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?


  • Not sure if this piece was a serious article or not, but it should be remembered that shoplifting is a crime, costing shop owners, both large and small, millions of dollars every year. Sure goods are displayed in a tempting manner, but if you don't have the money, leave the products alone. You will be caught stealing and prosecuted.

    Date and time
    March 05, 2012, 9:16AM
    • This is leftist moral relativism taken to a new extreme. Large supermarkets engage in mutually consensual voluntary trade to serve customers. They are not evil. You are evil.

      Using your self serving logic, I could arrive at an arbitrary moral conclusion such as: "Since Mr Anonymous is not a productive member of society and hence, a parasite, he should be exiled to a remote pacific island (with one block of the finest cheese as ration)"

      You want to understand why society is being degraded at such a fast pace? This confession is one part of the puzzle.

      Victimless Crime
      Date and time
      March 05, 2012, 12:13PM
  • Why not just live a lifestyle that you can afford...i am sick of people thinking they are hard done by because they cant afford all the luxury items in life.
    During my student days i basically lived on pasta and cheap red sauce because thats what i could afford. I never consdiered stealing food to enable me to be able to live a lifestyle that i selfishly though i desevered.
    Maybe instead of catching a bus to uni, you should steal a porsche so you can impress people aswell.

    Date and time
    March 05, 2012, 9:32AM
    • I thieve from the large corporations (wefarmers, bunnings etc) at every opportunity as a protest against the homogenisation and monopolisation of society's retail sector. And I feel darned good about it. Choke on that, puritans :)

      Date and time
      March 05, 2012, 9:33AM
      • Finally someone worth respecting. Not like most of the sheep here!

        Date and time
        March 05, 2012, 1:04PM
    • Yes, it is wrong and illegal to shoplift.
      To argue anything else is simply you trying to justify your lack of responsibility.

      torn social fabric
      Date and time
      March 05, 2012, 9:34AM
      • Yes all things that are illegal are wrong, but capitalism and monopolising are RIGHT... Sorry but the world is not that black and white.

        Date and time
        March 05, 2012, 3:31PM
    • Great. Lets all do what we want and forget the common good. Really what you are doing is cheating-if everyone cheated like you the supermarkets would have to close and we would decend to the fourth world. Really, your freebies are only possible because most of us obey societies rules. I don't find you glamorous-you are a self righteous sociopath.

      Date and time
      March 05, 2012, 9:37AM
      • This is a joke article, isnt it? In defence of shoplifting? shoplifting is theft, nothing more and nothing less, and illustrates this sense of entitlement that seems to have gripped the country. Theft means someone pays, in this case fellow shoppers subsidise this criminality. No wonder the writer stayed anonymous. If you have a camembert taste and cheddar income, then buy cheddar, and go save up for something better.

        The Sceptic
        Date and time
        March 05, 2012, 9:43AM
        • The defense sounds like "other people do worse things"; hardly a convincing one. You can't even use the victimless crime argument on this one, it's pretty clear cut. Ultimately every other shopper pays for shoplifting (if you believe they'll take it as reduced profits, you are crazy).

          The fact that there's a history of a crime or that you aren't the only one doing it doesn't make it any less of a crime, and I don't really see a good argument for it not being a crime.

          If you can't afford the necessities of life, I may have some sympathy. But all I see is first world entitlement.

          Date and time
          March 05, 2012, 9:51AM

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