On Days of Disorder

Let us say you are a man inclined towards riot. Perhaps breaking stuff gives you joy. Maybe  the chemical cocktail that courses through your blood as you go about burning this and pummeling that provides a high that cannot be beat. Perhaps you feel pent up and pushed down in normal times; perhaps you glory in asserting that you are indeed a man, a being who acts instead of one that is acted on. You may be moved by a hard conviction that those who have much do not deserve the much they have. You may hunger to be the force that delivers them more just desserts. Perhaps you just like making a quick buck from stealing things and hawking them on Craiglist. There are many reasons a man might be inclined towards a riot.

Yet you and all those like you have a problem. The man inclined towards riot cannot simply wake up one day and begin one. The lone rioter is not a rioter at all. He is simply a common vandal. The system can handle that problem with ease. This is the sorrow of the would-be rioter: he cannot begin his riot until he is sure all the other would-be rioters will pound the streets besides him.

Here is how David Haddock and Daniel Poisby described the travails of the rioter-in-embryo almost three decades ago:

After the Los Angeles riot in spring of 1992, almost every pundit in the country took a turn at explaining why riots occur. The conventional wisdom on the subject went something like this: certain dramatic events such as political assassinations or unpopular jury verdicts crystalize riots from social rage. So to understand riots, one must understand and the causes of social rage, usually said to be racism, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and why people who experience this rage manage it in such a destructive manner. The usual suspects include breakdown of the family, television, and a generalized cultural disorientation.

All of these explanations have some truth in them, but are evidently incomplete. First, they explain too much. The predisposing social conditions are with us all the time, yet riots are episodic. Second, they explain too little. Many mob actions, like European soccer riots or the increasingly predictable civil meltdowns in the home cities of National Basketball Association champions, are triggered by good news, and not obviously related to social injustice or existential anomie. Indeed, during the Los Angeles riots, anyone with a TV set could see that jubilation rather than fury best characterized the mood of the people in the streets. It is hard to credit that these exhilarated looters with their new VCR’s and cameras were protesting the jury system, the state of race relations in Southern California, or anything else. They were, in fact, having a party. Moreover, many of those who risked life and limb opposing the more outrageous excesses of the rioters were themselves poor, unemployed, and victims of racism.[1]

Haddock and Poisby raise an important question: if riots happen because of deep structural injustices, what explains the European soccer riot?

Haddock and Poisby begin this inquiry by reminding us what a riot is not:

Day in and day out in any big city, police blotters will reflect the existence of a fairly steady background supply of theft, mugging, arson, and homicide. But this jumble of criminal mischief does not amount to a “riot”; riots are the coordinated acts of many people. If they are coordinated, who coordinates them? Authorities looking for ways to explain why trouble has broken out on their watch sometimes ascribe exaggerated organizational. powers to “outside agitators.” While, as we explain, there is definitely a leadership niche in the ecology of a mob, it seems to become important only after the crowd has assembled. Riots are not, as a rule, plotted and scripted affairs.

It would be very difficult indeed to “stage” a riot. A person who set out to do so would encounter a series of difficult challenges. When should the riot be held? Where? How should the participants be notified? Once marshaled, how should they be instigated to behave in a way that would expose them to arrest? Trying to organize a riot as though it were a company picnic would quickly attract the attention of the police. And with the police watching, who would be brave enough to cast the first stone? How, then, do riots begin?[2]

Riots then are best understood as a coordination problem. People must act together for the riot to proceed, and importantly, they must act at the same time. Corporations and military commands develop vast hierarchies to ensure that those in their employ work in concert. The rioter does not have this option available to him. Haddock and Poisby quote a passage from Thomas Schelling’s Strategies of Conflict that explains why:

It is usually the essence of mob formation that the potential members have to know not only where and when to meet but just when to act so that they act in concert. Overt leadership solves the problem; but leadership can often be identified and eliminated by the authority trying to prevent mob action. In this case the mob’s problem is to act in unison without overt leadership, to find some common signal that makes everyone confident that, if he acts on it, he will not be acting alone. The role of “incidents” can thus be seen as a coordinating role; it is a substitute for overt leadership and communication. Without something like an incident, it may be difficult to get action at all, since immunity requires that all know when to act together.[3]

Absent long-term leadership, the coordinating mechanism for the would-be rioters is almost always an incident. The incident itself can be almost anything, provided that all would-be rioters understand that what has just happened is in fact “an incident:”

