Thursday, September 3, 2020

On looting

A good read: Graeme Wood's Atlantic essay covering Vicky Osterweil, her popular book In Defense of Looting, and NPR interview. (HT Niall Ferguson

NPR summarizes the book as an argument that “looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society.” If the real, lasting change you wish to effect is burning society to cinders and crippling for a generation its ability to serve its poorest citizens, then I suppose I am forced to agree. 

That's as nice a topic sentence as you could ask for.  

Looting is good, she [Osterweil] says, because it exposes a deep truth about the great American confidence game, which is that “without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.” 

Just who is going to produce those things and work hard to sell them in a looting society? Wood essentially asks that gaping question. 

Osterweil’s argument is simple. The “so-called” United States was founded in “cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist” violence. That violence produced our current system, particularly its property relations, and looting is a remedy for that sickness. “Looting rejects the legitimacy of ownership rights and property, the moral injunction to work for a living, and the ‘justice’ of law and order,” she writes. Ownership of things—not just people—is “innately, structurally white supremacist.”

This quote, I think, provides a deep understanding of our current far left. 

Our society and our prosperous economy are built on the bedrock of private property and the rule of law which defends that property. That may not be pretty or fulfill a college sophomore's utopia, but the hard lesson of a thousand years is that only private property provides the incentive for people to maintain that property -- farms, houses, factories, stores -- and to put in the immense effort to provide commodities of value to their fellow humans. Wood puts this observation well:

Osterweil euphemizes looting as “proletarian shopping,” and no one from a place that has recently experienced this phenomenon can take seriously her assurance that it can happen justly and bloodlessly. When I think of riots and smashed storefronts, I think of Kristallnacht. I think of American businesses built by penniless immigrants who preferred to forfeit their vacations and weekends for 30 years rather than see their children suffer as they did; I think of these businesses ransacked in 30 minutes and left in ruins. Osterweil at least has the psychology right when she says that looting can be “joyous and liberatory.” I have never seen a sullen looter, but I have seen plenty of shop owners crying next to the smoking remains of their children’s future. 

What do you do when the free stuff runs out, the businesses and ordinary people who invested in your city decide not to make that mistake again, and—oops!—a few shopkeepers get beaten to death? This messy process is the “new world opening up, however briefly, in all its chaotic frenzy,” she writes. To me it sounds like a prequel to The Road.

Property rights are not in vogue. Many landlords are also immigrants or others of little means who work hard and put their savings in to an apartment building. That a Republican administration has joined "cancel the rent," tells us something about how much respect for property rights and the incentives they create remains. 

Easily my favorite line in the book was written not by the author but by her publisher, right under the copyright notice: “The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property,” it says. “Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.” 


Osterweil does not say what property-less system of government or anti-government she prefers, but I suspect it is not democracy, a term she uses only sneeringly. 

An important point. A movement that espouses violence, not just theft, that espouses political violence, and justifies such violence against all who disagree, is profoundly anti-democratic. For all the wailing about Trump's threats to our democracy, this part of the left is not just authoritarian, it is violently authoritarian.  

I haven’t yet encountered anyone who has read the actual book, which combines tedium and indecency in ways I had not previously contemplated. 

A great line for a book review. [Disclosure, I haven't read the book either. This is a review of a review.] 

Wood wisely sees wisdom in a book that one is simply tempted to trash. This is a deep and wise point about many bad but authoritative books:   

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. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch. 

My Palo Alto neighbors, white, wealthy, and living far from any actual experience with such matters, express such sympathies with looting. Perhaps they too will have to face uncomfortable truths by reading, before it comes to their doorstep. 

Looting also destroys a public property -- decades worth of progress on quiet every day relations between people of different races and backgrounds. The videos of looters, of violent street mobs, of storeowners and (last week) a pedestrian murdered in cold blood, will remain in people's brains. They will form an unstated and silenced set of expectations that no amount of lecturing will overcome until more positive everyday experiences slowly replace them. 


  1. I think you should at least consider that, possibly to the same extent it destroys everyday relations between different people, rioting offers cover for others to express nasty beliefs they've held all along. May consider it a quibble, but I think it goes to the heart of the protesters' point.

    Apologia for looting are dumb and inane. I also see plenty of bad-faith gleeful attempts on the "independent-thinking" right to couple looters with those calling for reform. I'd argue that this attitude predates current events and is not caused by them.

  2. "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. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch. "

    You comment: "Wood wisely sees wisdom in a book that one is simply tempted to trash. This is a deep and wise point about many bad but authoritative books:

    So help me to understand. Graeme Wood is welcoming other defenses of looting that don't depend on inane Marxist economic models such as Osterweil's book does. You seem to concur that Osterwell's conclusion, though not her argument may have some vailidity.

