August 6, 2021
From ROAR Mag

People wearing costumes inspired by the Money Heist TV series during a carnival parade in Decimomannu, Italy – February 16, 2020. Paolo Certo /

At least as early as the first century A.D., shiftas of the Horn of Africa renounced their allegiance to emperors, government and law, and took to the wild where — through their disruptions of the usual business and trade — they would manage to survive as outlaws. For centuries, the Balkan haiduks roamed their lands, stealing from their Ottoman occupiers. Yi brigands and others from across the Chinese frontier sustained their economies in large part through raiding during the early 20th century. From 1917-1937, Peruvian women led bands of sharpshooters by horseback to rob the rich and give to the poor.

Despite limited research and the folkloric fictionalization of the Robin Hoods of our past, social banditry seems to be present wherever even the most primordial forms of civilization have offered class inequalities. The phenomenon of social banditry — theft for the good of the poor — transcends history, geography and culture.

Industrial capitalism and neoliberal economics have necessitated changes in methods for bandits. No longer do the rich travel highways by road, vigilant for wilderness hijackers. Only approximately 8 percent of the world’s money is circulated today in the form of cash. Information about the wealthy is protected by obscure tax havens. The brigand’s task today is a fundamentally creative one, and the historical shrouds of machismo and bush-fame do not offer quite the same leverage of terror they once did.

The narrative of the bandit is not dead; it has merely transformed, and may be making a comeback. Recent iterations of once-timeless rebel tales, like Otto Bathurst’s 2018 film Robin Hood, are now dwarfed by the popularity of TV series like Good Girls and Money Heist that speculate how “ethical crime” might look today. We crave a good shakedown of state financial institutions. Even those who do not condone banditry cannot help but hold a certain reverence and awe for its spirited incipient mythology.

More importantly, while these may be works of fiction, groups on the radical left all around the world have been finding ways to commandeer money and assets and redistribute them to their allies and oppressed communities. A recent noteworthy example is the requisition of a Minneapolis Sheraton hotel during the George Floyd protests, when activists transformed it into the Share-a-Ton. Historical social banditry may offer inspiration, but today’s radical left are yoinking their way into a future where popular struggle will have the resources needed to sustain itself beyond sporadic revolutionary moments.

Never before has our species faced an existential crisis like that of global climate chaos. The scale and pace at which we have to make concrete change must far supersede the historical scale and pace of industrialization and colonization. For perspective, we have six years and five months to put a complete end to fossil fuel use and shift 100 percent of our planet’s energy consumption to renewables, or we warm the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius and cause catastrophic damage at unfathomable scales.

Obviously the main emergency shortcut we can take is people power. Popular struggle has proven that drastic change can in fact be expedited. The climate justice movement is arguably the largest and most diverse movement in world history, and its members — a substantial mass of whom are far too young to have to carry this colossal burden — are raising the stakes with everything from brave direct action to high-level lobbying. “Indigenous communities have been telling us for centuries that nature has to be respected the same way we respect humans,” said Raul de Lima of the Climate Clock communications team. “There is still a brief window of time to protect the most important thing: life.”

To take advantage of this brief window of opportunity, we need to engender more drastic change more urgently. Money can help make this happen. With the global economy in the hands of a fraction of one percent of the world’s population, we need more creative strategies to hasten the redistribution of funds to the coffers of our most powerful movements and their syndicates.

Those with the most money have often been defeated by those with the most people power. Ultra-wealthy dictators have on many occasions fallen where people have risen in defiance, a recent example being the downfall of billionaire Omar al-Bashir, part of whose wealth is now recovered. But those at the center of resistance movements need resources to sustain their lives and work, and to build and strengthen infrastructure for their struggles. Modern people-powered movements often resource themselves through in-kind contributions, volunteerism, solicitations or dues from members and allies, partnerships with nonprofits and businesses, and philanthropic institutions and similar donors (who often hold center-liberal values and may attach strings to their support).

These are not the only options for movement financing. There is another option: stealing.

Activist purism gets in the way of us choosing this option, but at this historical moment, it may be less ethical not to expropriate money from certain targets than to continue scraping by piecemeal. There are many ways it can be done.

