By now, readers are no doubt familiar with the sight of angry mobs smashing windows, looting stores, and harassing pedestrians and street diners around the country, supposedly in the name of advocating for the rights of black Americans. Around the country, these mobs are diverse and have diverse motives, ranging from simply wanting to loot and get free stuff to being driven by deeply held ideological beliefs. However, one can’t help but notice that in many places a significant number of those causing disturbances are not the subjects of the state oppression in question, but are often white and sometimes even affluent, and as a result are almost completely isolated from the consequences of their destructive sprees.
Portland, site of over a hundred straight days of protests and often violent rioting, seems like the poster child for this phenomenon. Portland is, in fact, the whitest big city in the US.
In New York City, the Daily Mail reported on the recent arrest of seven members of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, a revolutionary Maoist group, after a rioting spree that caused at least $100,000 in damages. Every one of them appears to be white from their mugshots, and among them are an art director who has done work for Pepsi and Samsung, a model and actress, and the son of famous comic book writers. The New York Post profiled one rioter, twenty-year-old Clara Kraebber, and discovered that her mother runs her own architecture firm and her father is a psychiatrist who teaches at Columbia University. The family paid $1.8 million in 2016 for their New York City apartment and also own a home in Connecticut with four fireplaces.
Or consider Vicky Osterweil, the white author of the much-discussed book In Defense of Looting, who is also the daughter of a college professor. As Matt Taibbi reports in his review of the book, “there’s little evidence the author of In Defense of Looting has ever been outside” and “she confesses to a ‘personal aversion to violence,’ lamenting a ‘refusal to attack property’ that ‘does not lessen the degree to which I benefit from systems of domination.’” In Taibbi’s words “this is a 288-page book written by a Very Online Person in support of the idea that other people should loot, riot, and burn things in the real world.”
Rioting by the affluent is not limited to white people either. Consider the case of the two nonwhite attorneys, one of whom received his law degree at Princeton, whose arrest for throwing a molotov cocktail at a riot in New York City made the headlines precisely because of their high-status, well-paying jobs.
What all of these examples have in common is that the rioting and destruction, or advocacy for the same, is being perpetrated by people who have no skin in the game and will not be exposed to the long-term consequences for the people and communities that they are ostensibly trying to help. Neighborhoods that suffer through riots often end up economically depressed for decades to come, but people like Clara Kraebber will not have to worry about such things.
In the last century, there has been a great deal of scholarship attempting to discover the roots of these kinds of widespread revolutionary movements. In Liberalism, Mises discusses the idea of a Fourier complex, where antiliberal revolutionary ideas are adopted by people as a means of dealing with their own inadequacy in the face of reality. Political theorist Eric Voegelin (who attended Mises’s Vienna seminars) also posits a similar, though more complex, explanation with his theory of gnosticism.
The classically liberal sociologist Helmut Schoeck also makes a similar argument in his book Envy. Envy, Schoeck argues, stems from an individual’s reaction to a personal inadequacy and a desire to find a way to shift the blame to anyone or anything other than himself. Like Mises and Voegelin, Schoeck explores the ways in which this attitude is detrimental to society, but he also explores why some people engaged in revolutionary movements are themselves well off and not members of the toiling masses they seek to “liberate.”
In these cases Schoeck argues that such people are not afflicted with envy, but rather with a fear of envy or the guilt of being unequal. He argues that “the guilt-tinged fear of being thought unequal is very deeply ingrained in the human psyche,” and that it can be observed everywhere from offices to schools in the way in which people who excel at something will consciously or unconsciously lower their performance. This phenomenon is unfortunate enough when it comes to the workplace, but when it comes to politics the consequences can be much more serious.
Schoeck argues that such guilt may lead a person to forgo their old life in order to serve the less fortunate but that many times such a person does not seek to extirpate their guilt by leaving their own comfortable station, but rather by insisting that the entire world must join them in eradicating inequality. In his words “I have no doubt that one of the most important motives for joining an egalitarian political movement is this anxious sense of guilt: ‘Let us set up a society where no one is envious.’”
No doubt even Schoeck would be impressed by the degree to which our current upheavals are driven by those wracked with the guilt of being unequal rather than those filled with envy itself. To be sure, there is no shortage of such envious people running around these days, but there can be no doubt about which group is the driving force.
Hopefully, as social life slowly returns to normal and as the weather gets colder, the guilt-ridden rich kids will tire out from playacting as revolutionaries and return home. But until then, it seems that the rest of us will be forced to suffer as they work out their psychological problems through some window-smashing therapy.