What shoplifting millennials teach us about anti-capitalist attitudes
By Sarah Gustafson
Over on Good, which describes itself as “a social impact company that creates stories, experiences, and tools to push the world forward,” a revealing article about what is — hopefully — a very niche group of millennials: those who shoplift and glorify it on Tumblr’s Liftblr.
The article focuses on “Barbie,” part of a growing millennial community of “female bloggers who trade tips, write about criminal exploits, and post images of stolen merchandise known as ‘hauls.’” She’s hardly a victim of involuntary poverty: she “wanted to be part of it… The only way to do that was to steal something.”
On their methods, the author writes:
The lifters congregate in the Tumblr hashtags, aggregating posts under #myhauls or #liftblr, and crowdsource heavily notated guides to shoplifting. They reblog instructions on how to safely remove security tags and share intel on the various loss prevention policies of department stores and mall shops. They carefully itemize their purloined merchandise.
Despite there being no philosophy behind the initial attraction to kleptomania, there is a hierarchy of targets built into the lifting-ethos. “I only lift from stores that are multi-million dollar companies. I would never steal from a person or a small local store. ” “Thou shalt not rip off mom-and-pop shops” is a basic principle for these wannabe Robin Hoods, who proudly declare opposition to capitalism:
Many of the lifters argue that what they do undermines a capitalist system that victimizes workers and exploits consumers. “I kind of lift with a Robin Hood philosophy,” Barbie says. Sometimes she gives the things she lifts to family and friends. Sometimes she keeps them for herself. “I essentially believe: take from the rich, give to the poor and f**k capitalism,” she writes in an “about me” section on her blog. “I’m a democratic socialist and think capitalism is a plague to America.” And then, an addendum: “yes I still am a greedy materialistic person. But it’s okay because I’m self aware!”
So stealing is okay, as long as we are aware of our own materialism. Sounds a lot like Robin Hood. Except I’m pretty sure that when he stole money or food from the rich, the legend says he gave it away.
Now, not all millennials who “lift” have the same approach as Barbie. One claims to be so poor that, to get new clothes, she must either ask her parents or shoplift, “because in today’s society dressing like you’re poor and a bum will get you nowhere.” Others apparently, “empowered by a sense of social justice,” profess support for Bernie Sanders, issue declarations of solidarity against cultural appropriation, and engage in other social media forms of leftist activism.
Adding a fascinating gravitas to this issue is a PhD candidate interviewed by the author, who contextualizes this in a long history of stealing as social activism:
“Shoplifting, whether you mean it to be or not, is an anti-capitalist action… You’re undermining one of the basic tenets of capitalist ideology, which is that it’s a mortal sin to steal or to get anything you didn’t work for.” This idea infiltrates the earliest anarchist doctrines, which called it “individual reclamation” — resistance to what activists of the time saw as a violent capitalist ideology. Late 19th-century French anarchists implemented individual reclamation against the Parisian elite, squatting in their homes and setting fire to their belongings. More recently, in 2000, a group of Spanish anarchists formed Yomango, which means “I steal” in Spanish slang, and billed it as an anti-consumerist movement. …
Let’s just engage for a minute in thinking about the proper historical contexts of shoplifting, today as 100 years ago.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the medical profession took to diagnosing women as sufferers of “hysteria” — derived from Greek and Latin for “womb” — and of a new disease, “kleptomania”… because women did the shopping, and could increasingly do so in beautiful new department stores full of the temptations of commerce. The intellectual class, particularly in France, already had large parts opposed to department stores on the basis of their theoretically putting small stores out of business (which a French economist disproved.) To intellectuals and anti-capitalism moralists, these “sick” women, thus, were, as one historian put it, “casualties of the rationalization of the marketplace.”
Kleptomania and modern social/moral hostility to capitalism coincided with new levels of prosperity in the West.
This greater social and cultural context counts. Kleptomania and modern social/moral hostility to capitalism coincided with new levels of prosperity in the West, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. It coincided with trade reaching the farthest corners of the globe for the first time, mostly via the British. It coincided with the rise of labour unions, populist parties and socialist parties around the world, and the women’s rights movement in the West. Some fascinating parallels to today — with our excitement over the app economy, concerns/anxieties over the robot economy, drastic poverty reduction around the world through free trade, an increase in populist and socialist politics, and new creativity about making work life better for women. Food for thought, right?
Read the rest of the article, for sure. In the least, it’s a good look at some of the 51% of young adults 18–29 who do not support capitalism even as they enjoy the benefits it accrues to consumer, businessman, and mom-and-pop store alike … The goods, services, and other marketplace miracles that mean “80 percent of the world’s worst poverty has been eradicated in less than 40 years.”
First published on AEIdeas Blog on June 10, 2016.