Protester exits a looted shop in Dallas, Texas. May 30, 2020 Photo: Sara Carpenter /

If shopping is freedom, looting is resistance

  • September 12, 2020

People & Protest

When consumption determines social inclusion, looting is a form of direct action against a system that denies many people the opportunities for social integration.

In early June a group of Minneapolis activists occupied a Sheraton hotel and with the collaboration of the owners turned it into a hostel for homeless people. Unfortunately, this experiment in prefigurative politics — building the new in the shell of the old — lasted just a few weeks, as was to be expected in an environment in which solidaristic actions can often become easy targets for both opportunistic predators and deliberate repression.

The story of the Minneapolis Sanctuary — as it was named by the occupiers— got almost no airplay, unlike the many mealy-mouthed attempts to delegitimize the protesters’ demands by branding them as looters. In fact, once again, centrists and conservatives are using the property damage in cities like Kenosha and elsewhere to distract us from the immediate cause and underlying reasons for the insurrection — the systemic racism and rampant white supremacy that led to the police shooting of Jacob Blake and the killing of two protesters by a far-right vigilante.

The narrative is pretty much the same we saw a couple of months ago, with the protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd, when the media kept showing a supposedly damning short clip of a young woman bursting through a smashed shop window, screaming “I got some stuff, I got some stuff!”

But that video hardly damns the protesters — even those engaging in property damage. We should resist those glib calls for law and order, on principle. A key point of the protests is precisely that not everyone is equal before the law. This cuts both ways. Setting aside the issue that illegality in and of itself tells us nothing about the justifiability of an action, law-breaking by and on behalf of the marginalized is not the same as any other law-breaking, especially when no persons are harmed in the process.

What is more, there is a structural affinity between actions like the humanitarian hotel occupation and the protesters’ looting. At first glance these are completely different matters. Looting consumer goods appears far removed from the appropriation of a private space to meet the needs of people living on the margins of society. Yet the two actions — personal looting and occupation to benefit the most vulnerable — can be seen as manifestations of the same phenomenon: direct action against a system that structurally denies many people concrete opportunities to have a lifestyle that the system itself indicates as not only desirable, but necessary for social integration.

To understand that point, let us go back to mid-April. One month before the protests following the killing of George Floyd there was another wave of demonstrations in the US, with decidedly more questionable but no less significant motivations. I am referring to the protests against the COVID-19 lockdowns. The dominant theme of these demonstrations was “freedom” in all its various interpretations. Sometimes the protesters’ slogans were accidentally comical — “We are entitled to a haircut!” or “Don’t cancel my golf season!” — but the message was clear: in our society you are not free if you cannot go shopping or do business.

And this talk of freedom is important; so much so that at the same time many citizens — mostly white and male — saw fit to break into state capitols to remind governors that American “patriots” are ready to defend their freedom dressed in eBay-bought special forces costumes and carrying assault rifles that are almost as easy to acquire.

To be sure, one may wonder whether those claims of freedom are sincere and not a self-servingly hollow rhetorical instrument, or even the result of simple confusion about the meanings of “freedom”. Undoubtedly American culture is full of misunderstandings about the concept of freedom, intentional or otherwise. I still remember the slogan from a commercial for a mobility scooter from some two decades ago: “Give freedom back to the free!” it said, against a Star-Spangled Banner background. And yes, it featured a bold eagle, too.

Yet there is a direct link between the self-representation of the United States as the “Land of the Free” and the central role of trade and consumption in American culture. One way in which the idea of freedom plays a role in the narrative that legitimizes the American economic-political order has to do with how consumption is a key vehicle for both self-realization and social participation. Even the anti-lockdown protesters’ attachment to firearms is not so much a reaffirmation of the Second Amendment right to carry arms as much as it is a defense of the right to free consumption, regardless of the potential lethality of the product.

The cultural history of the US certainly features many traditions hostile to consumerism and focused on other conceptions of freedom: Puritanism, the anti-materialism of hippies or the civic spirit of New England Town Meetings. Yet studies show that, since the mid-20th century, consumption has become the main form of social participation. Those who do not consume, and especially those who do not consume because they are unable to, are confined to the margins of society — far more than those who do not vote, or at least those who do not vote by choice, rather than because of vote suppression efforts.

It is a small step between these considerations and our earlier comparison between looting and occupation for the benefit of the most vulnerable. We can observe that the American Dream of the “Land of the Free” remains an unfulfilled promise for millions of people who remain structurally excluded from participation in consumer society, or at least severely limited in their ability to participate.

The homeless and urban ethnic minorities are just some of the most obvious examples of social exclusion — a measure not only of the absolute and relative poverty of these groups, but above all of their structural inability to lead the type of life that society considers “normal.” Such a life involves having a fixed abode, but also the accumulation of consumer goods. The young looter and the occupiers of the Sheraton Hotel have simply decided to try to remedy their social exclusion with direct action — a political strategy that has returned to the center of resistance to capitalism over the past few decades.

The events of the last months — from the anti-lockdown protests to the looting and occupations related to the Floyd uprising — have shown once again that private property is both the first and the last line of defense of the status quo. The rhetoric is familiar: a child’s attachment to her favorite teddy bear is just as sacred as any old billionaire’s grip on his stocks. But we should be wary of common sense notions such as “private property” or “looting” when they are used to categorically condemn insurgent actions that call into question the legitimacy of the status quo.

That is especially true when the status quo is capitalism — an order based precisely on a combination of the monopoly of violence by the state and private property as the cornerstone of social organization. What seems common sense is often an ideological distortion in favor of the powers that be. Direct action, both in its more rudimentary forms and in complex manifestations of prefigurative politics, can help us shred this ideological veil. It may even help us change what is socially desirable, or possible.

Enzo Rossi

Enzo Rossi is associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam and the co-editor of the European Journal of Political Theory.

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