And now I shall make the masses….disappear!!!

Well, here’s a fun little blip:

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?

Some highlights from the peanut gallery:

Forget a riot, how about a simple mass protest?

— Posted by Andrew M


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.

— Posted by science minded


Not saying I totally support this idea, but it is a thought I had; is it possible that the lack of riots could be credited to the internet and blogging? Rioting is a way of letting the community know that you are, well, really pissed off and want change. It is a way of venting. With the advent of blogs, myspace, facebook, etc. people are able to (as we are doing know) share their feelings with the “world” and believe, rightly or not, that it will somehow bring about change.

Added bonus: No police. No riot gear.

— Posted by dave


Our societies have been very successful at socializing us that “violence is always wrong” (unless, of course, it’s used by the monopolist of violence, our government) and that if we want to change the system we need to do so from within.

Convincing the overwhelming majority of the population of the evils of violence has been a phenomenal achievement that is all-too-often overlooked. Those in power control the levers of power, and they’ve convinced the rest of us that if we want change, we need to use those same levers. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a war between those who know there’s a war and those who don’t.”

Society’s ability to “rule out” violence as a legitimate forum of social change has had an impact throughout society. The possibility of violence, preferably never acted upon, helped labor throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Negotiating in the shadow of violence has now been replace by negotiating in the shadow of the law, and the law is a predictable tool of power.

— Posted by Boldizar


There was a protest of the bailout. The media didn’t care to cover it:

— Posted by Matt


My guess would be that the urge to riot is being sublimated into the election.

— Posted by Victor Kava


IF or when Obama’s election is sabotaged, a’la 2000 and 2004, you can perhaps expect to see shocking replays of the fires of Newark, Detroit and Watts.
“Burn, Bay, Burn!” is simply a bottled-up reaction waiting to be ignited — it is not something antiquated. It could get very ugly, and the worst of Euro-Americans will emerge. Excess has its price, and that price is the implosion of the flimsy empire.

— Posted by Frank Little

Ah, democracy. This sort of thing strengthens even further my admiration of J.G. Ballard’s rewriting of the bourgeois psychological novel as its apparent opposite, apocalyptic science fiction. Pundit and basement-dweller alike mind meld over vistas of rubble, the utopian vision of suburb and shantytown coming together in an orgy of violence, the rule of melancholy survivalists, and the binary moral choices so amply generated by these exciting scenarios.

The pundit is of course much more polite about it. The fantasy of the revolt of the masses is posed as a good-natured interactive thought experiment. This is possible because its subject is invisible. And so (where else could it go) the impulse to riot, justified of course, though repressed by the efficiency of 21st century commodity culture, is in the last account explicitly connected with the author’s middle-class “malaise.” Our responsibility, you see, is to avoid violence when it might cause the innocent to suffer, especially members of that unseen, amorphous mass capable of serving all our rhetorical needs. No matter how much we might want to break shit. Oh, we’re so naughty!

The number of commenters capable of recognizing the difference between riots and protests without a prompt is reassuring, at least.

The sad thing is that this convenient anthropology isn’t limited to being a pastime of MSM columnists. I’ve heard and read active and inactive leftists read their own actions in these terms. It’s a comforting fantasy, perhaps even a dominant one, to assume the reasons for collective failure or marginalization can be found in individual neuroses, consumer products, or the favorite modernist lament, lack of the new. The one ‘social’ condition given in the article, debt, is accompanied by a friendly reminder that despair at one’s circumstances is both narcissistic (based in excessive consumption — second homes) and “partly at the root of our current mess.”

It’s undeniable that there is a problem with left politics in America, or even independent politics. The obvious side of the problem is a failure to organize. Here it’s put in rigidly psychological terms, as the psychology of a population, or in at least one jargon, the ‘collective unconscious.’ The problem is therefore conceived in terms of a set of speculative, in this case mostly arbitrary conditions on this unconscious. Just for a moment, however, let’s permit ourselves to take seriously this rather limited context. The fundamental problem is prior to all this fanciful mapping out of opportune and inopportune conditions, and is rather what enables that conundrum to appear in its usual form as amusing intellectual puzzle: subjectification, or the failure to become a political subject.

This topic is an official area of philosophical inquiry which is unfortunately too important for me to get away with summarizing here. My point for now is that a certain type of speculation — social theory as the projection of various myths onto a people or even another person — seems to me delegitimated if one understands subjectification in politics as an unavoidable necessity of social life. Even if a collective product, the myth is applied by someone, irreducibly an attempt by the one to determine the many. Whether luxury or crime, existence beyond the walls of the subject (the obvious fantasized escape) would then be restricted to a temporary, anomalous, or precarious state, brought on by, among many other things, a certain theatrical posture toward writing. ‘Abstract’ discourse about society and Man is then damned to oscillate between fiction and autobiography, with history caked under the fingernails.


One Response to “And now I shall make the masses….disappear!!!”

  1. Oh good. Sounds portentous and ponderous and I can just soooooo see myself in it. Finding the truth in J.G. Ballard, oh yes, people think they can do it.

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