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Identity politics is turning violent

One of the most disturbing and fascinating developments in contemporary public debate is the attempt to normalise looting.

Since the outbreak of Black Lives Matter protests a few months ago, there have been various efforts to rehabilitate violence and looting as acceptable and even laudable forms of political protest. This trend was previously seen in 2011, during the urban riots in England, when the BBC referred to rioters and looters as ‘protesters’. Back then, the BBC was forced to acknowledge that it was wrong to portray looting as a form of protest. Nine years on, things have changed. The American media now wholeheartedly pursue the sanitisation of looting.

Until recently, looting was seen as a symptom of community decay. It was condemned as sickening anti-social behaviour. In previous times, even those who were sympathetic to the cause and the outlook of people engaged in riots would stop short of supporting looting. Social scientists wrote studies explaining why people rioted and looted. Their aim was to understand why in some cases people adopt destructive forms of behaviour that injure their own communities. In some instances social scientists argued that rioting should be seen as the political expression of people without a voice. Today it is very different. Some in the cultural elites are no longer just interested in trying to explain why rioting and looting sometimes take place – they are actually justifying looting and extolling its virtues.

For example, Matthew Clair, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, seems to resent the fact that the word looting has a ‘negative tone’. He says this negative framing of looting is motivated by racism. Apparently, ‘the term is racialised and is often used to condemn political acts that threaten white supremacy and racial capitalism’. This idea that the negative view of looting is driven by racist motives is widely echoed in the views of those who want to normalise such anti-social behaviour. What this overlooks is that, historically, the negative framing of looting also prevailed in European societies where it was the destructive behaviour of white rioters that was seen as symptomatic of civilisational decay.

One of the key tactics of today’s looting apologists is to rewrite American history in order to suggest that looting was an integral feature of the past. This can be seen in an essay in Time, which portrays an important episode in the American Revolution – the Boston Tea Party – as a precursor to the looting of businesses in riot-torn urban centres this year. The essay cites a political scientist, William F Hall, stating that: ‘Looting is as American as apple pie.’ Hall claimed that the Founding Fathers used looting as a supplement to protest.

One does not need a PhD in history to understand the fundamental difference between the Boston Tea Party and rioters breaking into shops to steal consumer goods. Participants in the Boston Tea Party did not engage in theft or acts of random violence. Their aim was to make a statement against the imposition of unfair taxes by the British government. They boarded ships and threw chests of tea into the Boston Harbour. There was no looting; the individuals involved did not take bags of tea back to their homes. The casual manner in which this incident, which helped to unleash a chain of events leading to the American Revolution, is reinterpreted as a form of looting represents a grotesque distortion of history.

In recent months, numerous media outlets in the US have been complicit in the rewriting of history. They regularly excuse riots and looting on the grounds that violence has always been a feature of the American way of life. Writing in the Atlantic, Kellie Carter Jackson says the current riots are comparable to the armed uprising that led to America’s War of Independence. ‘Since the beginning of this country, riots and violent rhetoric have been markers of patriotism’, she argues. Ignoring the fact that the objective of the American Revolution was to achieve sovereignty and independence, she says that ‘when our Founding Fathers fought for independence, violence was the clarion call’. According to this rewriting of history, the leaders of the American Revolution were defined by their desire to celebrate violence.

The normalisation of violence through the rewriting of history is not just some disinterested academic pursuit. Rather, its objective is to legitimise rioting and looting in the here and now. Indeed, Carter Jackson describes the recent events as a ‘black rebellion’. She writes: ‘[T]he language used to refer to protesters has included looters, thugs, and even claims that they are un-American. The philosophy of force and violence to obtain freedom has long been employed by white people and explicitly denied to black Americans.’

The implication of this statement is that it is now the turn of black people to use the ‘philosophy of force and violence’, which hitherto was employed against black people.

The attempts to normalise violence draw on a narrative that depicts America’s past as being defined almost entirely by violence. As one commentator has asserted, ‘Today, as the deeply divided United States endeavours to find a way forward from its present perils, it is finally time to look back and reckon with this nation’s divisive, violent founding’. So if looting and rioting was good enough for the Founding Fathers, it is good enough for BLM protesters, too.

Another approach adopted by the looting apologists is to compare looting to acts of injustice directed against black people by racist America. Looting becomes a kind of metaphor of racist evil. Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, asserts that the looting of black bodies is the norm in the US. Like many other media personalities, he advises those who are disturbed by scenes of looting on their TV sets to remember that such acts are the normal, everyday experience of black people:

‘If you felt unease watching that Target being looted, try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day. Police in America are looting black bodies.’

