09 November 2005

Who Riots? Those Downtrodden or Those Ascendant?

Chicago Boyz contributor Shannon Love identifies some misconceptions on rioting.
In reading a lot of commentary on the French Riots, I repeatedly see a lot of commentators repeating the idea that people riot because they feel weak, powerless and helpless. This is exactly backwards. The real pattern is that people tend to riot when they feel both entitled and empowered.

This counterintuitive aspect of rioters explains why in sports riots it is the fans of the winning team who are much more likely to riot than those of the losing team. The team's victory creates both a sense of entitlement, "we won so we get to celebrate excessively," and a sense of empowerment, "we can beat anyone!"

Other forms of rioting follow the same pattern. Until the 1960s, African-Americans were almost always the victims of riots, not the perpetrators. The race riots of the late-'60s did not occur because of increasing oppression of African-Americans but because of decreasing oppression. The political changes of the '60s made African-Americans feel both entitled to strike against the larger society and strong enough to do so. The riots were expressions of strength, not weakness.

Political riots tend to arise from populations who follow the ascendent political doctrines of their times. Riots in the '60s world-wide were almost always young leftists rioting against the rightist status-quo. Being in sync with the dominant political zeitgeist of an era gives the rioters their needed sense of entitlement (moral justification in the case of political riots) and their sense of empowerment (the people are with us!).

So what does all this tell us about the French riots?

First, the rioters feel entitled or justified in rioting. Perhaps they feel entitled because they feel economically cheated, but they may also feel entitled for cultural or ideological reasons. The mostly Arab and Islamic rioters may be striking out at the white French in a manner similar to the American race riots of the 1800s, only in this case it is a belief in cultural or religious superiority that drives them.

Second, the rioters do not feel desperate or afraid. Instead, they are rioting because they believe that a power shift has occurred in their favor. They are attacking less out of aggrievement than out of contempt. They feel ascendent. This suggests they do not perceive the French state as being willing or capable of opposing them.
This certainly fits the pattern of the anti-Korean riots after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. A student paper in Compass Online suggests several factors that prompted Japanese citizens to riot against immigrant Korean laborers after the earthquake:
  • The Japanese government proclaimed martial law, ostensibly to quell Korean riots.
  • The postwar depression after 1918 caused Japanese workers to resent competition from Korean immigrants.
  • Japanese citizens felt superior to Koreans, whose weak government had easily yielded to Japanese colonial control.
  • Japanese feared their colonial subjects after the Korean nationalist uprising in 1919.
The Japanese rioters felt aggrieved, to be sure, but one would be hard put to prove they were more oppressed than the Koreans they slaughtered.

One could make similar observations about the countless instances of large demonstrations, whether violent or peaceful, led by students from elite universities in capital cities, some of which have toppled governments, while others have been violently suppressed. The students and workers who demonstrated for weeks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 didn't do so because they felt weak. They felt empowered, on the crest of history, protected by the eyes of the world, and far more legitimate than the corrupt government they unsuccessfully challenged.

UPDATE: Shannon Love had an earlier post entitled Bread Alone that addressed issues of material vs. psychological welfare, the latter principally focusing on jobs and control of one's own destiny.
In the modern developed world, the basic material needs of even the most poor are easily met. Even the most die-hard libertarian must give some attributes of the welfare state, such as universal education, some credit for getting us to this point. However, just because a concept met the needs of the past doesn't mean it meets the needs of present or the future. The point of diminishing returns has long since been passed. What the poor now need, and what the welfare state cannot provide, is an environment that lets the individual gain control over their own destinies. The very degree of micromanagement that the welfare state requires to function means that it must strip the ability to choose from the individual. People in such situations do begin to feel like cattle, cared for but ultimately herded .

In the 80's, a great shift occurred in American thinking about welfare. Americans grew less concerned about the material aspects of lives of the poor and instead began to pay attention to their psychological well being. We made the decision that long-term dependence on the state was destructive to both individuals and communities. Americans think it's better for a community that 100% of people capable of work are able to get a job a $5 an hour than it is for only 50% of workers to get jobs paying $10 an hour. We have decided that giving people active control over their own lives is ultimately better than providing a higher level of material benefit. I believe that is why in recent years, when disasters like blackouts or massive hurricanes disrupted the functioning of centralized authority, America's poor did not riot or prey on others. Instead, overall, they reacted with great civility, even when abandoned by the state.
Well, perhaps that understates American troubles a bit, but not as much as French coverage of Hurricane Katrina overstated the ensuing troubles.

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