Certain kinds of high-profile events have become traditional “starting signals” for civil disorders. In fact, incidents can become signals simply because they have been signals before. What ignited the first English soccer riot has been lost in the mists of history; but they had become a troublesome problem sometime during the nineteenth century, as Bill Buford (1991) makes clear in quoting old newspaper accounts in his Among the Thugs. Today, there is a century’s weight of tradition behind soccer violence. People near a football ground on game day know that a certain amount of mischief, possibly of a quite violent kind, is apt to occur. Those who dislike that sort of thing had best take themselves elsewhere. Certain people, though, thrive on the action —relish getting drunk, fighting, smoking dope; enjoy the whiff of anarchy, harassing and beating respectable people and vandalizing their property. Such people—hooligans—make a point of being where the trouble is likely to start….  In Detroit in recent years, “Devils Night” (the night before Halloween) has become a springboard for multiple, independent, almost simultaneous acts of arson. These are examples, baleful ones,of how culture, habit, and tradition can overcome major organizational barriers to cooperative social endeavors and lower the cost of transacting business. [4]

Once a crowd has gathered in response to an incident, there are still two hurdles that would-be rioters must overcome to transform a mere crowd into a destructive mob. The first is that the crowd must have massed in sufficient concentration and speed at “one place [where] police cannot mass at a correspondingly rapid rate… [so that] that offenses occur rapidly enough to overwhelm the police.”[5] The second is that the would-be rioters must find a way to judge the composition of the crowd. Haddock and Poisby again:

Not every crowd threatens to evolve into a riot. In fact, the opposite is more often true: people bent on criminal mischief usually do not want lots of witnesses and possibly hostile bystanders around when they commit crimes. And so the psychology of the crowd’s members is crucial. A significant number of the crowd’s members must expect and desire that the crowd will become riotous. That is, there has to be a critical mass of people in the crowd who are making accurate judgments, not about their own desires and intentions, but about the riotous desires and intentions of other members of the crowd.[6]

Haddock and Poisby describe the individuals who go about testing the desire of the crowds riot entrepreneurs:

Even in an unstable gathering, the first perpetrator of a misdemeanor is at risk if the police are willing and able to zero in on him. Thus, someone has to serve as a catalyst—a sort of entrepreneur to get things going—in Buford’s account usually by breaking a window (a signal that can be heard by many who do not see it). In civil rights, anti-war or anti-abortion marches, it is probably pretty common to find participants eager to expose themselves to arrest in exchange for the chance to optimize the desired impact of their protest. This sort of self-sacrifice is certainly rare in ordinary riots, where potential rioters’ behavior is consistent, we suppose, with something like the following calculation: “If somebody else gets the riot started, I can participate without much risk. But if I stick my neck out and nobody follows, I’ll be the only one arrested. So I’ll wait for somebody else to go first.” If every would-be rioter reasoned thus, nobody would cast the first stone, and the riot would not ignite. This is a typical free-rider problem, as economists have called it. It is usually sufficient to prevent riots from occurring, even where there is a plentiful supply of disposed participants. Riots await events that surmount the free rider problem. The entrepreneur will throw the first stone when he calculates that the risk that he will be apprehended for doing so has diminished to an acceptable level.[7]

This then is the general pattern of riots:

  1.  An event occurs that signals to would-be rioters that they may soon be able to riot.
  2. This event gathers a crowd. A significant percentage of this crowd—though rarely, it seems, the majority—are eager for destruction.
  3. An entrepreneurial would-be rioter tests the crowd for the presence of other rioters by engaging in a minor (yet easily perceived) act of carnage.
  4. Other rioters follow suit, and as the number of offenders grow so does their willingness to take increasingly brazen acts of vandalism, theft, or violence.

Notice that this schema is value neutral: it describes both the football hooligan and the race rioter, 19th century Russian pogroms and 21st century Hong Kong street battles. In all of these a certain percentage of the participants plays the game for fairly mundane reasons: to revel in excitement or terror, lose themselves in a rare sense of solidarity, belonging, or power, or to simply gain the monetary rewards that come with theft and looting. The proportion of the population willing to join a riot to attain these things likely reflects the proportion of the population otherwise cut off from them in normal times. Few rioters are married men who must be at work at 8:00 AM the next morning.

