Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2020

Marxism and looting: a response to Vicky Osterweil’s NPR interview

Filed under: rioting — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Volunteers clean up fire damage at MIGIZI Communications in Minneapolis. (Photo-MIGIZI, Facebook)

The Marxist Internet Archive has over 180,000 articles but there are none favorable toward riots before the 1960s when they became commonplace in the USA and eventually inspired similar actions in Europe. The handful that were written post-1960s were hardly celebratory.

For example, in a long and interesting article by Chris Harman titled “The Summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis”, you get a justification of them as an inchoate response to racial oppression but with a caveat. They can never have the staying power and impact of a political strike organized by the workers movement, as was typical in the 1930s:

Riots, by contrast, cannot by their very nature last very long or result in the building of rooted, permanent organisation. They are characterised by clashes with the forces of the state on the streets. Yet a riot cannot hold the forces of the state back from a particular neighbourhood for more than a couple of days at most (unless of course, it develops into something more than a riot, into a revolution that destroys the ability of the state to concentrate its forces in one locality.) Once the police have retaken control of the locality, the crowds that provided people with a feeling of collective power are dispersed. People are driven back into the isolated homes, the segmented experiences, from which the riot drew them. Within days collective exhilaration, the festival of the oppressed, has been replaced by the old atomisation, powerlessness, apathy. The riot always rises like a rocket – and drops like a stick.

In the excerpt above, the notion that a riot turning into a revolution is simply advanced as a theoretical possibility but not one upheld by Harman who continues to make the point that riots are temporary rifts in capitalist society.

Given the low level of class struggle since the end of WWII, it is to be expected that some on the left would inflate the importance of riots. For example, poet and English professor Joshua Clover wrote a Verso book titled “Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings” that tries to make a virtue out of the poor conditions we operate under. Since the days of Minneapolis teamsters fighting to build a union are dead and gone, the next best thing is arson and looting since they destroy “the power of the police” and make “your neighborhood uninhabitable for people you don’t want there.” I deal with Clover here but recommend Socialist Alliance’s Ben Peterson’s article for a supreme take-down of Clover:

The book rightly goes to length to argue against reducing riots to mindless outbursts of mob violence. However, the formula suggested reduces both the strike and the riot to economic struggle. In both cases, this is insufficient. It plays down, and plainly doesn’t see the history of the political strike, which should be essential for those who want to see a revolutionary alternative.

It was political strikes which overthrew the Russian Tsarist monarchy 1917, and which dissolved the Cuban state with the flight of the dictator Batista in 1959. Both would fall outside of this definition of strike. In Australia, there is a long and important history of strikes for non-industrial reasons- such as the Green Bans to save the environment, and the refusal to send pig-Iron to Japan in support of the anti-colonial struggle in China. In 1969 one million workers took strike action to call for the release of a jailed Tramways Union leader, Clarrie O’Shea. For radicals and revolutionaries, it is actions like these that go beyond purely wage struggles which have an amazing emancipatory and revolutionary potential, but the book has nothing to say on these events.

Going much further than Clover, journalist Vicky Osterweil’s “In Defense of Looting” argues “that looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society”, according to her interviewer for NPR, Natalie Escobar. Given NRP’s flaccid liberalism, it is difficult to figure out what Escobar means by “real, lasting change”. In any case, her softball interview allows Osterweil to put forward some truly batty ideas.

When asked to define looting, she describes it as a subset of rioting:

…looting is more common among movements that are coming from below. It tends to be an attack on a business, a commercial space, maybe a government building—taking those things that would otherwise be commodified and controlled and sharing them for free.

I am not sure how looting a government building has much to do with commodification as if ripping off a photocopier was inspired by Bakunin. On the other hand, we all know what a “business” is. They are mainly big stores like Target that was hated by many rioters in Minneapolis but they are far out-numbered by the many shops typically run by the owner: clothing and liquor stores, etc. For Target, it’s no big deal to have a store looted with its 78 billion dollar valuation. If one store is valued at 10 million dollars, that represents only .000128 of Target’s total value. That’s equivalent to me finding a quarter under a sofa cushion. For the owner of a shoe store, the loss of his goods would throw him into poverty. That’s of little interest, of course, to someone walking off with a pair of Nike’s but it certainly doesn’t advance the cause of BLM.

Maybe having read but clearly misunderstanding Bakunin if she did, Osterweil sees looting as prefigurative of some decommodified future :

It also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss, in order to buy things that people just like them somewhere else in the world had to make under the same conditions.

