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Don't Steal This Book
On "In Defense of Looting”
On Thursday, August 27th, the same day Donald Trump formally accepted the Republican nomination, National Public Radio aired an interview with Vicky Osterweil, author of a book called In Defense of Looting.
The white trans daughter of a science professor, Osterweil told a credulous NPR interviewer that looting was justified because it “strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police,” and also “provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure.” She added riots reveal how “without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.”
I was so sure the Osterweil book was satire — a clever comic doing a Marxist Andy Kaufman routine — that I bought it. It’s not a joke! In Defense of Looting is supposed to be the woke generation’s answer to Steal This Book, another anarchist instructional published in an epic period of unrest. But the differences between the books are profound.
Abbie Hoffman’s classic guide to “U.S. on no dollars a day” was furious, persuasive, funny, crazy, packed with trenchant commentary about the vicious banalities of sixties America, and entertaining on every page, even when you disagreed with him. If only his iconic definition of free speech were remembered more often today:
Steal This Book could stand alone as a work of assiduous experimental journalism, filled as it was with “survival techniques” for life underground he’d gleaned in multiple innovative ways, including responses to ads placed in revolutionary newspapers. Hoffman even supposedly fact-checked the anonymous tips about places on the map to find free food, get treated for sexually-transmitted diseases, score drugs, etc.
Steal This Book was also an equal opportunity offender, as cutting toward phonies within the revolutionary ranks as it was toward the “Pig Empire”:
The duty of a revolutionary is to make love and that means staying alive and free. That doesn’t allow for cop-outs. Smoking dope and hanging up Che’s picture is no more a commitment than drinking milk or collecting postage stamps.
There are a lot of things one can say about Abbie Hoffman, but he was no LARPer. He wrote the introduction for Steal this Book in jail, doing time for contempt for his memorable lunacy at the Chicago Seven trial, when he among other things told the judge to “stick it up his bowling ball.” He once tried to halt the Vietnam war by using psychic energy to levitate the Pentagon 300 feet in the air, where it would turn “orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled.” Abbie Hoffman was interesting.
Then there’s Vicky Osterweil.
Like Hoffman, Osterweil is a self-proclaimed leftist revolutionary who justifies stealing on the grounds that property is a crime. The similarities pretty much end there.
For one, Hoffman imagined a life of infinite possibility on the other side of the revolution, while In Defense of Looting sees life as a string of ceaseless miseries that might at best be abated temporarily by stealing your flat-screen TV.
I found two examples in the book of the author writing approvingly of what might commonly be termed “enjoyment.” One involves rioting itself, which she variously describes as “violent, extreme, and femme as fuck,” a “queer birth,” and a “party.” The Watts rebellion, which left 34 dead and over 1,000 injured, was “not some dour thing,” but a “carnivalesque, celebratory atmosphere.”
The other example was soldiers having gay sex in the trenches during World War I (“No doubt,” Osterweil commented, “many fiancees found the same queer comforts at home”).
I hate to keep coming back to Steal This Book, but Hoffman was urging readers to start living the dream immediately. In addition to recommending places to scrounge free pharmaceuticals or sneak into movies or spirit away meals from fine dining restaurants, Steal This Book is full of listings for museums, picnic areas, surfing spots, places to see fossils and tar pits, and so on. It recommends “Forest Lawn Memorial Park, overlooking beautiful downtown Glendale,” where Hoffman says, “You can turn on in front of the Jean Hersholt memorial, fuck in the aisle of benevolence located in the Great Mausoleum, and trip out on a giant stereo sermon emanating from the giant Mystery of Life sculpture. Far-fucking-out!”
In contrast, there’s little evidence the author of In Defense of Looting has ever been outside. Talking about her research methods, Osterweil writes, “I am not, myself, a trained historian with institutional access. As such, my methods have largely been to rely on secondary sources, online archives and videos, and the work of other historians…” In a strange passage buried in chapter seven, she confesses to a “personal aversion to violence,” lamenting a “refusal to attack property” that “does not lessen the degree to which I benefit from systems of domination.”
