of stimulating its local economy, attempting to attract capital and labour amongst a multitude of other competing metropolitan areas. Each metropolitan area was positioned against others for resources, not only within national boundaries, but furthermore internationally. As Marx had keenly observed the competition among workers is only another form of the competition among capitals.’[16]

In that vein, the story of St. Louis very much mirrors a sharply concentrated variant of this national landscape. Ferguson forms part of a broader patchwork that is St. Louis County, which is composed of just over 90 micro-municipalities that are socially and economically heterogeneous. Competition between white and black workers has played itself out primarily on the level of distribution, in which the battle over the funding of municipal services through taxes became a question of territorial demarcation and segregation. Wealthier communities – oftentimes white – attempted to distance themselves from lower-income communities in order to receive tax breaks and other such incentives, resulting in the production and reproduction of endemic concentrations of poverty and segregation. The stark North-South divide based along economic and racial lines within St. Louis County is the culmination of this logic over the past several decades.

These parcelled municipal systems are propped up by a criminal justice system that is largely disconnected from the population it is purported to serve. In many instances, these two institutions effectively function as bona fide rackets with an extensive network of patronage. Due to consistent budgetary constraints, revenues for municipal governments in Ferguson and other similar neighbourhoods have come to rely on the penalisation of its denizens, extracting fines and court fees disproportionately from lower-income populations. The city of Ferguson receives approximately one quarter of its revenue from fees and fines; other cities within St. Louis County in a similar situation receive upwards of 50 percent of their revenue from such practices.[17]

Residents of Ferguson consequently confront a state that effectively redistributes income from poorer segments of the population upwards to government officials and police officers. Thus not only have residents been subjected to downward pressure on incomes, but the threat and actuality of penalisation has served to yield a local government that essentially enacts a form of political appropriation of necessary labour, i.e. wages. This is comparable to a tax for merely ‘being’ black, which contributes additional costs to reproduction.

Black proletarians have therefore been squeezed between two contradictory forces: on the one hand, the necessity of domestic migration, resultant either of displacement or the need to pursue jobs and attain publicly provided services, such as education or healthcare. On the other hand, the constraints to this very movement by the state, especially in the form of the police, who not only serve to regulate the circulation of black proletarians, but who also mediate their reproduction.

Consequently, in Ferguson the tactics of participants responded to these objective conditions, which were for the most part rooted in constructing a form of territoriality and circulation that coordinated the movements of the participants. West Florissant avenue, the main thoroughfare of Ferguson, became the primary site of encounter between the police and the rioters. The QT Mart that had been looted and burned down in the first few nights was converted into an encampment of sorts, which during the day served as a point of association for residents and others who had come to show their support. The persistence of this locality served as a flash point enabling the riots to sustain themselves.[18] The repeated confrontations with the police when night fell echoes the same tactic used during the movement of the squares, such as in Tahrir or Oakland; whenever the police attempted to clear out Florissant avenue, demonstrators would consistently return, more resolute and determined than before. This mode of activity was very much in the same vein of what Aufheben had characterised as a community riot, following their typology of disturbances in the 2011 English riots. The principal concern for the rioters was maintaining a distinct territoriality and reclaiming a space usually controlled by the police.

On a more general level, Ferguson has become a flash point attracting various people from around the country who are compelled to join the rebellion. Many come from neighbouring cities similarly afflicted by the same racist policing practices as Ferguson. Other demonstrators have either travelled from distant cities or even from distant states in some cases. Thus, in many ways Ferguson was not simply a community riot, but more so a metropolitan riot where the small suburb of Ferguson became a node of convergence, circulating people and resources from near and far, much like the movement of the squares. In this way the entire distinction between ‘locals’ and ‘outside agitators’ has been suspended.

Territorial considerations have played a far larger role in the eruptions in Ferguson, than prior anti-police rebellions in the United States. The 2011 riots in England also shared a similar logic, where various localities were turned into sites of confrontation between rioters and police. However, the overall spread of the English riots was distributed over a vast expanse of territory, reflecting to a large extent the heterogeneous composition of the rioters themselves. Thus the spread of the riots was farther reaching than in Ferguson, which has become a dense and crystallised node of antagonism. Much of the reason for this concentration can be attributed to the singularity of the region, encompassing the Midwest and the South, and its historically specific racial formation. As one of the primary migratory passageways for blacks during the late nineteenth and early twentieth, relations between white and black proletarians take on a distinctly different tenor than in other regions of the country.


Social Death

Is a politics based on black unity possible? Older forms of black politics arising during the 1960 and 1970s seem now, from our perspective, a singular historical phenomenon. Even though the black population was largely restricted to the inner-city ghetto, this environment had a complementary set of black political organisations, businesses, and institutions of civil society that provided the conditions in which a specific historical form of black politics could thus arise. In general, even in spite of class differences within the black community, this did not express itself spatially; blacks from various class backgrounds interacted with one another and inhabited the same neighbourhoods.

