When Shopping Is Liberty, Looting Is Liberation

Adrian Kreutz discusses the impetus behind looting and rioting. 

Broken windows and ravaged department stores are the manifestation of a systemic disenfranchisement of the socio-economically deprived from an ideal of freedom premised on the access to consumer goods. When the shopping tour down high street has become the epitome of liberty, then looting the high street becomes an insurgent action, calling into question the legitimacy of an unjust social order.

Though controversial, I’d like to morally justify the practice of looting for those living in systemic exclusion. In short, my message will be: We must be wary about hastily condemning the plundering of department stores by judging it a brutish attack on private property! Instead, we must make ourselves aware of the fact that, as John Rawls suggests, "unjust social arrangements are themselves a kind of extortion, even violence, and consent to them does not bind."

To bolster my argument, let me introduce another case where a desperate grasp for freedom (or rather, opportunity) demands illegal and potentially dangerous behavior. In judging this case below, I would guess that many people's moral intuitions will be different from the intuitions in the looting case.

In her book on the ethical costs of upward mobility through education, Jennifer M. Morton tells us about Todd, whom she describes as a "bright and affable African American man [who] grew up in a predominantly minority neighborhood [with] a lot of crime." After a stabbing, Todd no longer felt safe at his school. He decided to "use" a friend's postcode to attend a school in a predominantly White, middle-class neighborhood. In order to get there, however, twelve-year-old Todd, his mother being a drug addict, had to drive on his own despite not being a licensed driver. Todd's strategy wasn't legal, and yet he says, "it was necessary to gain educational opportunity". Todd later went to study at an Ivy League university.

Many people will morally judge driving without a license and looting by different standards. And yet, by analogy, looting and driving without a license are both feedback effects of the same phenomenon: the systemic exclusion from a lifestyle that the system itself dictates. Whereas looting is morally inacceptable and must be penalized appropriately, as the common narrative demands, Todd's illegal behavior will to most people seem socially acceptable

According to Tommie Shelby, professor of African American Studies at Harvard, justice sometimes demands deviations from what is lawful and socially acceptable. He asks: Do those who are oppressed by an unjust society have a civic duty to obey the law? Shelby’s answer: The structurally disadvantaged do not violate their civic responsibilities by committing public welfare offenses, such as shoplifting or selling drugs. Neither do those oppressed but "criminal" deserve state-imposed punishment, nor public condemnation. The duty to live by the laws of society is premised on a meaningful form of reciprocity among free and equal citizens. Structural exclusion is antithetical to reciprocity. Inherently wrong actions, those that do not demand reciprocity to be wrong, however, such as murder, rape, or robbery, no doubt deserve punishment, says Shelby.

Looting, like driving to school without a driver's license, is the illegal attempt to remedy social exclusion by direct action. Still, some of us will be reluctant to persecute Todd for his offence while eager for a "you loot, we shoot"  type of policy. What is the deciding difference? Let's amplify the case of Todd. Let's say he had to steal his neighbor's car, or a vehicle from the car dealer, to get to the Ivy League university interview.

What you think about those cases will depend on how you value private property versus personal belongings, and educational opportunity versus consumer goods. The "law-and-order" narrative is generally primed in favour of consumer goods and private property owned by anonymous companies. We have to ask ourselves if this is the right response to systemic exclusion. I think we must be wary about hastily condemning the plundering of department stores by judging it a brutish attack on private property. It is 'blaming the victim'.

Adrian Kreutz is an incoming DPhil candidate in Politics at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. His doctoral research pertains questions of legitimacy and authority in a socialist state. His first monograph, entitled "Socialism, today?“, has recently been published in German. 

He tweets at @adrian_kreutz

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