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Thread: On the Justifiability of Riots

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    Iskar's Avatar Insanity with Dignity
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    Default On the Justifiability of Riots

    For the Latin texts on this see De Iustificatione Tumultuorum by Albertus Muggnus and Repressionis Apologia by Nicolaus Coppernicus.

    Last weekend saw the first of May and with it the usual riots, clashes with police, burning litter bins and smashed shop windows. Many people's, including my own, first reaction to this is usually disdain and a latent horror - disdain for this "uncivilised mob" and horror that they might one day come to our own houses and disturb our neat bourgeoises existences. Thomas Mann put this sentiment in the tone of cold irony when in the Buddenbrooks he writes on the occasion of student riots in 1848: "...wobei Gott allein wußte, was das Fenster des Herrn Benthien mit der hohen Politik zu tun hatte." (... whereas God alone knew, what Mr. Benthien's [smashed] window had to do with high politics.) - Which leads us to the next thought: After abhorrence and disdain comes derision for those that think smashing shop windows could in any way further whatever "higher" goals there might be.

    However, taking a step back, it is clear there are at least two opposing poles on which most of us could agree: Mere destructive pillaging is reprehensible, while revolting against an unjust regime is generally applauded as an act of courage and sacrifice for the greater good. As such we are confronted with a scale, spanned by these two opposites and it is suddenly much less clear what actions are commendable and which are reprehensible. I wish to argumentatively explore this grey area between the poles in the following.

    In order to do so without losing ourselves in branches and tangents, I want to exclude two main tangents beforehand:
    Direct fight of partisans/guerrilleros/other irregulars against the agents of whatever (a priori morally neutral) regime without involving or harming civilians or their property will not concern us, as that is more a topic for discussing the strategies of asymmetric struggle, and the ethical assessment of such a struggle will usually be based on independent factors, such as declared motives or the (lack of) legitimacy of underlying claims.
    Secondly, whether or not a goal or motive advanced by generic rioters is "worthy" under whatever moral code will not concern us either, as that can be addressed in a philosophical discussion that is "perpendicular" to this one, in so far as its outcome has little to no effect on our enquiries: Both the rioters and the powers-that-be will maintain their position of what is right and wrong throughout the riot situation at hand and post-factum condemnations or justifications of either cause are unlikely to be accepted by the side "losing" the philosophical argument. Of course philosophical discourse on the motives advanced by rioters or the regime can in the long run influence public and then political discourse, but these feedback loops cover much longer timespans than even most election cycles and can therefore be safely excluded from our arguments - the ethical considerations of potentially underlying issues causing or advanced by riots can be regarded as quasi-stable.

    Now for our investigation. We shall consider a riot in the sense of
    I a large number of people,
    II incited or motivated by one or more particular grievances (be they factual, imagined or fabricated),
    III exerting violence on people or property not directly related to said grievance (possibly in addition to those related to it).

    If we dropped any of these conditions the investigations would be pointless, because (I) the phenomenon would be negligible, or (II) we'd be back in the extremal case of mere pillaging, or (III) we'd be back in mere partisan warfare - which we excluded above - or non-violent resistance - which is not contentious.

    A priori we will not be making any assumption on the "quality" (democratic, autocratic, anything in between) of the regime, but will be able to make some inferences on that later. The grievances advanced by the rioters as their cause can usually not be brought to a quick resolution or compromise in the situation itself as they often concern legislative or iuridical issues or societal phenomena that entail longer processes to be addressed. As such the main point of contention between the regime and the rioters will not be the validity of the grievances, but the appropriateness of the actions taken in their cause or against them. More complex societies (as are most) tend to have various systems to address and remedy grievances. The regime will argue that the institutions in place offer sufficient means to address the grievances, while the rioters will hold the contrary. The justifiability of the riot thus hinges critically on this seemingly technical question.