These cross-class neighbourhoods, complemented by a constellation of social and political organisations – what Allan Spear calls the institutional ghetto – provided the essential basis for black politics in the mid-twentieth century, and most quintessentially expressed in the Civil Rights and Black Power movement. The sequence of struggles in the 1960s and '70s was the culmination of this type of urban formation, which was soon followed by retrenchment of state-provided services and the withdrawal of labour markets. It was in this context that the urban configuration that had composed the institutional ghetto dissolved.

But with the advent of deindustrialisation and the dissolution of the welfare state, immiseration set upon the institutional ghetto. The black middle class distanced itself from those who were more economically disadvantaged by moving to the suburbs or other areas not immediately affected by rising unemployment and social dislocation. Thus racial and economic segregation was compounded as black middle class households fled the oncoming desolation of the institutional ghetto.

While black unity is the essential basis of cohesion of the riots, the underlying basis of this unity is therefore tenuous. How could one affirm the very thing that was also the basis of one’s domination? This very question has come to internally split the series of riots and demonstrations in Ferguson. The participants themselves have attempted to answer this question in a variety ways, and are consequently heterogeneous in both composition and perspective. The variety of tactics further reflects the multitude of distinct fractions that have acted occasionally in concert and other times in conflict with one another. In a revealing analysis of the primary actors within the riots, a Washington Post article unwittingly published a class compositional analysis of the riot, reducing the participants into four primary groupings: elders, peaceful protestors, the looters, and the militants.[19]

It is perhaps the militants in particular, the outermost fractions of the excluded, whose desperate acts and overall nihilistic perspective speaks to the truth of the black situation in America. The militants comprise an informal network of young and unemployed black men, many of whom not only come from neighbouring cities within St. Louis County, but also from cities in neighbouring states, such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and other urban environments that have shared a similar historical fate to St. Louis. Their primary aim is to confront the police directly with any means necessary. This has taken the form of either looting, rioting, or sporadic shootouts with the police and similar incidences that have punctuated the unfolding events. Their proclamations in affirming death (‘ready to die’) highlights the horizon faced by many black youth today, whether it be by the state or the economy. In facing the imminence of death at any moment they acknowledge the very essence of blackness in America today. Their everyday situation is already permeated by a sort of diffuse, low-intensity civil war with the police.

A recent pronouncement by young black activists further substantiates this perspective: ‘don’t come to Ferguson if you aren’t ready to die’.[20] The most militant factions of the rioters appear to speak to the truth of the situation: in affirming blackness one simultaneously affirms death as its very own condition of possibility.

This perspective is in stark contrast to the elders, who are largely entrenched within an older institutionalised representational politics cultivated from the foundations of the institutional ghetto. This older generation touts a ‘politics of respectability’, a black middle class ideology based on the recognition of a specifically black work ethic. Yet for many black youth, this makes little sense in an age where rising unemployment and increased levels of incarceration are the predominant forms of recognition.

As the initial events in Ferguson have transpired, many black youth have voiced their frustrations with the elders, whose pronouncements oftentimes appear to be largely disconnected from the immediate concerns of the youth. These frustrations boiled over in the weekend of action mid-October – designated as Ferguson October – in which black youth temporarily took hold of a rally in order to denounce the strictures of older historic organisations, such as the NAACP. For the young, representational politics, embodied by the elders, signal a dead-end.

The fault line between the elders and black youth indexes the deepening of a class differentiation that produces a tension immanent to the reproduction of labour power. This situation is immediately reflected within the situation of black youth in particular, who have been burdened with the highest unemployment rate out of any demographic. Black youth inhabit the fissure between the day-to-day reproduction of labour power and its long-term reproduction. In confronting this dissonance, capital ‘prefers strategies that minimise necessary labour over the long term while simultaneously ensuring the reproduction of labour power.’[21]

This fragmentation in the reproduction of labour power is further observed by the lack of ‘intergenerational closure’, most discernible in the age composition of Ferguson where the median age is around 30.[22] Intergenerational closure implies an overlap in the social networks of adults and youth within a given neighbourhood. The more overlap between the social networks, the better integrated are both the adults, and especially the youth, into the wider community. These are further corroborated by various community institutions, such as political organisations, civic clubs, schools, churches, and so forth.

As all grounds for collective action based on a positive communitarian identity are dissolved, the riots appear as a response to the general disintegration of the social fabric. Any positive basis of relation between proletarians has come to bear as a negative function in response to the police, whose overarching function is to somehow maintain the growing disconnection and antagonism within and between dissolving communities. Perhaps the sharpest expression of this growing antagonism are the reactions to the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent events in Ferguson, which has polarised along racial lines. A growing number of white proletarians, some of whom have found the shooting justified, have increasingly vocalised their disapproval and even resentment against the demonstrations.

