An open letter to those who condemn looting (Part two)

Looted goods lie on the pavement outside a fire-damaged footwear shop in Brixton
Looted goods lie on the pavement outside a fire-damaged footwear shop in Brixton.

Second part of an open letter from Socialism and/or barbarism about responses to looting. First part can be found here on Libcom.

Submitted by Ari on August 14, 2011

3. They are just being "materialistic," stealing things they can't afford

Do you really expect people to riot immaterially? You expect them to loot only what they could afford?

But as before, we agree in the letter of your condemnation: people are taking this material situation as an opportunity to steal things they cannot afford - or can only with real difficult - to purchase. That is entirely true.

But in saying so, there are two separate issues, twin intertwined strands of bullshit.

First, this recurrent accusation of "materialistic" signals a broader refusal not of consumerism - with which you are well familiar and for which you cheerlead full-throated - but of the material fact of social disruption. To speak, with disdain, at the materialistic nature of these days is to speak, beneath your tongue, of a desire that people should go back to "protesting" in ways that remain representational: be counted, be seen, be ignored, go back to the places they live, remain there. It marks your horror at what it looks like for "protest" to become material, and, at that point, no longer protest.

To recognize this is not to give up any degree of judgment: one can of course - and should - think hard about the inflections of this shift, about what it means for this material critique of the city to hit indiscriminately, to not differentiate between corporate chains and "local business." And to think hard about this means to act in such a way as to contribute to that inflection, to throw oneself into or in the way of it, as one wishes. But buried beneath the attack on the "crass materialism" of the looting is a nastier worm, that of distance and sheen, that supports critique and dissent precisely to the degree it remains irrelevant and immaterial, that it is to be seen and heard and not ever felt.

More particularly, though, this condemnation of being "materialistic" marks both a startling absence of self-reflexivity and an insistence on pathologizing, racializing, and dehistoricizing the poor and angry.

Because let us be very honest. You who work, who have the opportunity to do so, who perhaps had it handed to you or who fought tooth and nail to get that opportunity, you who "earn an honest living": do you truly work only to cover the bare necessities? Do you work just enough to pull off a base level of caloric intake, a hair shirt, an empty room, an indulgent pint at the end of the week, and bus fare to get you to your job? Do you disdain desire beyond that?

No. You don't. We don't. Even if you are among those who can rarely afford them, you want, and you work and scrape and cheat and borrow to get, expensive trainers, big screen TVs, sport utility vehicles, prams that resemble sport utility vehicles, expensive vodka, pants with the name of a certain brand on the ass and that make your ass look good, earrings, cologne, cigarettes that don't taste like cardboard, video games, diamonds, good quality beef.

(Or worse, you play at being above that. And so you want a brand new hybrid, soap made from hemp, something locally farmed, a flat with bamboo floors, the complete works of Matthew Arnold.)

And so, even before the question of criminality emerges (how those goods get gotten), you are condemning the looters for something else: for wanting the very objects you want.

You are condemning them for your desire.

You are declaring that desire to be abject and unacceptable, as soon as it is untethered from the legitimation of labor. You think, then, that they are supposed to desire and be refused its payoff. That such is the fundamental condition of the poor: to want and to go wanting. That want is supposed to be identical to access.

Such that when you bend the stick toward counterfactuals (as many of the condemners slightly left of center do) and say, well, it would be different if they were just taking food, nappies, medicine, you know, the things you need to get by, what is being said is that they should steal only goods of a quality equivalent to their social standing. The poor, whose standard of life is not very high, should have goods whose standard is not very high. They should not be taking pre-rolled cigarettes. They should not be taking champagne, or at least not the good stuff and only for special occasions. They should not be taking large televisions. For they do not deserve these things. And they should know better.

And you are misunderstanding this, fundamentally, if you reduce it to simply a desire for goods. An act of taking is not a neutral redistribution of commodities on the market.

For what is it to loot? To loot is not to shoplift. It is not to steal, which implies the coherence of a relationship between potential property owners, from the one who owned it to the one who takes it, such that the latter comes to own it, as property, however "ill-gotten." This is not looting. Looting is not consumerism by other means. Looting is going for broke and, in so doing, breaking down the consistency of property as a title and a transfer between particular subjects.

Looting is necessarily collective: fantasies of a proletarian Rambo aside, it is not a solo endeavor. It is a horde of people taking everything, for it implies also the total nature of the theft. Not tactical, nor careful, not sly. It is a moment of total abandon, defined by the fact that it treats all it comes into contact with as within reach. The verb is just a version of the noun loot, which means "booty" or "stolen property." And so too the relation it has to the stores, streets, city, and world in which it takes place: it sees all as already booty, property already theft, gathered, hoarded behind glass and steel.

