In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one of the novel’s heroes describes Robin Hood as “a justification for every mediocrity who, unable to make his own living, has demanded the power to dispose of the property of his betters. … It is this foulest of creatures—the double-parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich—whom men have come to regard as a moral ideal.” Rand often played the extremist, and in a world with a worrying wealth gap, her harsh indictment of Robin Hood seems off. Some wealth redistribution is needed.
But the question remains: how? There are taxes, the Welfare State, charity initiatives, consumer protection, and a host of other institutionalized policies that can be used to achieve that goal. Surely, each of these policies has pros and cons, but unlike Robin Hood’s modus operandi, they are implemented in a civilized manner. By contrast, Robin Hood is the archetypal bandit who sows the seeds of chaos, all in the name of social justice. Robin Hood’s goal may be legitimate, but his means are questionable. Perhaps Robin Hoods in countries with brutal, kleptocratic dictatorships find legitimacy. But in Western democracies, where there exist plenty of institutional roads to enact change, Robin Hood wannabes are simply thugs.
Vicky Osterweil plays Rand’s opposite. She wants to justify Robin Hood figures, and bluntly titles her new book, In Defense of Looting. To do so, she uses all sorts of sophistry. For example, she insists that ‘looting’ is a racialized word, because it comes from ‘lut,’ a Hindi word applied by British imperialists to Indian people. So what? Does the racial origin of a word somehow excuse criminal actions that are described with that word? ‘Vandalism’ is also a racialized word, as it was used in reference to the Germanic Vandals in Roman times. Does that mean that, in the name of racial equality one can now vandalize anything?
Osterweil’s book is a long and boring romanticization of looters. It is primarily an ode to Bonny and Clyde, without ever mentioning their names. For her, looting is not a despicable act; as she confesses, “I personally like the phrases ‘proletarian shopping’ and ‘shopping for free’ quite a lot.” (p. 4). She insists that looting is a legitimate political act, because it can draw media attention to marginalized communities. If property is stolen or destroyed, so be it. After all, as she states in an NPR interview about her book, “it’s just money; it’s just property.”
This is a terribly condescending thing to say, and it can only come from someone who is privileged enough to not need money. For the small business owner who opens a store, only to have looters shatter his life’s work, this is no trivial thing. Osterweil explicitly says she does not care about the sufferings of small business owners, because at the end of the day, they own something, and looters don’t. It seems her concern is not with inequality as such, but with property in and of itself. She never quotes Proudhon, but she is not far off from the “property is theft” mantra—in such a view, in a world full of thieves (i.e. property owners), you are entitled to be yet one more thief. The cynicism of this view is depressing.
Osterweil pays lip service to the protection of human lives. She insists that property can be destroyed (after all, “it’s just property”), but violence ought to never be directed against human bodies. Again, she wants to play the “good thief.” But, then, when discussing the brutal beating of truck driver Reginald Denny in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, she excuses the perpetrators by saying that Denny was simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time” (pp. 9-10). Needless to say, Denny, a truck driver, was not exactly a mosquito sucking proletarian blood. Might his pale skin color be the reason why Osterweil fails to condemn violence against him? I find it highly probable.
One may feel sympathy for the starving Jean Valjean who, in Les Miserables, broke a window to steal a loaf of bread to feed his family. But, what about those looters who, in the days after the death of George Floyd, were stealing flatscreen TVs and decking themselves out in expensive, stolen Nike apparel? Are they heroes? Of course! says Osterweil. These looters would sell the looted products in the street, and with that money, they would thus satisfy their real needs.
Oh, the naiveté! Osterweil seems to appear completely unaware that poor people are as capable of conspicuous consumption as rich people are. Indeed, some studies show that people sometimes even forego calories in order to acquire luxury items. So, it should not come as a surprise that, yes, perhaps some of the people stealing flatscreen TVs are hungry, but at the same time, they are unlikely to sell the looted items in order to buy food. The dynamics of conspicuous consumption are present in all social classes, and looters are no exception.
In fact, despite all her self-proclaimed Marxist bravado, I think Karl Marx himself would be very disappointed in Osterweil. Looters who sack flatscreen TVs are a clear manifestation of what Marx termed the lumpenproletariat. These are the mindless agents completely devoid of class consciousness, who, on occasion, may seize the opportunity to make some profit in the mist of chaos. The lumpenproletariat are dispossessed, but they are easily bribed, and ultimately their actions serve reactionary interests. Looters who steal flatscreen TVs only reinforce the consumerist ethos of capitalist society and care nothing about meaningful change.
And that is precisely yet another problem with Osterweil’s book. She fails to notice that, at the end of the day, looting does not accomplish anything. It may draw some media attention to marginalized communities, but ultimately, looting obstructs legitimate social justice initiatives. America’s self-described “social justice warriors” need the support of those “privileged” storeowners, the very ones who have the power to enact meaningful change in their communities. Looting for “social justice” ultimately hampers the cause by chasing away essential allies.
If anything, looting results in backlash, and soon enough, armed vigilantes make their entry into the scene, increasing the potential for violence. This is a ballad of destruction, engendering hate, and concluding in anarchy. Osterweil is comfortable with anarchy throughout her book (as she says, “I follow in the footsteps of… anarchist and communist revolutionary traditions” (p. 17)), but at the same time pays lip service to respecting human lives. Again, her naiveté is jaw-dropping: she deludes herself into thinking that breaking windows in stores could never lead to crosses by the roadside or parades to the guillotine. Her defense of looting ultimately amounts to an enthusiasm for mob rule. If History is any guide, mob rule always fails to deliver true justice.
When the film Do The Right Thing came out in 1989, Spike Lee was criticized because, in the film, a group of black youngsters loot a white-owned pizzeria. Critics believed this would actually incite black people to loot. Lee countered that this was a racist accusation, as it assumed that black people do not have free agency or the capacity to restrain themselves while watching a fictional film. Lee was correct. But Osterweil’s book is not fiction. It is an explicit call to arms.
In our day and age, freedom of speech is threatened by so-called “cancel culture.” So, I suppose that, as despicable as Osterweil’s book may be, one ought to give the devil her due and let her make her case, even if, in many countries, her explicit advocacy of crimes against property would be penalized. Yet, precisely because of the dangerousness of her book, scholars must engage with it and refute the arguments of a very confused author, one who has the capacity to do great damage to civil society.
Image: Tony Webster, Public Domain