In our capitalist societies, shoplifting is clearly labeled and treated as a crime. We assume that the products are being “stolen” from “the store,” and that thus shoplifting is merely a different kind of theft. Here is one definition:
The act of taking or stealing something, or otherwise attempting to deprive a retail store of the full value of their merchandise.
The part I put in bold that’s most interesting. Who is the victim in a shoplifting act? “The retail store.” What does that mean? Who is that? A store is not a person, and therefore is not a victim. Is there a person or group of people who own1 this merchandise, and whom we can therefore say are the victims?
Let us now differentiate three different scenarios: 1. a store operated by one person or group, 2. a store owned by one person or group who hires employees, and 3. a corporate store.
Scenario 1 is the easiest. Whoever operates the store (the putative “business owner”) clearly has right of possession over the merchandise he puts on the shelves: he buys it with his own money, he can use the merchandise if he wishes, and so on. Therefore it is clear that here shoplifting is an actual act of theft, since there is a person whom we can identify as rights-bearer, and thus victim.
This scenario is the same as for a mutualist business or communist organization, where the workers or the community can be said to own the merchandise in the same general way.
Scenario 2 introduces a new variable, the presence of employees. As I’ve said before, the capitalist work contract requires a delegation of responsibility from one person to another, which is logically invalid. Therefore, the “business owner” cannot argue against use/occupancy arguments by saying that he has a valid contract by which he preserves responsibility for the production. The responsibility, and therefore the ownership, goes squarely to the workers.
Since this ownership is not recognized by our legal system, and thus shoplifting is not depriving the actual owners of any recognized rights, shoplifting is not theft in this scenario.
It will do us no good to say that the “business owner” has the right to sell, and that therefore he has possession of the merchandise. Placing products on a shelf is not at all like, say, having products in someone’s pantry. A grocery store does not primarily serve the role of stocking things for a person to use; the grocery store exists to sell merchandise, and the stocking is at best a side-effect.
Scenario 3 adds to this the concept of the corporation, which effectively nullifies any pretense of ownership that could have existed. In that context, there is no more store owner, there is not even a corporate owner. Within the capitalist logic, the CEO or the shareholders have no more right of possession over the merchandise than the lowliest worker. Rather, ownership is given to the corporation as a “legal person,” that is to say, a fictional character. This means that there is no actual, living, breathing, person who owns any of these products.
Since most shoplifting takes place under this scenario, we must conclude that it is an action where the victim is made of legal make-believe. How can it be a crime to attack a fictional character? How can it be a crime to steal from a fictional character? And how can we call it actual theft? It is, in essence, no different than taking any other object which belongs to no one.
Of course, actually doing so may result in criminal charges: but the law is no standard of ethics. The law, as we have known it for a long time, exists to protect the “business owner” and his assets, not to protect our rights. Laws are written by the powerful.
The question of whether shoplifting is a crime is, of course, a separate issue than the question of whether anyone is hurt by the action. There are plenty of actions that hurt the self or other people without being invasive in nature. These, we call vices. So the question arises, is shoplifting a vice?
One may argue that shoplifting is a vice because it raises prices for the customers and lowers wages for the workers. Here there is a supposed relation of cause and effect. Certainly it cannot be denied that the shoplifting is a distal cause of the price-raising and wage-lowering. The proximal cause is, equally undeniably, a decision by this or that high-ranking bureaucrat in charge of price-fixing or wage-fixing at that corporation. The final responsibility lies in those bureaucrats, and the workers who obey their orders.
The more relevant question is whether it is a necessary cause and effect relationship. Within the corporate system, where profit is the only important factor, the answer is obviously yes. There is a necessary relation between shoplifting and price-fixing/wage-fixing, since shoplifting reduces profits, and thus profits must be raised from elsewhere.
So my answer, prima facie, would be that yes, shoplifting is a vice. That being said, we have to consider the multitude of reasons people put forward for shoplifting. Some people have put forward the position that shoplifting is a tool to be used against the capitalist system as a whole. If this is a valid point, then we must judge shoplifting in and of itself, not as inscribed within the capitalist system, for that would be a self-defeating kind of reasoning. If we judge all actions within the framework of capitalism, then we will obviously never correctly evaluate any actions taken against it.
The issue of whether shoplifting is an effective way to fight against capitalism is a whole other issue, which I don’t want to get into. I would hardly even know where to start. Setting that aside, I’m going to finish the reasoning on the issue of whether shoplifting is a vice.
We are engaged in a worldwide struggle against multinational corporations, governments, organized religions, and most importantly dogmas which have co-existed with these hierarchies and thus have passed the test of time. One of these dogmas is the belief in property rights. As long as we do not convince people of the incoherency and unethical nature of this dogma, they will continue to support the law in that regard, no matter what we do. Therefore we cannot, at the moment, hope to convince others that shoplifting is a valid action.
Looking at how this struggle is conducted, we see that any anarchist action necessarily hurts someone’s legitimacy, and ultimately livelihood, even if it’s only some faceless bureaucrat. Certainly we should lament if our overseers decide to burden their losses on innocent people instead of shouldering them themselves. But this is no different than the argument that tax resistance is a vice because it raises taxes for everyone else. Whatever else we may say about it, tax resistance is a profoundly moral act. Shoplifting, in my opinion, should be put in this same category.
Further reading: Why I Love Shoplifting From Big Corporations
1 Please keep in mind that, when I say “own,” I am denoting possession, not property; it does not change the basis of the reasoning, and the fact that capitalist agents operate under an unjust conception of rights only makes the case for shoplifting even stronger.