It is, therefore, a genuine collapse of this very logic you trumpet and with which you scold, of deserving, of being adequate to your cash flow, of being and wanting nothing more, of having the realism of frustration that the poor alone are asked to accept. It is an attack.

Your nervous, pacing anxiety at this is entirely understandable, given that it has very little to do with "them." Rather, it points up the way you understand your own property, your own lusts, your own taste. Namely, that you have no particular interest in a nice pair of trainers because they are comfortable/look good/help you run fast. That is incidental. The specificity of your desire is negative. It is that you don't want other people to have them. That what you crave is not plenitude as such, especially not for the many, but the condition of general scarcity over which your meager holdings rise like a tower. All the more so because you will deny and denounce it, play it down (after all, displaying wealth on the surface is supposed to be the province and practice of the poor and tasteless), not even have the decency to flaunt it. Well, times are tough, but I'm getting along OK. We all have to tighten our belts a bit sometimes.

You condemn, then, those too hungry, pissed off, bored, sick and tired, and desperate for not having in practice the self-denial you ape. With one exception. There is one thing they are supposed to want and are supposed to do whatever possible to get them: jobs. And so...

4. They don't work, they are criminals

Yes. To not work under capital is criminal. It is structurally so: a fault, an offense, that which calls out for punishment - hunger, jail, coercion. Now that we have left behind the era of general wars, home ownership, and the cross-class production of children, full-time work is the guarantor of adult status, of citizenship, of being a proper subject. The absence of work - that is, labor recognized as such - is a general criminalization of populations, before any legal transgression technically occurs.

It is locally so, because insofar as work means sanctioned labor, then to not work means that one must labor in modes that are technically criminal: steal, sell stolen goods, sell drugs, sell your body, con, beg, squat, loot.

And in a time when there aren't enough jobs to be had, or, God forbid, when people don't want to labor, don't want to throw their lives into hours of toil and boredom from which they, their families, their friends, their parts of town will only reap only the smallest portion of reward, in such a time, to keep telling people that this isn't the right way to go about things is literally, and precisely, to say to them: you will not be able to work, and you will not be able to not work. You should scrape by, and you should be quiet about it.

However, it would behoove you, and us all, to clarify just what is meant by work.

In brief, it is the exchange of one's time and exertion - a portion of a life - for a certain quantity of commodities, money being the most common and infamous one. The specificity of such labor under capital is that the value of commodities returned to the worker is not equivalent to the value generated by her labor: that's what Marxists mean by surplus-value. That's what capitalists mean by making a killing.

Work does not have a constant rate of return for the worker. Wages are not identical, and an adequate portrait of the world economy makes it clear that barring certain overall correlations for highly trained work (surgeons, assassins, jazz pianists) and excluding our fantasy that it must be the case that wages and worth are commensurate, the amount earned bears very little relation to the quality or quantity of labor performed. Some work is unskilled and paid very little. Some work is unskilled and paid a lot. Some work is highly skilled and paid a lot. Some work is highly skilled and paid very little.

I'm sure we can all agree on this, even if you don't particularly enjoy doing so. After all, it is true.

It is also true, then, that this looting is a form of labor, even as it ruins the category of labor. It is, like credit, an inflection of the crisis of full employment. It is high-risk, precarious, informal potentially high-yield activity. Those who loot are trading a portion of their time - a few brief minutes or hours, but with the potential for years in jail or with death, such that the hourly wage is highly uncertain - and intellectual and physical skill and energy in exchange for access to a set of goods which they are not alone in wanting.

They are working, in a time in which work is hard to come by. They are working together, which, we all know, is really what scares you all. We know we told them to band together and work as a community to improve their lives, but we didn't mean it like this...

And to give an adequate account of what is happening, we can't reduce it to ransacking consumables or goods for home use. (Besides, having a huge flat-screen TV doesn't make it any easier to pay the cable bill.) For immediately after the looting of an electronics store, people were immediately trying to hock laptops for 20 pounds, something close to 2.5% of their original retail value, if not less. Meaning not only that one sees the much-fêted entrepreneurial spirit that the working, and non-working, poor are supposed to combine with their bootstraps to pull themselves out of poverty.

It means also that your claim that it is somehow morally reprehensible, or tactically misguided, for people to take these items instead of the "bare necessities" is, strictly speaking, an idiotic one. Are we to insist that along with restricting the scope of their desires, the poor are not supposed to understand the fundamentals of exchange-value? That they should have been loading shopping carts with flour and beans, rather than with computers which could, in theory, be sold for a larger quantity of flour and beans? Or kept and used, because access to the internet, the ability to write friends or stories, to listen to music, to look at photos of those you love or might like to: last time we checked, poverty doesn't abolish the desire to try and enjoy the existence one has and to share that with others, however blighted this era may be.

