Will Europe See a Return of Food Riots?
In this essay, AIAS Fellow and social historian Philipp Reick discusses whether Europe is likely to see a return of violent subsistence protests in the near future due to high inflation and widespread shortages. The essay thus explores how historical research may help us better understand contemporary phenomena and social challenges.
Political analysts look nervously to the coming winter. Many have voiced concerns that the current cost of living crisis will not only undermine support for the sanctions against Russia, but also trigger violent protests in the streets of European cities. This, they fear, will fuel populist right-wing movements and parties, which will in turn further undermine political stability. Recent mass demonstrations in Prague and other European capitals gave a foretaste of what might lie ahead. Yet how likely are we to see what media have presented as the revival of a “hot winter” featuring violent protests over the prices of food and fuel? If we want to gain greater understanding of the likelihood and possible trajectories of future protests, we would be well advised to take a look at the long history of food riots.
From cold to hot protest
When historians speak of food riots, they emphasize that not every subsistence protest in the past turned violent. During much of the pre and early-industrial era, subsistence protests were highly ritualized affairs. Protesters approached shops, markets, or local seats of power, voicing their grievances and delivering demands according to established tradition and political opportunity. This show of strength sometimes featured symbolic acts of violence, from the burning of effigies to the limited destruction of property. When merchants or authorities met their demands, crowds usually dispersed. When demands were not met, uncoordinated forms of violence could break out. In these circumstances, a ritualized “cold” protest became an unscripted “hot” one.
From hot protest to modern social movements
At least one reason why fears about food riots currently abound is that Europe has not seen any in a long time. In fact, socio-historical research has characterized the disappearance of violent subsistence protests as an important element in the modernization of Western society. According to scholars like Charles Tilly, the often spontaneous and violent protests over high consumer prices that characterized the pre-industrial era gave way to modern social movements that helped channel demands away from bakeries and street markets and into town halls and parliament. Instead of local riots aiming at immediate relief in the form of the ad-hoc provision of goods or the regulation of prices, Western societies witnessed the rise of coordinated campaigns that put pressure on governments and legislatures to introduce comprehensive measures mitigating against high living costs. Subsistence riots thus disappeared from European political consciousness.
The Return of Food Riots
Yet this was not a linear process. Historians have shown that market integration undoubtedly began to improve supply and price stability around the middle of the nineteenth century. As a result, violent consumer protests over the high prices of food and fuel started to fade in the second half of the nineteenth century—only to return in the first half of the twentieth. Against the backdrop of hyperinflation and mass unemployment, European cities witnessed a striking return of a form of protest which was thought to have vanished from the repertoire of collective action. From Barcelona to Berlin, from Glasgow to Vienna, protesters once again raided shops and distributed goods or forced authorities to intervene directly in local price setting. The reoccurrence of violent subsistence protests after half a century of virtual absence is a first indication that we cannot easily write off food riots as a thing of the past. Yet what was it that caused food riots in the first place?
Historians have identified at least four factors. First, riots over high consumer prices tended to erupt in times of want. This is hardly remarkable. What is more interesting is that want alone does not suffice to trigger violent responses. After all, there have been times of severe want without the occurrence of riots, just as there have occasionally been food riots in times of relative price stability. Similarly, historians have interpreted the numerous so-called meat riots of the early twentieth century as evidence that violent subsistence protests did not necessarily result from sheer destitution because not eating meat for some time was no threat to survival. This indicates that although food riots often happened when prices were high and want widespread, this factor alone cannot explain the emergence of violent protest.
Historians have demonstrated, second, that in many cases it was not so much high prices per se but relatively abrupt price increases that contributed to violent responses. E.P. Thompson’s famous article on the “moral economy” of the English lower classes illustrates this vividly. Thompson argued that eighteenth-century peasants and craftsmen rebelled against rapidly rising consumer prices not only because these prices reduced their purchasing power, but also because they violated their notion of justice and decency. When protesters pressed local authorities to correct “abnormal” prices and charge a “just” price, they were expressing outrage over an economic system that failed to protect their collective livelihood. This reveals that price perception is highly relational. We assess how we are doing economically not only in relation to how others around us are doing, but also in relation to how we were doing a year ago. Historical research has indicated that the wider this gap becomes, the more likely it is to trigger outrage over injustice unless it is counterbalanced by powerful ideologies or belief systems legitimizing social inequality.
