The core flaw in Vicky Osterweil’s 2020 book In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action is that it engages in rhetorical bait n’ switch. Just as the Holy Roman Empire failed to measure up to its name, the book isn’t much of a defense, much of a history, or even much about looting. Eight of nine of its chapters do little more than recycle familiar material from Critical Race Theory fused with a weirdly triumphal celebration of the meager accomplishments of American communism. What ought to have been fascinating is rendered dull as it is reduced to the requirements of an outdated ideology.
In Defense of Looting does touch upon the seizure of goods by rioting mobs but fails to do more than link it to other historical events, almost entirely in the United States. Osterweil’s understanding of the material is shallow largely because it is so insular. As is true for too many radicals Right and Left in the United States, the rest of the world exists only a cloudy mirror of American events. Osterweil appears unaware of the explosion of scholarship about rioting that began with British historian George Rudé’s pathbreaking 1964 The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848. The resulting histories inspired by Rudé revealed rioting to be the work of people informed by sophisticated political and religious convictions who were aware of the significance of their actions for both local and national audiences. Mobs seized goods, not just to consume or destroy, but also to reinforce or reform social and economic relationships. Ignoring all of that scholarship resonates with the intellectual arrogance of the hectoring but poorly informed ‘woke.’
Much of In Defense of Looting is actually a denunciation of white and Black liberals. Osterweil is unimpressed with much of what they achieved in 170 years of struggle not only because it lacks the dramatic excitement of violence but also because it failed to produce a communist revolution. The masses were supposed to march shoulder to shoulder and seize state power…yet neglected to fulfill that prophecy. She is at least correct in concluding that the half a loaf won by liberal reformism is the reason the United States did not fall to a communist, or more probably fascist, dictatorship. Why most Americans have preferred life in a liberal society likely mystifies Osterweil, but then so too would the meaning of the old adage that ‘while communists love The People, they don’t much like people.’
Then there is Osterweil’s problem with Asian Americans. Interpreting American history as the ‘contradiction’ between white and Black leaves an impoverished narrative where every other racial and ethnic group are reduced to minor roles. When In Defense of Looting bothers to reference Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians or European immigrants, it is mostly in lists of minorities whose experiences are subordinate to what she thinks is the main story. Binaries like that are imposed to insulate narratives from disruption. Even so, Osterweil is compelled to address Asian Americans.
The anti-Chinese agitation and violence in the 19th century American West is given a mere two and half pages of text, out of 250, from which is drawn the utterly banal lesson that rioting may be reactionary. Revolutionary and reactionary are of course the only possibilities permitted. Strangely, that lesson concludes with the pro-Putin smear that the Winter 2013-2014 protests in Ukraine were coopted by the Far Right. They weren’t, but the irrelevance of communism and anarchism in the struggle for democracy in Ukraine requires that it be rhetorically diminished.
However, it is with Korean Americans that Osterweil’s displeasure is most apparent. She describes “Korean immigrant,” rather than Korean-American, store owners as a “buffer class” who betray Blacks by engaging in the “daily exploitation of capital” to earn a place in the middle class and “reproduce whiteness.” That Asian Americans might have their own identities and their own histories is impermissible. Recognizing them would just get in the way of a narrative furthering the communist millennium in which white middle class radicals like Osterweil will get to undertake the sort of large scale social engineering that the comrades on the other side of the planet failed to perfect. That is the promise of a liberal society for you: every group and every individual with the right to their own identity and history.