Riots as a form of protest

19 February, 2021

The transition from a demonstration to a confrontation with the police can occur for a thousand causes. In Linares we have seen one, in the recent demonstrations in Russia we have seen a different one. However, it turns out to be very different when riots, physical confrontations against the police are the form and goal of the demonstration, the form of expression chosen to vindicate instead of a development or byproduct of the original goals.

Riots as the intentional theatricalization of a conflict

In principle, such protests are mediatically profitable: unlike the vast majority of demonstrations and strike rallies and despite being smaller in number than them, riots will be on TV and occupy the front pages of newspapers. The media will inevitably condemn the violence and pontificate on that basis. But the organizers will have gained something: presence on the public agenda.

This is the primary nature of hooliganism, of the riot when it is pursued as a goal on its own. It is a theatricalization seeking to be disseminated by the media to represent the existence of a conflict that otherwise, as its advocates argue, would not exist in the open.”

Consciousness and protest hedonism

riots protests
Riots during protests in Barcelona last October

But for workers the political utility of a form of protest has nothing to do with being on TV, rather it has to do with nurturing the development of class consciousness. And to that end, the dynamics of this form of protest proves sterilizing to the max.

First, a conflict will be enacted, but what will its subject be? Those watching the videos see angry youths, hooded guys playing urban guerrilla or hooligans robbing stores. Nothing indicating the existence of a collective political subject, nothing showing that there is a struggle which also involves the people watching as part of a class fighting for universal needs.

Have Black Blocks and a thousand other such groups over the past 30 years achieved anything other than minutes of television spectacle?

But, they will argue to us, these kinds of calls mobilize young people in the neighborhoods and supposedly incorporate them into a collective action. True, but once again, on what basis. The appeal of the street fight is nothing other than a self-exhausting barricade hedonism.

And if it doesn’t exhaust itself… all the worse. Because what it ushers in is a cycle of rioting, repression and arrests, new rioting, and so on. A street-level version of the famous spiral of violence. And just like the original one, it can only end in isolation, atomization and disenchantment. Or, even worse, trapping scores of young people in the sinister ideology of the riot specialists, seeking repression-reaction cycles while thinking that they can lead to something positive.

Not just sterile, harmful to what matters

But it’s not just that a good part of the young people who participate in these kinds of mobilizations end up burned out. It’s not just that performing street battles as a spectacle to get on the TV news is sterile. It’s not even that it’s counterproductive, which it is.

There is something much worse: the exaltation of action aside from the working class and the consequent implicit denial of the need for workers to organize as workers does harm to the real movement. This sort of media-directed blanquism, which aspires to minutes of coverage where the original Blanquists aspired to impose a government, is no less harmful despite its smaller ambitions.

No one claiming that it is possible to replace the collective and independent discussion and action of the majority class in today’s society with the autonomous action of a group of determined activists will ever make a contribution to overcoming the current state of things. Ongoing struggles in which a world class tries to raise consciousness take no shortcuts. Shortcuts derail those struggles.