I don’t know to break it to her but you will have to work to produce the Nike sneakers or any other goods that are looted, even after capitalism is abolished. The difference between then and now is that they will be based on use value rather than exchange value. Most importantly, the decisions as to what is produced and how it is produced will be made by democratic working-class bodies, not by the individual. When someone loots, this is an individual act that most often is never repeated as the goods vanish after the riots are consummated. The possibility of a looter becoming involved with grass-roots organizing is almost nil.

In her concluding remarks, she states:

But looters and rioters don’t attack private homes. They don’t attack community centers. In Minneapolis, there was a small independent bookstore that was untouched. All the blocks around it were basically looted or even leveled, burned down. And that store just remained untouched through weeks of rioting.

I don’t know if Osterweil was aware of it or not, but in Minneapolis rioters torched the local post office. Weren’t they aware that they were in a united front with Donald Trump when they threw their Molotov cocktails? Just last week, there were fifty people protesting Trump’s attack in front of the post office just beneath my high-rise. Didn’t rioters have the slightest notion that poor people rely on the post office for a welfare or unemployment check? Or a medical report? Or a letter from a relative? In “State and Revolution” Lenin describes the postal service as furnishing the example for a socialist economic system: “To organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service . .. this is our immediate aim.” Along with the public library, the post office is the prime example of the efficiency and value of publicly-owned institutions. Oh, I forgot about libraries and rioters:

The East Lake Library after rioters “liberated” it from commodity production

From the June 2, 2020 Minneapolis StarTribune:

Among the buildings extensively damaged was Hennepin County Library’s East Lake branch in south Minneapolis, near the heavily damaged Third Police Precinct and a little more than 2 miles from the corner where police officers fatally pinned George Floyd to the street last week.

Geffen displayed two photos showing that locals had posted cardboard over the library’s broken windows and written, “Respect this community-owned library.”

Other damaged buildings provide an array of services to residents and are relatively new as part of the county’s recent move to decentralize outside downtown Minneapolis.

At the county’s South Minneapolis Regional Service Center, at Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, every window was broken and the building was flooded with water from fire sprinklers.

As for Regional Service Centers, they are described on the county’s website as providing “access to the full range of financial, social and public health services the county offers, such as access to medical, emergency, child care and food assistance, child support and homeless services.” Sure, a perfect symbol of capitalist exploitation. Let’s trash it.

Not only was the post office destroyed, another building on the same block went down with it as the flame spread, namely the Migizi Communications building, a nonprofit that served the needs of impoverished American Indians in Minneapolis. Indian Country reported:

Migizi provides training in media arts such as radio, film and social media. It is the home of First Person Productions and also provides training for “green” jobs, such as solar energy.

Around 400 youth a year receive job training at Migizi, which employs eight people, Drummer said.

Drummer, 46, (Executive Director Kelly Drummer, Oglala Sioux) said Migizi — “eagle” in Ojibwe — was the only minority-owned building on the block as other enterprises are leasing.

All these buildings, including the Third Precinct whose burning Osterweil lauded in The Nation can easily be replaced—just like Starbucks replaced broken windows during anarchist “actions”. What can’t be easily replaced are revolutionary ideas. When I was won over to socialism in 1967, the ideas that moved me back then are the same that move me to write in defense of socialism today. But it wasn’t just a classmate at the New School who helped me reject capitalism, it was taking part in antiwar demonstrations that gave me a sense of the power of mass actions. When are marching with 250,000 people chanting “Out Now!”, you get a feel for what the masses can do when they are ready to challenge the ruling class.

My good friend Ernie Tate, who is dealing with terminal cancer right now, once explained to me how he became a socialist. He was vacationing in Paris in the summer of 1954 and stepped out on the street in the morning, when he heard some kind of parade taking place a block away. When he got there, he saw hundreds of thousands of CGT and CP workers marching under huge red banners with hammers and sickles celebrating the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu. For him, it was like a Road to Damascus conversion that led him to begin reading socialist literature and then joining the Trotskyist movement.

This is the kind of actions I identify with. If others, even in the name of Marxism, remain intoxicated by the sight of arson and looting, there’s not much I can do. In the epochal struggles facing us, we will have to deal with both reformism and ultraleftism. It is no surprise that Osterweil basks in the glow of NPR and The Nation, two primary outlets of liberal politics. They prefer futile acts of impotent rebellion to any attempts at building a revolutionary movement in the USA. The only advantage to maintaining a mass action perspective is that history is moving in an inexorable direction toward working-class resistance. When American workers begin marching down the street under revolutionary banners, bystanders will be drawn to them in the same way I was drawn to antiwar demonstrations in the 60s. Time is on our side.

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