It is perhaps common sense in our society that ‘vandalism’ and ‘theft’ are immoral and universally unacceptable actions whether done for personal gain or as part of a political project. This is mistaken for a number of reasons:
It was okay in the past.
Lots of leftist and liberation movements of the past made use of property destruction as a tactic, it was very effective in helping win important goals – from the Boston Tea Party sparking the American Revolution, to the suffragettes, to riots which played a key part in the civil rights movement, to striking workers sabotaging machinery as part of the class struggles which brought you your labour rights. Nowadays no one gives a fuck about the fact that rebels broke these sacred laws. We only care that we have civil rights, or an independent country, or universal suffrage, or an 8 hour work day. At least with enough historical perspective, we tend to believe that the means of property destruction is justified by the ends sought by progressive and radical movements.
The current configuration of property reflects a violent and illegitimate set of social relations.
It is entirely legitimate for members of the dispossessed majority to reconfigure that property. What’s the difference between graffiti and a billboard? What’s the difference between a broken Foxtons window and a demolished family home? They’re all fairly similar acts on the face of it – physical structures are altered by human activity for some purpose. The answer is not inherent in the action, the blow of the hammer or application of paint, but in human social relations. Two of these are consistent with capitalist property relations, two of them aren’t. If we say the hoarding of property by a minority through the exploitation of the working class is illegitimate, i.e. if we question the social construct of property, then we see that property damage is just another human change to the built environment, abnormal (and allegedly immoral) only in that we believe those who own property now deserve to control what is done with it.
If you believe that the current distribution of wealth is unjust then shoplifting or squatting is no more or less immoral a means of altering that than amending a tax law or levying a fine. Unless you think the current distribution is perfect then you should accept property destruction/expropriation in at least some cases. Gentrification and advertising are property destruction, things like fracking which put the natural world at risk are something worse – biological terrorism is perhaps an understatement given how many millions are predicted to die from climate change. Most likely you’re not against all property damage, just that which expresses working class agency.
Lives are always more important than shop windows
French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou summarises it better than I could in his book on riots – this is him on the London 2011 and Paris 2005 uprisings:
“In these processes, where the state puts on its most hideous expression, a no less detestable consensus is forged over a particularly reactive conception that can be summarised thus: the destruction or theft of a few goods in the frenzy of a riot is infinitely more culpable than the police assassination of a young man – the assassination that caused the riot. The government and press hastily assess the damage. And here is the vicious idea spread by all this: the death of the young man – a ‘black hooligan’, no doubt or an Arab ‘known to the police’ – is nothing compared with all these additional costs. Let us grieve not for the death, but for the insurance companies. Against the gangs and thieves, let us stand guard, shoulder to shoulder with the police, in front of our property…
Here, by contrast, it will be asserted that the life of a young man is priceless – all the more so in that he is one of the countless people abandoned by our society. To believe that the intolerable crime is to burn a few cars and rob some shops, whereas to kill a young man is trivial, is typically in keeping with what Marx regarded as the principal alienation of capitalism: the primacy of things over existence, of commodities over life and machines over workers.”
People are more important than things
It is of course true that a death is more important than a smashed window, ‘broken windows are not broken spines’ as the Baltimore protesters have it, it is catchy and accurate but we should push further. We don’t need to invoke the violent and final destruction of bodies as the sole means to justify property destruction. Nor do we need to invoke the ‘feeding his starving family’ scenario to justify expropriation. The most extreme manifestation of structural violence is of course death, but it is not the only manifestation – people’s futures, their desire for self-actualisation, their autonomy, their physical health – these also must be valued above the sanctity of a pane of glass or a cop car.
Lives rank above property in life not merely in death.
The dull grind of wage labour is a slow and cruel means to degrade the human body and soul, robbing people of their potential and their time for often pointless or even socially harmful work (kills a fair few people as well – take a look at statistics for suicide, depression, stress-induced diseases, workplace accidents). A call centre may not be the site of deaths, but it does suck life’s vitality vampire-like from its wage-slaves. Burn it down, have no moral qualms. The student occupation of Millbank in 2010 (shattered glass, graffiti, fires, and all) was a totally moral response of working class youth to the theft of their futures at the hands of tuition fee rises and EMA cuts.
Workers destroy the symbol of their hated work regime in the film ‘Office Space’
We built the infrastructures that hurt us
It is a particularly fucked up aspect of capitalism (and feudal, slave and other class societies) that everything used to hurt the working class and oppressed people is a product of their labour. We don’t control what we make, capital owns it and controls its use and distribution. The bailiff who evicts you is running on the energy of the cornflakes he had that morning, curtesy of the collective labour of farm and factory workers, lorry drivers, and supermarket shelf stackers – and you’re the shelf-stacker. The bullets use to cut down mine workers at Marikana were made by workers not so different from the poor miners. Police cars, Starbucks windows, the luxury apartments that displaced you from your social housing – all are built by people like you, as part of the collective labour which you like everyone else contribute to. Workers contribute living labour which is converted by capital, says Marx, into dead labour. This means that the working class creates a world alien to it, which it doesn’t control, but which is the product of its own efforts. Think of Palestinian workers forced by economic circumstances to build the very walls and settlements that colonise their homeland. This is called alienation, and it’s pretty fucked up when you think about it. If our dead labour is coming back to haunt us, we have every right and duty to exorcise it.
A section of the apartheid wall in occupied Palestine; thousands of Palestinian workers help build these walls, driven to it by the economic hardships of Israeli occupation. Pretty twisted, huh?
There are legitimate and serious discussions to be had about property destruction, but drop the absolutist moralism please. Sure, not every act of destruction is respectful, or tactically sound, or clever, it may even be reactionary (think: EDL smashing a Mosque window); but those are the kind of questions that should be debated, starting from a more mature position than ‘vandalism is immoral because it is.’