Prisoners, Politics and The Absurdity of Rioting

Direct Action; both in its methodical and spontaneous form seeks to achieve objectives and express political sentiment through direct intervention (or abstinence). Here I’m interested in the act of spontaneous rioting, a violent form of direct action in which the objectives are rarely well defined and the psychology difficult to understand.

 A riot is a break down in the fabric of society; it is, in a small way, a revolutionary period of its own. During a riot the previous codes of law are often ignored even though new ones have yet to be properly proposed*; consequently the absolute ethical justification of a riot is nearly always found in what the riot achieves (though we will talk at a later date about the intricacies of rioting “morally”).

I am here, of course, treating riots as activities with self-conscious aims and values. The truth is that violent political struggle of spontaneous beginnings is often birthed by a moment of absurdity or neurosis. I believe it to be the case that rioting, when it initiates itself, is irrational and it is this moment of madness that gives violent direct action its peculiar moral character making it particularly problematic to tessellate into theories of political change.  

The rioter is faced with a similar predicament as the in-mates of the famous “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.1 In the Prisoners Dilemma themes of betrayal and co-operative decision create a situation in which agents are unable to make rationally justifiable choices despite all relevant information being present and I believe it to be analogous to the decisions facing a would-be rioter.
The Prisoners Dilemma (PD) takes two “prisoners” and places them in separate rooms and asks each prisoner individually whether they want to confess and incriminate the other prisoner or stay silent. Both prisoners are then told: 

A: If both prisoners stay silent then both participants will receive 1 year jail time.
B: If one prisoner confesses and one prisoner stays silent then the one who stays silent shall receive a 10 year sentence while the one who confesses shall go free.
C: If both prisoners confess then both prisoners will receive 5 years jail time.

The prisoners are left to muse over the potential ramifications of choosing each option. On the surface choosing to confess seems to be the best as outcomes involve either getting off scot-free or, at worst, getting 5 years instead of 10. Unfortunately once we consider “confessing” as the most logical outcome this increases the likelihood of the other prisoner choosing to also confess resulting in both prisoners receiving 5 years. Somehow the “best and most logical” choice in the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that which yields a less than optimum output. 

The best option must then be to stay silent; if confessing just leads to the other person also confessing then it makes sense to avoid playing the confession game entirely and opt for the 1 year knowing that the other Prisoner will probably come to the same conclusion. Of course this solution immediately collapses because as soon we think our opponent is going to collaborate then betrayal becomes all the more profitable which if we pursue immediately returns us to the concerns we had with confessing in the first place. The end result is huge levels of inertia and inability to select the “best” answer. 

If we’re to interpret the decision making process of initiating a riot through the paradigm of the Prisoners Dilemma then “staying silent” can be seen as “initiating” while “confessing” can be read as “abstaining”.

 A riot’s “success”, like staying silent in PD, is directly related to other participants and their willingness to follow suit** and so we must ask “What is the instigator of a riot thinking when they choose to initiate?”

Now while many within the fields of Mathematics and Logic have laid claim to either silence or confession as the provably “best” decision possible within the paradigm of PD a universally accepted answer is yet to triumph. Even if we do suppose that one camp has a mathematically sound answer it is reasonable to treat this answer as one that is not immediately clear. In effect, to the layman, this paradox is far from solved and likewise the same rational inertia that confronts us when we run PD is present in that crucial pre-rioting phase.

So if pure rationality cannot be relied on as a motive then what else can explain it? The only other candidate seems to be blind emotion. The act of both committing an act that will help bring about a period of domestic chaos and of bandwagon-ing on that act in the early stages to help it snowball require an almost kierkegaardian leap of faith that can only be justified in retrospect and in its moment of conception is analogous to some kind of temporary madness.

There are clear problems in how we approach such acts from the perspective of a political revolutionary, does the revolutionary mind treat domestic riots as tools (even though they seemingly cannot be controlled or rationally induced)? Or perhaps rioting should be treated as a symptom of oppression and injustice that occasionally, in an undirected manner, aids society in alleviating the problem?

Furthermore an ethical dilemma arises. As noted before a riot is generally seen to be justified consequentially, a riot that succeeds may hurt individuals and damage livelihoods but the positive changes that the riot achieves are seen to be outweighing the negatives. A failed therefore is nothing more than a moment of madness that inflicts suffering without offering any pay-off. Considering the irrational grounds on which these kinds of acts are predicated is it ethical for us to ever praise what is often an unthinking act of violence that is later appropriated and repackaged as a story of pre-meditated political agency?

Domestic rioting of the kind that organically arises from discontent rather than as part of a conscious political strategy does play a role in politics, but which role is it? Symptom? Cure? It seems there are many questions yet to be asked of both the psychological and practical nature of rioting.  
* Indeed it may be that the riot’s revolutionary period is not necessarily revolutionary in the sense of achieving concrete improvement but instead revolutionary in a, temporary, rejection of the status quo.

** Note that a riot can fail on two levels. Firstly it can fail on a personal level, if bystanders all abstain and the individual initiating the riot is immediately apprehended; secondly it can fail on a moral level, as we will soon discuss when the riot fails to achieve its aims and merely compounds the suffering felt by society. 


1. Prisoner’s Dilemma, 2007. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 May 2013]


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