Only a few times in the course of American history have the “insistent problems of the present” been as daunting and multifarious as they are in the year 2020. The raging COVID-19 epidemic, the pervasive concentration of power in the hands of exploitative entities, and the unrelenting, intersectional oppression of Black Americans have attested to that reality. For these reasons, this paper undertakes three interrelated aims: first, to provide a brief overview of the state of affairs in the United States as it is in 2020; second, to argue in favor of radical action whose aim is the replacement of an inherently coercive capitalist economic system; and third, to defend an instance of this radical action — expropriative looting. My hope is that, through a proliferation of intellectual exercises of this spirit, Americans will be able to see what the nation ought to become in order to be what it takes itself to be, to rise “from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” It is only by pulling the gross injustices of the present out of the darkness and up to the illuminated surface of reason and mutual understanding that we can move forward.
I: The Present State of Things
The events of the past year highlight an egregious reality; there exist two Americas, one for the wealthy elite, and one for the rest of us. In fact, as COVID-19 raged across the country, taking lives with ferocity and sparking cascades of unemployment, billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos simultaneously added over $931 billion dollars to their combined net worth. In addition, a string of brutal, race-based murders (of Ahmoud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor) catalyzed global outcry as a whopping 1 in 2000 Black Americans succumbed to the novel coronavirus. In a world of intersectional developments threatening the very livelihood of the Black community, Americans could no longer ignore the inexorable link between an exploitative capitalism and a grotesque history of Black oppression in the United States. As such, protests erupted around the nation, calling for a serious reevaluation of policing and incarceration, and championing a reappropriation of law enforcement funding toward more constructive social rehabilitation initiatives. Some protests, however, evolved into the large-scale looting campaigns that dominated headlines and became increasingly used as evidence delegitimizing Black Lives Matters — a view that such movements are nothing more than Trojan horses through which, under the guise of civil rights, indefensible strivings are smuggled into the realm of acceptable social behavior.
II: King & Looting
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. deals with similar hostilities as religious leaders and moderate Americans urge him to forego civil disobedience in addressing the country’s racial issues, instead letting the curative power of time transform life into a blissful tomorrow. Justice “too long delayed is justice denied,” King responds, adamant that the history of freedom is not one of voluntary concessions on the part of the oppressor, but instead one in which freedom has been, and must always be, “demanded by the oppressed.” King’s positions on looting and rioting, however, are slightly more complicated, and his political philosophies have been used both in support of, and in condemnation of, such desperate attempts at social transformation. One one hand, King is adamant that “nonviolence is the most powerful weapon available to the [African American] in his struggle for freedom and justice,” that riots and looting have a propensity for transmutation into self-destructive, impractical, and immoral states of anarchy. Nonetheless, King also notes that Americans must realize that riots do not occur in a vacuum, but instead arise from the ever-worsening plight of the African American poor, the unmet promises of Black freedom and justice, and the “large segments of white society that are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.” In order to create a better tomorrow, for King, tactics of social justice and progress must be pursued, as they “…are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
We must come to a frank and honest realization, however, that the world of 2020 is markedly different from that of the mid 1950s and 60s when King’s words rippled throughout every corner of the country with devastating impact. In the world of today, growing disparities in wealth have decimated the middle class, creating a country defined by nothing more than its pervasive socioeconomic inequality. Black incarceration is at an all-time high as well, catalyzing rapid expansion of the US inmate population and providing unpaid labor for the multifarious prison-industrial complex. Even further, a global pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of everyday people (mostly from Black and Latinx communities) as unconcerned Federal lawmakers host superspreader events, and then — as some of the staunchest critics of the medical and scientific communities — are the first to reap the benefits of the new Pfizer vaccine. Lastly, our media outlets are controlled by billionaires, corporations, and other vested interests committed not to the preservation of truth and accountability, but to the squashing of dissenting opinions. Under such grave circumstances, and indeed there are countless more unmentioned in this brief anthology, one may wonder whether progress on any issue, and especially within the contentious fight for civil rights, is at all possible. Furthermore, one may come to doubt whether the methods used by leaders like King in the 1960s, such as restaurant sit-ins and bus boycotts, would still show promise in a post-MAGA world defined by anti-intellectualism and right-wing populism.
