Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Politics and International RelationsPart of Economic, Social and Political Science

Riots and Political Theory: A Reading List

Published: 11 June 2020

Jonathan Havercroft

For the last five years I have been reading fairly broadly in the academic literatures around riots and political violence more generally. My most systematic statement on this topic to date can be found in a working paper called “Why is there no just riot theory?” My primary puzzle in that paper is with political theory’s tendency to avoid normative arguments about riots despite engaging in normative theorizing about numerous other modes of political violence – from wars to rebellions to assassinations. My hypothesis is this is because riots are extra-institutional in four distinct ways. Riots are extra-public because crowds riot rather than institutionalized groups such as parties or social movements. Riots are extra-state because they violate the state’s monopoly on violence. Riots are extra-legal because they are a form of unlawful assembly. Riots are extra-Parliamentary because they operate outside of the normal legislative process. By considering the justifiable reasons for resisting each of these foundational institutions I propose some provisional criteria for a justifiable riot and argue that political theorists should pay attention to the normative dimension of riots. On the basis of that research I have just been award a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to study the normative basis of rioting.

I feel odd about the congruence of the present moment with a research project that I have been working on for years. I’ve long felt that riots are a phenomenon that political theorists need to take more seriously. But in other ways I feel that yet another academic paper offers very little to our contemporary problem. All I really have to offer is what I have learned over my years of researching this topic in the hopes that it will help us all think differently about what a riot is, why and when it might be legitimate or illegitimate, in the hopes that thinking differently about the phenomenon of rioting may help us respond to riots and the grievances they express in different ways. To that end I’ve assembled a preliminary annotated reading list on riots and rioting for anyone who might like to read more about this subject. I am still reading and researching in this area and so invite others to let me know about potential additions to this reading list.

1. Political Theory’s dismissal of riots:

Three of the giants of 20th century political theory, Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, and Michael Walzer all wrote on rioting and political protest in the wake of the 1960s riots in the U.S. All three argued that riots were illegitimate because they were violent, whereas non-violent civil disobedience was a legitimate mode of political protest. Through my research I’ve come to see these three texts as a crucial moment of foreclosure that made rioting as simply beyond the pale of legitimate political action. This is doubly frustrating with Walzer given his central role in reviving the just war tradition in light of the Vietnam War. Still I think all three are necessary to read in order to understand how mainstream, left of center political theory conceptualized riots and created an opposition between them and civil disobedience.

Hannah Arendt. 1970. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Publishers.

John Rawls. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Ch. 5 Sections 55 – 59.

Michael Walzer. 1982. Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Ch. 3

2. Recent normative defenses of rioting

Within the radical tradition of political theory, there has been a recent turn to defending rioting. I have found the following texts particularly useful in critiquing the liberal prohibition of rioting. Ciccariello-Maher makes a consequentialist defense of rioting. D’Arcy argues that rioting, along with other forms of militant protest, are necessary to sustain democratic practice. Pasternak offers a moral assessment of rioting that accounts for the proportionality of the harm done by the riot in response the injustice they are contesting.

George Ciccariello-Maher, George. 2015. “Riots Work: Wolf Blitzer and the Washington Post Completely Missed the Real Lesson from Baltimore.” Salon. May 4, 2015.

D’Arcy, Stephen. 2014. Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest Is Good for Democracy. 1 edition. London: Zed Books Ltd.

Avia Pasternak. 2018. “Political Rioting: A Moral Assessment.” Philosophy & Public Affairs. 46:4, pp. 384 – 418.

3. Critical Histories of Rioting

In my research I found that the best analyses of riots and rioting had been done by historians. E.P. Thompson’s work in particular disabused me of many of my preconceived notions about rioting. In particular his critiques the view the riots were spontaneous and the actions of the crowd were immoral, chaotic, and unruly. Thompson provides examples of English riots in the early 18th century where peasants used riots to resist price gouging during food shortages, and the crowds behaviour was both deliberate and normatively self-regulating. The other histories on the list provide numerous examples of how riots have effectively contested grievances, how rioting crowds were targeted in their actions, and how the crowds often policed their members during their actions.

Matt Clement. 2016. A People’s History of Riots, Protest, and the Law. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Paul Arn Gilje. 1999. Rioting in America. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press

Eric Hobsbawm 1952. “The Machine Breakers.” Past & Present 1 (1): 57–70.

Eric Hobsbawm. 2017. Primitive Rebels. London: Abacus

George Rude 2005. The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848. London: Serif.