The most intuitive way to steal money is to rob, and the most obvious place to rob is a bank. But that does not mean bandits must enter through the front door, guns blazing.

In 2008, Catalan activist Enric Duran published a statement concerning half a million Euros he had stolen through obtaining 68 bank loans to finance popular struggles. Duran sought hiding after renouncing the authority of the judicial system. He urged comrades not to waste a moment campaigning for his amnesty, but rather learn from his false loan tactics and pull off similar heists at greater scales.

Duran’s defrauding strategy expanded the Catalan modern legacy of activist banditry. In 2002, The Barcelona-born movement Yomango (“I swipe”) harnessed the talents of shoplifters to publicly and unashamedly fight austerity and the corporate powers behind it. Their movement of open thieving quickly spread across Europe and Latin America, such as in Argentina where dancers openly shoplifted hundreds of champagne bottles from a Carrefour store.

In Denmark, the crew that came to be known as the Blekingegade Gang had pulled off a large number of heists in the 70s and 80s to fund allied Leninist activity at the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. One of their famous jams involved posing as police driving a Ford Escort.

Shortly before the Blekingegade Gang’s rise, the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican outfit, stole what they deemed an underutilized truck, equipped with a tuberculosis-detecting X-ray unit. They brought it to East Harlem where they ran tests for residents while flying a Puerto Rican flag above the vehicle.

Although these overtly left groups — and many others — undertook calculated acts of “ethical crime,” social banditry as it is historically understood relies less directly on ideological politics. It is class warfare inasmuch as it enables the brigand or band — marginal even in societies where they have popular support — to preserve itself over the long-term. The poor and the peasantry are taxed with a “pie in the window” — or similar minor concessions offered to the local outlaws. The bandits are in turn expected to protect the peasantry from those in power, and should they pillage a good loot, share a portion of their plunder.

For instance, John Kepe hid in the Boschberg caves of the Eastern Cape in the 1950s, ransacking the homes and farms of Afrikaners. Although the loot offered him his own survival, he redistributed useful household goods and items to fellow black South Africans. This helped keep his whereabouts mum. One might say his passive alliances with mainstream society offered him more favorable “working conditions.” Kepe’s story was recently adapted for the screen in Sew the Winter to My Skin.

The late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm — perhaps the most authoritative writer on social banditry — observes a similar pragmatic economics and politics in the historical bandits. They support the revolution, but are rarely themselves the revolution. Their niche contribution toward the struggle of the underclass rarely offers scalable infrastructure for, say, nationwide peasant revolt. They are generous in their economic sentiments toward any movement of the poor, though. It was said that Brazil’s famous bandit Lampião bought supplies at thrice the usual price from traders. Such “bandit generosity” expresses sympathies for mass rebellion and for the freedom of life outside the immediate throngs of the empire and its landlords, if not mere pomp and pride for the bandit.

Straightforward robbery — that is, transferring money or assets from party X to party Y through theft — is not the only means of liberating funds. Money laundering — practiced daily by billionaires with impunity — can also be used for good.

One group interviewed for this article applies for grants from large institutions. The funds they are awarded are accounted for through receipts collected from trash bins at bus stations, or wherever else they can be found. The amount accounted for through false receipts is then distributed to allied grassroots activists or direct action groups whose activities cannot comfortably fall under the grant agreements without raising eyebrows. “NGOs do dirty things all of the time to advance their self-interests,” said a member of this group. “Why shouldn’t we use similar approaches for more radical ends?”

The modern bandit is not limited to small-scale laundering like this. In some cases, a nonprofit “shell company” like an NGO can be established to solicit for large — and usually politically moderate — donor funding. When grants are awarded, funds can be distributed to a more radical group — i.e. a “partner” — that invoices for the sum shared. In this way, the official grant recipient, in this case the “NGO shell company,” can avail financial accountability, satisfy auditors, and still report on their seemingly moderate activities while creating a buffer between the donor and radical group, thus availing greater autonomy to the radical group.

