Whither the Riot?

I have been struck by the absence of collective protest over the actions of those in the financial industry. Free market advocates have been rendered impotent; why aren’t they up in arms that their belief system has been forever invalidated? Leftists watch as our elected leaders hand over the oversight function to the very companies that caused this mess; why aren’t they taking to the streets?

Talk shows and blog postings reveal plenty of individual anger, but there hasn’t been much collective expression. Why is this? And what forms of protest and outcry would be legitimate?

At the risk of being accused of inciting mass violence, I’d like to know whether people would be justified in using the riot at this particular moment in history. More broadly, under what conditions is the riot a rational (and/or justifiable) response to injustice?

Sociologists love the riot, of course, because it offers an opportunity to test theories regarding mass behavior and individual tolerance for oppressive conditions.

Having observed a few riots, I know that they can also be caused by trivial factors: For example, I watched looters take over streets on the South Side of Chicago after the Bulls won their second consecutive basketball championship — hardly an “oppressive” situation.

But in general, riots are responses to fairly serious issues, like the rising price of commodities, police brutality, assassination of political leaders.

So the federal government is now sending $700 billion of taxpayer money to free market scions who, I remind you, spend millions on collective protest (“lobbying”) against any form of government aid — especially to the middle class, to the poor, and to foreigners.

Scandalous! Taxpayers of the world unite, I say!

Here is my theory as to why the riot has gone the way of the Sony Walkman — an appendage of an earlier era:

1) The iPod:

In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the “mob mentality,” which by its nature is not rational or formed through petitions. Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the voices of its participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.

2) Prescription drugs:

What is the social function of anxiety reduction if not to increase the capacity of individuals to tolerate their social predicaments? Q.E.D.

3) Debt:

This is a tricky one. In the short term, debt straps individuals into society and makes them fearful of acting out: failing to pay could land them in jail, in bankruptcy, etc. But in the long term, they may feel life has become intolerable and there is little to lose — so, why not tear down the walls? (This kind of thinking, by the way, is partly at the root of our current mess. Those who bought second homes walked away from their investments, accepting bankruptcy, when they realized they were never going to make payments in the long term.)

4) “Hey, things could be worse.”:

Riots require collective recognition that a threshold (of oppressive rule, inequity, etc.) has been surpassed and there’s little hope for improvement. In matters of social oppression, apart from a political assassination, it is rare that mass audiences will agree that such conditions hold. Things have to be downright awful, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Yet.

5) No enemy in sight:

Rioters usually attack symbols of oppression. For example, in a riot in Chicago in 1992, protesters tore down streetlights, broke lamps, burned school buildings, and otherwise attacked government property. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the so-called “Rodney King affair,” non-black stores were attacked.

What might be the target of mobs violently responding to the financial mess? Maybe Midtown Manhattan? How about the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?

A general rule is that contemporary rioters do not travel, so they would need to find symbols within their own communities: currency exchanges, banks, the offices of Congressional officials who voted “yes” on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.

It goes without saying that I miss a good old-fashioned riot. But my malaise hardly compares to others who are suffering in these times.

For example, I often pity the poor souls who took out property insurance with A.I.G. and other insurers. In the event of a riot, they might be next in line for a government bailout. Will there be anything left in the $700 billion for them?

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  1. Joe Smith says:

    While riots are a traditional part of Anglo Saxon culture this particular situation does not appear to call for a riot in the streets. Both sides of the political divide are to blame for different aspects of this problem.

    The overwhelming public feeling seems to be: our leaders are liars or incompetent or both – but that is not new or a surprise to most of the public.

    Beyond calling for the public humiliation of Alan Greenspan and the imprisoning of various Wall Street executives and auditors what is there that could usefully be done?

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  2. Andrew M says:

    Forget a riot, how about a simple mass protest?

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  3. Bo says:

    “Free market advocates have been rendered impotent; why aren’t they up in arms that their belief system has been forever invalidated?”

    The current situation, is not even close to invalidating the beliefs of free marketers.

    We can call this a crisis, but let’s not resort to hyperbole.

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  4. science minded says:

    You raise an interesting question. I refused to be completely forthright in the previous discussion of corruption just for that very reason- as not wishing to cause harm. I think the truth does help so long as it does not knowingly cause others great pain and suffering. There is the matter of knowledge and the use to which it is put. Perhaps sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Honesty is not always the best of policies.

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  5. Mithila says:

    A public outcry would require every person driven to rioting (at least among those who trigger it) to feel the pinch deeply. That situation hasn’t arisen yet.

    People see prices of commodities rise and fall around them – nothing out of the ordinary. The current trend for commodity prices has been steadily downward. Nothing pinching us hard enough yet.

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  6. stu says:

    I can see how a riot may help the government see more of what the problem is that their facing but im sure they already know so to start a riot would be useless other then causing damage to the environment and the sourndings. If this is what you can think of to help out the situation the economy is facing you must be a supporter of war. To take over and use power and force to get what you want as an outcome and not worrying about the other consiquences that may occur because of your decision. Just remember how much money is being spent on the war against terrorism is alot more then the U.S. buy out for the market, and all the money that is being spent on the war would deffinatlly be able help out back home.

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  7. the Gooch says:

    As a wise man (Tim Armstrong of Rancid) once said, “Where there once was a riot there’s a whole lotta nothin’.”

    But, lo, there will be rending of garments and gnashing of teeth if Obama manages to blow the election next Tuesday.

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  8. Ezzie says:

    If anything, the current crisis has validated free-market advocates. Those who made bad decisions were to be punished with foreclosure at the one end, bankruptcy at the other. Unfortunately, the government is bailing them out, anyway. (Perhaps it has to – different discussion – but the theme until that point was in favor of free-markets.)

    FMAs would also point to the “messing around” with the free market caused by encouraging banks to give out loans to people who normally would not be able to get them. The reason they normally couldn’t get them is because in a truly free market, a reasonable bank wouldn’t think it a wise loan to make. Take that initial push away, and most of the other problems simply never happen.

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