    It has an obvious structural aspect: Do the institutions of the regime offer the opportunity to address all possible grievances, at least in theory? For instance, a state with no court of appeals cannot reasonably argue that riots about (even just allegedly) unjust verdicts are unjustifiable, as its institutions offer no way of even considering the grievance. As another example, one would be hard pressed to justify a riot for access to medical treatment in a country with a universal public health insurance and a dense net of hospitals.
    If a polity does not offer avenues to address a grievance and if the cause of this grievance is not directly reachable, either due to being an institutional system or persons beyond public reach (which is usally the case), then the only way to enact pressure on the regime is to damage its everyday workings elsewhere. A simple protest causes basically no cost for the regime and can just be dispersed so in our societies largely based on material property the next best action driving up the cost of not responding to the grievance for the regime is the damaging of property and/or disruption of everyday life by threat of violence. At this point the further development is determined by how each side reacts in the context of strategies for asymmetric struggles. I would not wish to go into this much further as that is really a separate discussion on a subsection of strategy, so I will only point out the most salient decision to be made: If the rioters hurt people instead of just damaging property or if the regime responds by increased physical repression the situation tends to develop in the direction of an armed struggle, often until one side is forced into (tacit) surrender and in the public and international opinion often the side first using violence against people loses the most legitimacy.
    In order to preemptively dejustify all manner of violent riots a polity needs to provide a number of (more or less institutionalised) structures:
    - an independent jurisdiction to handle grievances especially against the executive or legislative branches
    - an independent legislature to prevent the jurisdiction from setting its own premises
    - an independent executive to prevent the legislature from taking advantage of just passing laws to ensure legality and then putting its every whim directly into action
    - furthermore internal subdivision of all power structures to allow control of their internal processes (tiered jurisdiction, parliamentary "councils of eldes" to ensure due behaviour in the legislature, and internal investigation units for the executive)
    - a basic statement of fundamental, sufficiently* universal rights (codified or not) not to be impaired by any of the power structures, upheld by the jurisdiction, respected by the legislature, and protected by the executive
    - at least one avenue for almost* every member of the polity to influence the composition and actions of these power structures, viz. elections for the power structures, or at least one of them if it can in the long term influence the composition of the others
    - if the latter is the case, control mechanisms to still ensure the independence of the other power structures
    - some system of (even just very) basic welfare to ensure that no member of the polity has to struggle for mere survival on their own (before we get into misunderstandings, this would even include the oft berated US social system).
    In short, said polity needs to be a democratic state of law with separation of powers ensuring the rights and (basic) welfare of its citizens. A deficiency in any of these points will inevitably leave an open flank regarding the justifiability of riots.
    As a final note on this paragraph, notice the asterisks we put on "sufficiently"/"almost" by which we qualified "universal"/"every": We noted above in (I) that a riot needs to comprise a large number of people to evade neglibility. (A very small group can not hope to drive up the cost of inaction for the regime enough to elicit a reaction, unless it delegitimises itself by mere terrorism.) As such, even though it may sound surprising, our polity at hand could oppress minorities that are too small to marshall a sufficiently numerous riot. This is due to the fact that we are only considering questions of technical justifiability here, not of ethical validity. That even numerically insignificant minorities must not be discriminated against is hence a purely ethical point, not one of considerations of power or strategy. It can still be deduced logically in moral philosophy, but that is a very different topic, with which we shall not concern ourselves here.

    We have seen above what criteria a polity must satisfy to structurally dejustify riots. Since polities failing any of these criteria will always have trouble delegitimising one or the other riot, we shall henceforth only concern ourselves with polities that are at least structurally insulated against justified rioting.
    One might now ask what else there actually is to consider after our structural arguments, but the structural part only goes halfway to the finish line: Since politics never happen in a vacuum, but involve particular actions by particular individuals or groups, we must also consider the practical side of things.

    The structures to address grievances we laid out above exist mostly in an institutionalised form, since large societies require a pronounced division of labour to function and therefore specialised branches to handle and process all grievances. These institutions come with specialised procedures to follow, forms to fill out, vocabulary to understand. That this is the case is not just a factual finding but, on a side note, can even be shown to be a necessary phenomenon in sufficiently complex societies (cf. Niklas Luhmann, "Legitimation by Procedure"). For our investigation of the practical issues the factual finding is perfectly sufficient, though.
    Now consider a polity that has all structures in place to theoretically address any possible grievance of a citizen. A citizen might still be effectively prevented from having a grievance addressed (where I include elections in the broad sense of using them to resolve a grievance with your current reperesentative by voting for another one):
    They might lack the education to understand the legal texts outlining their rights, or to know how to fill out forms so their grievance is not thrown out due to a formality. They might also lack the means to pay for legal counsel, or be unable to afford the free time for court proceedings or voting day. Their voting rights might be effectively stifled by overly complex preconditions that disproportionately daunt the less educated.
    The mere size of an official institution where to lodge complaints may dissuade people from doing so if navigating them to reach the correct addressee for a complaint already requires a structural understanding of the institution. Furthermore officials used to certain social conventions can be (even just sobconsciously) condescending and discouraging towards people not grown up in societal strata familiar with these conventions. (A prime example of this are the common manners and nonchalant cultural side-references of the educated bourgeoisie, that effectively serve as a shibboleth.)
    All of these factors can effectively make a structurally present possibility to adress grievances practically unreachable, rendering the regime's argument that the grievance can be handled non-violently void. In order to counter this polities must therefore not only make the structural provisions but also ensure that these are practically reachable by almost(* see the asterisk note above) all citizens. This can be achieved by
    - universal education up to a certain degree
    - automatic voter registration
    - compensations for salary lost due to time spent in court/voting/administrative proceedings that is paid automatically with no or very little application forms required
    - laws protecting from repercussions by employers for time spent in court/voting/administrative proceedings
    - important laws and individual rights worded in easily understandable language and actively made available to everyone
    - free minimum legal counsel or support to understand relevant legal contexts where the above is not possible due to irreducible complexity
    - trainings for state officials to reflect and check possible personal biases
    In general, the polity has a duty to actively enable its citizens to claim their rights and make their grievances heard in the proper channels, and to ensure that the dispensation of rightful claims requires no formal application but is the default only cancelled by an active waiver of the citizen.
    The soundest political structures are only worth as much as the polity's members are enabled to partake in them and if the latter is not ensured then even democracies will have a hard time arguing why certain riots are not justified.
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  2. #2

    Default Re: On the Justifiability of Riots

    Quote Originally Posted by Iskar
    In general, the polity has a duty to actively enable its citizens to claim their rights and make their grievances heard in the proper channels, and to ensure that the dispensation of rightful claims requires no formal application but is the default only cancelled by an active waiver of the citizen.

