Get Used to Looting

Noah Goodman - Politics & Economics

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How a climate disaster will lead to more looting if the underlying socioeconomic frustrations are not addressed. 

As the Black Lives Matters protests against police brutality continue to rage across the U.S., a large focus of the primarily peaceful protests has been on the looting that occurred in some areas of the country. Politicians and the media were quick to condemn the looters as opportunistic outside agitators. They viewed the looters as disconnected from the movement at large as if the motivations behind the looting and the protests were completely separate.

The focus on looting as a moral act is misplaced. To rush to condemn the looting without seeking to analyze the forces that cause it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation at hand. Looting is not a conscious act, but rather the result of the larger forces that precede it. It is a consequence, not a cause. To ignore the context of the looting is a major indictment of our priorities as a society. 

As has been described by many famous activists throughout history, from Martin Luther King Jr to James Baldwin, looting is born out of frustration. It is the result of feeling unseen, unheard, and powerless. Baldwin describes it as an act to spite the wealthy and rebel against commodification:

“Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. It’s just judgment, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He doesn’t want it. He wants to let you know he’s there.”

If nothing changes and the protesters’ anger and frustration is not met with systematic change, the situation will only get worse. The climate crisis will exacerbate the causes of the current frustration via a massive drop in standard of living, a power grab from the ruling class, hyper-commodification of our basic needs, and the purposeful destruction of any semblance of the political power of the working class. Unless sweeping changes that address the economic and racial frustration filling the country is made, we better get used to looting because it will only become more commonplace. 

 

The Recent Unrest

In the last few months, looting grew out of protests against police brutality, but also out of the economic and social fallout caused by the global pandemic raging across the globe. U.S. unemployment has hovered in the mid-teens for the last few months. The government has provided little to no relief to the working class, offering only $600 extra in unemployment benefits, which has now expired, and a one-time $1200 stimulus check. For most Americans, the last few months have been the most devastating period of their lives, as they struggle to pay rent, feed their children, and fight a virus that will drown them in medical bills. Then, to top it off, marginalized communities have to worry about being brutalized by police officers for going about their daily lives.  It is no coincidence that the protests are raging in the COVID era. It is the last straw on the tired backs of marginalized Americans. In a previous article, we asked the question, ‘who can afford a crisis?’ As it turns out, very few of us.

In the greater historical context, Americans are facing an increasingly commodified world, where our most basic human needs - water, healthcare, housing - are commodities to be bought and sold. Take Flint, Michigan, as an example, where the water supply has been poisoned with lead since 2014. While the residents drink contaminated water, Nestle pumps over 200 million gallons of water from a nearby reservoir annually. The situation in Flint is a direct consequence of the over commodification of our resources. 

Furthermore, we saw the hyper-commodification of housing produce the 2008 financial crisis, in which banks placed bets on multiple tranches of mortgages with no underlying value. We have commodified basic human needs to such an extent that the market operates totally devoid from the reality of working-class Americans, as evidenced by the CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) crisis when markets skyrocketed while underlying mortgages failed, or the market quickly bouncing back from COVID-related lows as unemployment and deaths skyrocket. In certain situations in the modern-day, we have even seen human labor commodified on websites such as Upstart, in which individuals sell equity stakes in themselves in exchange for immediate capital, typically for education. The commodification of human beings themselves is the end result of years and years of hyper-commodification and represents the dangerous potential of working-class Americans being forced to sell stakes in their own lives in exchange for a chance to improve their standard of living. 

