Setting Fire to Department Stores

Arson, it can be argued, is not a good idea, since it can put people at risk who shouldn’t be put at risk (1).

Specific incidents of arson, it can be argued, are not a good idea, since this type of attack on the capitalist world of consumerism—and that is presumably what those accused of setting fire to the Frankfurt department store will argue—this type of arson does not revolutionize consumerism; it doesn’t damage the system at all. Instead, it drives the very mechanisms that drive consumerism, and helps those who make money from it make even more money. The principle that guides production and consumption in this country, the principle behind profits and the accumulation of wealth is not destroyed by the destruction of a few goods; it is actually reinforced. The occasional destruction of a few goods—free of charge—does those who make money by producing and selling the things that proliferate in the department stores a considerable favor. The damages—the profits, in other words—are assured by the insurance companies. Arson easily resolves the problem of consumer gluts and markets that stagnate because products don’t sell, but it is a method akin to those already deployed by industry. In Vance Packard’s vision of the “city of the future,” “all the buildings are made of a special paper product so they can be torn down and rebuilt during every spring and fall cleaning." And "every fourth factory is built at the edge of a steep drop. The end of the assembly line can be turned toward the front gate or the back gate. If demand is low, the line turns toward the back gate, and the excess of refrigerators or other products disappears into the drop, directly into a garbage dump, and never even reaches the consumer market." (2)

Socially produced wealth is not yet destroyed in such spectacular ways as arson or direct delivery to garbage dumps. Industry is still trying to overcome saturation of the consumer market by producing "a new model" every two years; or by spending millions on research that has less to do with improving products than with selling them; or by resorting to consumers’ private garbage cans for the deposit of useless, but expensive, profit—making wrappings (the consumer pays the costs of garbage removal); or through advertising that is as radically hypocritical as it is costly. Millions in effort, time, and investment are wasted on built-in obsolescence, on planned wear and tear, so that the refrigerators, electric razors, stockings, toys, or light bulbs fall apart earlier than necessary, considering the time and energy invested in producing them, and all to artificially maintain a demand that in turn will increase rates of profit through production and sales, profits which will be  invested privately, not to satisfy social needs but to facilitate the accumulation of capital. What capitalism provides can be bought in a department store. What cannot be bought in a department store, capitalism provides only partially, incompletely, or insufficiently: hospitals, schools, kindergartens, health systems, etc.) In any case, when socially produced wealth is destroyed by setting fire to department stores, this does not differ qualitatively from the systematic destruction of social wealth through fashion, packaging, advertising, or built-in obsolescence. From this perspective, setting fire to department stores is not an anti-capitalist action; on the contrary, it maintains the system and is counter-revolutionary.

The progressive aspects of setting fire to a department store do not lie in the destruction of goods, but in the criminal act, in breaking the law. The law that gets broken in the process does not protect people from seeing the effort and labor they invested and the value they produced destroyed, spoiled, and wasted. It doesn’t protect them from the lies that advertising tells them about their own products; nor does it protect them from being separated from the products they produce because of the way their workplace is organized and the way information is concealed, which subjects them both as producers and as consumers to the mercy of those who make the profits and invest them according to their own tastes. According to their own tastes means according to the logic of profit, in other words, investing where they can make other, even greater profits, and not where the money can be used effectively and by all—say, in education, in the health system, for public transport, for peace and quiet and clean air and sex education.

The law that gets broken when department stores are set on fire is not a law that protects people. It is a law that protects property. The law says that another person’s property must not be destroyed, endangered, damaged, or set on fire. This means that the law protects those who abuse property, and not those who are the victims of this abuse, not those who create wealth through their labor and their consumption. It protects those to whom the law in a capitalist state assigns the right to amass wealth. The law is meant to separate the workers who create the products from the very products they produce. And however desperate an act it is to set fire to a department store, what the arsonists do with the products, and what they want to do—i.e., break the law that only allows the so-called owners to do what they want with their property, break the law that protects the logic of accumulation without protecting people from this logic and its barbaric consequences—this breaking of the law, this criminal act, is what is progressive about setting fire to a department store. It must be recognized and acknowledged as such, and it will not be erased by the fact that the resulting destruction of goods actually maintains the system, and materially contradicts the anti- capitalist intention.

If therefore, an instance of arson in a department store has this progressive aspect of breaking a law that protects lawbreakers, we need to ask how this might be useful, say, for political education. What, in fact, are people to make of an incident of arson in a department store? They could simply loot the department store. The Blacks in the ghettos who loot burning stores soon learn that the system does not collapse when they help themselves to what they desperately need and can not buy because they are poor and unemployed. They learn that a system that deprives them of the things they need to survive is rotten. But the goods that the citizens of Frankfurt might loot from their department stores are hardly things they need to survive. (Dishwashers are the exception. According to statistics they hardly exist in German households although about ten million women work outside the home, and four and a half million of them are married. They should all have one. They are too expensive to buy, but also too heavy to carry off.) If a department store in these parts were looted, this would only increase the quantity of stuff in individual households, stuff that serves as an ersatz form of satisfaction, the perfection of the "private microcosms" (3) individuals are allowed to rule over‬ so that they forget the conditions under which they are forced to work. The needs of the collective that are so blatantly left unsatisfied in capitalist countries would be left untouched. Setting fire to department stores doesn’t raise people’s awareness about these needs either.

And so it would seem that a repetition of the act being treated in court in Frankfurt is not to be highly recommended, and not only because of the enormous danger it entails for the perpetrators who are threatened with heavy sentences. But it is true, as Fritz Teufel asserted at the delegates conference of the SDS, that “It is still better to set fire to a department store than to run one.” Fritz Teufel can sometimes turn a very pretty phrase.

(1) In April 1968 Andreas Baader (1943-1977), Gudrun Ensslin (1940-1977), Thorwald Proll (1941-), and Horst Sohnlein (1943-) set fire to a department store on the Zeil in Frankfurt, one of the highest volume shopping streets in Germany. The fire caused significant property damage. One day later they were arrested. During the court case held in October of the same year, they stated they had wanted to burn down the department store “in order to protest against the apathy of society in the face of the murders in Vietnam."

(2) Vance Packard, The Waste Makers, 1960.‬

(3) André Gorz, Zur Strategie der Arbeiterbewegung im Neo-Kapitalismus, Frankfurt, 1967.