Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “The personal is the political”. Everything, in other words, is political. That tenet is central to the dogmas of many of the successor ideologies currently riding postliberal waves, and its latest incarnation has found a voice in one Vicky Osterweil. The act of smashing a shop window is no longer simply an expression of the worst impulses in us, but is rather a “joyous and liberatory experience”, and one of “queer birth”. It is, she says, completely OK. She makes a terrible, callous, and what could border on evil argument in support of these set of propositions.
At the same time, she makes (completely unintentionally) a superb argument for why an act that calls itself political cannot be allowed to wriggle free of the strictures we impose on other political acts – namely, the demand that it be justified.
Osterweil puts up her argument on two tentpole principles. Pole one: the institution of property is so bad that it is OK to disregard the set of rules around it. Pole two: breaking those rules has relatively little impact on the individual in possession of that property. Therefore the particular impact any instance of looting might have is always going to be directed at said bad institution of property.
The rest of the content of the book, more or less, is throat-clearing and rhetoric which boils down to, at best, “a thing which once belonged to one person now belongs to another person and this is a good thing”. So it’s not strictly argumentative. Importantly, also, it’s unlikely to be persuasive to anyone not already submerged into the principles, ideas, justifications, and causes that Osterweil believes in. It is radicalising in intent and purpose. But that does not mean that it’s content-free. I’ll do my best to tackle the argumentative content.
So here’s a very brief sketch of what the philosophical argument about property looks like; on one side, Rousseau and his intellectual heirs argue that the Earth is given to man in common, and therefore any taking of the earth is always inherently illegitimate. Thus, any property you happen to own will be not rightfully yours. Sorry. On the other, Locke and his intellectual heirs say: actually, no – you can come to acquire property in a rightful way. You are allowed to own stuff, and you are allowed to keep it from others. These two broad categories encompass most of the debate on the issue, and certainly all of it from the perspective of whether or not it is OK to loot. (For more on the topic, please see Matt Schrage’s essay on the subject, which you can find here. The standard “left-libertarian” framing of the same intellectual tradition can be found first in the writing of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, specifically in “What is Property”?)
Osterweil’s gloss on the topic is more or less Rousseauian in nature. Whilst some of the words are different, the sentiment is basically the same — the stuff you have is not, in some meaningful way, rightly yours. Whether it’s because of the claim that God has given everyone an equal share to things in the world, or whether it’s because you own it mainly as a result of racialised exploitation in the past, the stuff you have is not properly yours. So we’ll do Osterweil a favour, and suppose that no property was originally acquired rightfully, either because you cannot, or because you can but Lockean rules for doing it properly weren’t followed.
The Rousseauian is likely to say that stolen wealth, or, much more likely, money commensurate with the value of that wealth, should be taken from the person who has unjustly enriched themselves by stealing property.
Who deserves that redistribution now? Well, the answer must be the descendants of the original property owners. But we don’t know who those are! It cannot just be those who are poor, because I might be poor even though my great-great-grandfather stole some land. Likewise, not everyone who is rich is going to be descended from my great-great-grandfather – some people might have overcome the handicap of having their land stolen to become rich.
And this leaves us with the prospect that we might steal from the descendants of the expropriated to enrich the descendants of the expropriator. For the Rousseauian, this is completely unconscionable. And we cannot have something like Nozick’s “rough rule of thumb” either, because the case requires a consistent application of a specific principle. So the only thing left seems to be a commitment to good-faith claims to property. If I buy some property from you, and you give that property to me, within a framework of free exchange, then I have acquired a good-faith claim to that property.
Yes, the property might have been acquired wrongfully, but in the absence of a way to rectify this that wouldn’t run foul of one principle or another, the only solution is to respect those good-faith claims to property. It is not perfect, but it is the best we can do. And it’s less bad than the alternatives.
If a commonsense reading of the situation would say that good-faith claims to property ought to be respected, then, the implication is that breaking these claims is OK only if it will lead to some greater good. Osterweil never mentions what those might be: but safe guess, it’ll lead to one of two outcomes. One, the destruction of property as an institution. Two, some sort of progress on systemic racism or inequalities.
To the first: let’s be serious for a moment. The “boogaloo” and the “revolution” are likely not impending any time soon, and neither is a let’s-all-join-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya future in which all the Earth’s resources are held in common. And it’s fundamentally unlikely that overthrow of the US government is going to be achieved that way. For better or for worse, for the moment, the only changes to the system are going to come through voting.
