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  • Misconceptions on Rioting

    Posted by Shannon Love on November 8th, 2005 (All posts by )

    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.

    Misdiagnosing the causes of riots can have significant negative consequences. Rewarding ideological rioters with political or economic benefits enhances the stature and power of the ideology. Both the rise of fascism and communism resulted from that blunder. The French could easily duplicate the mistake by granting sweeping benefits in response to the rioting. Doing so would have the effects of (1) making the riots appear morally justified and (2) making the rioters appear to be powerful benefactors of their communities. Both effects will make future riots more likely and will empower political extremists.

    It has long been noted that American race riots of the ’60s and ’70s grew worse as more resources, political attention and “sensitive” policing policies were employed. The urban cores where all this enlightened attention was focused absolutely imploded as a result. Paradoxically, it was not until social spending was cut, the areas dropped off the political radar and old-fashioned hard-ass policing returned that the urban cores began to revitalize themselves.

    I suggest the French need to respond to the riots with real free-market jobs, fair law and order and real political representation. Any other approach will make things worse.

     

    9 Responses to “Misconceptions on Rioting”

    1. James R. Rummel Says:

      I suggest the French need to respond to the riots with real free-market jobs, fair law and order and real political representation.

      That will happen when women finally wake up to the fact that I’m more attractive than Brad Pitt.

      James

    2. Lex Says:

      Shannon, this is a very important point that too few people seem to grasp.

      A further detail you need to include in your analysis is answering this question: Who amongst the residents of the banlieus initiated the riots, and who then opportunistically got involved in them? The sense I get is that the criminal gangs were pushing back hard against Sarkozy’s initial attempts to “retake” these areas and bring them under police control. These people had a personal and financial stake in the status quo, they were hardened criminals and they had a reasonable and it turns out correct assessment that the cops did not have the will to take them on seriously. So, they started setting things on fire. After a few days of no police response, as Wretchard’s chart shows, there was an inflection point, where lots of people started to join in either just to raise Hell or to further a political agenda.

    3. Shannon Love Says:

      Lex,

      I agree. Criminals and political agitators can be very important in creating riots. This article over at Cato.org talks about “Entrepreneurs” i.e. individuals who try to trigger a riot for their own purposes.

      I think the real trigger for these riots is the perception of paralyses on the part of the French political system. The rioters saw an opportunity to bitch-slap the establishment and the took it.

    4. Jim Miller Says:

      You can find my post on this question, which makes some similar, but not identical, arguments here.

      Crane Brinton may not have been right in everything, but I do think he was on to something with his theory of “rising expectations”.

    5. Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim Says:

      The real pattern is that people tend to riot when they feel both entitled and empowered.

      It seems to me that the most you could say is that feeling entitled and empowered is one among several (perhaps many) necessary preconditions for rioting of this sort. I don’t think you could plausibly claim that it alone approaches being a sufficient precondition for rioting, though.

      My sense is that there are scads of people in the world who in some sense feel both entitled and empowered, but who are not in the least inclined to riot.

      Furthermore, I hope you would agree that the rioting by blacks in the 60s and 70s occurred solely because blacks had begun to feel entitled and empowered. Surely the way they had been treated in the years before played some role (a huge role, I would say) together with their growing empowerment and sense of entitlement to give rise to the riots.

      Likewise, the rioting in France is, it seems to me, to be understood in part out of the negative circumstances in which the rioters live, and not merely out of a growing sense of entitlement and empowerment.

    6. Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim Says:

      Furthermore, I hope you would agree that the rioting by blacks in the 60s and 70s occurred solely because blacks had begun to feel entitled and empowered.

      Aack! I meant this:

      Furthermore, I hope you would agree that the rioting by blacks in the 60s and 70s did not occur solely because blacks had begun to feel entitled and empowered.

    7. Watcher of Weasels Says:

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    8. Shannon Love Says:

      Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim,

      “Furthermore, I hope you would agree that the rioting by blacks in the 60s and 70s did not occur solely because blacks had begun to feel entitled and empowered.”

      Actually, yes the rising political power and social acceptance was the major driver of the riots in that era. Remember, conditions were much worse in the past and African-Americans rarely rioted.

      Prior to the 60’s, African-Americans were virtually powerless and the authorities had no compunctions about dealing with them harshly. The Oklahoma National guard once shelled a black neighborhood in the 1920s even though the riot was started by whites. The riots occurred after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the implementation of the first stages of the Great Society.

      Did the riots occur solely because the increasing power of African-Americans? No, but the increasing power was a controlling factor. Had they not had the increased power the riots would not have occurred regardless of any provocations.

      Great name by the way.

    9. Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim Says:

      Actually, yes the rising political power and social acceptance was the major driver of the riots in that era.

      I’m going to use a crude analogy to express my quibble with the above wording. It’s one thing to heat a sealed vessel containing a gas. It’s another thing to provide an outlet by which the pressure can be vented. On balance, I wonder if an increase in empowerment and entitlement does a great deal to increase the pressure in the vessel, so to speak. It seems to me that what it does is to provide the outlet for the pressure (or the idea of an outlet). It makes the venting of the pressure seem feasible. Rather than increasing the impetus toward rioting, it seems to me rather that a growing sense of entitlement and empowerment removes barriers to rioting, making way for whatever pressure or impetus there may be from others sources.

      Of course I’m not a social scientist, and I don’t play one on TV or on the Internet. This is what seems intuitively correct to me.

      The name is a double pseudonym. Ralf might know where it comes from. Denke an die Barockzeit!