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?

Harold K

A libertarian riot? Hah! Cat herding would be easier.

let them eat corporate welfare

"current situation, is not even close to invalidating the beliefs of free marketers"
yes, just as the dismemberment of the ussr, did not 'invalidate' beliefs of 'marxists'. of course, both groups believe in their own utopias.
"I'm looking forward to watching the post election riots as Mccain pulls an upset. It will also be entertaining on widescreen" - billybob
still holding your breath?
"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"
not many shareholders or execs will go bankrupt. the "punishment" is falling mainly upon the "other end".


"First, even the most destitute homeless person in America lives much better than most people in the world."
ah, it's too late to delete your own rash comment.

"But even if Obama wins I have a feeling poor, young Black guys are still going to be out running wild and breaking all the rules they can find to break"

there were bunches of uni students at some street corners hooting and waving the evening of nov 4.


Jayson Virissimo

You make the claim that the current financial crisis permanently disproves the viability of our economic system. Our economic system is that of a mixed economy, in which the government has a monopoly on one of the most important sectors of the economy (money). Does this mean that the viability of mixed economies has been refuted?

Orange County, California

Is the government possibly anticipating a large scale protest?
Monday Oct. 27, 2008 11:12 EDT
Salon Radio: ACLU on the U.S. Army's domestic deployment


"JH: This is a very concerning issue, which we don't have unfortunately a lot of information about. What we do know is that the military has deployed an active unit for the first time within the United States. And, this goes against the fundamental tradition of this country, that the civilian government, not the military, is what operates in the United States, that performs an array of functions, law enforcement and other functions, and this principle is embodied in a statute that goes back over a hundred years, called the Posse Comitatus Act, which, again, is intended to preserve the line in the United States between civilian and military authority."


as long as credit cards keep everyone at different stages of debt-load, then there is no society-wide experience. If the credit cards dry up, as another times article outline today, expect more movements.

i''m rioting right now

why riot when i can just vent my frustrations in this blog?

Rooting for Obama

Very interesting and enlightening comments.

Hats off to comment #40 by anna:
"Not in the land of medicated sheep."

Of course, alcohol is numbing medication too. If they banned beer, "Joe Six Pack" would riot.


I have a feeling if McCain wins on Tuesday and it looks like another GOP theft, we will see rioting. There's an awful lot of pent-up anxiety and stress about that one, and it doesn't seem to respond to #2 (which in general, I agree have mellowed dissent.)

Robert Bonner

I think the financial mess is likely to have a large effect on our upcoming election. Perhaps those feeling most upset do not want to mess up that potential remedy.

On the broader front, the protests against the two devastating and unsuccessful wars we are in have been minimal. The repeated dysfunction of the federal government from inaction on Katrina, to over-reaction on the war on terror seems to have affected large segments of the population without hardly a cry of "The Emperor has no clothes".


If I remember the quotation correctly it was Dr. King who said that "Riot is the language of the unheard". In the run up to this election we are all inflamed with the hope that our voices will be listened to. If it turns out we were wrong you may yet see the molotovs come out.


People aren't rioting because people aren't starving, mostly. I think most of your reasons are suspect. Ever hear of text messaging? Played a big role in the color revolutions in Eastern Europe?


As much as I hate to say it, I think there are going to be "social disturbances" next week regardless of who wins the election. If McCain wins, big problems. It will start with poor, young Black guys, but will spill over quickly into mainstream unrest. People who normally wouldn't take to the streets will ride the wave.

But even if Obama wins I have a feeling poor, young Black guys are still going to be out running wild and breaking all the rules they can find to break - sort of like the Bulls championship thing. It won't sweep up the country though and will quickly be supressed, hopefully with no loss of life and minimal loss of property.

That's my call, but I sure, sure, sure hope I'm wrong.

kathryn alyn

remember when Bush stole the election? remember how the people rioted in Washington, DC and threw eggs at the George Bush's limo? No? That's because it was completely covered up by the press. I only saw the footage on Michael Moore's movie.


Meet the new boss, same as the old boss (ho-hum).


These days, rioting is done over the internet on credit card charged computers and in almost foreclosed upon homes.


Finally, some worthwhile analysis and policy proposal in the NY Times. You missed one other reason in your list: The culling of smart, conscious people into academia or the media... Now come down from the ivory tower and Implement!


First of all, it was government intervention that caused this mess, beginning with lowered lending standards beginning in 1992, by a democrat. Then the free money drug, grown by none other than Alan Greenspan, intervening with artificially low interest rates for far too long that provided the ammunition for this mess. Then the individuals that borrowed the money that they could not afford to pay back, and were very happy during the time they were making it, are all crying now. Yes, Wall Streeters are a greedy bunch and definitely had an enormous hand in building the house of cards, and yes the Bush Administration did not do enough to stop the bubble, but you have an ignoramus's like Barney Frank who had oversight over FNMA, who claims that he had no responsibility for knowing about what was going on, and he is one of the bozos that crafted the rescue package. There is enough blame to go around, but stop whining and tell the citizens in this country to live within their means.



How we've tolerated the last 8 years of colossal misrule without some kind of mass response is baffling and infuriating. Where is the outrage regarding:

1) September 11th (it happened on Bush's watch, remember...)
2) The bungled response to Katrina causing no less than the downfall of an entire major city.
3) The prosecution of an endless and pointless war begun on the premise of complete lies, costing into the trillions of taxpayer dollars.
4) The criminal lack of oversight permitting the criminal plundering and eventual undoing of our entire economic system, and requiring a taxpayer bailout that will certainly see the trillion-dollar mark.

Let's stop there for the sake of brevity; you know there's more.

If any one or two of these crises had been precipitated during a Democratic administration, the right would be calling for blood, impeachment, and more. Where is the outrage? It's time to come together by the millions and march on Washington.




There have been a number of protests, you have to connect with the movement people. see indymedia.org and other sites. the truth is out there, find it.


Forget the riot. Just stop paying any kind of federal taxes. There is no representation or accountability from them; hasn't been for a long time. The government obviously has way too much money anyway, as they tend to throw so much of it away on garbage wars and worthless banks. Let the wars fail, let the banks fail, let the government starve. Then the people will thrive.