    In one part of his article, Wood makes the analogy with Nazi Germany. He asserts that he can not imagine a valid defense of Nazi criminality today, but if this were 1933, perhaps an open-minded inquiry could be justified.

    I am not so naive as to believe anyone trying to justify the Hitlerian program in 1933 could find beneficial aspects of that ideology. Like looting and vandalism today, that rising menace was clearly evil from the onset. So too is today's violent destruction and theft of property indefensible other than with the loopy neo-Marxist "arguments' set forth in the Osterweil book.

    Jimmy Bloom
    Ashburn, VA

    1. There seems to be some misunderstanding in what you think you've read. Read Wood's full review in the Atlantic. His point is that for people who don't understand the mindset of today's Left, this book is a great introduction, much as in 1933 people unfamiliar with German Nationalist Socialism would have benefited from understanding that party and Hitler before they were given power by the populace...

  3. Osterweil's ideas are:

    1. not original; Back in the 60s there were a number of "new left" types who spouted similar bilge; I was an undergraduate taking courses from your Father (of blessed memory) and the "new lefties" called shop lifting "liberating merchandise".

    2. not supported by any serious system of ethics or politics; and

    3. so counterproductive that V.I. Lenin himself wrote a book condemning them: "'Left-Wing' Communism: An Infantile Disorder

    Of course people like Osterweil reject Lenin because he was a white cishetero male. I read an article in the Berkely student newspaper written by a couple of erstwhile graduate students complaining that the readings for their course in social theory were written by DWEMs (Dead White European Males) like Freud, Marx, and Foucault.

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”–George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.

    Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens. (Against stupidity the gods themselves fight in vain.)
    “Die Jungfrau von Orleans” by Friedrich Schiller,

  4. “cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist”

    This kind of word salad is completely devoid of meaning. It's just a signal to the author's team that she is on their side. And it makes anyone on the other side, who you might actually want to convince of something, completely tune out.

    1. Never understimate the power of group thinking and the value of the "flags" waved in front of people.

      Flags are also "completely deovid of meaning" from a purely linguistic point of view and, yet, they are extremely powerful.

  5. I should add this because it is factual evidence on the bad effects of looting on the poor and because it is from Mr. Cochrane's hometown and not all that far from where he grew up:

    How long does it take a city to recover from a riot? The experience of Chicago is that 50 years have not been enough:

    Somebody, linked me to a story from the Chicago Tribune in 2018. a 50 year historical perspective on the 1968 riots occasioned by the assassination of Martin Luther King.

    "RAGE, RIOTS, RUIN: 50 years ago, Chicago’s West Side burned. Today, some neighborhoods still bear scars from that destruction." By Tony Briscoe and Ese Olumhense | August 16, 2018

    Read it. Those neighborhoods never recovered in any way. They are empty land with a few very poor occupants.

    Rioting and looting can be just as destructive as carpet bombing.with four engine bombers.

  6. Another step towards vigilante justice and utter mayhem.

  7. “cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist”

    What a shame that won't fit on bumper sticker. It would still be a great drinking game.

  8. In exchange for the one or two days of successful looting, neighborhoods are destroyed, often left without anyplace to buy even basic necessities. They have come up with new terms like "Food Deserts", where the residents of the looted neighborhoods now have to travel some distance just to buy groceries. After these riots, the politicians make grandiose speeches about rebuilding, but it never happens. In the long, there is a heavy price paid by the looters and their innocent neighbors.

  9. Thank you for sharing. With QAnon fully mainstream on the right, the left should focus hard on keeping unmoored ideas like Ms. Osterweil's on the fringe. I do worry about ideas like this getting a stronger foothold as we've seen it is very possible.

    Arguments I've heard in this general vein are a bit more nuanced. Typically they proceed as follows: Rioting is destructive and bad, but useful. You need something that people are afraid of in order for them to change in ways that are reasonable. People were afraid of communism, so they gave workers more rights. People were afraid of Malcom X and the black panthers, so they passed civil rights and lionized MLK. Now, people are afraid of anarchists and looting, so maybe they'll adopt the NAACP's very reasonable template for police reform.

    1. So using violence as a means to a political end is legitimate?

    2. People are afraid of riots & looting, so they buy more guns.

      And your timelines and causalities are wrong. Workers were given "rights" because of US government efforts to buy votes in the Depression from the unemployed masses, and because of economic ignorance in the same. The CRA of 1964 came prior to the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. What came after X and the Panthers was Nixon's War on Drugs, particularly the heroin favored by black urban residents...