No matter the answers to such questions, we must take seriously the contention that the very survival of African Americans in this country has been contingent on their effectiveness in violating “those laws which directly or indirectly buttress [their] oppression.” Such methods of resistance are inevitable in any society in which wealth is so unequally distributed, “as one of the constant reminders that society’s productive forces are being channeled in the wrong direction.” It is upon a frank and honest reflection of the realities of the present state of affairs that I argue we must take King’s words beyond their original intentions, devising a method of “expropriative looting” that, when used within specific parameters of political and moral responsibility, may be a potent method of civil disobedience. In this historical moment, such a method would not only aim at directly challenging coercive corporations on purely economic terms, demanding from them the wealth that is undoubtedly that of the people; but also, it may force moderates to face the stark reality that, in this land of “endless possibility,” objects are valued over human lives.
III: Expropriative Looting
I want to clarify at the outset that what I am arguing for is not the type of reprehensible looting which uses moments of disturbance or civil unrest as cover to rob everyday people and businesses. This is especially the case if such actions are marred by efforts at self-enrichment, or break out into indiscriminate violence without greater purpose. What I am not advocating is the type of indiscriminate looting that left Hussein Aloshani, a first generation immigrant from Iraq, waving his arms and screaming “Please, I don’t have insurance!” as the fruits of a lifetime of hard work hung in the balance. I am even less sympathetic to instances of looting committed by people like Jake Paul, a rich, White, social media influencer whose sole contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement, despite weeks of posturing and performative activism, were smashed windows, dented cars, and a misdemeanor. Such instances were conducted by and directed at the wrong entities, indicating the growing need of looting, if it is to be equitable and used as a method of achieving social justice, to be morally constrained and properly defined. Thus, it is to a discussion of the particular conditions, modes of application, and superordinate goals of expropriative looting — that is, questions of who should loot, who must be looted, and how such a tactic should be effectively and morally conducted — that we now turn our attention.
When devising any novel method of civil disobedience, we must seriously consider King’s contention that, in any nonviolent campaign, there exists four essential tenets: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” Looting, if it is to be equitable, must unfailingly satisfy all such conditions. Firstly, it must recognize that a pervasive concentration of wealth exists in this country which springs from the poverty of the poor. For this reason, expropriative looting must target only those in power, and only those whose power has been seized through oppression. That is, the Walmart’s and Amazon’s of the world, and not the little “mom-and-pop” pizza shop down the street, must be targeted by looting. Second, such a tactic must be strictly and strategically organized into a national movement, with a centralized board of representatives capable of planning events, garnering public support, and negotiating with private and federal entities once they have been compelled to the bargaining table. Third, leaders, organizers, and looters must not be driven by self-interest or desire, instead constructing a program of need-based redistribution whereby all looted goods are consolidated and used for the common good. Fourth, such a movement must operate unceasingly until Black liberation is brought about, subverting, through direct action, the notion that Black Americans (and in fact, all Americans) must tirelessly labor on behalf of corporate overlords for self-sustenance. Expropriative looting of this sort must not be a violent or vicious imposition championing the downfall of human civilization. Instead, it must be used merely as a tactic of massive wealth expropriation seeking “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension, that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Ultimately, the aim of expropriative looting must be to subvert long-held conventions of “law and order” maintained by the injustices and inequalities incurred by the capitalist system; it must strive, as a necessary feature of its definition, towards imparting on disadvantaged people all those necessities the lack of which makes them compelled to sell themselves to their exploiter. Expropriative looting attempts at creating such an environment, that the core facets of a capitalistic enterprise rooted in slavery and Black oppression — that is, property, scarcity, competition, wage labor, and profit — are replaced by systems of mutual aid; but, perhaps just as importantly, it refuses to make violence, immorality, and greed the means by which such a future is brought about. It is only under such constraints and superordinate goals that looting can help men rise from the “…quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
IV: Critiques of Looting
Indeed, some have asked the necessary and pertinent question of whether looting, which seizes money from others without their consent, is just capitalism by other means — harnessing the same tools of coercive institutions, detracting from the real civil rights issues at hand, and making the police seem even more necessary to stop chaotic behavior. An even greater number maintain that looting, by virtue of its illegality in the eyes of the State, is inherently unjust — objections compounded by the reality that, in some well-documented cases, looting was the work of right-wing infiltrators aiming to derail the movement altogether. I am generally sympathetic to these critiques as they raise important questions that must be addressed. Furthermore, I truly believe that anyone who proposes a new method of societal restructuring, especially when it threatens fundamental pillars of the American experiment, must accept the burden of honestly dealing with the public concern.