Here Noah chooses his words carefully. He could simply criticise police violence against black Americans. But his aim is also to normalise the act of looting and even to legitimise it. The main inference of his tweet is that the looting of Target is simply payback for the looting of black bodies.

This redefinition of looting is widely deployed by the media. In an article published by NBC News, Carlos Ballesteros asserts that ‘Black Chicago has been looted for decades’. His argument is that bankers and mortgage lenders have ripped off black neighbourhoods for years by saddling homeowners with expensive mortgages. Apparently this ‘plundering of black neighbourhoods’ justifies the looting in downtown Chicago this summer. Ballesteros favourably cites Black Lives Matter activists who stated that ‘when protesters attack high-end retail stores that are owned by the wealthy and service the wealthy, that is not “our” city and has never been meant for us’.

The idealisation of the looter

Apologists do not merely seek to justify looting. Some of them idealise the looter as a brave warrior standing up for social justice. A writer for the Nation depicts the looter as a much-maligned and misunderstood figure, vilified by the media:

‘The looter, like most American figures, exists in a state of mythical distortion. When looters emerge from social movements, the press depicts them as opportunists and outsiders; when looters destroy property in response to police violence or the silent horrors of capitalism, they are deemed lawless aggressors. Talking heads and commentators cast looters as mindless and apolitical, as if looting were not a risky, calculated act.’

This presents looting as a calculated form of rational political behaviour. Through turning looting into an admirable blow for freedom, a form of behaviour that was historically interpreted as an expression of community corrosion is rehabilitated as legitimate political action.

The rehabilitation of looting is most vociferously expressed in Vicky Osterweil’s recently published book, In Defense of Looting. In a different era this book would be dismissed as a narcissistic and infantile celebration of violence as an end in itself. Superficially, In Defense of Looting echoes some of the early 20th-century syndicalists and anarchists who believed that acts of violence could be inherently virtuous. A book by French syndicalist Georges Sorel, Reflections On Violence, captured this sensibility. Sorel equated violence with life, creativity and virtue. Yet despite his fascination with violence, Sorel inhabited a very different intellectual and moral universe to Osterweil’s. He did not attempt to make looting and stealing sound like positive things. Compared with the musings of contemporary looting apologists, Sorel comes across as a sophisticated and nuanced advocate of violence. Osterweil sanitises rioting by depicting it as an unexceptional, even banal form of mass action. She argues that ‘“rioting” generally refers to any moment of mass unrest or upheaval. Riots are a space in which a mass of people has produced a situation in which the general laws that govern society no longer function, and people can act in different ways in the street and in public.’

From this standpoint, rioting is not really a form of law-breaking since it occurs when laws ‘no longer function’. So the breakdown of law and order precedes a riot rather than following it. Some apologists couch their defence of looting in the idea that it is a regrettable but inevitable form of collateral damage from the act of protesting. This is very different from the view expressed by Osterweil. She praises looting because it ‘strikes at the heart of property, whiteness and of the police’. Apparently looting ‘provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be’. She enthusiastically advocates looting as an emancipatory act. She believes that ‘riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory’.

This is a celebration of infantile irresponsibility masquerading as a political statement. Osterweil really thinks that looting is good in and of itself. In Defense of Looting is best seen as a symptom of today’s cultural and civilisational decadence. Its transformation of vandalism into a form of virtuous behaviour would have shocked even the real Vandals who sacked Rome and played an important role in the destruction of that civilisation.

In history, violence and rioting have often led to rebellions and revolts that resulted in positive outcomes. But in those circumstances, looting, rioting and mass violence were not promoted as ends in themselves. Rather, they were seen as the unavoidable means to the achievement of a positive end. Democratic revolutionaries did not celebrate rioting and certainly did not advocate looting as a laudable form of political behaviour.

I have vivid memories of the outburst of violence that accompanied the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when I was nine years old. I remember that while people protested and fought against the regime and against their Soviet masters, there was no looting. I remember seeing signs on shop windows that stated ‘This is our property’, suggesting that everyone had a moral duty to protect such property. On numerous occasions I saw shopfronts where the glass had been blown away by gun- and tank-fire. Yet nobody thought of helping themselves to the easily accessible goods that remained intact inside.

In 1958, political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted the remarkable fact that a violent revolution could coexist with a widespread view that something like looting was unthinkable: ‘In its positive significance, the outstanding feature of the [Hungarian] uprising was that no chaos resulted from the actions of people without leadership and without a previously formulated programme. First, there was no looting, no trespassing of property, among a multitude whose standard of life had been miserable and whose hunger for merchandise notorious.’

Poverty and oppression do not turn people into looters. In 1956, looting was seen as immoral and criminal behaviour. Today, tragically, the idealisation of looting fosters a climate that cultivates people’s worst instincts. In this sense, the role played by media apologists is even worse than that of the looters themselves.

