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After the Fictions: Notes Towards a Phenomenology of the Multitude

People do not riot every day, but they have rioted often enough in the past, especially since the onset of modernity. People continue to riot with alarming regularity in the present, especially in the so-called Global South, as the saga of modernity continues to unfold now in its global phase. This repeated and continued reliance on rioting as a distinctive, but historically and culturally variable, mode of collective action (if not agency) merits greater attention than it has hitherto received. People riot over all sorts of things—the price of bread, oil, and onions; the publication of a book; the screening of a film; the drawing of a cartoon. They riot on account of police brutality, political corruption, and the desecration of the holy places. They riot when subjected to ethnic or racial slurs (real or imagined) and when continuously deprived of basic necessities like water, electricity, and sanitation. They riot for being ill-treated at health care facilities, for being denied entrance to once public, now privatized, spaces of pleasure and recreation, and generally for justice denied and petitions ignored. They riot after soccer games, cricket games, music concerts, and also before, during, and after elections. The list can be extended indefinitely.

Rioting today has multiple triggers. It is no longer provoked primarily by the sudden rise in food prices, especially the price of a loaf of bread (the standard four pound French loaf), as it did once in the well-documented cases of food riots that periodically convulsed Europe in the early modern period and became more frequent and intense in the eighteenth century. Rioting today, along with modernity, has gone global and manifests itself in multiple registers. While the sudden and steep fluctuations in the price of basic staples like onions and cooking oils remain powerful triggers for rioting, especially in Asia and Africa, the scarcity and deprivation of food is no longer the primary trigger for rioting. The passions stirred by injuries and indignities—humiliation, betrayal, anger, and resentment—are no longer confined to hungry bodies. Even during the eighteenth century food riots in England, as E.P. Thompson has shown convincingly, hunger alone was never a sufficient motive for rioting. There was always hovering in the background a palpable feeling of disappointment and perplexity stemming from broken promises and unmet expectations that were once taken for granted. Rioting is rarely a tantrum; rather, it accompanies social rupture.

The early modern European food riots, while provoked in each case by very specific local causes and circumstances, were unmistakably shaped by larger forces transforming a quasi-traditional society based on a predominantly agrarian and partly mercantile political economy into a modern industrial society driven by the logic of capitalist accumulation. Similarly, the period preceding the Second World War had its own share of protesting crowds, mobs, revolts and riots linked with a wide range of political movements—socialist, anarchist, fascist, and anti-colonial. However one elects to periodically mark and divide the historical continuum, one rarely escapes the crowd phenomenon from about the beginning of the seventeenth century. Each period, including the ancient and the medieval times, hosted, nursed, and disciplined its misbehaving crowds and the disorder they wrought. And each instance of misbehaving (judged as such from the normative optic of order, the gift of political community) was invariably motivated by local provocations, but those provocations were, in turn, shaped and set in motion by the larger formations—national, regional, and transnational—themselves under duress.

Riots today, while extraordinarily variable in terms of their local color and physiognomy, are also shaped by larger forces. Those forces may be characterized, albeit less confidently on account of one’s interpretive proximity, by invoking phrases such as globalization, financialization, the neoliberal state and its distinctive mode of governmentality, the so-called third-wave of democratic transitions, and the new media ecology ushered in by the new game-changing technologies of information, communication, and surveillance. How might one name the present, or the societies of the present, constituted by an uneven coming together of those forces? How might one account for the persistence of rioting and the rioting crowds of people within the evolving trajectory of capitalist time and terrain? In my judgment, our time and terrain is caught in an inextricable paradox: coveting crowds and fearing riots.

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