Uprising, or “a kind of manna”

Lenora Hanson, NYU

George Floyd was murdered over a “(potentially) counterfeit” bill used to purchase cigarettes at a convenience store—for getting something he needed. (In 2014, Eric Garner was selling cigarettes “fraudulently.” Rayshard Brooks was murdered for idling in a fast-food drive-thru.) It does not matter whether that bill was counterfeit or not. Its “potential” was the contingent event that became the condition of structural violence in which no event is allowed to remain contingent. That this bill can be suspected as “counterfeit” exposes a scene that always must be secured by the police. This is a scene in which the fraudulence of money’s “universal equivalence” threatens to be exposed for what it has always been—a false border between those designated to die and those designated to live inside or outside of property. “Counterfeit” money is always a tautology, a repetition of sameness.  It requires brutal surveillance to preserve its fiction. One of these fictions is that the origins of money as we know it never involved the exchange of persons. But another is that the surplus of needs and dependencies that define human life could ever be reduced to the sameness of exchange. Such enforced sameness is the real counterfeit, the contra-facere, that has been made against those needs that will always exceed exchange, and in so doing always refer back to the creation of universal equivalence through slavery. The looting that followed Floyd’s murder, and the murders of so many others before him, rescinds the false equivalence that necessitates murder to retain its border. In this sense, recent riots affirm and perform the action for which Floyd was murdered—getting something that he needed without reducing that need to sameness.

Uprisings that take the form of looting are, as Amanda Armstrong reminds us, always already racialized and global. Looting, a nineteenth-century English translation of the Hindi verb lut (to rob), is the refusal of an everyday exchange that remains inseparable from the chains that make such equivalence possible. Living outside the counterfeit of equivalence has a history, but one that runs counter to the equation between sameness, self-possession, and freedom. In his Treatise on Sugar (1799), Benjamin Moseley generates a science of this sameness, weeding through the unruly roots of sugar in an attempt to isolate a pure history separate from a surplus of things that can be used to sweeten: “the maple, the birch, the red beet, the parsnip, the grape, wheat, and etc.” Against this surplus of sweetness, Moseley’s science seeks to establish the sugar cane as a proper and proprietary object that can justify the difference between Europeans and Africans, and thus secure slavery as a world-historical agricultural endeavor. For Moseley, it was a brutal fact of nature that Africans had to be enslaved in order for this thing to become an item of exchange. Without it, the needs of laboring populations in Europe could never have been met. But the Treatise provides another science that routes us back through India and to Floyd’s “theft.” This other science is a kind of looting, a satisfaction met against equivalence. According to Moseley, Arabs did not understand the production of sugar by Indians. Rather, “they thought it was the dew, which, falling on the Indian canes, concreted: and that it was a kind of manna.” Moseley assumes that, without the knowledge of commodities, these non-Europeans thought that sugar simply fell from heaven, without a proper history. A misunderstanding of the brutal counterfeit of commodities is always imputed to others who obtain what they need in different ways. In this other science, the cops would never be called. Which is why looting, counterfeiting, and stealing –all ways of living outside of exchange—had to be created as crimes at the same time that humans were exchanged and insured as property.

Meeting one’s needs outside of the strictly policed boundary between equivalence and non-equivalence is no mere economic phenomenon. Joshua Clover has recently argued that riots and looting are the actions of those dispossessed from access to the wage, a dispossession that is deeply racialized. But getting what one needs through means that mock a counterfeit equivalence, as in the case of riots, also reminds us that race denotes a surplus of ways of getting things otherwise and of other modes of circulation. One aspect of enslavement, then, was a separation which took centuries of law-making to realize and enforced the identification of race with non-equivalence in a strictly juridical mode. George Floyd was killed under this condition that the condition of slavery produced—a condition that demands the deadly securitization of a counterfeit equivalence.

Slipping a counterfeit for a stolen good made on stolen land by stolen labor—this is a performance of another kind too. It is a way of meeting needs that looks like superstition (“a kind of manna”) to a plantation owner and like theft to the police, because they make and enforce a law in which needs cannot be met outside the brutal enforcement of separability through equivalence. Lifting the borders around property—whether through counterfeit bills, Gucci bags, wagons of corn, or street-corner sales—is the continued refusal of false equivalence between our infinite and surplus needs and the ever-deviating ways that they must be met. It draws from a history of refusal of the always deadly sameness of that calculation. Thomas Malthus and Patrick Colquhoun and John Mill and J.R. McCulloch knew this, and designed theories and policies to distinguish the messiness of needs from the imputed equivalence of wages. Looting undoes that securitized counterfeit, for a moment. To revel in the generative history of that refusal is also to refuse to cover over the vagrancies of needs that have been written, as Saidiya Hartman has shown, as the history of blackness.

To lut, then, is to move across thresholds otherwise secured by cops and the metaphysics of money and to recover an undocumented history of another ordering between needs and their meeting. This movement refuses the passage of needs in their difference through a necessarily securitized-sameness. Moments of looting remind us that no space exists between the tautologies of the state and the securitization of property. Every instance of exchange is not only an enactment of the reality of abstraction in Marx’s sense, where abstraction is lived as the social process of meeting needs through the exchange of money. It is also the everyday transformation of what we need—as the sign of a deeper dispossession that takes the form of interdependence—into a property that can be policed, into a sameness that could only be produced through the difference of slavery.

As a mockery of the false equivalence of exchange, looting performs a defense of black life, passing through Hindi to revel in a global practice of meeting needs otherwise. As Fred Moten writes, “[l]eaving, differing, stealing away, is always under the threat of the interdiction, of protected theft, of mastery’s ‘protected’ right to steal.” The use of counterfeit bills, the lut, the sweet falling of dew—these all undo the tautology that renders every bill counterfeit as a claim to universal sameness. These instances smuggle tautology out of the habit of everyday exchange. From tauto-“the same” and logos “saying,” they turn us to legein, “to say.” Say their names. “To say” derives from the root leg, “to collect, gather” and “to speak,” “to gather words, to pick out words.” These differing repetitions of deviating accumulations—of gleaning against the violence of property—provide figural deviations from a law that, as Sora Han writes, “makes recourse to self-evidence so self-evident that it negates the necessity for judicial review at all.” As movements move forward with the cries of “Defund the Police,” these collected and repeated counterfeits remind us that to truly defund the police we must also undo property at every turn so that, at last, there is nothing to defend.