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When anti-capitalism is racism

NPR has got a lot of flack in the last week or so for publishing an interview with Vicky Osterweil, author of the book In Defense of Looting. I actually applaud NPR for doing this. Osterweil’s book is nothing if not timely, and I am a firm believer that the best way to combat bad ideas is to expose them to thorough examination as publicly as possible.*

Trashing minority owned stores does not help fight racism

And Osterweil’s ideas are very bad indeed. NPR tells us that:

…she stakes out a provocative position: that looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society. The rioters who smash windows and take items from stores, she claims, are engaging in a powerful tactic that questions the justice of “law and order,” and the distribution of property and wealth in an unequal society.

Osterweil tells us that looting:

…does a number of important things. It gets people what they need for free immediately, which means that they are capable of living and reproducing their lives without having to rely on jobs or a wage — which, during COVID times, is widely unreliable or, particularly in these communities is often not available, or it comes at great risk. That’s looting’s most basic tactical power as a political mode of action.

It also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss, in order to buy things that people just like them somewhere else in the world had to make under the same conditions. It points to the way in which that’s unjust. And the reason that the world is organized that way, obviously, is for the profit of the people who own the stores and the factories. So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.

Importantly, I think especially when it’s in the context of a Black uprising like the one we’re living through now, it also attacks the history of whiteness and white supremacy. The very basis of property in the U.S. is derived through whiteness and through Black oppression, through the history of slavery and settler domination of the country. 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. 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.

There is so much that is bad here that it is hard to know where to start.

First, when you loot something it might be ‘free’ to you in an economic sense, but the cost has not disappeared. It has simply been left with the supplier. It is also not clear, when we look at the shops looted like Foot Locker or Haskell’s on Hennepin Avenue, that this is being done to meet some ‘need’. Nobody was looting groceries from Target.

Second, how long do we think Saks or Target would continue to stock items in stores if they were routinely looted? Saks and Target do not procure or produce goods and services for us because they love us but because they make a profit from doing so. If the profits of Saks, Target, or anywhere else are expropriated by looting, then any shortage of goods and services is likely to get very much worse than it is now.

Finally, looting isn’t a tool in the fight against racism. Among those whose businesses were destroyed in the recent riots in the Twin Cities were people like Hussein Aloshani, an immigrant from Iraq, who pleaded with rioters not to burn his deli; Luis Tamay, another immigrant who saved for more than a decade to open his Ecuadorian restaurant, El Sabor Chuchi, only to see it burned down. There were also Maya Santamaria, who lost her Spanish-language radio station, La Raza, Ruhel Islam, the owner of Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, and Yoom Nguyen, owner of the Lotus Restaurant in Minneapolis. Those who shrug the looting off because its only big corporations being targeted ought to face these folks and tell them that.

From anti-cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalism to racism

Osterweil is, of course, fixated on race. Her book tells us that the “so-called” United States was founded in “cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist” violence. But Osterweil herself has some very strange views on the subject.

As a kid, I remember watching coverage of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. These quickly took on a racial aspect as Korean store owners armed themselves to protect their lives and property from looters. Of this, Osterweil tells NPR:

You know, one of the causes of the L.A. riots was a Korean small-business owner [killing] 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who had come in to buy orange juice. And that was a family-owned, immigrant-owned business where anti-Blackness and white supremacist violence was being perpetrated.

Yes, you read that right. These Korean immigrant store owners were perpetuating “white supremacist violence”.

It gets worse. In an excellent, scathing review of this book for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood writes:

I am also from recent-immigrant stock. 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.  

He is right to do so. Among the motivations for the Nazi goons who carried out the atrocity of Kristallnacht were the old canards about Jews as masterminds behind the capitalist oppression of the German worker (they were simultaneously behind Bolshevism too, but nobody ever said Nazi ideology was coherent). The historian Gerald Krefetz summarized the myths as: “control the banks, the money supply, the economy, and businesses – of the community, of the country, of the world”.

Now, reflecting on the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 (and Watts in 1965), Osterweil writes:

These meant one angle of the riots was a racial battle between Black people and the Korean immigrants who had come to own and manage most of the businesses in South Central. Rioters systematically attacked Korean businesses, and a television crew happened to be present for a gunfight between Korean store owners and Black rioters. But much as Watts was sometimes described as an anti-Semitic uprising, because Jewish businesses were frequently targeted for destruction, actual “anti-Korean” sentiment was contingent and largely beside the point. Instead, just as Jews were in 1965, Koreans in 1992 were “on the front-line of the confrontation between capital and the residents of central LA-they are the face of capital for these communities.”

Just as, to the Nazis in 1938, the Jews were “the face of capital for these communities.” Osterweil has traveled so far left she is rubbing shoulders with the Brownshirts.

Osterweil’s book is absolute drivel, of course, but so are many of the #woke books you see on ‘Reading lists for allies’. You can buy Osterweil’s book from Barnes & Noble for a hefty $28. Right under the copyright notice, you read: “The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.” Or you could just loot it.

*My admiration was lessened somewhat when I found out how they had rewritten the piece after controversy erupted.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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