    The soundest political structures are only worth as much as the polity's members are enabled to partake in them and if the latter is not ensured then even democracies will have a hard time arguing why certain riots are not justified.
    If we are only to concern ourselves with polities that are at least structurally insulated against justified rioting, but rioters consider those structures unreachable as you say, even with your proposed remedies in place, then what is to be done?
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  3. #3
    chriscase's Avatar Princess Thunderballs
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    Default Re: On the Justifiability of Riots

    You're asking a lot of us here I will give my simple-minded thoughts on this.

    I'm sure I heard someone once say that "revolutions are festivals of the oppressed." If so then perhaps a demonstration-turned-riot is a backyard-beer-bash-gone-wrong of the oppressed. One might ask if the people involved are truly oppressed enough to justify the riot (as you have been laying out carefully above). But one can turn this on its head and assert that the existence of the riot itself provides empirical evidence of some level of oppression.

    As to the justification of violence I think it's a hard nut to crack. On the level of the victim, it's criminal. Every person who is harmed by such an event can, I expect, rightly demand to be made whole - and sometimes this isn't even possible.

    Looking at such an event from the outside, I think we have to appreciate what is happening when the ordinary rules of civilized collective living are suspended, and the group begins to act without the usual constraints of the law. When that happens I suppose it would be great if those beginning to act violently were to take a few minutes and contemplate whether their actions are justified. But we know that's not what's going on in that group. The barriers are down and that means many of the inhibitions that prevent lawless behavior have been suspended. This is simply a very dangerous situation. And yet, as you point out, upholding an unjust regime purely out of fear of the collapse of the law will leave the disadvantaged little to no recourse.

    One thing I'd point out in your essay, you did not touch on other institutions that can bring about positive change by applying real pressure to the apparatus of state power. In particular, a strong and healthy coalition of trade unions can apply pressure via strikes and boycotts. This can be quite effective and prevent outright rioting, though history shows that the state's dislike of that ability can lead straight to oppressive action - and thus riots anyway.

    Anyhow this isn't really my area of expertise, hope you get some better responses here...

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  4. #4
    Kritias's Avatar Petite bourgeois
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    Default Re: On the Justifiability of Riots

    Quote Originally Posted by Iskar View Post
    However, taking a step back, it is clear there are at least two opposing poles on which most of us could agree: Mere destructive pillaging is reprehensible, while revolting against an unjust regime is generally applauded as an act of courage and sacrifice for the greater good. As such we are confronted with a scale, spanned by these two opposites and it is suddenly much less clear what actions are commendable and which are reprehensible. I wish to argumentatively explore this grey area between the poles in the following.
    A couple observations... I quote above the point that seems to me to be at the centre of your OP. As you say, sometimes riots are looked upon as reprehensible and at others as necessary. The question not asked so far is: who decides which is which? You focus a lot on institutions while I would have focused more on the issue of legitimacy, how it is constructed, and why two identical actions can be given vastly different interpretations according to who/what cause benefits from them.

    You also focus a lot on the functionalist side of the argumentation. You correctly try to determine whether institutions are in place to address grievances, and to what extend these are functional, and to what extend can all citizens/non-citizens guide themselves through the bureaucracy to reach these institutions to address them. This is all to the good. However, you lack the Weberian side of the argument: what if institutions are not disfunctional, merely designed from the start to exclude some people from making use of them?

    Contrary to Marx, who saw society as basically two fundamental groups at war with each other (capitalists vs the proletariat), Weber was far more nuanced: he believed that all groupings of people that share a common interest created a status group, and subsequently tried to exclude 'others' from their perceived status and benefits. An easy example to understand how that can work in the sphere of justice is the so-called 'judicial bias': men get sentenced to longer time than women, whites less than blacks etc etc

    Now, most see this issue and go immediately to race or gender, but I would have seen class added in this mix: I think it's common knowledge that white-collar crime is treated more leniently than blue-collar crime, even when the the sentences are identical. Reason being, a white-collar person can withstand far greater economic punishment than a blue-collar person can.

    A homegrown example so that I make myself clearer. During the COVID restrictions, the government here decided that every person without a mask/proper identification would get a 300 euro fine. Guess what? In a country where the minimum wage is 584 euros a month, this measure devastated the poor and the unemployed, while we have had the upper classes disregarding the restrictions with impunity - what did it matter if you were forced to pay a measly 300 euros once, provided that you were caught on the act in the first place?

    Meaning: even when things appear equal to everybody, inherent inequalities make this equality an unbalanced cost-benefit scenario against the poorest in a society. When the same action can ruin your life while it is a mere slap on the wrist for someone else, this 'equality' is not equal at all.
    Last edited by Kritias; June 08, 2021 at 05:02 AM.
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