The typical avenues of protest and advocating for change have been eroded. Labor unions, protesting, voting, and other non-violent methods of pushing for change have been increasingly attacked in the U.S. over the last few decades. In 2018, the U.S. had a labor union participation rate of 10.5%, which is by most experts’ estimations the lowest since the 1920s. Right-to-work laws, the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2019 that outlawed public-sectors to collect union dues, the proliferation of at-will employment, and the increasingly globalized economy are just a few factors that have caused the decline of labor unions. We have also seen a decrease in the ability of protesters to peacefully air their grievances as federal agencies use protests as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties. Just this year, for example, the Department of Justice (DOJ) gave the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) the right to perform any “law enforcement duties” they “may deem appropriate.” In other words, the DOJ granted the DEA the right to conduct warrantless surveillance and arrest protesters at large if suspected of any crime related to the protests. Combined with the numerous instances of police officers using tear gas, rubber bullets, rolling out armored vehicles and other hyper-militarized tactics, it is increasingly obvious that, at the least, protesting, even peacefully, is a risk to one’s safety. Finally, the degradation of voting rights along with the lack of belief in our political systems are major issues of our time. In the US, less than 50% of eligible voters participate in presidential elections. Of the nonvoters, which are overwhelmingly minorities and working class, 44% claim apathy as their reason for not voting and 25% claim lack of belief in the political process as their reason. Then there are those who want to vote but are prevented from doing so. For those who want to vote, the government has made it incredibly difficult. During the recent Georgia primaries, voters faced broken voting machines and extremely long lines, some reaching as long as 8 hours. In Kentucky, some voters had police officers called on them to deny them their right to vote. Due to willful consolidation of power by the ruling class, the typical avenues of change appear futile to the majority of Americans.

The uncertainty and frustration plaguing Americans, combined with the destruction of the political power of the average American, and the hyper-commodification of our lives naturally leads to looting and rioting. In an economic and political structure where working-class Americans are treated as nothing more than commodities, can you expect anything other than looting?

 

The Climate Crisis

In a climate crisis, the resources necessary for our survival will become increasingly scarce. While the situation in Flint isn’t caused by climate change, similar crises will become commonplace. Whether through contamination caused by natural disasters or through droughts caused by rising global temperatures, water will become a scarce resource. The WHO “World Health Organization” has predicted that half of the world’s population will live in “water-stressed” areas by 2025. The scarcity crisis will extend far beyond water, too. As the global population grows and we create more strain on our planet, other necessities will become more and more difficult to come by. A UN National Intelligence report predicted that demand for food will increase 25% by 2030. In the U.S. in 2018, 11% of households were food insecure at some point during the year. With a major jump in food demand, we can expect a concurrent jump in food insecurity. If nothing changes, we can expect the effects of the resource crisis to trickle downstream to the working class. That is, much like other crises in our history, the working class will bear the brunt of the crisis, causing the existing frustration and anger to rise as they face not only the structural barriers to survival that exist today, but further barriers imposed by resource scarcity.

In response, trends will continue and resources will become more and more commodified as our country prioritizes the economic “rights” of capital over human ones. We can expect the working class to find it even harder to find bare necessities:clean water supply, energy, housing, food, and other basic human rights. We can also expect these resources to be further privatized in attempts to solve the resource scarcity, as with  the situation in Flint exa. Our society will only become more commodified as workers cling to survival.

As the uncontrollable force of climate change drastically changes our way of life, those in power will consolidate their power. Protests will continue to be violently oppressed. Labor unions will be systematically rooted out. Voting rights will be purposefully restricted. Our avenues to voice our dissatisfaction will become more and more limited. The repression of civil rights that we have seen over the last few decades will only become more dire as we face an actual existential threat to humanity’s survival. Like Rahm Emanuel told us, the powerful will never let a good crisis go to waste, as they showed us with the PATRIOT ACT, which severely extended the government’s ability to spy on its citizens after the Iraq War. A political system that has supported assassinations, coups, wars and other violent extremes to keep its power will do what it can to keep its power in the ensuing climate crisis. 

If, in a post-climate disaster world, the frustrations currently occupying our streets worsen. If the competition between workers for survival is no longer artificial, but an uncontrollable force of nature, while the perpetrators of the status quo do everything in their power to keep the systems that benefit them in place. If the necessities of survival become commodities that are marketed to us rather than rights ensured to all of us, then looting will become commonplace. Looting will continue to be an expression of anger, an act of survival, and the voice of those forced to carry the weight of an unsustainable system. If nothing changes, get used to the looting.

 

Noah Goodman graduated from Cornell University with a dual degree in Applied Economics and Management. He lives and works in New York City.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's. They do not necessarily represent the views of any entity to which the author is affiliated with.

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