Her name is Vicky Osterweil. It’s a pity that she is only emerging on the scene now. Had her ideas enjoyed broad circulation even a month ago, she could have made a major and clarifying contribution to the Democratic Party’s platform.
Many commentators, from the Left as well as the Right, grumbled that the Democrats’ convention lacked a clear policy agenda. Sure, we all knew in general outline what they were about—they were “against racism,” “against white supremacism,” above all, they were “against Trump.”
But the policy particulars that flowed from these sentiments were more adumbrated than stated directly. Vicky Osterweil (formerly Willie) fills in some blanks. Too bad she didn’t have a spot speaking at the convention. She sums up so much of what the Democrats are about today.
Like Joe Biden (and like his mentor Barack Obama), she is passionately committed to “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Peeking out of his basement in May, Joe Biden saw “an incredible opportunity to transform America.”
Vicky Osterweil agrees. “[W]e need a total transformation of our society,” she writes in her new book. “This society we live in under capitalism is entirely structured around the production [and] circulation of commodities. It is a cruel system, built for the creation and revocation of things not for the flourishing of people.”
In her interview with Stephen Colbert earlier this month, Joe Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris cheerfully noted that the “protests” coruscating across the country were “not going to stop.” “This is a movement,” she explained, smiling. The riots “are not going to let up and they should not and we should not.”
Osterweil sees Harris’ bet and raises it. She, too, regards the riots as part of a “movement for liberation,” a movement that is just getting started.
I mentioned Osterweil’s new book. It is called In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. I should note that the word “riotous” as used here does not mean “uproariously funny.” In means “having to do with riots,” i.e., violent insurrectionary action: looting, destroying property, burning things down. These are the actions that Osterweil recommends to bring about that “total” or “fundamental” transformation of society that she, like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, longs to bring about.
Osterweil’s great virtue is her frankness. You always know where you stand with her. When she says “a defense of looting,” she means a defense of that “method of direct redistribution of wealth, from the store owners and capitalists to the poor.” In case there is any confusion, she took the opportunity afforded by a respectful profile on NPR to clear things up: “the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot. That’s the thing I’m defending.”
According to Osterweil, “Looting represents a material way that riots and protests help the community.” How? “[B]y providing a way for people to solve some of the immediate problems of poverty and by creating a space for people to freely reproduce their lives rather than doing so through wage labor.”
Looting, she writes, is “a practical immediate form of improving life” (though not, of course for the store owners or capitalists who are looted). Basically, it’s a variation of Willie Sutton’s response to the question of why he robbed banks: “because that’s where the money is.” A straight-talking man, Willie Sutton.
And so it is with Vicky Osterweil. “Everything in the store goes from being a commodity to becoming a gift,” she explains. “Less abstractly, looting is usually followed up by burning down the shop” and by the looters throwing out on to the street some of the items they have looted. Thus, “Looting involves not only taking wealth directly but also immediately sharing that wealth, which points to the collapse of the system by which diluted things produce value.”
Talk of the “collapse of the system by which diluted things produce value” brings us to the center of Osterweil’s argument. To bring about that “total” or “fundamental” transformation we keep hearing the Democrats talk about, Osterweil argues we need to go to the root of the problem: private property.
“The right to property,” she explains, “is innately, structurally white supremacist: support for white supremacy involves a commitment to property and the commodity form.” How could the Democrats have overlooked this jewel?
Property is racist, a form of white supremacy. It is also sexist, though that old-fashioned term does not appear in this very up-to-date book. Instead, Osterweil talks a great deal about “gender” and its involvement with politics. This is something that gave an interviewer at the Huffington Post a little thrill. “I was really intrigued,” she said, “by your argument that looting and rioting are not masculine and in certain ways are actually quite femme. [“Femme”? Alas, yes.] I would love to have you talk a little bit about why you see the idea of violence in the form of rioting and looting as not macho per se, and why we could see it as a more feminine kind of approach.”
Osterweil doesn’t disappoint. “The way that a riot empowers you is, first of all, it makes it easier to live your life because you get lots of stuff for free, and it makes it much easier to reproduce your life. But they also are experienced as joyous, communal, empowering, community-reinforcing events.” As she puts it in her book, “Riots are violent, extreme, and femme as fuck: they rip, tear, burn, and destroy to give birth to a new world.”
You can see why Osterweil describes In Defense of Looting as “an act of gratitude” to the Ferguson rioters. Pioneers that they were, they did indeed help pave the way. And you can see, too, why A Defense of Looting is also a blanket condemnation of the police (“All Cops Are Bastards” is the charming title of one chapter).
As I write, Amazon lists In Defense of Looting as its “#1 New Release.” Her publisher describes the book as “[a] fresh argument for rioting and looting as our most powerful tools for dismantling white supremacy.”
This of course is deeply misleading. Already in 1840 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, posing the question “What is property?” answered “Property is theft” (La propriété, c’est le vol!). That was decades before Marx and Engels added all the rhetorical paraphernalia about the evils of “wage labor,” capitalism, private property, and so on. I wonder whether Osterweil intends to liberate her own private property by redistributing the royalties she earns or whether, to take it one step further, she plans to loot and torch the offices of her publisher, Hachette, one of those evil big corporations she claims to abominate. It will be interesting to see.
You might have thought that all such Marxist claptrap had finally been shoveled into the dustbin of history or at least (what amounts to the same thing) into the rancid purlieus of the academy. But clearly it lives on in the addled brains of Democratic stars like Bernie Sanders (the real brains of the Biden operation) and newcomers like the pathetic Vicky Osterweil, who, according to her publisher’s bio, is “a writer, editor, and agitator and a regular contributor to The New Inquiry. Her writing has also appeared in The Baffler, The Nation, The Rumpus, Real Life, and Al Jazeera America.” Who would doubt it?
At some point when looking through In Defense of Looting, I wondered whether it wasn’t the latest enterprise by Titania McGrath or some other comedic genius. Sadly, I conclude that Osterweil is in earnest. She claims that her defense of looting and violence against property is not also a defense of violence against persons. But a look at what happened in Washington, D.C. to Rand and Kelley Paul the other night highlights the speciousness of that distinction. The mob came for the Pauls, and had it not been for the police, they would surely have been physically attacked.
A popular saying on the Left in the 1930s was that Communism is just “liberalism in a hurry.” Vicky Osterweil may be traveling a bit faster than the contemporary Democratic Party. But they are catching up fast.