So this is a 288-page book written by a Very Online Person in support of the idea that other people should loot, riot, and burn things in the real world.
Style-wise, In Defense of Looting continues the impressive streak of the woke movement having yet to produce a single readable piece of literature.
Page after page commits the reader to exhausting tautological constructions, the gist of which usually turns out to be something like, “Through looting, a thing that was once somebody else’s comes to belong to a different person.” Here Osterweil explains that looting is a way of acquiring things without working:
Looting represents… a way to solve some of the immediate problems of poverty [by] creating a space for people to freely reproduce their lives rather than doing so by wage labor.
Here, she explains that through looting, a thing that once cost something, comes to cost nothing:
When something is looted, that thing’s nature as a commodity is destroyed by its being taken for free… Everything in the store goes from being a commodity to becoming a gift.
In case you weren’t convinced by her authoritative tone, Osterweil includes a scholarly citation attesting to the fact that in the process of stealing a thing, you end up acquiring it:
Looting, as scholar Delio Vasquez writes in “The Poor Person’s Defense of Riots,” “directly results… in your acquiring the things that you are seeking.”
There are a lot of reasons this book has gained attention in the last week, from public radio promoting riots in the middle of wide-scale urban unrest, to the preposterous premise of a white middle-class author promoting “controlled arson” as a way to strike blows against “whiteness,” to its hilarious hypocrisy — as the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood points out, the book contains one of the great copyright notices in the history of publishing, considering the context:
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact email@example.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.
After George Floyd and Jacob Blake were attacked by police, the political, corporate, and media establishment bent over backwards to show solidarity with protests. Mayors and governors disavowed their own stay-at-home orders to enable marches. Medical officials asserted the health dangers of institutional racism outweighed the risks of Covid-19. Congressional Democrats donned Kente cloth scarves. Even Jamie Dimon took a knee.
Many Democratic elected officials, justifiably concerned about the optics of a strong police response, reacted diffidently at best to looting. New York City’s Bill de Blasio, who angrily threatened to arrest Hasidim who violated his Covid-19 orders to attend a Rabbi’s funeral, stood down in the first looting-filled nights after Floyd’s death. That included preposterous scenes of masked rioters fleeing upscale stores in SOHO in luxury SUVs in what one reporter described as being like “Mario Kart on the streets.”
All this was justified, politically, on the grounds that protest excesses — looting, rioting, arson, etc. — were in service of an organized demand for systemic police reform. Great if they were, but if they weren’t, a political problem loomed. With the store-smashing and “controlled arson” incidents not fully abating months after Floyd’s murder, and countless small businesses (and in particular, minority businesses) ruined, the one thing that could get even sympathetic liberals clamoring for a Trump air strike would be a suggestion that this had actually just been in fun all along, that such “joyous and liberatory” acts of “proletarian shopping” were justified because it’s a “right wing myth” that the “small business owner must be respected.”
In Defense of Looting makes this exact case. Take a section on the New York City blackout on July 13, 1977. Unlike most of the other episodes she describes, there was no triggering episode, “no initiating event of police brutality.” This meant some other excuse had to be contrived for causing $300 million in damage, setting over a thousand fires, destroying 34 blocks of Broadway, injuring 450 police officers, teens stealing 50 Pontiacs out of a showroom, etc.
Osterweil concluded that defending the looting required “directly challenging class society, not just racism.” Additionally, defending the blackout looters meant “directly aligning with the ‘antisocial’ actions of the proletariat in making their own lives better at the expense of law and order,” even if they were not “legibly ‘protesting’” New York’s “white supremacist commodity society.”
This was another of those tautologies. The TL:DR version would have been, “We must even defend the selfish antisocial urge to take stuff without political reason.” And so, Osterweil explains, “people spilled onto the streets to help one another, to party, and to loot, burn, and fight with police.”
