Wealth, under capitalism, is loot. What is commonly called “looting” is a redistribution of that wealth.
For just a moment, think about looting not as a moral question, but purely in terms of how material resources are distributed.
There are millions of people who need all manner of basic goods: food, medicines, clothes, electronics, etc. These goods exist in abundance; indeed, they are being hoarded by corporations and stockpiled in warehouses and retail outlets. In the midst of widespread unmet needs, they sit collecting dust.
This is inefficient. It would be far better to get those goods to the people who need them than to permit them to sit idly on shelves, out of reach.
We could go further: the radically unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. is wildly inefficient. It means unconscionable hoards of wealth for a tiny minority who can’t even make good use of it in a lifetime, while the vast majority suffers material deprivation, anxious about their ability to meet their most basic needs. It’s akin to a cafeteria with 100 people that piles 95% of the food on the plates of three people while the other 97 fight over the remaining 5%. This is not simply unjust, it’s extremely wasteful.
Indeed, on the South Side of Chicago, every large grocery store was looted over the weekend. On Monday their shelves were bare, and their windows were boarded up. That people are looting grocery stores—taking milk, eggs, bread, produce, everything on the shelf—speaks volumes about the conditions of their lives after two months of quarantine, but it also reveals what looting is.
Despite skyrocketing unemployment and plummeting working class incomes in midst of a public health crisis, the authorities have not suspended rent payments, mortgage payments, debt servicing, utilities. As a result, more than is usually the case, masses of people are struggling to meet their most basic needs. And in the meantime, billionaires have been making bank.
This is not a state of affairs that deserves to be maintained. Indeed, under circumstances such as these, just about any flow of resources from rich to poor is justified.
Now, some will respond that though this may be true from a purely distributive point of view, it becomes problematic once we ask who will continue to produce goods in a situation in which finished products are simply taken by those who need them.
But here we need to be Marxists: who produces those goods in the first place? Who transports them? Who shelves them? Who designs them? Who engineers the production process? Who mines the raw materials from which those goods are made?
Not corporate shareholders. Not the Jeff Bezos’s and Elon Musk’s of the world. Workers do all of those things.
Workers do all of those things in spite of the fact that they do not get to keep the massive amount of wealth their labor creates. They do these things even though they regularly produce much more wealth on the job than they get paid in wages. So far as they’re concerned, it’s better that other working people in need get that wealth than the greedy, non-laboring bosses who pocket the bulk of the company’s revenue.
But indefinite looting will surely disrupt the production processes of capitalism, won’t it? Why will capitalists continue investing capital and paying workers to produce goods if they cannot earn profit?
To these questions we might respond with a few questions of our own: why should we want to fix capitalism? Why should we want to continue an intolerable situation in which production only proceeds on the grounds that it yields—via exploitation—sufficient payoffs for non-laboring owners? Why should we have to pay ransom to the idle ruling class in order to get the things we need and to get income from the work we do?
Socialism removes the middleman. Simply put, it is working-class control of production. It means that the working class produces what it needs and keeps what it produces. No skimming capitalists. No parasitic ruling class forcing us to produce profit for them under unsafe conditions for a pittance—so that they can get richer.
Instead of hand-wringing about the morality of theft in the abstract, we should be asking about how to construct an alternative to a system that forces people to “loot” in order to get access to the most basic necessities of life.
Tyler Zimmer is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the co-chair of the Chicago DSA Anti-Racist Working Group. He is also a member of the Rampant editorial collective.