In defence of shoplifting

"Pocketing some pecorino is rather minor compared with the white collar crimes perpetrated by those at the top."

"Pocketing some pecorino is rather minor compared with the white collar crimes perpetrated by those at the top." Photo: Getty

It’s 8.00 on a Sunday night, although it could be 8.00 in the morning. Awash in a brilliant white light that casts no shadows, the supermarket seems locked in timelessness. I join the swarm of shuffling bodies moving from aisle to aisle picking and choosing their way through a world of abundance. Fruit tumbles to the floor, cheeses cascade one on top of the other and psychedelic packages, jars and bottles perform in a play of pleasure and plenty. I stop in front of the three-metre long cheese display and take a young pecorino and a soft chevre. Without checking to see if anyone is watching, I place the cheeses in my handbag. I don’t attempt to hide them. In fact the pecorino peeks out cheekily from the top.

At the self-service registers my heart palpitates in rhythmic accompaniment with the flat bleeps of electronic sales and the toneless hum of voices on the microphone. I plant my handbag at my feet, pretend to chatter on my mobile and scan through my groceries. At one point, I ask the assistant to help me re-scan my tomatoes as the more expensive Truss tomatoes. She thanks me for my honesty. I pay for my groceries, pick up my handbag, smile for the camera and leave. When I reach the street I am giddy and giggly with elation. I have smuggled my cheeses past the shadowless lights designed to prohibit these furtive delights and secrets.

Not only am I exclusively taking items of pleasure I find the act itself a source of quivering bliss.  

I suppose this story would be more palatable if I spoke with a cockney accent and stole potatoes and cabbages to feed my scurvy-ridden children. Instead, I am an over-educated, under-funded Masters by Research student in the last six-months of my project. This means that I cannot get social security as I am still enrolled to study; I cannot work professionally as I spend twelve hours per day in laboratories, and my scholarship ran out one month ago. I may also mention that I have a devilish love of all things lactic and am peculiarly pleased by cheese.

So how dare I rob these luxury items (admittedly items of greed, rather than items of need) with such scandalous impunity? First, I would never steal from a small business.  I think that there is a world of difference between stealing from large commercial enterprises than the guy down the road. Second, I fail to see why my intellectual labour attracts so little monetary reward when the benefit is ultimately for the public. Were I to engage in corporate rape and pillage I would have amassed a small fortune by now. Third, as far as crimes of property go, I think that pocketing some pecorino is rather minor compared with the white collar crimes perpetrated by those at the top, such as the subprime mortgage crisis. And finally, living on an incredibly limited budget I simply cannot afford what I have been socialised to expect: parmesan on pasta, gruyere with broccoli and a little bit of chevre when socialising with friends.


But lamenting my penury would only provide a moral justification if I was stealing for survival. Not only am I exclusively taking items of pleasure I find the act itself a source of quivering bliss. So how do I explain this penchant for godless deviance?

I can start by reassuring myself that I am not alone. According to the 2011 Global Retail Theft Barometer, 3% of all cheese sold in Australia and New Zealand ends up in the hands of those with sticky fingers. In fact, their list of larcenous lures was exclusively limited to luxury items such as eye-fillet steaks, fashion accessories and shaving balm.

And if we gaze back in time to the emergence of the department store in the nineteenth-century we find much the same tale. Jane Austen's aunt ran off with some exquisite white lace and ladies of distinction frequently swanned out of stores with silk, jewels and porcelain stuffed under bussles, or in gloves, clutches and muffs. In short, people very rarely shoplifted for need. When they did it was called larceny and it carried the death penalty. Shoplifting as an offence was created for middle class women who needed to prove the absence of need, along with a case of disordered feminine nerves which was medically diagnosed as 'kleptomania'.

There is something about the simultaneous emergence of shoplifting as a legal category of offence and the department store which suggests a rather cosy relationship between capitalism and crime. Shopping centres and supermarkets don't just sell us what we need. If they did, no-one would make any profits. Instead they create desires for commodities. They present, in a very deliberate fashion, a world of temptations that keeps the cogs of the economy ticking over. Shoplifters simply respond to these temptations. Supermarkets need to seduce you with the superfluous. Shoplifters surrender themselves to the romance. They also draw you into a world that in its teeming abundance seems illusory and dream-like. It's no wonder that shoplifters forget that stealing is less a pleasurable game than a very real crime.

As a good morality tale, I should end here by begging for your forgiveness and promising reform. I can assure you that the minute I begin making money, my furtive pleasures will give way to the greater fear of getting caught. But in the meantime, who am I to resist the wink of a wheel of camembert or the sonnets of a Saint Nectaire?

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