Demos, Ochlos, and Mass Protests
Which protests are conducted by the angry mob (ochlos) rather than the enlightened and noble people (demos)?
Photo: Jordan Bracco, Unsplash
The age of revolution lasted roughly two centuries, from the “Atlantic Revolution” (American and French) in late 18th century to the 1979 revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua. While we have transitioned to a revolution-free era, anti-government protests and riots have in fact become more common all around the world over the past decade. All revolutions were about liberation and justice, even though most ended up going in the opposite direction. No such common denominator exists for contemporary protests.
Like the French Revolution and countless revolts during the Middle Age, modern protests have often started as a tax revolt. Recent examples include the Yellow Vest movement in France and protests in Colombia. In Chile, protests and riots erupted in response to a hike in the Santiago Metro’s subway fare. In these and other similar cases, protests not only continued but often expanded after the governments backed off, as they became magnets for a broader set of grievances. They acquired a motion of their own, providing opportunities for group action, crowd fraternity, and political exhilaration.
One lesson from the experience of the French Revolution is that, sometimes, radicals have no idea how to call it quits. Anger, even violence, can spin out of control. There are many reasons for that. One is that crowd psychology is different than individual psychology. Another is that ill-defined and unreachable ideals foster frustration and impatience. Protest begets protest, and often, violence begets violence. As the British historian Simon Schama wrote in Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution: “In some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was the Revolution itself.”
Whether violence was the necessary midwife of French modernity is debatable. After all, other European countries achieved more or less the same result without the violence and political theatre. But the lesson remains: violence, a continuation of protest by other means, was not just a means. It became an end.
Notwithstanding a key belief of nineteenth century historians of the French Revolution, like Michelet or Aulard, le peuple en colère is not necessarily good news for popular sovereignty and progress. Suffice to remember the many journées of wanton mass killings, like the September 1792 massacres, or the Vendée genocide. These republican intellectuals could have considered a useful distinction proposed by French philosopher René Descartes in Les passions de l’âme (1649), between two types of anger: the good one, ephemeral and moved by solidarity (even love!), and the bad anger, insatiable and vindictive. The first is a healthy and constructive force in a democracy. The second, on the other hand, tips toward ochlocracy, divisions, intolerance, and occasionally, grassroot dictatorships.
How to differentiate these two types of anger in real time? Which protests are conducted by the angry mob (ochlos) rather than the enlightened and noble people (demos)?
Arguably, most protests contain elements of both “passions,” albeit with one dominant. An inconvenient fact for the left is that these days, right-wing protests, like the January 6 assault on the Capitol, the anti-vaxxers, and to some extent the Yellow Vest movement, recruit mostly from the socially and economically disenfranchised sectors of our society. Contrastingly, the typical participant in marches for the good causes, like antiracism and diversity, hail from the more educated and employed middle class. Now, before one concludes that only right-wing protests exemplify bad anger, one should remember that both the left and the right have shown ample signs of what Mark Lilla called Tyranophilia, at least since the terms left and right were invented: that is to say, since the French Revolution. Bad anger can come from all classes.
In conclusion, it is not advisable to a priori idealize or vilify “the street”. One should ask, in each particular case, does the end justifies the means? Is it a reasonable cause? If the answer is yes, democracy wins. If the answer is no, democracy may still gain something, because knowing more about existing malaises in our society is always useful. Why is the anti-vaxxer movement so strong in North America and Europe and not in Latin America for instance? Certainly not because Latin Americans have a higher regard for their government officials.
In any case, if the protest is unreasonable and unsafe to society, the good old harm principle kicks in, and freedom of speech and association must be curtailed. If that sounds resoundingly simple and clear-cut in the case of conspiracy theorists blocking incoming ambulances, try the case of indigenous Canadians and their allies disrupting passenger and freight trains in Canada last Fall, stoking fears about fuel shortages and layoffs. Good luck.