Nonetheless, what I am unsympathetic towards is the sort of dishonest and shortsighted attempts by some to condemn looting on account of actions that may occur adjacent to, but nonetheless definitionally distinct from, looting. For example, some argue that expropriative looting, even when such an act is in and of itself peaceful, is immoral because it leads to the sorts of anxious conditions that precipitate violence. To this I have two responses. The first is considering, like King, the similarity of such an objection to “condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery,” or “condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock.” Shouldn’t society, I would ask, “protect the robbed and punish the robber,” condemning those who commit the violence (i.e. law enforcement, right wing vigilante groups, etc.) or those who create such inequalities in wealth (i.e. large corporations), rather than those whose acts aim at nothing more than the expropriation of property? It is not at all clear that expropriative looting and violence are intertwined, nor that the potential onset of violence from such a tactic is reasonable grounds for setting limits on another man’s freedom.
My second response to the objection of violence is this: one has to estimate relative injustices in the context of expropriative looting, considering the extent to which the creation of potentially some injustice (if violence were to precipitate) can still be justified on the basis of the serious determination, and always performed with a tremendous amount of skepticism, that a more just result is going to be obtained. If expropriative looting does not have that grounding, as is the case with other forms of looting I have already rejected, it is totally immoral. But if it attempts to envision a future in which no person would sell his labor for a starvation wage, “that after a few hours of productive toil, each person will have a right to all the pleasures that civilization procures, and to those deeper sources of enjoyment which art and science offer to all who seek them,” then it is not only justified, but it is also necessary.
A second objection equates expropriative looting to capitalism on account of the similarities in their mechanisms of action; that is, some ask whether looting, which takes goods by force from a certain group of individuals, is just capitalism by other means. In response, I have already maintained that such a method, if it is to curtail capitalism effectively, should not be perverted in order to better one’s own personal station. Instead, expropriative looting must only be harnessed as a corrective tool aiming to streamline the path to equality and eliminate the competitive forces that drive capitalism. As long as such is the case, it should never be compared to “capitalism by other means,” because while expropriative looting is a bottom-up process which shamelessly, out in the open, aims to abolish coercive institutions, capitalism aims at nothing more than the rulership of coercive institutions. A single cannonball fired from a sea-faring warship can not within its natural parabolic trajectory move in two mutually exclusive directions at once; insofar as expropriative looting and capitalism simultaneously operate towards diametrically opposing goals, they can not be the same, and are instead distinguished by virtue of the futures they seek to create. Nonetheless, I understand the concern, and hold that we must make sure, whenever large sums of property move in any direction, that intense regulation and oversight keep the mission morally pure and focused on the liberation of those in lowest strata of society; furthermore, we must use looting not as an end to itself, but as a transformative means of replacing capitalism with a new system like anarcho-syndicalism, although such explorations are beyond the scope of this discussion.