Moral cowardice

Not all apologists are wholehearted advocates of looting. Many members of the American political class simply acquiesce to looting out of moral cowardice. Take the case of Democratic Party senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut. He expressed his strong opposition to both police shootings and looting. He tweeted: ‘This isn’t hard. Vigilantism is bad. Police officers shooting black people in the back is bad. Looting and property damage is bad… You don’t have to choose. You can be against it all. You can just be for peace.’ However, he swiftly deleted his tweet. And this time he ignored his previous advice that ‘you don’t have to choose’. He explained the deletion of his tweet on the grounds that it ‘mistakenly gave the impression that I thought there was an equivalency between property crime and murder’.

Murphy’s rebranding of looting as ‘property crime’, and therefore not worthy of strong moral condemnation, echoes the attitude of numerous commentators and Democratic Party politicians. This form of indirect apology for looting aims to neutralise the concerns that many people feel about the rioting. Frequently, indirect apologists for looting and violence adopt the strategy of pretending that such behaviour is very rare. They claim that President Trump and his supporters have pretty much invented the problem of violence and looting in urban America.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, personifies this ‘don’t make a big deal out of the riots’ approach. Like others, he asserts that urban America is actually peaceful and quiet. He acknowledges that ‘there has been some looting, property damage and violence associated with Black Lives Matter demonstrations’, but he claims that ‘the property damage has been minor compared with urban riots of the past’. Krugman’s complacent pretence is shared by other sections of the mainstream media.

The refusal to acknowledge the destructive scale of urban rioting was most strikingly exemplified by CNN. In a recent news item depicting riot-torn Kenosha in flames, it ran with the caption: ‘Fiery but mostly peaceful protest.’ CNN’s reluctance to acknowledge the all-too-destructive reality is symptomatic of the reluctance of the media to show rioters in a negative light. Indeed, in much of the American media, the word ‘protest’ is fast becoming a euphemism for rioting. When a courthouse in Oakland, California was set on fire, ABC News reported that a ‘peaceful demonstration [had] intensified’.

The heads of American news organisations are fully aware of the tragic consequences of urban rioting. But instead of honestly facing up to reality they’ve opted to cover things up. Why? In part it’s because they don’t want Trump to gain electoral advantage from the unrest. More importantly, their reluctance to face up to the reality of the rioting is underpinned by their acceptance of the identitarian worldview promoted by BLM and others.

The intolerance of cancel culture

This new philosophy of violence is the direct outcome of the powerful influence of identity politics in the Anglo-American world. Campus movements linked to identity politics have devalued the liberal ideal of tolerance. In recent decades, academic supporters of identity politics have provided intellectual and moral support to an outlook that is expressly intolerant of the views of others. As I explained in my 2016 book, What’s Happened to the University?, freedom and tolerance have been reduced to second-order values. The policing of language and behaviour has been institutionalised on Anglo-American campuses. University protesters have cast aside the centuries-old tradition of muscular debate and now seek to shut down people they disagree with.

Until recently, cancel culture and institutionally backed acts of intolerance were confined to campuses. In such an environment, there was little need for the explicit use of force, because university administrators were happy to take responsibility for policing speech and attitudes. Yet the acceptance of cancel culture always contained the implication that force could be used against the cancelled target.

And in recent years, cancel culture has migrated to the rest of society. Both the private and public sectors have come under the influence of cancel culture. And as we have seen this summer, in the less genteel environment of urban America, cancel culture acquires a far darker and more destructive dynamic.

It is the intolerant theories that emerged on campuses that provide the foundation for today’s philosophy of violence. Unlike looters in the past, today’s looters can draw on the intellectual and moral resources of cancel culture. Consequently, the moral authority surrounding looting and rioting today is sufficiently robust to silence those Americans who are concerned and distressed by recent events. They will have been informed by media commentators that calling protesters ‘rioters’ is an act of callous racism. Not surprisingly, many fear that if they call a riot by its name, they will be accused of white supremacy.

When the supposedly free media refuse to think freely and report what is evident to their viewers’ own eyes, you know that freedom is in big trouble. In this era of media-fuelled moral disorientation, looting is less of a problem than the mainstream apologists seeking to normalise it and silence people’s concerns about riotous destruction.

In the 20th century, people who looted tended to understand that there was something wrong about their behaviour. They might have looted anyway, but they certainly did not take pride in their actions. In contrast, today’s looters are not burdened by a sense of shame or guilt. On the contrary, they can draw on the narrative constructed by looter apologists and start to view their behaviour as entirely justified. Tragically, once looting becomes sanitised it is only a matter of time before the philosophy of violence threatens to overwhelm democracy itself.


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