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.