A third objection posits that looting is, after all, illegal, and therefore must necessarily be immoral. Such claims are precisely the great stumbling block to Black liberation, King would argue, levied by people who are “…more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who [prefer] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly say: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” Such a critique is an ultimately trivial type of social analysis, and fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that have brought about the need for expropriative looting — police brutality, COVID-19, reluctant federal aid, and a collapsing economy. Furthermore, this objection presupposes (and wrongly so) the conceptual equality of “legality” and “justice” whenever the act of looting is called into question. As King explains:
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.
For this reason, the merit of laws must only be considered on account of the ways in which they uplift human personality. Insofar as legality incorporates justice, then we have a moral obligation to obey the law (and force the State, police, and corporations to do so as well) because such laws promote human flourishing. But when the legal system codifies the techniques of oppression into a particular autocratic system which serves the rich at the expense of the citizenry, in its failure it becomes“…the dangerously structured [dam] that block[s] the flow of social progress,” and any reasonable person should oppose it. As King would contend, it is not unjust to violate a decades-old anti-union law in order to boycott segregated Montgomery buses, just as it is not unjust to violate a traffic ordinance in order to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Similarly, I argue, it is not unjust to use expropriative looting to redistribute wealth that has been sequestered in the hands of coercive institutions. In the given contexts, these acts are reasonable, proper, and should be done, even if they violate the commands of the State, which may or may not not be moral commands. In this way, expropriative looting exercises not only a deeper understanding of the nature of just laws, but also “expresses the highest respect for the law,” commanding a moral responsibility to the disobeying of unjust laws. It is precisely because expropriative looting is illegal in the eyes of a State which has a track record of immorality in this domain, and not despite it, that such a form of radical civil disobedience is morally sound.
V: Closing Remarks
My goal in writing this paper has been to explore the particular contexts and modes of application whereby looting can be morally reinvisioned and practically applied. Not only have I indicated the fierce effectiveness of its mechanism of action, as well as its urgent relevance to a society oppressed by coercive institutions, but I have also defended the strength of its moral integrity on account of the way in which it promotes human flourishing. While there remain many unanswered questions given the scope of such an intellectual undertaking, it is certain that a mass movement of expropriative looting may represent a powerful tool for societal metamorphosis towards systems of mutual aid. Through such a tactic of civil disobedience, we may not only reach the “promised land of racial justice,” in this country, but we may also rediscover intrinsic human qualities repressed and perverted by capitalism. Movements of this type may not only be practical and enriching, but they may also be a moral obligation on which our fate and future depends.
Benns, Whitney. “American Slavery, Reinvented.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Sept. 2015.
Davis, Angela Y. Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation. Boston ABC.
Dickerson, Caitlin. “’Please, I Don’t Have Insurance’: Businesses Plead With Protesters.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 May 2020.
Gringlas, Sam. “At Least 8 People Test Positive For Coronavirus After Rose Garden Event For Barrett.” NPR, NPR, 3 Oct. 2020.
“Interview by Martin Agronsky for ‘Look Here.’” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, 4 Jan. 2016.
King, Martin Luther. A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1968.
Kropotkin, Petr Alekseevich, and Paul Avrich. The Conquest of Bread. Edited and with an Introd. by Paul Avrich. Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1972.
Lorenz, Taylor. “Jake Paul Charged With Misdemeanor Trespassing After Mall Looting.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 June 2020.
Pilkington, Ed. “Black Americans Dying of Covid-19 at Three Times the Rate of White People.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 May 2020.
Stebbins, Samuel, and Grant Suneson. “Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk among US Billionaires Getting Richer during Coronavirus Pandemic.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 1 Dec. 2020.
Underwood, Katherine. “NH Gov. Blasts Congress Members Who Got COVID Vaccine: ‘Irresponsible and Insulting’.” NECN, NECN, 21 Dec. 2020.