One youth organization cleans their grant monies by hosting large events — activities meant, in the donor’s perspective, to promote cultural diversity and inclusion. The community activities they organize are exactly the activities they claim to do in their applications and reports. They charge a fee for attendance, though, and in this way make back more money than they spent. Accountability for the funds has already been made through spending the capital received. The proceeds from their “suggested donations” are then distributed to antifascist groups.

Sometimes requisitioning funding from the right need not be so convoluted. “Usually, we don’t need to do stuff like this,” explained my informant. “It’s really quite easy to get a large amount of money from a right-wing donor, especially if you have a formally registered organization with a board and membership that is ‘in on it’ while maintaining a nice-looking front.”

Most bandits have historically targeted victims in their proximity. What was once the geographic terrain of highwaymen is now the economic terrain of the movement “industry.” In other words, bandits do not run where they do not need to run; NGOs are our closest targets. Many are adjacent to but not synonymous with our movements.

The good news is that shaking down NGOs through criminality may not even be necessary, in many instances. Many NGO workers entered the sector with much hope for making change, only to become disillusioned with the ineffectual nature of their industry and the magnitude of complex problems they once set out to help solve. Everyone could use a little revolutionary fervor, and often it is possible to sell an opportunity to NGO workers dissatisfied with the pathetic impact their industry’s $1 trillion annual turnover has logged.

To ask how this can be done, one may turn to the eccentric and arguably nonviolent means of French Highwayman of Restoration England, Claude Duval. Feared less for his strength and more for his charm, Duval was famed for using his gallantry to win hefty sums from his hijacking victims. The question Duval poses to us today is: can we charm those with their hands on NGO budgets into shifting their grantee portfolio leftward? We achieve this by selling the experience of revolution to nonprofit industry workers whose burning passions have been dwindling but are not altogether dead. (Do not read this as an endorsement of the sexualization of theft as practiced by Duval, and appropriated by many a playwright!)

“Usually there is no need for trickery,” explained one person who takes a Duvalian approach to traditional fundraising. “We can be forthcoming about our objectives and methods. Hesitancies from potential financiers come in the form of risk management. Most donors don’t want to be seen as protest funders, and many governments thrive on the propaganda that youth activism is fueled by financiers abroad, so you’ve got to persuasively explain how your group is set up to mitigate these challenges. Their interest is to circumvent this public scrutiny.” This correspondent’s group often invests months of time in relationships with large donors before securing a firm commitment, but in some instances has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single donor to invest in radical work.

How do we disambiguate modern bandits from selfish opportunists? How do we create systems of accountability where secrecy is necessary to advance radical work without jeopardizing those who have not consented to certain risks?

One of my informants described with painstaking detail how transparency over funds is shared between core members in a secure way. There are many ways to do this, using a consensus process between trusted members being one way.

The fundamental principle for what disambiguates social banditry from criminal opportunism lives somewhere in who the bandit accounts to. To invoke Hobsbawm’s words, one “becomes a bandit because he does something which is not regarded as criminal by his local conventions, but is so regarded by the State or the local rulers.” To answer what is regarded as criminal, one may ask “who are my people?” A spectrum of anarchist ethics offer varying answers to this question, but are united in identifying who their people are not: capitalists, governments, the state. Duran, for instance, did not recognize the right of the judiciary to judge.

The bandit is a pre-political phenomenon, in that there would be no need for the bandit were the revolution already fully realized. In many cases where social banditry has taken root, other fragments of revolutionary sentiment may be difficult to spot, and the political moment may still be ages away. Social bandits thus have a responsibility to recognize the validity of the experiences of the oppressed, and to affirm them through action.

Historically, this action takes the chief form of providing security from oppressors and redistributing loot. In the 21st century, the social bandit’s responsibility has leaned more upon the latter.

In any case, our bar should not be held so high. Hobsbawm wrote, “Bandit-heroes are not expected to make a world of equality. They can only right wrongs or prove that sometimes oppression can be turned upside down.” Whatever ethic we create for social banditry in our neoliberal era will be riddled with ambiguities, but the urgency of our moment calls us to navigate these complexities.

As the future of our species — and others — hangs in the balance, we must turn to high-risk, high-reward action. If we are going to go down, let it not be due to revolutionaries beating around the bush. As famed Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa sputtered out his dying words, bleeding open from gunwounds: “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”