So indeed, they are being opportunistic. They are taking the excuse of a "legitimate cause for concern" (the murder of a young man), and they are using it to produce a situation in which one can access material goods and wealth which they are otherwise banned from touching.

To blame anyone for this is to share in a profound and inane mystification of the world. As though the basic workings of capital were not fundamentally oriented around the seizing of opportunities. (Such as, for example, taking the opportunity of excess populations of the poor and the global character of labor to keep wages down.) As though only the poor took opportunities. As if one should be restrained from taking a risky chance to better one's life.

As if fighting, in however "loathsome" and violent a manner, against a loathsome and violent social order was supposed to remain political and therefore ignorable. As if, after all, the stakes of all this was not material, not about how one does or does not live a life, not the very disaster of the social.

5. They have no right to do this. This isn't how you protest.

Of course they have no right to do this. It is for that reason that it is not a protest.

A protest is that which one has the right to do. It is that which you recognize the minute you see it and forget as soon as it passes from your immediate field of vision.

Perhaps the worst article of your faith, the thickest bile on your tongue, is to now dare to suggest that 1) there are some legitimate concerns behind this, 2) that, as Tim Godwin (Acting Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) put it, "they are conversations we need to have, but they don't excuse what is happening", 3) the riots are not going to make those conversations happen, and 4) people should return home to start having those conversations, assured (and scolded) that if they just made use of the proper channels of voicing their opinion - voting, community forums, pre-sanctioned marches, letter writing campaigns - then those with the power to materially better these situations will happily consider doing so.

To simultaneously assert that this havoc is not the way to be heard and to encourage people to return to the modes of giving voice to rage which you have concretely proven for the last decades to be utterly uninterested in hearing is to directly and unequivocally tell them that they are heretofore mute. That there is no possible manner of articulating a position that will be registered or taken into account.

(To say, as some of you do, that these unfortunate events show that we all should need to listen more closely now is to admit - gasp! - that violent disorder actually gets attention. But you couldn't possibly be saying that...)

Unfortunately for you, though, a riot is not a mode of language. Especially not a persuasive one. It is not trying to prove a point or win you over. It comes out of the frustration of mouths that may as well be without tongues for how much they are heard. But it is not a speaking. It knows damn well where that gets us all.

6. This is indiscriminate violence, it isn't being targeted

Another point of clarity is crucial here. Despite what you think, class status and human decency are not identical. (Barring the rich, who are almost universally rapacious assemblages of fecal matter and ego.) It's a shame, as it would class war so much easier, divisions of allegiance so much cleaner. But from the extremely poor through the middle class and back again, there are those who are stellar, those who are mediocre, and those who are vile.

The difference is solely in how these tendencies get expressed. Those atrocious humans with enough money to stay within the law express it by beating their wives in private and cheating their workers out of fair wages. Some of those without the money to do so are those, in recent days, who are indeed acting horrifically, savagely. Anyone who justifies this is a moron, and we have as little interest in fetishizing all violence as such as we do in condemning all those who riot because some people are nasty pieces of work and see a good chance to fully act as such.

But it is entirely unacceptable to extrapolate a general case from this. As it is to imagine that you could clearly sort out a few very nasty people from a situation in which many people have lived through some very nasty situations and, frankly, don't care a whit about offending the propriety or ruining the property of those who have had an easier time of it. Who know very well what they are doing.

Those who speak of looters as "mindless" are saying, in essence, that they literally cannot fathom a state of mind in which it would make perfect sense to loot. That it might be a very conscious decision. That they have no interest in grasping why some people may not find these distinctions - between local and corporate, for example - to matter much.

We understand why such a desperate rescue measure of condemnation is necessary, though. For what is at stake is less the prospect that people will support what happens than the very real fact that what is happening is a rupture of the enclosures of rent, privilege, and race, that are supposed to keep the poor in their part of town, where they can be left to "prey" on one another, in zones from which all social services are abandoned other than the police.

Therein the common refrain ringing out all over now: I can't believe this is happening in X. I've been following the news, and it seemed far away. I never expected it to happen in X too.

One can never expect this, the passage from a designated zone of poverty to a partially generalized impoverishment of the city as a whole. It necessarily comes as a moment of horror, even without a moral condemnation, for it is the coming apart of clear lines of demarcation and restriction. It is an unbinding. It leaves buildings and cars as black skeletons, and it does not have a general hovering over the battlefield map. It spreads.