Thus those who riot for the joy of the thing. To them may be added those with some ideological or political commitment to civil disorder. The reason these people might instigate or join a riot are various, but the practical problems they face differ little from the problems faced by those who riot because they like it. Rioting is a breach of order that—in normal times—carries extreme consequence. Those consequences can be avoided only when participants understand that times are not normal. To disturb the peace one must own the streets, and to own the streets one must be confident your folk will come out in concert. Concert absent explicit coordination is the problem of all who oppose existing orders.

This general principle can be extended to all manner of systems of order and control. I am sure the Communist Party of China and the People’s Liberation Army are filled to the brim with men who hate Chairman Xi Jinping. If they acted in concert I have no doubt they could depose him. But how to do it? Those who oppose Xi cannot signal this openly; any leader of an anti-Xi resistance would find himself imprisoned or dead. Like the would-be rioters, the would-be deposers must bide and hide until some event signals that they will all be out in force.

Traditional Chinese political philosophy ascribed much to the “Mandate of Heaven” — this notion that Heaven itself supported the ruling dynasty in ratio to the virtue and wisdom of its emperors. Floods, famines, and other great natural disasters were signals of heaven’s displeasure. No wonder so many great disasters were followed by revolts and rebellions. Or so the theory went. Perhaps you now see an alternate explanation for what occurred in Chinese antiquity: great disasters were signal incidents, just as soccer games and the videos of black men unjustly killed by American police are today. When struck with disease, drought, flooding, depression, or death, would-be rebels knew that others of their type would be out in force, ready to fight against the dynasty.

The opening sentence of the famous Ming dynasty novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms states this lesson concisely: tianxia dashi, fenjiu bihe, hejiu bifen. I was surprised to find that most English translations of this famous opening line obscure the lesson (Roberts: “the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide;” Brewitt-Taylor: “domains under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide;” Yu: “unity succeeds division and division succeeds unity”).[8] These translations omit the word “dashi” (大勢)—a word we might translate as the great trend, tendency, or inclination inherent to a specific situation or arrangement of forces. Sunzi said it was through arranging the shi of the battlefield one general defeats another (as a mountain stream carries boulders down its length, or the trigger of a crossbow causes a bolt to fly forward); Hanfei claimed that it was the shi of a king in relation to his underlings that caused his orders to be obeyed. [9] The inherent tendency the Romance of the Three Kingdoms speaks to is a tad different. This is not a trend to be manipulated so much as recognized. In some eras, the world trends towards order and harmony. In such times, studying hard for one’s exams, getting chummy with the high-born, and following rituals with Confucian precision are deeds that bring honor and esteem. In other eras, the world trends towards disorder. In those times glory is up for grabs, and honor will be had by those violent, heroic, or brave enough to seize it.

It is supremely important to understand the sort of era one is in. At the level of the ordinary citizen, the trend of the age may prompt a family to fill their larders or purchase arms. At the political level different calculations must be made. Just how durable is the order? How many people will willingly oppose it, given the opportunity to do so? Have they begun to do so? How will I act differently in world where no one believes the center will hold? There is a whiff of the self-fulfilling prophecy in these decisions; once the signal is sent out, each small defection from the order is evidence that the broader mandate has gone up in smoke. The world united shifts to the world divided, and the struggle for the future begins.

But a signal must first be sent. In this respect fallen mandates and roving mobs differ little from each other. No civic order can be breached until the ambitious few have broken a few windows.

If you are interested in other attempts I’ve made to find the thread within the noise, you may be interested in the posts “Public Opinion in Authoritarian States,” “Reason is For Stabbing,”  “The Marvelous Machiavellian Mindreader,” “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are,” “Vengeance as Justice,” or “A Brief Model of Extremist Politics.”  If explorations of ancient Chinese thought are your thing, try the posts The Radical Sunzi,” “Manning Up in Ancient China,” and “Being vs Doing in Ancient Chinese Thought.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] David Haddock and Daniel Posby, “Understanding Riots,” Cato Journal Vol.14, No.1(1994), 147.

[2] Ibid, 148.

[3] Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 90.

[4] Haddock and Posby, “Understanding Riots,” pp. 149-150

[5] ibid., 148-149

[6] ibid., 14

[7]  ibid., 14

[8] In characters the full phrase is 天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分. These English translations are taken from the first pages of Robert Moss, trans. Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, Part I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); C.H. Brewett-Taylor, trans., Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2002); Yu Sumei, trans. The Three Kingdoms: Vol I, The Sacred Oath (Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2014).

