Quiet Riots

Global Protest Is More Peaceful Than Ever

Egyptian riot police during clashes in Cairo, January 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

According to many commentators, especially those with left-wing inclinations, we are living through an era of political protest unprecedented in its radical militancy. The influential British journalist Paul Mason, for instance, argued in his 2012 book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, that the Arab Spring of 2011 was only one of many acts in a “global revolution” that is “here to stay.” Riots in particular are allegedly becoming more common. Alain Badiou, arguably the preeminent French philosopher working today, wrote in 2012 that we are living through “a time of riots,” a “global popular uprising” that marks nothing less than a “rebirth of History,” following the “end of history” first theorized by political scientist Francis Fukuyama in 1989.

This notion, far from being a product of the heady events of 2011–12, continues to hold sway today. In 2016, the journalist and English professor Joshua Clover published Riot. Strike. Riot., heralding a “new era of uprisings.” Clover claims, with surprising confidence, that “the riot has returned as the leading tactic in the repertoire of collective action” in the “overdeveloped countries.” High-profile examples from Berkeley, California to Hamburg, Germany appear to support the view that protestors in the Western democracies have never been more riotous than in recent years.

Although it may appear to some journalists and philosophers that global protest culture is radicalizing, this is mostly because they ignore empirical data suggesting otherwise. In what follows, I use one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date datasets on protest activity around the world, the 2017 version of the Cross-National Time-Series Data Archive by Arthur S. Banks and Kenneth A. Wilson, to paint a more systematic picture of global rioting. (For their measure of rioting, Banks and Wilson count “any violent demonstration or clash of more than 100 citizens involving the use of physical force.”) After accounting for population growth, the dynamics of peaceful demonstrations, and some illustrative country histories, I find a relative worldwide pacification of rioting over the past several decades. I also checked that my findings are robust

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