In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, a new book by Vicky Osterweil, seeks to justify rioting and looting as legitimate “strategies of wealth redistribution and improving life for the working class,” according to the book’s publisher.
The book offers, “A fresh argument for rioting and looting as our most powerful tools for dismantling white supremacy.” The author, “a writer, editor, and agitator,” is transgender-identified – born male, but living as a woman.
Osterweil told National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Code Switch,” “Looting strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police. It gets to the very root of the way those three things are interconnected.”
The author spoke rapturously about the joy and pleasure induced by looting: “And also it provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be. And I think that’s a part of it that doesn’t really get talked about—that riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory.”
Code Switch is a race and culture podcast from NPR, which was established by Congress through the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. NPR receives funding from the federal government as well as private donors.
Osterweil explains the type of looting he supports in the introduction (available free from the publisher; if you want more, you’ll have to purchase a copy). It is not, of course, the looting of captured territory by armies” or “of colonial wealth by empire and its agents.” Those aren’t looting, but “robbery, pillage, booty, and spoils.” (Author’s emphasis.)
In contrast, Osterweil writes his preferred terms: “But the looting described, defended, and historicized here—that of a crowd of people publicly, openly, and directly taking things in the midst of riot and social unrest—has no easy synonym. I personally like the phrases ‘proletarian shopping’ and ‘shopping for free’ quite a lot and use the Marxist ‘expropriation,’ too.”
Osterweil acknowledges that “rioting and looting have few defenders.” The book then goes on to justify destruction of property and “shopping for free,” when used by a radical movement working to transform society, with a number of arguments. Here are just a few of those reasons that “proletarian shopping” is so good, quoted from the intro:
- Looting attacks some of the core beliefs and structures of cisheteropatriarchal ra-cial capitalist society, and so frightens and disturbs nearly everyone, even some of its participants.
- Looting rejects the legitimacy of ownership rights and property, the moral injunction to work for a living, and the ‘justice’ of law and order. Looting reveals all these for what they are: not natural facts, but social constructs benefiting a few at the expense of the many, upheld by ideology, economy, and state violence.
- Looting is a method of direct redistribution of wealth, from the store owners and capitalists to the poor. … It is a practical, immediate form of improving life.
- Looting represents a material way that riots and protests help the community: by providing a way for people to solve some of the immediate problems of poverty and by creating a space for people to freely reproduce their lives rather than doing so through wage labor.
- Looting is an act of communal cohesion.
- But looting is also an act of excess, of property destruction. When something is looted, that thing’s nature as a commodity is destroyed by its being taken for free, out of the cycle of exchange and profit. Everything in the store goes from being a commodity to becoming a gift. Less ab-stractly, looting is usually followed up by burning down the shop.
When Code Switch asked about violence against property “versus violence against a human body,” Osterweil sidestepped the question. He said, “Obviously, we object to violence on some level. But it’s an incredibly broad category. … That word [violence] is not strategically helpful. The word that can mean both those things cannot be guiding me morally.”
The author added, “Ultimately, what nonviolence ends up meaning is that the activist doesn’t do anything that makes them feel violent. And I think getting free is messier than that. We have to be willing to do things that scare us and that we wouldn’t do in normal, ‘peaceful’ times, because we need to get free.”
So that Osterweil can earn the monetary fruits of his labor, In Defense of Looting is available in hardcover, with a list price of $28.00 (plus tax, handling and shipping). Electronic versions are available for $16.99. It can be purchased from such capitalist oppressors as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, Bookshops.org, and iBook. Smart shoppers can also find copies at reduced prices – through the market system of supply and demand.
Ironically, the copyright page of the book reads: “The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property.”
While free copies of In Defense of Looting can be found online, this author chose not to quote from those sources. That would be looting and stealing.
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