There’s no plan in the book. We’re repeatedly told stealing hurts the patriarchy and confronts whiteness — “a revolutionary movement must reduce the value of whiteness to zero,” the white author writes. There’s a long chapter denouncing the “organization-ist tendency” of labor movements, which leads to “reformism,” which of course is a stalking horse for counterrevolution. “The more ‘organized’ a movement is,” Osterweil complains, “the less likely there is looting.” So we need more looting, but what comes after looting? Organization? Nope:
The power of the attack on white settler society is seen instead in the broad lawlessness, property destruction, looting, and cop-free zones produced by the riot and is reflected in the attendant sense of freedom, unity, and radical safety felt by the rioters.
Sign me up for some of that “Radical Safety”! CHOP Zone, here I come!
There’s a great short story by Mikhail Saltykov called “How a Muzhik Fed Two Officials.” It’s about two nitwit clerks from St. Petersburg who wake up on a deserted island and realize they don’t know how to feed themselves. They think and think and discuss eating their gloves, boots, and even each other, until finally it hits them: if they were back home, they’d just have a servant do it! They immediately find a sleeping muzhik and after berating him for laziness, get him to collect fruit and fish and partridges and cook them dinner — problem solved! This is nearly the same mentality as these Gen-Z geniuses who think the world will run on magic intersectionality dust once they get rid of the cops and the kulaks, i.e. all those meddlesome “work for a living” people.
About that: the book expresses zero compassion for those who do not see themselves as involved in politics and are just trying to get by. In her NPR interview Osterweil repeats the common left-Twitter trope that looting “is not actually hurting any people” because “most stores are insured; it's just hurting insurance companies on some level,” which simply isn’t true. Not every business is insured for this kind of damage, and even if they are, line employees and business owners alike will lose weeks or months of income while claims are paid and repairs are made, if claims are paid and repairs are made.
She clearly has no idea what it is to work, to spend years squeaking out the shitty little margins of a corner store or a restaurant, to hose a kitchen floor down at two in the morning, or wash the puke out of the back of a taxi at the end of a shift. Abbie Hoffman at least told readers to leave big tips for waitresses, if you’re going to rip off restaurants. To Osterweil, everyone’s a kulak. She says Korean store owners were “the face of capital” in early nineties Los Angeles, just as, she says, Jewish businesses were in sixties New York. When she talks about who suffers in riots, she writes:
Though the buildings destroyed may be located in a predominantly Black or proletarian neighborhood, the losses go to the white, bourgeois building and business owners, rarely the people who live near them.
Rarely! She goes on to cite anthropologist Neal Keating in comparing looting to “the potlatch, a communal practice of Indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest,” in which “wealthy people” at births, deaths, weddings, and other festivals give possessions away and “vie with each other to destroy the most accumulated wealth in a massive bonfire.”
The minor distinguishing detail of the potlatch being a voluntary surrender of wealth was not considered relevant enough to mention, an interesting detail given how touchy this sort of person tends to be with boundaries in other situations. All sorts of people now have to take responsibility for the mere possibility of, say, a student being fleetingly discomfited by a word or image in a novel or history book, but apparently we don’t have to worry about making someone sad by burning their house down and throwing their shit on the street to be gobbled up by strangers, an act of “communal cohesion.”
These and countless other details make In Defense of Looting more cringe-worthy in its own way than a Sean Hannity flag-and-mugshot insta-book could ever hope to be, but what makes it a perfect manifesto for the woke era is its pathos. Adherents to this theology are characterized by a boundless, almost Trumpian capacity for self-pity, even as they’re advocating setting you on fire. They can make wrapping fishwiches sound like digging coal in Matewan, being deprived of a smartphone like being whipped by Centurions, and they matter because everyone, including especially Democratic Party politicians, is afraid of the fallout that comes with telling them to shut the fuck up. So their “ideas” spread like cancer.
If no one in the party says anything, Trump will argue, with some justice, this is the true face of his opposition. The first Sister Souljah moment was a drag, but this moment actually calls for one. Will there ever be a more perfect candidate than this book?