  10. Two points. (1) I wonder how much of the looting/violence is actually being done by QAnon and similar groups disquised as Antifa (or whatever). That would be right out of Putin's playbook. (2) I completely agree that property rights, and a general "rule of law" are essential for growth, it has to be acknowledged that this system was only set up after killing, stealing and cheating the original occupants of their property. So, let's not pretend this is some kind of moral issue. The land was taken first and then the rules were set up to prevent the land from being taken again.

    1. The rules are good; let's abide by them!

    2. "The land was taken first and then the rules were set up to prevent the land from being taken again."

      That may be one interpretation of those events, but it's a lot like blaming the winner of a contest for the suffering of their opponents on their way to victory. The guilty party depends on who wins!

    3. 1) 0%
      2) This system was set up before the colonies existed, and dates back thousands of years, so let's not pretend the Founders and who came after were uniquely immoral. The Native Americans stole from and enslaved each other before white folk got here. Lands "taken" had no verifiable title histories. To the extent the Federal and state governments violated treaties with NAs, we agree...

  11. All this is not different from 1968/69. Class has been replaced by race, and the ideology is no longer called Marxism, but rather, post-modernism. The class version ended in a sea of tears, as the race version must, too.

  12. Looting by a victorious army during war has been common practice throughout recorded history. Foot soldiers plunder as a way to supplement an often meagre income and transferred wealth became part of the celebration of victory. Interesting article, thanks for sharing

    1. That ain't nothing compared to looting by defeated armies.

  13. Or Willie Osterweil has just perpetrated a perfect prank. Eat your heart out, Titania McGrath!

  14. The comments above come from civilized thoughtful people. My position is a bit more militaristic. I'm a bit less civilized and less prone to intellectual attempts at dissuading one from their misguided social agendas. My position is this. Osterweill should move to the dystopia's of China, Russia, North Korea or Cuba. Anything you own, including your person will be "looted" by authoritarian decree. If this deep thinker believes wanton destruction of property is a social ramp to utopia, those who behave in that manner will be dealt with by persons vigorously protecting their property.

  15. Our family once moved to a multi-level apartment complex and as our son began to play with the children, he came home exasperated most every day. They other children stole from him, bullied him, told lies about him and he had to defend himself from physical harm. All he wanted to do was to play and finally he did find one boy who was unlike the others. However, we went to talk to these children and not one of them had heard of The Ten Commandments, that it was wrong to steal, to harm, to bear false witness. The solution to our problems seem very simple to us. We have to get back to the basics.

  16. Osterweil's defence of looting is the sort college professors encounter in immature first-year undergraduates, based on an instinctual emotional attachment to the idea of law-breaking and attacks on property as an act of freedom and self-expression but with no serious thought about its evidential basis as a social phenomenon nor about its philosophical implications as a matter of principle.

    In fact it ignores numerous counter-arguments that a moment's serious thought would recognise as grave impediments to any apologism for violent theft of other people's property.

    One is that there is little to no empirical evidence for believing that most looters are the politically-motivated actors of Osterweil's imaginings. In reality the subsequent court cases show that most of those who loot have spontaneously jumped on a passing bandwagon marked "grab some free stuff" when it's clear other people are doing it and no-one's stopping them. Ideologically-based action grounded in high ideals and a noble vision of a very different kind of society based on tolerance and mutual respect? Hardly. It's good old-fashioned selfish individualism. It's visceral acquisitiveness by people who want something of precisely the kind Osterweil finds so repulsive as the psychological foundation of capitalism.

    Another problem is that the law is the basis of the civil order from which the large majority of us benefit. Osterweil's alternative would be Lord Of The Flies but with guns. Worse, abandon the notion that we have an obligation to obey the law as an institution and what's left of the argument that fascist bootboys (whose illegal politically-motivated action Osterweil would presumably not want to be allowed) should nonetheless be bound by the law and called to account for breaking it? As usual, ill-considered radical leftist advocacy of law-breaking and direct action in pursuit of socialist aims can all too easily be extended across the ideological spectrum so that Hitlers and Mussolinis as well as Trotskys and Lenins can ignore inconvenient legal constraints and do as their political imperatives urge them.

    None of this is diffiult to figure out and would routinely be pointed out patiently by any college professor in a first-year class. So why is a serious publisher dignifying such sloppy and incoherent thinking with a major book?


Comments are welcome. Keep it short, polite, and on topic.

Thanks to a few abusers I am now moderating comments. I welcome thoughtful disagreement. I will block comments with insulting or abusive language. I'm also blocking totally inane comments. Try to make some sense. I am much more likely to allow critical comments if you have the honesty and courage to use your real name.