If there’s one common theme that unites the economic Right — conservatives, right-libertarians and disciples of Ayn Rand — it’s that looting is bad and extremely prevalent. And they’re all pretty much agreed on who the looters are, besides. The framing has been pretty much the same going back at least to that (possibly Snopesbait) Alexander Tytler quote that appears so frequently in right-wing screeds, about democracy only lasting until “the people discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.” The looting consists majoritarian democracies that take from the rich and industrious and give to the poor and lazy. But a couple of news items I stumbled across suggest it might be the other way around.
In right-wing propaganda, it’s always the few and the rich — the “job creators” — who enable the rest of us to live through their industry. And we ingrates punish them with new government programs to tax their honest wealth and feed our own sloth. In Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the great capitalist titans “stopped the motor of the world” by withdrawing the thankless labor that supports us looting ingrates and retreated to the fastness of Galt’s Gulch. Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, beloved of right-libertarians, praised Rand in a 1958 letter: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”
More recently, right-wing propagandists countered Occupy Wall Street’s attack on the 1% by putting forth the counter-meme of the “53%,” in which middle class people were encouraged to identify with super-rich folks as fellow taxpayers. Mitt Romney pushed a similar “makers vs. takers” line in his 2012 presidential campaign.
And of course all the right-wing critics of Black Lives Matter focuses like a laser beam on the looting in Ferguson, which in their opinion eclipsed all the police wrong-doing in that city.
But as it turns out, all this respectability porn gets it exactly wrong. The biggest looters in America are two groups most beloved of the Right: those wonderful job-creating employers, and (please stand and take off your hats) Law Enforcement Officers. That’s right. In 2012, just the $280 million back pay actually recovered by the Department of Labor — a tiny fraction of total wage theft — exceeded the total amount stolen by ordinary, unrespectable muggers and burglers in the same period. And that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to all the people — most of them low-wage workers in service jobs — who have worked off the clock or been required to clock out during slow periods and sit in the break room waiting to clock in again. I’ve done both myself, as have around a third of American workers.
Meanwhile, in 2014, the loot taken in by cops through civil forfeiture was worth more than the total proceeds of theft in ordinary robberies. Remember all those people clutching their pearls over “thugs” looting stores in Ferguson? Well those saintly “law enforcement officers” they love so much steal way more than that, as a normal part of police policy. They not only seize land, homes, cars, cash and possessions from people who were never charged with a crime — let alone convicted — but they specifically target people for raids based on estimates of how much loot they can get their grubby mitts on.
But in fact this is nothing new. Millions of people who work for a living know that, from the very beginnings of capitalism, the real “motor of the world,” the real “Atlas,” was the working class. And the looters were the landlords, capitalist and licensed monopolists, all acting through their state. The capitalist state nullified customary peasant property rights and enforced land enclosures and evictions, first in the earliest capitalist countries of Europe and then in the colonial world. Besides dispossessing working people of their own access to the means of production, they have restricted free movement and association by labor and enforced capitalist monopolies to prevent us working and producing for each other in the social economy. And having set up these toll-gates, they have extracted countless trillions from us. As the song goes, “We have fed you all for a thousand years.”
The real looters aren’t people in masks, or in work clothes. They’re people with uniforms and badges, people with suits and ties sitting around tables in boardrooms and cabinet offices, of the kind we’re encouraged to look up to and honor by every media outlet and propaganda organ in America. And it’s time for us to shrug them off and stop feeding them — to occupy the vacant land they fence off and hold unused, to stop paying rent on land whose title dates to such enclosure, to occupy factories built with wealth extracted from our labor as monopoly rents, and to disregard all patents and copyrights and other laws that restrict our freedom to produce for ourselves and freely trade and share with one another.
Free your mind.