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The Pleasures of Riot

‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,’ wrote the nineteenth century Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin. He might, more accurately, have described it as an enjoyable urge: there are few sounds so gratifying to the producer of them as that of the tinkle of smashed glass, especially if there is no prospect of having to pay for it oneself afterwards. In other words, there are usually economic and other disincentives that inhibit our inner vandal, which go into abeyance during a riot.Dr Eisold, in his blog for Psychology Today on why people riot titled Understanding Why People Riot, posted in October 2011, is worth re-reading in the light of the latest riots in Baltimore. Dr Eisold recognises the joy of rioting.

I have observed it myself close up. I once reported on a riot in Panama City in which I saw middle-class people throwing bricks through windows and making bonfires in the street. I recognised one of the rioters dining in an expensive restaurant that same night after a hard afternoon’s vandalism. No doubt he thought he had done his duty in furthering the cause of justice.

However, Dr Eisold also accepts Gustave Le Bon’s views, put forward in 1895 in his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, that membership in a riotous mob deprives people of their autonomy and causes them to do things that they would otherwise not do. It is as if the mob had a collective mind of its own that determined how the individuals in it acted. I do not agree with this.

Quite apart from the fact that rioters are a self-selected group, who are fully aware of what rioters are likely to do, and who are not forced to participate in riots, it is not true that individual rioters lose control of what they do. The vast, vast majority of rioters do not kill, for example, and not all of them loot. The middle-class rioters I observed in Panama smashed windows with pleasure, but did not run off with any goods; in the London riots of 2011, rioters smashed and looted every store in a street except the bookstore, the only one to remain with its windows and stock entirely intact. The rioters had no use or desire for books and, notwithstanding their alleged loss of control were perfectly able to discriminate between the kinds of things they wanted and those they did not. And when finally the police, who took a long time to intervene, arrested some of the rioters engaged in the gravest actions, it turned out that the majority of those had serious criminal records.

Dr Eisold is surely right when he says that riots usually break out after a serious incident has occurred, often after the commission of an injustice, or a perceived injustice, on the part of the authorities. But even this needs to be approached more critically.

When the authorities fail to live up to the expected standard, when they commit injustices of their own, the chance is taken for a day out that combines the pleasures of destruction with those of moral indignation.

Would people with a genuine sense of injustice destroy the property or endanger the lives of people in no way connected with the injustice that is supposed to be the occasion of the riot? During the Parisian riots of 2005, for example, the rioters burned thousands of cars belonging to people very similar to themselves, and who lived in the same area as they. This was hardly the manifestation of an acute sense of injustice. If anything, it was a manifestation of wounded amour propre, for the rioters would never have rioted against the kind of injustices that people such as they committed every day, and that in fact had a far more baneful effect on their daily lives than injustices committed by the authorities.

In other words, they expect from the authorities a completely different standard of behaviour from that they exhibit themselves: they are children, and the authorities are parents. When the authorities fail to live up to the expected standard, when they commit injustices of their own, the chance is taken for a day out that combines the pleasures of destruction with those of moral indignation.

In his article, Dr Eisold makes reference both to the social and economic frustrations of the rioters and to the events in Tiananmen Square. But demonstrations are not riots, though they can be turned into such by extremists, and perhaps by the provocation of the authorities. Nor is it true that every frustration is justified, or that it explains, let alone justifies, riotous and destructive conduct. If frustration explained riots, we would all be rioters. But even in riot-torn areas, rioting is not universal.

In his final paragraph, Dr Eisold makes reference to unbearable social conditions that allegedly are an underlying cause of riots. But what is unbearable is not a natural phenomenon, it depends on (among other things) expectations, which may or may not be reasonable. As Milton put it:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
Therefore raw and unexamined claims of unbearability justify nothing.


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