Forget Freud, Forget Marx. Rioting, above all, is fun.

Everyone is over-thinking the Vancouver riots way too much

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Photograph by Simon Hayter

White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own

— The Clash, “White Riot”

There is nothing better than a good old-fashioned downtown hockey riot to get everyone’s ideology pumps working overtime. Probably the most predictable analysis came from Adrian Mack and Miranda Nelson over at the Georgia Straight, who took a bus in from 1969 and blamed the alienating character of capitalism. In trashing the downtown of their own city, the rioters were simply rehearsing the violence that is inherent in the system: “The market practices institutional violence on every single one of us, every day, just by virtue of existing,” they write. Meanwhile, demonstrating the law of conservation of rhetoric that holds that for every idiocy there is an equal and opposite idiot, Don Cherry apparently claimed that the Vancouver rioters were left-wing pinkos (which, come to think of it, is not necessarily at odds with the Mack/Nelson view of things.)

Getting into the shallower ends of the thought pool, the Vancouver police officially blamed “anarchists” for starting the riot, and drunken youth for making it worse. And in a column that has been widely circulated and praised as the best thing written on the riots, National Post sportswriter Bruce Arthur took the most direct route, daring to suggest that of course the rioters were hockey fans, largely those possessed of an overload of “machismo and rage and nihilism.”

Arthur is closest to getting it right, but even he feels the urge to take it further, wondering what it is about the Lower Mainland, why  “this strain of poison leaches from a city that, while it has a bright line between rich and poor that grows brighter every day, is generally a good place.”

Everyone, Arthur included, is over-thinking this way too much: Any proper discussion of the riot and why it occurred has to start with the recognition that rioting, especially for young men, is a huge amount of fun. The only reason there isn’t more of it is that if you do it by yourself or in a small group, you’ll almost certainly get caught. It’s like the old joke about owing the bank money: If you do five million dollars damage to downtown, you’re in big trouble. If a hundred thousand people do five million dollars to downtown, the city is in big trouble.

The point is that if you can get enough people to riot, then you all get away with it. The trick, then, is getting enough people willing to do it, in the same place and at the same time, to create a tipping point effect. And so when it comes to starting a riot, what the participants are faced with is essentially a coordination problem.

A coordination problem is a situation where all the relevant actors have a common goal, but there is imperfect information. We are collectively trying to achieve the same general outcome, but don’t know how each person is going to act to get to it. In the 1950s,  the economist Thomas Schelling described a situation in which two people wish to meet in New York City on a given day, but cannot communicate the time or place at which they should meet. How should they act? He suggested that beneath the clock at Grand Central Station at noon would be an ideal time and place– this is what he called a “focal point” for coordination. (He no longer believes this to be the case, though; it is interesting to think of where the focal point would be in New York City today, or in a given city of your choice.)

Back to the riot: Particular events, like Stanley Cup Game Sevens, become natural social focal points for  “reliable riots” — or reliable opportunities to riot. This is especially so once a city has an established reputation for hosting (and to some extent tolerating) riots: this is what is going on in both Montreal and Vancouver, in contrast with Edmonton and Calgary, for example.

Once a city becomes a known focal point for rioting, then a bunch of people show up to just to riot (indeed, they will even  travel great distances to do so), precisely because they know that a bunch of other people are also going to be showing up to riot. This is exactly what happened with the G20 in Toronto (and the antiglobalization stuff in general) and what happens now with the Stanley Cup final.

In principle, social media have the capacity to increase the amount of rioting, since “flash mob” technology can be used to solve the coordination problem – there is probably some of this at work in the Arab spring protests.  On the other hand, technology also tends to work against the rioters, by reducing the impunity that comes with the anonymity of crowds. The most important thing the Toronto police did, with the G20 riots, was not all the head-cracking and detentions, but going after people who were photographed committing crimes. The Vancouver police are currently gathering videos and images of the rioters and crowdsourcing their identities. They won’t catch everyone, but they will probably identify enough people that it will serve as a huge deterrent to future riots.

In the meantime, the chief lesson is to keep in mind that there is no reason to delve into the depths of class warfare, or to psychoanalyze the culture or the city, when there is a far simpler explanation for what is going on. As a rule of thumb, never invoke Freud or Marx when Hobbes is at hand.