The Anti-Anti-Violence Manifesto

REVIEW: 'In Defense of Looting' by Vicky Osterweil

• September 14, 2020 12:00 pm


"Social peace is just the condition under which patriarchal white supremacist violence is acting most fluidly and most thoroughly and is distributed most invisibly," writes Vicky Osterweil in her provocative tome, In Defense of Looting. "Only when we find such ‘peace' intolerable will we be able to envision what real peace might look like, and what it might take to get there."

Osterweil, a self-described agitator who named a pet after a French tyrant (Robespierre), proceeds to lay out "what it might take"—in case chapter titles such as "All Cops Are Bastards" and "No Such Thing as Nonviolence" were too cryptic. Revolution is "the only way forward," and it won't be a nonviolent affair.

Considering the target reader is already familiar with Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, the book is at least 200 pages too long. The casual reader, meanwhile, is likely to get bogged down in extended passages about NAFTA, El Salvador, and how "racialized hierarchies were crucial to medieval European notions of nobility and the formation of serf and slave populations." Not to mention the preponderance of descriptive adjectives, as mandated by intersectionality. Abolish capitalism? Nah. Abolish "cisheteropatriarchal white supremacist capitalism."

Osterweil isn't pro-violence, per se. She's anti-anti-violence, and prefers the term "not-nonviolent" to describe the revolution she envisions. At the same time, she doesn't want to alienate any readers. "I want to make clear that this discussion is not meant to denigrate anyone who uses non-violent tactics in their struggles," she explains.

That doesn't mean nonviolence is good or advisable. Far from it. History proves that nonviolence is "actually a collaborationist and misogynist affair." Osterweil trods literary ground that few intellectuals have dared to trod. You don't often see the word "egregious" used to describe "peacekeeping" efforts that don't involve the United Nations. The word "similarly" is utilized in courageous fashion to compare a "struggling business" threatened by riots to "a small white farmer who enslaved only one or two people."

Some of the author's attempts to diminish nonviolence as a political tactic read like a bad liberal parody of a bad conservative meme. Martin Luther King didn't really believe in nonviolence, for example, because he "traveled with a heavily armed entourage." In a footnote, Osterweil attempts to burnish her anti-anti-violence bona fides by insisting that she does not intend "to make a moral distinction between looting and property destruction or to imagine that property destruction is ‘worse' or more white supremacist than looting." Phew, thanks for clarifying.

The politics espoused in the book are, to put it mildly, slightly to the left of mainstream. The author praises Che Guevara for his "radical leadership" in promoting a system "distinct from China and the USSR, the latter of which most revolutionaries in the sixties recognized as a reactionary, capitalist state." She tries to assuage ideological purists who argue that looters "are acting as consumers and therefore furthering capitalism."

What about the minority business owners who might not be so inclined to have their livelihoods destroyed in the name of abolishing [insert descriptive adjectives] capitalism? "There’s no really clean or easy way to struggle without ever hurting anyone," is the best answer Osterweil could come up with in a recent interview with the New Yorker. (She also elaborated on her comparison of small business owners to slaveholders, suggesting that all private property is akin to slavery.)

Are we to take the author literally, seriously, or both? The mainstream media has been eager to dismiss In Defense of Looting as the rantings of a lone wolf radical perverting the beliefs of millions of peaceful demonstrators. In any event, it's less dangerous than a Tom Cotton op-ed. Looting should be downplayed—to prevent Republicans from seizing—but never defended. Except the book isn't really a defense of looting so much as a rebuke of capitalism, which can't so easily be dismissed as charmingly fringe.

The Democratic Party avoided a reckoning with this reality when voters salvaged Joe Biden's zombie campaign to prevent a 78-year-old socialist from running away with the nomination. Bernie Sanders is old, but his influential allies in Congress aren't. Younger generations view socialism more favorably than capitalism, even if they don't really know what either term means. Democratic leaders, mainstream liberals, and "woke" corporations won't be able to defer that reckoning indefinitely. Time to start boarding up the windows.

Published under: Book reviews, Democratic Party