And to the second, whether or not protesting is achieving results is well beyond the scope of this particular article, but I note parenthetically that an America in which crime is the fifth most important issue, up from barely even registering in May, is unlikely to be an America sympathetic to the cause of those they see as perpetrating that crime. To be clear: it does not even have to be true that protests are uniformly violent. It does not even have to be true that the majority of those protests are violent. All that has to be true is that a sufficient enough, and visible enough, proportion of those protests are violent and result to turn the tide of public opinion against the movement.
So much for pole one, then. Property isn’t inherently, or at least obviously, illegitimate. Osterweil’s backup plan is to say that insurance will cover any damage done during the course of looting, which is as self-evidently absurd as it is privileged. It is also obviously not true that a wrecked business will be up and running again within the week. For evidence, I present any conversation anyone has ever had with an insurance company. Osterweil also airily handwaves the idea that the costs of starting up again, buying a new store, and replacing lost inventory might be prohibitive for someone hovering just above the poverty line.
In the end, pole two also collapses to a straightforward argument about whether or not violent protest is successful. Notice: not legitimate (that’s pole one), successful. And a 12-point plummet in support for the BLM movement suggests that it likely isn’t. To state the obvious, perception matters. If you are afraid of having your leg broken, pointing out that you would be 93% perfectly fine is unlikely to comfort. Similar leftist arguments arguing that property is inherently illegitimate or otherwise bad in one way or another also collapse to this question: will violent protest achieve social goals?
So much for Osterweil’s argument for looting, then. It hinges on philosophical muddle-headedness coupled to political incompetence. She makes a terrible argument for looting. However, it is a superb argument for free argument and debate.
The battle of ideas has come in for a lot of stick in recent years, especially the half of it that involves the principle that all ideas are entitled to a fair hearing. Other people have defended that half much better than I could ever. The other half that gets ignored, though, is the principle that actions have to account for themselves. Somebody needs to take up a spear and shield on behalf of the things people do.
If what’s at stake in the current political moment is a fight over what liberal democracy looks like, the weapons of war are justifications. We rightly condemn “wanton looting”, but we say further that we might be able to understand looting that’s based on some principle or another. That speaks to a deeply-held intuition – namely, that we have to have reasons for action.
Unintentionally, Osterweil has stumbled into something absolutely foundational: that political argument is not just about roving bands of individuals committed to one surface-level cause or another, but rather it’s about the persuasion that there are causes worth fighting for. My political action cannot be wanton, it has to be indicative of a will behind it. And however terrible the action, we have to form a will in order for it to be a part of political society.
We ignore this at our peril. Because a political society wherein the only rationale for action is “because I want to” and “because it feels good” isn’t one that’ll hold up for long. It is impossible for a political system where everything does have a rationale to deal with that type of extra-political behaviour.
So I cheer, however hesitantly, Osterweil’s implied insistence that even the very stupidest and worst of our conduct deserves an accounting. Because for as long as there’s no particular reason behind why I might do one thing or another, I cannot say that what you’re doing is wrong in principle, only on the basis of how it affects people. That’s why the best and most important argument against Osterweil’s inanity is that it is principally incorrect, not that it will leave the livelihoods of a group of disproportionately poor and disproportionately disadvantaged people in tatters.
Once looting is a properly political act rather than simply an act borne of my desire to smash things up, then and only then can we come to terms with it. I cannot comprehend why someone would decide to go through the streets smashing windows with rocks for no apparent reason. I can understand why some radical yo-yo would smash windows in the name of smashing the “cisheteropatriarchal system of capital”.
And then I will condemn it. And then – only then – can the people who stand for things worth standing for begin to police their own movements. When the rioting and looting isn’t an extension of political purposes, it makes perfect sense to suppose that this represents a minority who for one incomprehensible reason or another have decided to break from the non-violence consensus. But when it is, then elements within social justice movements who happen not to think that breaking into someone’s shop and stealing things is a good way of achieving social progress can condemn it, publicly and loudly, repeatedly, and without reservation.
Make no mistake. We must condemn rioting and looting, unequivocally. And we must be able to do it without indicting the values of the Black Lives Matter movement with it. That kind of internal reckoning is only possible when rioting and looting are political acts, not just emotional ones. Two cheers for Vicky Osterweil for insisting on that.
Concluding tangential snark: When Osterweil says that Jews were targeted in rioting not because of anti-Semitic motives, but rather because Jews are rich, own lots of things, and are “the face of capital”, many Jews might find this a rather uncomfortable sentiment to read in the work of someone allegedly an ally of the downtrodden. I leave it to the reader to work out why.