In the 1770s, London was a riotous place. The city had always been a center of liberal opinion, and thousands of residents belonged to radical groups. Apprentices were notorious for their rowdy behavior, and secret societies that questioned authority abounded. From anarchists to levelers to members of fanatical religious orders, radicals engaged in everything from street attacks on the rich to arson to espionage on the part of foreign powers.
During the Gordon riots of June 1780, tens of thousands of left-wing protesters marched on the House of Parliament; attacked Catholic churches, businesses, and homes; and threatened the Bank of England. A mob set fire to Newgate prison and would have burned to death the very prisoners they were trying to free, had they not torn the roof from the prison and hauled out the prisoners, many still in chains. London itself might have burned to the ground had not the military been sent in to contain the riots.
Every so often, a historical period arises in which radicalism comes into vogue. We live in just such a time. Protests in Seattle and other cities this month featured attacks on the police, property destruction, and arson. It seems that, after a brief lull, rioting has returned to America — and like last summer and fall, there’s no limit to the destruction that can ensue.
There is a common myth that the wealth gap precipitates this violence and that preventing violence is simply a matter of “sharing the wealth.” In reality, many of the rioters in Seattle and Portland are the children of privilege. It is too much affluence, not the opposite, that is fueling groups like Antifa. Someone has to be paying the expenses of anarchists who travel from city to city engaging in violence — and it is not the anarchists themselves.
The late 18th century was also a period of rising incomes in Britain. The steam engine and other technologies led to increased productivity, which in turn led to rising personal incomes.
Ironically, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in which Smith suggested the importance of the supply side in economic theory, was first published in 1776 in the midst of one of Britain’s most unsettled eras. Smith realized that the “real story” was not the rioting, however destructive, but the industrialization and trade that would transform British GDP from just over one hundred million pounds in 1770 to 13 billion pounds in 1950 and two trillion pounds in 2020. The Gordon rioters of 1780, however desperate the condition of some, were backward-looking. With the invention of the steam engine in 1698, the railway in 1804, the steamship in 1807, and the telegraph in the 1830s, industrialized countries became wealthy — and wealth was shared — beyond anything the anarchists of the 1770s could imagine.
That is precisely the point. Anarchists, then and now, cannot imagine the improvement of living standards that has taken place or is to come. They revel in destruction because they do not see the good that exists or that is to come. For them, the good will not come. They will spend years, if not a lifetime, seeking to destroy the means of productivity they believe to be evil.
Unfortunately, most of our progressive leaders in government share this faithless perspective. They aren’t willing to acknowledge that capitalism has produced such wealth, or that wealth has “trickled down” to workers. An unskilled laborer in America earned one dollar for a 12-hour day in 1900, or some $300 per year. An average unskilled worker today earns $40,000 per year.
By their refusal to admit that living standards are improving, progressive leaders encourage the irresponsible behavior of rioters in Seattle, Portland, and other cities — not that they need much encouragement. Anarchists live in a dream world in which they see themselves as destroyers of an evil society. They believe that nothing is good, so the only righteous act is to destroy all that exists. And now they have superimposed this cynical negativity onto the mythology of black, gay, and feminist victimhood.
Former president Trump, a better student of history than his successor, understood that the riots in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Denver, and elsewhere could be controlled within hours simply by calling out the National Guard. That was exactly the means employed to save London in the 18th century. But liberal mayors and governors have refused to employ force and, in doing so, have put the public and their own police at risk.
So what remains? More burning and looting until Seattle and Portland are burned to the ground?
One lesson of history is that, unless met by force, rioting and looting will grow and spread. It is naïve to think anarchists will simply pack up and go home once they’ve had their say.
Another lesson of history is that ordinary citizens must be protected from anarchists. The rich are usually well insured and live far from the center of burning and looting. It is the poor who suffer most. As in 2020, the riots of Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and Los Angeles in 1992 destroyed the only businesses and services available to the poor.
What’s different this time around is progressive policies toward the police. In every previous situation, the police or National Guard were sent in and received the support of city officials and of the public at large. But in today’s progressive cities, police are prevented from doing their job, and the Guard is not called out.
The lesson of the London unrest of the late 18th century and of other such periods is that rioting must be controlled with force. Until they were met with troops, the Gordon rioters swept from one target to another, destroying whatever struck their fancy. The same tendency of rioting to expand and to sweep from one target to another, and for “reform” to shift into arson and looting and assaults on individuals, is evident in the summer riots of 2020. Now that rioting is being repeated in 2021.
Twenty twenty’s riots were sparked by police efforts to enforce the law — and yes, by occasional acts of excessive violence on the part of police. But those acts were merely an excuse for mobs to burn, loot, and kill. Very soon the pretext was forgotten, and King Mob, as it was called in the Gordon Riots, turned to violence for its own sake.
By its nature, the mob is an irrational force that expands and gains power until it is confronted with greater force. No progressive has ever admitted as much, but mobs do not respond to words. They only respond to force of arms.
President Biden is unlikely to use force to confront the mob. The alternative is to see sections of American cities burn. It’s likely the next few years will be destructive ones in America’s cities.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).