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"Social Bandits": Criminals or Heroes?

"Action which is seen as disorderly and criminally offensive by one social group may be viewed as the epitome of heroic virtue by another. But when two such groups, with contrasted cultural values, are incorporated within the matrix of a single political domain of larger scale, irresolvable conflict may result"

Edmund Leach in 1977

During the British Raj, Britain’s Salt Acts prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt, forcing them to buy heavily taxed salt from the British Empire. This prompted "The Salt March" - an act of nonviolent resistance led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1930 as an act of heroic protest against the British salt monopoly and salt tax. The Salt March led to mass civil disobedience spreading throughout India as Indians began making and buying salt "illegally". As a result, over sixty thousand people were arrested by the British government for "disorderly" action. What the Indians considered "heroic action" was seen as "disorderly" by the British when both groups lived together under a larger political domain. This led to irresolvable conflict resulting in the British eventually leaving India.

Scholars have proposed that sometimes a few individuals in a given society might intervene when they perceive the “rational formal, bureaucratic justice of the state” fails to reflect “popular conceptions of justice”. As a result, some people's ideas of justice may take an alternate form to the law, such as The Salt March. The extra-legal justice they dispense, however, may contravene the boundaries of legality and their actions may be viewed as criminal and/or illegal by another social group. These differing values and ideologies, as illustrated by Leach’s quote above, may cause social conflict. Historian Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of "social bandits" is helpful in explaining this phenomenon and drawing on contemporary examples such as incidents of looting during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago, United States and research on Internet hacking group Anonymous can also elucidate Leach’s idea.

The theory of social bandits can be used to illustrate how different social groups conceive of actions in varied and contrasting ways. Hobsbawm presents the image of a "social bandit" - a marginalised and solitary individual who seeks to promote “just and fair relations” between the “rich and the poor, the strong and the weak” in society. Anton Blok describes this as an “organised social protest… against oppression” where social bandits seek to resist hierarchical relations of power in society, address injustices and reject exploitation. They highlight what they believe to be the failures of the State in order to redirect attention to issues they view as critical and foster change. These ideologies inspire their actions even if, in order to do so, they go beyond the remit of the legal regime. Leach’s models of power relationships and their legitimation depicts how relations of domination and submission are mediated to maintain a normative order where God rules man and society rules subjects. Rebels (who are referred to as social bandits by Hobsbawm), in contrast, contravene these relations by breaking the law. They thereby invert the flow of power in the opposite direction where social bandits are not answerable to the State and instead are commanded by another kind of authority such as their ideas of justice and their own moral code to justify themselves.

As a result, social bandits are viewed as outlaws or criminals by the powerful social group in society, such as the government and police force. Simultaneously, social bandits are perceived very differently by other subordinated people who hold similar ideas of justice and moral values to which the social bandits’ cause appeals. For these individuals, social bandits share a common enemy and are “heroes” and champions who contradict the State and attempt to right its wrongs on their behalf. Naturally, when these conflicting ideologies are forced to coexist in a “single political domain”, they can cause social conflict. Indeed, Hobsbawm argues that social banditry may result in the “disruption of an entire society” and the rise of a new social ordering. However, this obviously faces significant resistance from social groups who try to prevent the “destruction” of their “way of life”. Debates over people who view social bandits’ actions to go beyond the boundaries of law and veer on the edges of criminality versus those who view them as morally just can serve to polarise society. They can therefore result in the conflict which Leach discusses in his quote.

We can illustrate the theory of social banditry and how it can lead to “irresolvable conflict” through incidents of looting that featured during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago, United States in the summer of 2020. Paul Kooistra maintains that social bandit theory can be applied in contemporary contexts, arguing that modern societal issues may be equally conducive to criminality. For instance, Robert Antony’s research notes that “poverty and hardships in earning a livelihood” are the most common reasons for someone becoming a social bandit. This is evidenced by Kimberly Jones, an African American author whose interview, "How Can We Win”, during the protests went viral on the Internet. In the video, Jones justified acts of looting by urging people to consider why “the financial gap between poor Blacks and the rest of the world is at such a distance” where the former social group are so “poor… broke… food insecure… clothing insecure that they feel like their only shot… to get what they need” is through looting. This, she argues, is the result of 450 years of economic subjugation which placed Black people in an inferior socio-economic position so they “can’t win. The game is fixed!” We can perceive these looters as social bandits who have the support of a social group consisting of people such as Jones. Looting is seen by them as a means of inverting the direction of power away from the State towards the rebel who are no longer answerable to the State.

Looting can also be viewed as a way of enacting vengeance upon oppressors and to right the wrongs committed against the oppressed. To illustrate, Black Lives Matter organiser Ariel Atkins compared looting to “reparations” for the economic inequalities faced by Black people, arguing that “if that’s what they (protestors) need to do in order to eat, then that’s what you’ve got to do”. Hence, individuals looting shops in Chicago conform to the concept of the social bandit as a noble robber, taking money from the rich for those less privileged. Their actions are supported by the Black Lives Matter Chicago chapter, who also justify looting by arguing that because “corporations have ‘looted’ more from (their) communities than a few protestors ever could”. On the other hand, these incidents of looting were seen as a marker of social disorder by many other people, such as Lori Lightfoot, the Mayor of Chicago, who described it as a “straight-up felony, criminal conduct”. This supports Hobsbawm’s aforementioned theory of how one social group’s courageous hero is another’s (normally the government and its representatives) criminal. Moreover, as evidenced by the violence of the protests, these groups can struggle to reconcile their differing beliefs and ideas in the “single political domain” of Chicago, invariably leading to conflict.

Internet "hacktivitism" can also illustrate Leach’s idea of how contrasting ideologies between two social groups can lead to conflict in the modern, technologically advanced world. Giovanni Travaglino applies Hobsbawm’s social bandit framework to the contemporary example of Anonymous, a group of international activists who use a combination of “legal and illegal tactics”, such as trolling, “to attack its targets and challenge authorities”. Travaglino argues that political engagement is crucial for a group of marginalised and disadvantaged people to “voice discontent, challenge the status quo… improve their collective social and economic standing” and spark social change. However, structural inequalities mean that these disadvantaged individuals might not have the resources to participate in political spheres, forcing them to resort to alternative, extra-legal means to “disrupt the functioning of the system” which they view as unjust. Social bandits, such as Anonymous who “operate outside conventional societal political structures of power and resistance” therefore appeal to social groups with limited political power. They serve as a “vehicle” for dissent and are viewed as “Robin Hood-type figures'' who work to undermine the establishment. This conforms to Hobsbawm’s theory that marginalised social groups perceive such social bandits as heroic. Simultaneously, as they operate outside the boundaries of legality, Anonymous are also perceived as “trouble makers, or even criminals'' by the Church of Scientology, the United States government, ISIS and a series of financial companies against which they have operated. This further supports Hobsbawm’s theory that these social bandits are viewed very differently from those in power. This has also resulted in the arrests and trials of several individuals implicated in Anonymous’ actions. In this way, Anonymous illustrates Leach’s argument that the tensions between such distinct and diametrically opposed social groups can lead to conflict.

In conclusion, Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of social bandits can be used demonstrate how actions which are perceived as heroic by one social group may be denounced as criminal by another. This was illustrated by looters during the Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago in the summer of 2020 as well as the Internet hacktivist group Anonymous. As a result of these distinct and contradictory ideologies, conflict can often ensue when these two social groups interact in a common political sphere.


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