[9] Sunzi Bingfa 5; Hanfeizi 40.

Leave a Comment


"There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat"
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures."

(Julius Caesar, Act-IV, Scene-III, Lines 218-224)

Brutus, trying to convince Cassius to join his conspiracy to assassinate Caesar

I defer to the simplicity of human behavior; rioting is an innate urge to imitate in an unacceptable way what you are tired of trying to find the words and political clout to converse about in society. Theft of property owned by those perceived as the "establishment" is an imitation of what the "establishment" does to people without political power in this country. The lower one falls on the scale of being politically meaningless (choose your reason; certainly race is at the top of the list) the more the human internalizes the uncontrolled "theft" of their identity. Those who cannot find a voice, cannot rationalize waiting for the political scales to tip their way (a hundred plus years it gets kind of irrational to keep waiting…and waiting), or in the moment feel so violated they will join the mob rather than sit on the sidelines any longer… there is your mob. The initial spark-person well there is some room for debate; for the idea of pre-thought and intent certainly, but for most people the justification is in imitation I think.

Is there a better word than "entrepreneur" to describe these people? Opportunist perhaps. As for "riots" in modern China, the people in power from the Qing to the KMT to the CCP, have feared "protests". The most significant historical protests May 4th 1919, June 4th 1989 Tiananmen, 1976 Zhou Enlai Tianmamen memorial are well known as are their political impacts. There are many other protests during the Chinese civil war and post 1949. The Cultural Revolution had a large protest/riot element and protest/rioting was used as a political tool. The CCP is ambivalent about protest. Protest allows people to vent their anger which is good, but anger can turn into destruction and a political tool to attack people in power. During the Cultural Revolution there was a protest at the British Embassy which ran out of control and ended in its sacking and burning. I talked with a Chinese ex-party member who was one of the rioters and he told me that the sacking wasn't in the plan, things just ran out of control. And this was a protest organized by party members. In 1999 the Party "organized" protests against the US for the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The police allowed the protesters to stone the US Embassy. But, they lost control in Chengdu and the mob burnt down the US Consulate.

Posting this here because comments were locked on the SSC subreddit where it was shared right after I had finished writing.

This is a nice theory. One problem with its application to the real world is that there are actors outside the crowd. The implicit definition of a riot used here seems to be property damage, but a mob actively fighting with the police is definitely a "riot". This can certainly be kicked off by individual crowd members. But it can also be begun by coordinated action from the police or another crowd.

The easiest example to see is when a line of riot cops moves toward a dense crowd more quickly than the crowd can move back. Newton's third law means that police are pushed by the trapped people on the front lines, which causes them to escalate to baton strikes. The risk at the front is high; without an escape route, anyone starting a fight risks immediate arrest. A riot usually begins, even without entrepreneurs throwing things from the middle of the crowd. If we must assign individual blame, the person who gave the order to press forward is a better candidate than any individual officer or person on the front lines.

A similar thing could happen without a human "commander" at all, though I've never seen it firsthand. Imagine a sudden sound causing a stampede of one hostile crowd into another. Again, violence will break out as people are pressed into each other by the momentum of those behind them. It's hard to pin responsibility on anything except the noise itself.

If you want you can assign blame to the people at the front who first escalate from shoves to strikes. They are an uneasy match for Haddock and Poisby's "riot entrepreneurs", who act only once they judge the risk to be acceptably low. Plus, unlike the sound of a shattering storefront, it's hard for members of the crowd to tell whether two people at the front line are exchanging shoves or punches. Overall, I think the theory outlined doesn't perfectly describe the two riots I have been in, although it is a good metaphor for other group standoffs.

> This then is the general pattern of riots:
> 1. An event occurs that signals to would-be rioters that they may soon be able to riot.
> 2. This event gathers a crowd. A significant percentage of this crowd—though rarely, it seems, the majority—are eager for destruction.
> 3. An entrepreneurial would-be rioter tests the crowd for the presence of other rioters by engaging in a minor (yet easily perceived) act of carnage.
> 4. Other rioters follow suit, and as the number of offenders grow so does their willingness to take increasingly brazen acts of vandalism, theft, or violence.