But we will say that there is a basic ethical injunction of the present, and it is closely connected to this. It is the structuring condition of the real movement of what has long been called communism.

It is not the redistribution of wealth. It is the redistribution of poverty, which occurs in those process of those who have nothing finally starting to get and take theirs.

From this, the only ethical grounding we can have, and the only one we need, is to understand that there are two options, and they are mutually exclusive.

There is that which more evenly shares across us all the staggering violence and contradictions of our present.

And there is that which continues to demand that those most brutalized and left to fend for themselves should continue to bear the brunt of the trainwreck of contemporary life.

You insist on the latter, and you find plenty of ways to justify and reinforce this. We insist on the former. It is messy. It is harder going. It's been so for a very long time. And it will only continue to be so, more and more, the worse things get, the more you continue to parrot your skipping record of key phrases, while behind your words, jails crouch and swell, armies bristle.

7. There is no excuse for this. It is just destructive

All the more because there is no excuse. There is no order or structure that excuses those who insist on the latter. Not in theory or concept (which may be easy enough, to put these words in our mouths and hands), but in doing what they need to get by and to not accept that they should just get by. That they may want, that they see everything that there is to offer that they can't have. That they are pissed about this. And now, they aren't having it.

There is no excuse for this, but this is a time in which one either makes excuses or takes them.

You make them. We stand both with those who take them and with those whose lives are disrupted by a situation in which such a taking is necessary. The very language of victims is wrong. But nevertheless, we can say that it is not true that you are on the side of those who are losing small businesses. It is the way in which you have left some to rot and allowed others to exhaust themselves in trying to go on that means that they will pitch themselves, and whatever rubble is found in the street, at one another. And you've long welcomed this state of affairs.

It was this that Hegel meant when he wrote of cunning, of the way in which the general idea - here, the ceaseless preservation of capital and its relations - doesn't pay its own penalty. As he put it well, "It is not the general idea that is implicated in opposition and combat, and that is exposed to danger. It remains in the background, untouched and uninjured." And it allows the particular - the passions, desires, needs, days of those who live within and beneath it - to contend with one another, to hurl themselves against property and bodies. Sometimes, rarely, the passions exceed the idea and threaten to derail it, if only for a while. This may be one of those rare times, in all its bloody confusion and urgency, in which cunning stalls and slips.

Because people are going to get theirs, one way or another. Too bad if it doesn't sit well with you. Too bad for all of us that it comes to this, as there's no doubt that this will come to nothing, insofar as one might imagine coming to something as the construction of forms of collective action, development of infrastructure, and capacity to make otherwise. That clearly is not what is currently at stake.

But here we speak to ourselves, not to you, because for all your cruel inanity, we are far from innocent in the failures of thinking. And we - this amorphous we, but not "the left", however that may be defined - have slipped on at least three fronts.

1. We cannot allow the severity of what happens to occasion or excuse a call for the police to reinstate order. This is not because of social disorder being good or bad, those childish words tossed around. It is because it is not for us to call. It is what will happen, regardless of our opinion. As such, if we have anything to say about it, it can only be a critique of a) the way in which that kind of response is precisely what brings about situations like this in the first place and b) the way in which this situation will be used to retroactively justify the ongoing treatment of the poor as criminals, the very treatment that engenders such an explosion.

We utterly reject any such auto-verifying realism, anything which will confirm your condemnation. We do not consider it coherent to think that the solution to this "problem" is the further and more relentless application of that problem, the criminalization of the poor. We do not think that the confusion of the time justifies such a perversion of reason or its outcomes.

2. We cannot allow our critique to remain critique at a distance. We cannot remain afar and venture claims as to what "they" should or should not do, anymore than we should call on the state to do what it will or won't do regardless of our urging. To do so is to fall back onto the logic of condemnation, to appraise and judge a situation in which one takes no part. If one thinks that the rioters should attack large corporate stores instead of local businesses, one should encourage, actively, on the ground, with an armful of bricks, the former rather than merely denouncing the latter. If one thinks that there should be a formal organization and structuring to what is happening, one should start doing that, rather than bemoan their lack of classical political form. If one thinks that what matters is to defend, with force, homes and businesses, then one should do that, together with others who think that, rather than wait for the police.

(This is not to say that the only thing for people to do is to put themselves in violent situations in which they could be hurt or killed. It is only to say that condemnations or suggestions of this order are irrelevant if they are not a material practice. Those who, understandably, want no part of this should take no part in it. They also should not condemn it or purport to give it advice.)

