Violent Protest, an Unknown Familiar: Varieties, Emotional Dynamics and the Relational Approach
Distinctive among all other forms of contentious politics, violent protest evokes contradictory responses. Apparently easy to initiate (as it bears comparatively little logistic and organisational cost), violence is simultaneously the most visible and sensational variety of collective action as well as the most difficult to sustain. This is hardly a paradox. The literature detects a macro-historical trend towards declining violent forms as states' coercive capacity increased and 'negotiated' alternatives developed. Brawls, vindictive attacks and machine breaking have been consistently giving way to petitions, peaceful demonstrations and negotiations. Collective violence, however, persists and as of lately proliferates: the French banlieue outburst of 2005, the Greek eruption of December 2008, and the recent Arab conflagration being recent cases in point. What is their political significance, how do we conceptualise the varieties of this underspecified phenomenon, and how are we to appraise their outcomes as protest repertoires challenging existing forms of democracy?
Starting off from the observation that our overall thinking and analytical tools, though useful, are ultimately insufficient to provide satisfactory answers, this paper examines (and rebuts) common conceptual and theoretical misperceptions; probes into the emotional dimension characterising violent protest; and claims that a relational theoretical template is sine qua non for tackling the vexing cognitive dilemmas involved.