Book Review: In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action
In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action by Vicky Osterweil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The mystifying ideological claim that looting is violent and non-political is one that has been carefully produced by the ruling class because it is precisely the violent maintenance of property which is both the basis and end of their power. Looting is extremely dangerous to the rich because it reveals, with an immediacy that has to be moralized away, that the idea of private property is just that: an idea, a tenuous and contingent structure of consent, backed up by the lethal force of the state. When rioters take territory and loot, they are revealing precisely how, in a space without ruling class violence; property relations can be destroyed and things can be had for free.
Born out of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, In Defense of Looting is a considered reflection on violence as a form of social protest that can lead to social change. In the book Osterweil makes a convincing case for rioting and looting as weapons that bludgeon the status quo while uplifting the poor and marginalized. Arguing that riots and looting are both viable tactics needed to challenge state authority and, especially, policing. Her arguments reach back to the foundations of the country, and the establishment of slavery as a system under which White people held property and Black people were property, and could find freedom only by “stealing” themselves. Which is a compelling reframing of revolutionary activism. One that offers a practical vision for a dramatically restructured society.
Whenever people hear the word looting, however, there is always this implicit, if naive, sense that the person involved must necessarily be acting selfishly, “opportunistically,” and in excess. But it’s just the opposite: looting is a hard-won and dangerous act with potentially terrible consequences, and looters are only stealing from the rich owners’ profit margins. Those owners, meanwhile, especially if they own a chain like QuikTrip, steal forty hours every week from thousands of employees who in return get the privilege of not dying for another seven days. And so on a less abstract level, there is a practical and tactical benefit to looting. (It’s also important to point out that the rich get what they want for free by exploiting poor and working class people. Through their generation of rents and profits, through labor and through ownership of factories and stores).
Understand: Poor people often cannot afford to waste their time engaging in symbolic forms of protest, i.e. acts the establishment have deemed appropriate, and because they rarely expect to be heard by those in power anyway, they are much more likely to engage in practical, direct action than in some symbolic political protest. Things like stealing food from work, not paying taxes, and calling in sick to work when you’re not actually sick are actions that produce clear results. By contrast, holding a sign and marching in circles for hours is admittedly a lot more abstract and requires free time that only a few can afford.
I feel it’s also important to clarify a fairly noticeable distinction (a distinction that I’ve always felt was rather self-evident). If you go to someone’s home and take whatever you want without permission, you are stealing. If you go to a business (i.e. an expropriator) and take whatever you want, you are looting. Looting involves taking back what has already been stolen. To fail to understand this requires a level of indoctrination, or more likely cheeky imbecility, that I can’t even comprehend. The distinction is that obvious.
Yet, judging from the many one-star reviews this book has garnered, it's clear to me that most, if not all of these reviewers, haven't actually read the book but are simply expressing a knee-jerk reaction to the books premise, or more specifically, a reaction to the authors contentious NPR interview.
As a reviewer it’s crucial to understand that whenever you are critiquing a piece of writing, it’s not only beneficial for the reviewer to have read the book but then also to respond to the arguments made therein. It’s the pinnacle of ignorance to critique a book based solely on your reaction to it, let alone one based solely on an interview done with its author. This is not criticism. (In this case, it’s capitalist propaganda in the guise of criticism). And I have zero respect for these types of reviewers. Reviewers who too often place their agenda, not just ahead of what they are reviewing, but ahead of their common sense.
“Happily I see very few people sharing Osterweil’s NPR interview approvingly,” writes Graeme Wood for The Atlantic. “I haven’t yet encountered anyone who has read the actual book, which combines tedium and indecency in ways I had not previously contemplated. If Osterweil’s defense is a bad one, she has now given other pro-looters a chance to reply to it and say why. If they do not, we can assume that they agree with Osterweil, and her argument is the pinnacle of looting apologia. A week ago, you could have said that looting might not be so bad, and I might have wondered what you meant by that. Now I will ask you if your reasons are the same as Osterweil’s, and I will make fun of you if you say yes.”
Allow me to be the first to respond to Mr. Woods moronic attempt at critical thinking. I never really expected a member of the ruling class to either support or understand the theoretical underpinnings of Osterweil’s arguments for the abolition of private property, much less the actions that lead to it. But the fact that Wood universally derides it is how we know it’s true. Because whenever you write anything truthful about something political you can pretty much guarantee that the bourgeoisie will throw a fit about it and engage in every type of confusionist idiotic rhetoric they can come up with.
Steven Horwitz, a professor of free enterprise at Ball State University in Indiana, said something equally as stupid when he wrote: “Destroying a small business is akin to destroying an artist's studio, a scholar's library or a chef's kitchen. It's not just a matter of the loss of material goods, and insurance isn't the point. It's a loss of the space in which they make meaning in their lives and for others. People who defend rioting defend the destruction of the very things that make us human. They are the ones being unjust.” Horwitz is plainly a ridiculous person. Whom is being exploited by painting a portrait or making a soufflé? Or reading a scholarly work? Is he willing to claim that these are examples of self-exploitation?
However, one of the most egregious critiques of the book, comes from Reason magazines, Steven Greenhut: “The governor, and even the president, can declare that people may live rent-free in other people's buildings. Congress can run up debt to send us stimulus checks. Governors can arbitrarily force businesses to shut their doors, thus destroying what entrepreneurs have spent their lives creating.” Before then adding the superfluous little ditty: “When my oldest daughter was very young, she asked why we have to pay for things. "Why can't everything be free?" I explained that if everything were free, no one would work or produce anything or invest in factories and stores. In almost no time, we'd be staring down vast shortages—and people would go hungry. Violent thugs would rob and pillage. Society would collapse. That was a great question from a 6-year-old, but Osterweil is an adult.”
Let’s see if I can break this down for Mr. Greenhut, whose passive income has seemingly destroyed his ability to understand Osterweil’s arguments. You have two options in this world: You are either exploited by others or you exploit others. I know this much a leech like Greenhut can appreciate. Why else would he invest in property? (i.e. exploit peoples need to sleep in doors).
People, those exactly like the dullards referenced above, hate looting precisely because it is a direct form of action. Because with direct action you act as if you already have the freedom you are after. Ignoring those in power. Which is something that bothers defenders of the status quo more than chanting and holding signs that read: “We think you’re evil!”
I understand this book will no doubt irritate readers in certain places; as it rubs up against a lot of ideas society tells us are imperative and foundational, and that's uncomfortable. But it can also be really helpful. If you go into this book with an open mind, you'll learn a great deal. If you already have your mind made up, you might as well skip it. Because capitalists would love for you to hate this book. But capitalists don’t actually care about you. So you don't need to care about them. (Trust me, their interests are well taken care of). Osterweil's arguments on the other hand are thought-provoking and well argued. Whether you ultimately end up agreeing with her or not, it should still cause you to question many things. And if you can't do that, or simply refuse to, perhaps you should first ask yourself why that is. Osterweil’s study is a first step in such an explanation.