Antonio French, a local politician participating in the protests, verifies this emotionally charged atmosphere: ‘Too many young men talking about they’re ready to die tonight’. Without any basis to claim a semblance of humanity, this appears as the only option left for those black youth whose lives are deemed expendable. In the absence of a positive horizon, black youth are left to engage in a struggle based solely on retribution.

For younger generations growing up in capitalist society today, immiseration is experienced as a steadily growing exclusion from capitalist society and its institutions. Worldwide there are currently some 357.7 million youth who are neither in education, employment, or training (NEETs). In high-income countries 16.7 million youth are in this situation while in middle- and low-income countries more than 341 million young are disconnected from such institutions.[23] In the United States 16 percent of the population aged 15 to 29 are considered to be disconnected. A survey conducted in the United Kingdom in the past year found that 1 in 10 long-term unemployed youth find that they have nothing to live for.[24] These youth are left in the dust as the economy trudges forward uncertainly; they come to fill the ranks of the excluded, the unemployable, the outcasts.

Where does this leave us? As both the State of Missouri and the residents of Ferguson ready themselves for the announcement of the grand jury’s decision, we are left with a series of questions that are posed at the outer boundaries of the riots. As territoriality has increasingly come to play a major role in the determination of the shape and extension of struggles today, we can perhaps attune our sensibilities to the way that struggles have come to address the problem of spatial composition, one which has largely been controlled by capital accumulation. How can we conceive of an insurrection spreading and taking over a larger expanse of territory? By what means will suburbs similar to Ferguson, which are relatively disconnected and isolated from centres of wealth accumulation, relate to these very centres? How will the connections between seditious territories be made? How can forms of counter-circulation – that is, circulation of resources and people that appropriates and subverts the circulation of capital – be drawn between the nodes of insurrectionary activity? Of course these are open questions, questions that will only be materially resolved in the course of further eruptions.


R.L. works on communist theory. They can be reached at loroleis[at]


[1] See Endnotes, ‘The Holding Pattern’, Endnotes, no. 3 (September 2013),

[2] In this instance, we use Barbara and Karen Fields’ conceptualisation of ‘race’ and racism as elaborated in their book Racecraft. When referring to ‘blacks’ or ‘whites’ we also take into consideration the necessary distance from such terms as reifications of a social relationship, i.e. racism.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1.

[4] ‘Black unemployment is always much worse than white unemployment. But the gap depends on where you live’, Philip Bump, Washington Post, 6 September 2014.

[5] See Phil A. Neel, ‘New Ghettos Burning’, Ultra, August 2014,

[6] ‘The Making of Ferguson’, Dissent Magazine, 16 Aug 2014.

[7] To see extensive details of the collected data, go to and search for ‘Suburban Poverty Data Tables’.

[8] Jan-Evert Nilsson, ‘Sweden – the emergence of a national urban policy’, Blekinge Institute of Technology, 2007.

[9] See ‘Kinloch connection: Ferguson fuelled by razing of historic black town’, Al Jazeera America, 20 August 2014.

[10] See ‘St. Louis: A City Divided’, Al Jazeera America, 18 August 2014.

[11] See ‘Another Shadow in Ferguson as Outside Firms Buy and Rent Out Distressed Homes’, New York Times, 3 September 2014.

[12] See ‘5 disturbing stats on black-white inequality’, CNN Money, 21 August 2014.

[13] Right-to-work laws were intended to prevent a union from running a closed shop, effectively barring any possibility of formal workers’ organisation.

[14] Susan Helper, Timothy Krueger, and Howard Wial. ‘Locating American Manufacturing: Trends in the Geography of Production’, The Brookings Institution, 9 May 2012.

[15] Neil Smith, ‘New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy’, Antipode 34, no. 3 (1 July 2002), pp.427–50.

[16] Karl Marx, Grundrisse.

[17] Jeff Smith, ‘In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power’, New York Times, 17 Aug 2014.

[18] See ‘Cars, Guns, Autonomy: On the Finer Points of the Recent Revolt in Ferguson, MO’, Avalanche, Issue 3, Nov 2014.

[19] See ‘Ferguson protestors: The peaceful, the elders, the looters, and the “militants”’, The Washington Post, 18 August 2014.

[20] See ‘Activists: “Don’t come to Ferguson if you aren’t ready to die”’, The Washington Times, 8 October 2014.

[21] Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory,  Cambridge: Pluto Press, 1983.

[22] Coined by James S. Coleman, the conception is further elaborated by William Julius Wilson in When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, New York: Vintage, 1997.

[23] ‘Global Agenda Councils - Youth Unemployment Visualization 2013’, World Economic Forum.

[24] ‘One in 10 young British “have nothing to live for”’, The Guardian, 1 January 2014.