Are riots good for democracy?

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Are riots good for democracy?

Stephen D’Arcy is a Professor and author. Vijay Prashad is a historian and journalist. They talk about the question.

Stephen – yes, they are

Are riots good for democracy? In general, I think that they are. But riots are difficult to understand, they happen in large crowds, and they are not planned. No-one agrees with everything that rioters do. Even in riots for equality and democracy, individuals sometimes attack people who are just standing and watching. Doing something bad in a riot is the same as doing something bad in other situations. But it is true that public riots can often change the balance of power between the people in power and the poor and working-class people that they control.

Governments must suddenly listen when people protest against the legal order and its police.


YES: Stephen D’Arcy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Huron University College, in Ontario, Canada. He is author of the book Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy, and co-editor of the new book A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.

After riots, governments often have ‘commissions’ to help the situation. They have new plans and have new ideas. Usually, these plans and ideas do not help very much with what people want, and we are right to see them as negative. But they tell us some important things. That governments must look at problems they did not want to think about for so long. And they tell us that there are people who are now strong enough to protest and something needs to be done.

This all helps democracy. For example, the courage of Stonewall, the Brazilian students rioting for the right to education, and the garment workers in Bangladesh protesting for a safe workplace and enough money to live. Their protests make the people in power think and open the possibility for other organizations. To do something about injustice, we need movements that refuse to give up and that get bigger and stronger and involve more people. Riots cannot take the place of this work. But riots are an important part of democratic politics because they help people to find their voices.

Vijay – no, they aren’t

The question is not so simple. Democracy must have its roots in capitalism. Riots do not happen because you want them to happen. They grow from capitalism. I do not think they are a good thing. I simply accept that they happen.


NO: Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut. He is the author most recently of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, now in paperback).

One of the very good things about Marxism was to show that the capitalist social order has violence in it. That in the system we have now only a few people control Capital, and that the workers must sell their labour to them. Capital has the right to buy labour at its price, and workers have the right to try to ask for more money. They both have equal rights. Karl Marx writes that when rights are equal, ‘force decides’.

Violence is part of the system. And we can’t know who does the violence. In other times it was easy to know – it was the king, a lord, the money lender. It is much harder with capitalism. Protests now in capitalist times are different from protests before. They often show anger against the system. The Venezuelan Caracazo in 1989 is the best example. Social control does not stay quiet. It takes up arms. That is why the Caracazo was stopped with many deaths. The Caracazo was the people from the slums saying that they had had enough. The riot could do no more than that.

The answer to the riot is not government commissions, but political movements. Riots are a message. They are not the answer.

Stephen – yes, they are

There have been two ways to talk about riots over the years. First there is the ‘public order’ idea about rioting. This is popular with the police, with politicians, and with the news media. Rioting is a kind of anti-social, crazy, crowd violence. In this idea, we must defend democracy against the rioters. They are nothing but a danger to the order and security of democratic politics.

Second there is the ‘public empowerment’ idea about rioting. With this idea rioting is generally by reasonable defenders of the community against systems of power that are not concerned with the common good. This is popular with historians like Eric Hobsbawm, EP Thompson, and George Rudé. They think rioters are not against democracy, but they are there to defend it.

I think the second idea is right. But both of these ideas start from the view that rioting will not have many defenders when there is repression and criminalization, if we do not accept the idea that riots go against democratic politics. When rioters who want justice are criticised and treated badly by the police, we should remember Martin Luther King who said that rioting is the language of the unheard, the language of people with no voice. In other words, it is a good idea to support rioters for the same reason we support strikers and protesters - because they help give people a voice.

Vijay - no, they aren’t

I like your idea that riots are good for democracy. You say that there have been two ways to talk about rioting – as a question of public order (riots are bad) and as a question of giving power to the public (riots are good). But these are not the only two ways. In many parts of the Global South, riots are also the way governments get people to protest and then divide weak political societies – for example in India and Egypt. These are where governments use riots to control people.

In the Global North, it is different. When societies are weak and cannot act together, riots are perhaps the only action that people can take. But even in the Global North governments like riots because they are easy to stop and then no one takes the protest seriously. Isn’t it better for politics in the North to accept the work of riots, but to work hard to find other ways to build the power of the many against the few? Surely that is more useful than simply celebrating the riot as one way the people can protest?

Stephen – yes, they are

You make two main points, I think: that rioting in the Global South is often used to control people and that in the North governments like riots as a way to show that protests are bad.

The first point is right. Rioting is not in itself good for democracy. Like other forms of protest, it can be used for good or bad. But it is a good thing to give people a voice. I think this is true in the Global South, too.

Your second point is not clear. As I said before, I don’t think rioting can take the place of popular movements. But you can’t be right when you say that governments in the Global North like people rioting or they prefer rioting to other forms of protest. If that is true, why do they try to stop rioting at ‘summits’ before it starts? No, governments can make the best of a bad situation when they show rioters as criminals and use riots as a chance for strong policing and to criticise rioters. The same thing happens during strikes or other forms of protest. But they prefer the people to simply be quiet and not protest.

The point is important because when governments worry about rioting, which in a way they always do, it is a way of protecting people against the worst kinds of anti-democratic government.

Vijay – no, they aren’t

I don’t think you have seen what riots can do. As a young PhD student and reporter, I wrote about the 1992-93 riots in Delhi, when men from poor castes attacked and killed their Muslim neighbours. This was a riot started by the ruling classes. You say that even these riots are possibly good for democracy. I am shocked. Perhaps you know nothing about politics outside North America or you think that these kinds of riots are good.

Where there is no major agreement in politics, these riots will always happen. Where society is not as broken as it is in the West, riots are more often used by the government. Here there are other ways for people to be heard.

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