An underrated engine for social justice

Lotta people talking about this “defense of looting” idea. Graeme Wood at the Atlantic for one:

Last week, NPR’s Code Switch published an interview with Vicky Osterweil, the author of In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. 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. Osterweil sees an upside. Looting is good, she 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.” She came to this conclusion six years ago, and in her book, which is written “in love and solidarity with looters the world over,” she defends this view as ably as anyone could.

Well, which things can we have for free? Not the ones people have to make, because people aren’t going to make things if other people just grab them as soon as they’re made, “for free.” We can have maybe dust for free, but other than that…

Osterweil’s argument is simple. The “so-called” United States was founded in “cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist” violence.

The rest of the remedy is more violence, which she celebrates as an underrated engine for social justice. The destruction of businesses is an “experience of pleasure, joy, and freedom,” Osterweil writes. It is also a form of “queer birth.” “Riots are violent, extreme, and femme as fuck,” according to Osterweil. “They rip, tear, burn, and destroy to give birth to a new world.”

And guess what: Osterweil isn’t “Vicky” at all, but Willie. (Very willie. Cheap shot, but after “riots are femme as fuck” I really don’t care.)

By now you have guessed that I am not the audience for this book. I have a job, and am therefore invested in building a system where you get paid for your work and pay others for theirs, and then everyone pays taxes to make sure that if these arrangements don’t work out, you can still have a dignified life. (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.”)

Ha! Expensive shot, well placed.

Happily I see very few people sharing Osterweil’s NPR interview approvingly, and nearly everyone consuming it in that joyous and liberatory mode known as “hate reading.” I haven’t yet encountered anyone who has read the actual book, which combines tedium and indecency in ways I had not previously contemplated.

The combination of tedium and indecency reminds me of a couple of people who used to be colleagues on Freethought blogs but left soon after I did. More than a couple, actually.

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