In 1987, the infectious indie-pop miserabilists The Smiths hit number 12 in the charts with their single, Shoplifters of the World Unite. Released eight years into a Thatcherite assault that had seen significant defeats for organised labour, youth unemployment reach unprecedented levels and cities across the country erupt in waves of urban unrest, the song’s catchy call to arms reflected the desire for a coordinated fightback against Tory rule and a ‘violent’ redistribution of society’s wealth.
Whether or not the song’s lyricists meant what they said remains a moot point, as ultimately those who supplemented their lives with the occasional ‘five-finger discount’ failed to mobilise into a force capable of reappropriating wealth on mass, let alone taking over and reordering society. But with Britain’s working classes facing similarly brutal attacks under Tory rule in 2021, should shoplifters today take collectivising seriously?
Commoning as custom.
Marxists have long recognised capitalism to be the ultimate con game, one that benefits the ruling class at the expense of the working classes, allowing them to extract their profits from our exploitation. Through the use of the law, the police, the courts and the threat of prison, the ruling class stack the deck in their favour and order the world in the interest of maintaining their authority and control.
The origins of industrial capitalism itself are predicated on theft and trickery. In the British context rural labourers and their families were historically driven toward the factories and cities, leaving behind the relative ease of the countryside after parliament – at the behest of landowners – enclosed common land, which the rural poor had until then used to subsist and maintain a modicum of their own autonomy.
However, you don’t need to be a Marxist to realise the rules are stacked firmly against us or to recognise that you’re being exploited in the workplace. Nor to think through novel ways to redress the structural imbalances in the boss/worker relationship. In fact ‘theft’ at work makes up a significant proportion of retail losses each year and taking ‘unofficial bonuses’ from work is as old as the working class itself.
As the historian EP Thompson notes in his book Customs in Common, the early working class around London’s Docklands were no strangers to unsanctioned acts of wealth redistribution. In the 18th century, people employed to unload ships would often hold back a proportion of the goods they handled for ‘common use’, which was seen as a natural right of workers and their families
These commoning customs threatened the bourgeois interests of private property, workplace discipline and profit, and would eventually be usurped by the ruling class – through changes in legislation that criminalised such forms of subsistence that fell outside of the wage
Property law has and continues to act to discipline and maintain the working class in its role as labour power alone, ensuring that ‘work,’ where we sell our labour to a capitalist, is the sole legal means of our survival.
It should come as no surprise then, that revolutionary socialists have often sought to move around the law in order to reassert working-class power. Alongside organising within workplaces and in our communities, revolutionaries have also – at various points – employed the tactic of ‘expropriation’ to redistribute wealth and support revolutionary aims.
Recent history is peppered with many examples. From the collective non-payment of the poll tax which led to Margaret Thatcher’s demise, to organised attempts at fair dodging and the coordinated ‘self-reduction’ of supermarket goods, collective attempts to reassert our power outside of the law has remained a constant refrain of working-class militancy.
For some in the revolutionary left, these tactics are employed as part of a general strategy aimed at the immediate refusal of work, and the ordering of society the capitalist world demands. By reasserting our right to claim direct ownership over the wealth our class produces, by withholding rent or fines, through refusing to pay for services and utilities, or by redistributing goods without paying for them, it is argued we reclaim the social wealth stolen from our class by capitalism. The repression that actions like these is then met by – at the hands of the police and the court system – demonstrates the state’s role in the maintenance of capitalist social relations, shattering the myth that these institutions are somehow neutral phenomena.
For an early example of coordinated revolutionary criminality, we can look to 20th century France. In 1900, the French anarchist Marius Jacob established The Workers of the Night as an attempt to unionise burglars, targeting the houses of those considered to be social parasites – such as bosses or judges – and directing a proportion of the spoils of this night-time activity towards support for revolutionary causes underway in workplaces.
Jacob’s night workers were part of a wider tendency within the French working class of the time known as illegalists, for whom criminality was part and parcel of a revolutionary strategy. As Richard Parry explains in the preface to his book outlining the history of the illegalist group The Bonnet Gang, illegalism emerged during a profound period of defeat for the organised working class. The violent repression of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the birth of the third republic served as a constant reminder to workers that they could expect nothing from the new order, except further repression.
In the years immediately following the commune’s defeat, revolutionary organisations were banned outright, as were all forms of working-class political activity. As such trade unionists were forced to operate in clandestine ways often utilising resources liberated from the ruling class by the illegalists. These acts of solidarity often ran in one direction, as many within the organised labour movement sought to distance themselves from their illegalist counterparts. Nevertheless, this apparent marriage of convenience between organised labour, revolutionary anti-capitalists and those from within the criminal fraternity, did for a time, create a combative class consciousness, acutely aware of the central role that the police, private property and legislation play in the maintenance of capitalism and social inequality.
A shoplifters’ union of Britain?
The question is, could working-class people who make or top up their livelihood in these novel ways do something similar today? Instead of individual acts of survival, could shoplifters federate their activities so as to strengthen their position and that of their class? And if so inclined, what organisational form could such a fraternal undertaking take?
Getting people to join a shoplifters guild is obviously going to be an issue – not least one of illegality – and is probably best left to conversations between trusted friends. But leaving this aside, how could such a guild function in order to build broader class power?
To start with, each member could pay a small sub at a branch meeting to ensure the costs incurred through potential fines or by criminal sentencing are covered by the collective. This would distribute the risk of shoplifting.
Branch meetings could also be used to discuss best practice and to swap tricks of the trade. These could include how to avoid security, brushing up on the law, or identifying suitable shoplifting opportunities – such as from a particularly unscrupulous boss.
Branch meetings could also provide the space for collective political education – helping to raise class consciousness and solidarity among those working in the sector.
Finally, a proportion of the branch’s spoils could be held back to support working-class struggle.
Just like the Smiths, my tongue may well be firmly in my cheek when I propose shoplifters unite, however, if Britain’s decidedly corrupt ruling classes can break the rules and stack the deck in their favour, isn’t it about time those ground under capital’s heel stopped acting individually and worked in unison instead?
Seth Wheeler is contributing editor to In and Against the State (published by Pluto Press 2021) and is a contributor to In our own voices, an upcoming podcast from Pagliacci Rossi.