Magazine article New Internationalist

Are Riots Good for Democracy?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Are Riots Good for Democracy?

Article excerpt


Are riots good for democracy? In general, I believe that they are. But let me immediately clarify. Riots are complex, unco-ordinated crowd activities. No-one defends every act committed by every rioter. Even in riots motivated by egalitarian and democratic aspirations, individuals may indulge in indefensible attacks on bystanders. We should reject wrongdoing in riots, as we do in other contexts. But we cannot let it obscure the fact that outbreaks of determined public defiance can often shift the balance of power between ruling élites and the poor and working-class people that they exploit and oppress. People long dismissed by the powerful suddenly become impossible to ignore, once their insistence on being heard finds expression in confrontations with the legal order and its police.

In the aftermath of riots, states often set up 'commissions' designed to defuse the tension. Initiatives are announced, programmes are launched. Usually, these do little to advance the public interest, and we rightly view these stratagems with a cynical eye. Yet they tell us something important: that grievances long ignored now have to be taken into account; that a strategy is now needed to undermine the new boldness of those no longer content to suffer in silence.

It is this boldness that serves democracy: the audacity of Stonewall, the Brazilian students rioting for access to education and the garment workers in Bangladesh demonstrating for a safe workplace and a living wage. Their defiance puts the powerful on the defensive and creates an opening for other, more constructive forms of organizing to take root. To turn the tide against injustice, we need movements that are relentless, escalating and with a broadening base of participation. Riots are no substitute for this work. But, to the extent that they enable the silenced and ignored to find their voice, rioting is an important part of democratic politics.


The question needs to be more nuanced. Democracy has itself to be rooted in its capitalist straitjacket. R iots do not happen because you want them to happen. They are an outgrowth of capitalism. I do not celebrate them. I simply acknowledge that they happen.

One of the great accomplishments of Marxism was to establish, scientifically, that the capitalist social order is structured around class violence. That a small percentage of the population controls Capital, and that the remainder must sell their labour power to the minority out of compulsion, is the heart of the social relations in our current system. Capital has the right to buy labour power at its price, as much as labour power has the right to try to increase its price. They both have equal rights. When rights are equal, writes Karl Marx, 'force decides'.

Violence is inherent in the system. It is also inherent structurally - the perpetuator of the violence is anonymous. Unlike earlier social epochs when it was easy to identify the culprit (the monarch, the feudal lord, the moneylender), it is much harder under capitalism. Mass uprisings in the capitalist epoch have, therefore, a different character from mass uprisings in earlier times. These are often expulsions of anger against an unfathomable system - the Venezuelan Caracazo in 1989 being the best example.

Anonymous social domination does not rest easy behind secret walls. It arms itself. That is why the Caracazo was crushed: unnumbered dead. The Caracazo was a message from the slums that it had had enough. That was its capacity. The riot could do no more than that.

The answer to the riot is not the State commissions, but the political movements. R iots are a message. They are not the answer.


Consider two ways that rioting has been discussed, over the years. On the one hand, there is the 'public order' discourse on rioting, popular among police, politicians and the news media, according to which rioting is a kind of anti-social, irrational mob violence. …

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