For if we insist on thinking the insurrectionary aspect - that is, what makes of this more than just "criminality" and consumerism run amok, as it has been claimed - of what is happening, we see that it does not lie just in the severity of the violence or the degree to which it rattles the state. Alongside from the fact that many of those rioting are getting themselves organized in a very serious way (even though it does not look like what people recognize as political organization), the insurrectionary character is also, strangely, in the fact that shopkeepers and others are taking care of themselves, with baseball bats, that they are acting against an insurrectionary situation. Because it is here that there is a falling apart of previous lines of assumed allegiance, that there is a massive rupture in the consistency of every day life. A rising up not of all against the state in a clear division, but a rising up on many fronts. A boiling over of contradiction that indexes the full delegitimation of the state's capacity to manage its population in the eyes of that population. A taking action without waiting for the mediation of the police. Is such a thing pretty? No. Not in the least. But it is part and parcel of the negation of the given.

3. From this is perhaps the key distinction, albeit one that appears initially a flight into the overly abstract. That is, we have to insist on the difference between destruction and negation, for it is this difference that constitutes the particularity of communist thought and the elision of that difference that constitutes the most common attack on the thought and practice of those who aim to extend it: you only know how to negate and critique, you just want to destroy, you cannot offer anything constructive.

What is happening in London of late has been a lot of destruction. Buildings and cars have been smashed and burned. Nothing is being constructed. There is not a blueprint, plan, or program. One speaks of social negativity, and it shows itself in the destruction of a portion of what exists. It indexes a hatred: a hatred of police, of a city that keeps them shunted off to the side, of windows that guard things that cost too much to own, of being told you need to make your own way and getting arrested when you try to do so, of all those who look suspiciously at them when they pass because they wear hoods and have dark faces.

But this is not negation as such, even as it is part of the process of it. Negation, rather, is the removal of the relations that sustain a given order as it stands. Relations like property, law, and value. It is not obliteration, not a razing to the ground, but the placing of all under doubt and critique, often of a very material order. (Property shows itself highly resistant to arguments, no matter how well-worded.) It is an acid bath: privileging nothing, it removes the consistency that excuses the existence of things to see them as they are, see what stands, what falls, what has long been poisoning many.

It is that very difference, that slim one, between destruction and negation that makes up the we that has been speaking throughout here. Destruction happens. Not unbidden, not automatically (there are individuals who make real decisions to do so), but it is a constant fact. What is rare is to seize - yes, "opportunistically" - its visible emergences as the necessary occasion to extend that anger and disturbance beyond its flare-ups into a real, lived, sustaining thought of negation. A negation that is, indeed, built, built of the bonds that come hastily into shape when the previous relations that kept things afloat - commerce, policing, transportation, labor - find themselves tottering.

In this particular instance, what needs to be negated, which require analysis and development beyond what comes from material disorder alone, are, above all, two things. First, the designation of political as a way to disavow what happens as apolitical and hence wrong. Second, the clarity of fully opposed positions, even as they are fully necessary at times. (That is, the difference between you who condemn and us will not be going away anytime soon.) Yes, we recognize real material separations between populations and their class background (one should be very clear in recognizing when a struggle is not one where one is welcome). Yet we strive to entirely abolish those separations. That is, to stop speaking of the looting they as if a different species. To stop imagining that what happens to "them" does not profoundly, utterly resonate, determine, and deform what life is like for those who may not feel a part of them. To do so is the crassest form of thinking class as caste, of making of the mass a sub-mass to which we do not belong, a trend and direction that does not exceed itself.

But for all these critiques of ourselves, all our slipping into distanced forms of condemnation and wishful thinking, still, yours is far, far worse.

Because you are not condemning those who loot because they loot. You have condemned them long before, condemned them to irrelevance and death. The fact that they loot just gives you some ammo in your long war of exclusion and denigration.

It is for this reason that we want nothing to do with you.

Because you, you who cry foul at any social programs that might exist to the side of labor, programs that might act as another circuit through which housing, food, clothing, medicine could pass to those who need it, you should not dare to let your thick tongues cluck at what follows from such an abjuration of care.

Instead, you just want to get to the cleaning up. In a sick parody of the viral spread of riot information through digital technologies, "mobs" are organized to sweep up. "Keep Calm and Clear Up" posters are made - oh, how clever. You urge all to keep a straight face, pull together, feel "beautifully British" after the defeat of those you do not consider British, and get on with it.

But it was you who pleaded simpering for both the anarchy of the market and its martial defense. Now, when it shows its full consequences, you might have the rare decency to remember your words and stay quiet.

You cried out for this bed to be made. Now you cry when you find it to be hard, when you find it too loud outside to sleep peacefully.

May you have neither rest nor peace til the heavens fall,