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Can riots be just?
Though some riots can be just, apologies for disorder bode ill for liberal democracy
In a recent article in the British Journal of Political Science, Jonathan Havercroft asks why there has been no theory of the just riot. Arguing that this reflects the extra-institutionality of riots, political philosophers distrusting actions which violate rules, Havercroft elaborates conditions in which riots can be just. As we see in the table below, valid aims include the preservation of freedom and promotion of equality, proportionality and crowd behaviour also being necessary. I recommend the article; aside from being theoretically strong, it addresses a crucial issue. In recent years, right and left have debated the justice of riots. Certain right-wingers have apologized for the Capitol riot; certain left-wingers have apologized for riots associated with social justice goals. More generally, there is increasing debate about respect for the law, covering topics such as lockdown compliance and the removal of statues. Therefore, the question of the justice of riots is unusually pertinent, enabling analysis of the influence of ideas and foundations of the rule of law.
Few would say that riots can never be just. If the target is a dictatorship and the behaviour of the crowd is proportionate, many would endorse the riot. John Rawls, the most distinguished liberal of the 20th century, identified a right of militant resistance, should basic conditions be unjust. But the devil is in the detail. Notwithstanding Havercroft’s list of conditions, such criteria are difficult to interpret in a consistent manner. Many left-wingers would argue that the Black Lives Matter riots met Havercroft’s criteria, few right-wingers agreeing. Disagreement might occur on multiple points. Left-wingers might impugn the US as an unjust state, citing multiple transgressions. Though others would highlight the ways in which the US differs from a dictatorship, evaluations are ultimately subjective, the scope of the topic providing endless room for manoeuvre.
Havercroft’s conditions exclude certain actions and political philosophers add caveats about individuals being ‘reasonable’, yet I am sceptical about such criteria. Reading Havercroft, a Trump supporter would find justification for the Capitol riot. Can one say that such an interpretation is invalid? Philosophers might argue that Trump supporters adopt an ‘unreasonable’ position, but this is difficult to prove. This is uncomfortable for moderates, the rise of apologies for riots challenging liberal democracy. Relatedly, this raises questions about the foundations of ideas.
Most scholars regard ideas as subservient to structural forces, the success of ideas as diverse as abolitionism and reformed theology being contingent upon material conditions. If one worries about liberal democracy, one asks why such positions have become compelling. The rule of law has been strained before. Historically, this has been associated with economic decline, events of the 1930s being famous. Economic interpretations of contemporary radicalism require caution, analysis of right populism showing that culture tends to be more significant, but economic factors are undoubtedly important; this may be particularly so on the left, exclusion from housing and labour markets radicalizing the young. But in contrast to previous crises, the West is now declining, countries such as China and India becoming dominant. Civilizational decline is associated with despair, this accompanying the decay of historic empires. In these conditions, arguments against disorder lack their traditional power. The ‘reasonableness’ of such arguments is not self-evident, but reflects a set of politico-economic conditions. In a changed environment, people will find justification for riots and other forms of disorder.
Recognition of the social contingency of ethics can be dispiriting, few relishing the thought that cherished ideas have a conditional basis. But for those who support the rule of law, another prospect is more comforting. Human need for order is fundamental. As Fukuyama argues in the Origins of Political Order, all forms of social organization require rules, particularly more complicated ones. And though human societies are prone to outbreaks of lawlessness, tendencies for stability are more prominent. This can be bad. For example, periods of revolutionary unrest often yield to authoritarian rule, the French and Russian revolutions being classic examples. But in the modern West, there are grounds for optimism. The rule of law has been fused with liberal-democratic standards, becoming part of the path dependency of Western polities; resultingly, orderly liberal-democratic equilibriums tend to recur. For example, the US has known several periods of bitter strife, during which the rule of law has been strained and occasionally broken down. But generally, liberal-democratic order has tended to prevail, reflecting societal need for order and the path dependency of liberal democracy. Even in a declining West, this influence remains profound.
Of course, ideas shape politics in crucial ways. Certain interpretations of traditions are more coherent than others, enhancing their appeal. Within mainstream ideologies such as liberalism and conservatism, concern for legality recurs, endorsement of riots sitting uneasily with this principle. This puts restraints, albeit flimsy ones (!), on individuals and parties who adhere to these ideologies. And ideas will influence the world of tomorrow. Famously, Weber compared ideas to ‘switchmen, determin[ing] the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest’. This implies that debates about order are crucial, shaping future conditions. Friends of liberal democracy must partake in these. Havercroft demonstrates conditions in which riots are acceptable, but moderates will doubt whether most conditions apply to liberal democracies.
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