Historians have shown, third, that the occurrence of food riots was dependent on responses by the state. Interestingly, the violent repression of popular discontent created an atmosphere that made food riots in fact more likely rather than less. Yet the state had a great deal of room for maneuver. Historians of the Great Depression, for instance, have unearthed countless instances of local authorities giving in to demands when faced with impending riots: Police called to protect besieged shops often ended up convincing butchers or bakers to sell their product for the price that protesters demanded. The same town halls that had been blocking fuel provisions for years suddenly started meeting the demands presented by activists who posed a threat through their sheer presence. Clerks in welfare offices regularly overturned earlier decisions to deny relief when claimants appeared in groups. This shows that accommodating responses by local authorities regularly prevented protests from turning violent. So did the—often painstakingly slow—legalization of less violent forms of collective action, from demonstrations to strikes.
Channels for communication
Fourth, scholars have demonstrated that whether or not subsistence protests turned into riots depended on what historian John Bohstedt has called the vertical and horizontal integration of working-class communities. In the small towns of eighteenth-century England, working-class communities were integrated horizontally through shared values and experiences, and vertically through commercial and political ties that connected consumers with producers, retailers, and local politics in a closely interconnected system of patronage and loyalty. Here, subsistence protests were frequent, but they usually involved well-disciplined displays of collective bargaining with local authorities that rarely resulted in uncontrolled and excessive violence. In other words, small-town protesters were able to use political opportunities other than violence to enforce their demands.
Rapidly growing industrial cities, in contrast, lacked much of the horizontal and vertical integration that characterized smaller towns. Newcomers to a city did not have well-established bonds with their peers. Nor did they possess effective channels for communication with local authorities, which in turn might have lacked the feeling of obligation and responsibility that characterized pre-modern political hierarchy. Subsistence protests in cities like Manchester were thus much more likely to result in violence—as they were in other places that shared these characteristics, from the industrial villages of mid-nineteenth-century Silesia to the migrant worker neighborhoods of contemporary South Asian cities.
Learning from past food and fuel riots
This suggests that if past trajectories are any indication of the future, any concern relating to the return of violent food and fuel riots in Europe does not seem unfounded. Not only have consumer prices risen to dramatic levels, but they have done so very rapidly. Fears of inflation and social decline have reached social groups that only a short time ago did not dream of pondering over how warm an apartment they could afford. Most alarming, however, is the observation that historical subsistence protests often turned violent when channels for the communication and settlement of demands were blocked or nonexistent, the result being that communities no longer had any belief that their demands would be heard and their interests represented.
Contemporary right-wing populism and non-representation
This is bad news for anyone studying the rise of contemporary right-wing populism, which draws on widespread feelings of non-representation in politics and society. Non-representation here does not only relate to citizens who do not feel represented by established political parties. Rather, it relates to groups who feel unrepresented by the entire system of social and political representation that emerged over the course of the twentieth century. This included not only affiliation to a specific political party but also to a union, neighborhood organization, cultural association, or allotment club.
If the wider and more effective representation of working-class interests was one of the reasons for the disappearance of food riots in the second half of the nineteenth century, then the perceived decline of working and lower-middle-class representation in contemporary politics and society is likely to reverse this trend. After all, communities struggling to make ends meet only turned from immediate action to political campaigning in the past when channels and organizations were available to make it more likely that their demands could be met by policy and legislation rather than riot and self-help. Who, one wonders, should they turn to now?
This essay resulted from participation in the project “Collective Violence and Popular Protest in Spanish Cities: the War of Independence” (PID2019-106182GB-I00), financed by FEDER/Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación–Agencia Estatal de Investigación, years 2020-2024.
Short bio of Philipp Reick
Philipp Reick is a historian interested in urban history, organized labor, and the transformation of work in modernity. Following his PhD at FU Berlin, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow in Jerusalem and Berlin. His publications have explored the roots of gentrification, the birth of urban movements, and the transnational exchange of utopian thought. While in Aarhus at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, one of his projects will focus on the digital analysis of historical city records.