Watching the World Burn
Recently the priorities of the ruling class have come into sharp relief. Particularly after White House economics adviser Kevin Hassett told CNN that: “Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work,” which was a clear window into elite opinion on the lives of working people, who are, through some strange alchemy, transformed into raw economic material, beings whose lives can be sacrificed at the temple of profit.
A perfect example of which is the murder of George Floyd, who was arrested and killed for alleged forgery, a crime of poverty punishable by death. Illustrating, once again, that capitalism, and its many enforcement arms, can literally obliterate you if you are found in violation of the service of profit.
In response to the murder, certain corners of the media and our political establishment have been in complete meltdown. None more so than the White House, with President Trump sending a deranged tweet, warning the “THUGS” of Minneapolis that “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The “THUGS” here are those who strip food and televisions from the shelves of lifeless stores, but not a police department with a record of horrific cruelty against actual living humans, or the prosecutors, like now Biden VP hopeful, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who look the other way. We should be clear about what Trump is promising here: That an extrajudicial death sentence is a fitting punishment for petty theft. That property is so sacred that people ought to be gunned down for it in what is, quite explicitly, a call for public lynchings. Rather than indicting the racist police officers who murdered George Floyd, and other black Americans, our political leaders are instead incensed, up in arms, over protests and property damage. It’s just what the twisted logic of capitalism does to people.
This twisted logic, however, stretches back to America's very, anti-democratic, founding. Popular control, James Madison famously wrote, must be stopped in order “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” The government’s job was to act as a guardian to protect such a plainly unfair distribution of wealth, property, and power, because those who “labour under all the hardships of life” would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” That principle would come to life in the mid-19th century when, as historian Sam Mitrani has written, modern policing was “created by the ruling class to control working-class and poor people, not help them.” In the South, the slave empire had its patrols. And in the North, the titans of wage-labor capitalism recruited police to discipline an unruly working-class, who were indeed organizing “for a more equal distribution” of the nation’s “blessings.” Their basic job, Mitrani writes, is “to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system.”
Consider that, in Michigan, white protesters stormed the capital, some armed to the teeth, demanding a “reopening” of the economy. They asked for nothing but a return to the status quo and faced no challenge from the police, whose entire motive is upholding the very same status quo they so revered. In the more recent unrest, peaceful protesters have been calling for radical changes in the American fabric, and have been met with waves of unprovoked police brutality. That the first type of protest would be met by soft acceptance, and the second by brutal suppression reveals a nation desperate, as author and poet Hanif Abdurraqib writes, to “return to normal—howling with grief, soaked in blood.”
Unsurprisingly, we are now also inundated with predictable calls to condemn looting. Meanwhile the real looting in our society comes from the military, the police, the pharmaceutical companies, private equity, the landlords, the real estate speculators, and the billionaires — not protesters. And it would take a heartless bastard not to care about the looting of homes and buildings by capitalists.
We should be organizing against the impending wave of evictions that will soon destroy poor communities once courts are allowed to reopen. And we should fight back against the theft of stable homes and schools; the unnecessary destruction of lives due to the prioritizing of food over rent. We should care that whole working-class communities will be gentrified, their buildings replaced with housing for wealthier tenants who will bring in a bigger haul of loot for the landlord. We should be outraged that police are looting homeless encampments, and we should demand that safe vacant homes and rooms no longer be hoarded away from unhoused people.
But this isn’t the concern of certain segments of the population. The question that concerns them is: Should we condemn other kinds of looting? In other words, should we blame working-class people for lashing out at a government and economy designed to repress, exploit, and subdue them; during a pandemic in which capitalism has made it near impossible for them to survive? Should we participate in this ritual condemnation even though our media consistently treats identical acts of property destruction by sports fans as simply revelry and exuberance, and corporate looting of working-class communities as business as usual?
No. George Floyd mattered. Black lives matter. And until we can build a movement that can defeat racism and capitalism, until working people of all races unite against capitalists and their repressive apparatus, then it’s a good thing bosses, government officials, and the police who protect them are reminded, through a little proletarian fury, where true power really resides.
“Protesters have not lost legitimacy because they lack grace or decorum or break with the social contract.” As Eli Day writes: “Rather, they have gained their footing by pointing to the cruel underpinnings of our current political order. When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into George Floyd’s neck, he did so with the power to use lethal force in the state’s name. In this instance, it was to discipline a member of the most despised group in the nation’s history. A group with countless justifiable grievances against the United States—and the cruel priorities of American capitalism.”
It should be relatively easy to comprehend that you can't commodify every single aspect of living and then not understand looting as a legitimate form of protest. Looting is the ultimate strike against a system that deems mass-produced objects to be far more precious than life itself. It is humanity demanding to be recognized. Looting isn't theft from workers or from the community. It’s expropriation of goods from a corporation for the benefit of the community. Looting a chain store is not “destroying your community”. Instead massive corporations that displace small businesses and monopolize local markets in exchange for poverty wages destroy your community.
I will be the first to admit that looting is a politically unwise thing to do. But it’s also inevitable in a highly stratified and punitive property-based social order that’s waning in legitimacy. Which is bound to happen during momentary tears in the fabric of consensus. You force people to work alienating jobs producing and protecting goods for most of their waking hours or prohibit them from working at all and then show them endless images of life-completing, happiness-giving things they can’t afford and then tell them it’s their own fault they can’t afford it. Looting then becomes an obvious middle finger.
Thus, if these were demonstrations meant to advance a concrete agenda then looting would of course be a huge tactical error. In that case there would also be leaders who could call it off or at least condemn it. But that’s not what’s happening here and we have to contend with this on its own terms. I am of course hopeful that organized and strategic movements emerge from this. And I believe that the spontaneous mass unrest we’re witnessing is evidence of the raw material for precisely those kinds of movements. But, for now I know which side I’m on. Question is, do you?