E. P. Thompson. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present 50: 76–136.

4. Social Science Accounts of Rioting

While political theory tends to avoid normative defenses of rioting, there is a long tradition of analyzing the causes and nature of rioting in explanatory social science. Charles Tilly identified rioting as a form of social protest that waned as increased democratization provided other avenues for oppressed groups to express their dissent to the social order. Gary Marx provides a useful typology of riots, and notes that while some (such as the ones we are witnessing right now) may be motivated by legitimate grievances, many are issueless, caused by other factors, and may be repressive. Wilkinson’s article is the most comprehensive review of the political science literature of rioting that I have found.

Charles Tilly. 1976. “Major Forms of Collective Action in Western Europe 1500-1975.” Theory and Society 3 (3): 365–375

Charles Tilly. 1983. “Speaking Your Mind Without Elections, Surveys, of Social Movements.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 47 (4): 461–78.

Gary T. Marx 1970. “Issueless Riots.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 391 (1): 21–33.

Steven I. Wilkinson. 2009. “Riots.” The Annual Review of Political Science 12: 329–43.

5. Social Theory Accounts of Rioting

While normative political theorists have largely ignored the riot, social theorists working in the critical theory and phenomenological traditions have a long tradition of locating rioting as part of a larger pattern of social resistance. Three recent accounts of rioting locate this form of political militancy within this larger tradition.

Alain Badiou. 2012. The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings. London: Verso Books.

Étienne Balibar. 2007. “Uprisings in the Banlieues.” Constellations 14 (1): 47–71.

Joshua Clover. 2016. Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings. London: Verso.

6. Civil Disobedience and Rioting

In recent years the liberal-Rawlsian paradigm of civil disobedience has come under significant critique by political theorists for its overly narrow conception of non-violence, and its limited understanding of what constitutes legitimate dissent in a democracy. Tommie Shelby has turned Rawls against himself to argue that social groups that are at a structural disadvantage in society have no obligation to obey that society’s laws (even according to Rawls’ own liberal logic). Others including Markovits, Celikates, Kirkpatrick and Scheuerman offer thoughtful critiques of the recent expansion of civil disobedience to include more militant forms of protest.

Robin Celikates. 2016. “Rethinking Civil Disobedience as a Practice of Contestation— Beyond the Liberal Paradigm.” Constellations 23 (1): 37–45.

Candice Delmas. 2014. “Political Resistance: A Matter of Fairness.” Law and Philosophy 33 (4): 465–88.

Derek Edyvane, and Enes Kulenovic. 2017. “Disruptive Disobedience.” The Journal of Politics 79 (4): 1359–71.

Jeanette Kirkpatrick. 2009. Uncivil Disobedience: Studies in Violence and Democratic Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Daniel Markovits. 2005. “Democratic Disobedience.” The Yale Law Journal 114: 1897–1952.

William Scheuerman. 2015. “Recent Theories of Civil Disobedience: An Anti-Legal Turn?” Journal of Political Philosophy.

Tommie Shelby. 2007. “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 35 (2): 126–60.

7. African and African-American Critiques of the Liberal prohibition on rioting.

A crucial component to political theory’s exclusion of rioting as a legitimate mode of political resistance is race. The dominant narrative against rioting was written by white American political theorists in response to the uprisings by Blacks in U.S. cities in the second half of the 1960s. The white tradition encoded the non-violent civil disobedience led by activists such Martin Luther King Jr. as legitimate, while the positions espoused by MLK’s contemporaries Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon as illegitimate. Yet this narrative is grossly over simplistic. Post Ferguson King’s description of riots as “the language of the unheard” has gained currency in the popular press. It is worth reading the entire speech (delivered just weeks before King was assassinated) and contextualizing it within the larger Pan-African debates of the 1960s and 1970s about the role of violence in overthrowing white rule in both the United States of America and America. The readings by Biko and Gobodo-Madikizela were recommended to me by my friend and collaborator Jonneke Koomen as resources for thinking about African-American resistance to systemic racism in the U.S. within the larger context of Pan-African political movements and transitional justice in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Martin Luther King Jr. 1968. “The M.L. King Speech.”

Frantz Fanon 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press.

Malcolm X. 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet”.

Steve Biko. 2002. I Write What I Like: Selected Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela 2006. A Human Being Died that Night: Confronting Apartheid’s Chief Killer. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

8. Black Lives Matter and the current protests

Part of my research into rioting differentiates between grievance based rioting, and riots with other causes such as ethnic persecution, sports related rioting, and rioting that results from break downs in the social and legal order. In order to understand a riot, we must first seek to understand what motivated the rioters. While there are many very thorough reading lists online now that explore the Black Lives Matter movement in greater depth I will here, for those looking to understand the grievances of the protesters, I want to flag four texts that have been helpful for me understanding this particular social movement

Michelle Alexander. 2011. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. 2015. Between the World and Me. New York: Viking.

Chris Lebron. 2017. The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Joel Olson. 2004. The Abolition of White Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Alex Vitale. 2017. The End of Policing. London: Verso Books.

Privacy Settings