Which is the greater crime – poverty or shoplifting?

Periodically, I am invited on the Call Kaye radio phone in show on BBC Scotland to give my views on various issues. Presented by Kaye Adams, it’s on every weekday morning and covers stories particularly relevant to Scotland, though invariably UK wide in this regard.

Earlier this week I received a call from one of the producers. They were planning an item in response to a new campaign initiated by the Scottish Government clamping down on the illicit trade in counterfeit goods. Looking for guests to speak to the issue, he asked me for my thoughts – whether I thought it was right or wrong for people to knowingly buy counterfeit goods – clothes, perfume, mens and womens accessories, etc – this on the basis that according to the police and the government people who do so are essentially funding criminal gangs that also deal in drugs, people trafficking, and are involved in more serious criminal activities.

I detected surprise when I told him that the issue came down to well off middle class people pointing the finger at poor working class people and telling them how bad they are. As for the argument about propping up organised crime, which deals in human misery, I told him there was no moral difference between that and buying an item from a high street retailer produced by workers kept in conditions of near slavery throughout the Global South.

Further, if we don’t want people buying counterfeit goods we need to make sure they have enough money to buy the real stuff. Why should poor people be locked out of society and its norms? In the West we have been conditioned to believe that we are what we buy, signifying our value and status.

Poverty doesn’t just have a material impact on those who suffer it, it has a psychological impact, crushing the spirit. Counterfeit designer goods allow those without to enjoy the feeling of belonging, to being part of the mainstream, which is vital to a person’s sense of self esteem, however false.

In the end, the producers decided not to have me on the show to discuss this particular item.

But what struck me about this exchange was the extent to which it revealed a widening disconnect between the haves and have nots, on the level of morals as well as income, exacerbated by the recession and the current government’s policy of making the poor pay for an economic mess effectively created by the greed of the rich.

The values of the rich are dominant everywhere you look. They literally scream at us every minute of every day, holding up individualism, materialism, consumerism, money, and success as the sine qua non of human happiness and worth . Neoliberalism, or untrammeled capitalism, sits at the foundation of these values, an economic system predicated on competition and with it the separation of society between winners and losers.

In the current climate the number of ‘losers’ in this ugly scenario are increasing at an alarming rate. Worse, given the aforementioned role of the Tory-led coalition government currently in power, the consequences of ‘failing’ are more grim than they have been for a generation.

The normalisation and acceptance of foodbanks up and down the country – a concomitant of the assault on wages, benefits, and incomes of the poor, both in work and out – is proof positive of the callous disregard for the well being and dignity of the victims of poverty in Britain in 2013.

The idea that the dominant values and morals of the rich and well off should or even could have any purchase among those whose lives have been reduced to a daily struggle to keep body and soul together merely adds insult to injury.

This is further illustrated by a recent story that appeared in the Mirror on the revelation that shoplifting is on the increase, particularly of basic food items such as meat and cheese.

Is anyone surprised? Moreover, it begs the question of whether people struggling to feed themselves and their children are morally justified in stealing food in order to do so.

I believe the answer to this question is unequivocally yes. Those who take the opposite view – both on the issue of purchasing counterfeit goods and shoplifting – will argue that neither is a victimless crime, as many seem to believe.

Perhaps, but neither is poverty. In fact, more than a crime poverty is an abomination, especially when it has become as widespread as it has in the UK – one of the richest economies in the world – in the 21st century.

The real criminals in society are not those who steal food from supermarkets in order to keep food on the table. The real criminals are those responsible for creating, championing, and maintaining the grotesque inequality, despair, and poverty which compels people to do so.

As the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach wrote: ‘Where the material necessities of life are absent, then morality necessity is also absent’.

26 comments on “Which is the greater crime – poverty or shoplifting?

  1. Wholeheartedly agree John.Excellent article. What is criminal also is the stock market commodity speculators who rig the prices of food worldwide so as to maximise their returns.

  2. jim mclean on said:

    They applaud the attacks on the most vulnerable members of our society in the name of fairness, honesty, economic viability and placate their conscience by nibbling on a bit of Fairtrade chocolate never mind the fact that 40% of their favourite snack is grown by child and slave labour……

  3. daniel young on said:

    Only in a profit controlled society, will you find laws harsher for those offending against property than people.

  4. The problem with “counterfeit” goods is that, although it is the brand owners who whinge about it the most, the main victim of the rip-off is usually the customer. Counterfeiters don’t put a fancy brand name on a cheap t-shirt in order to sell the cheap t-shirt for the price at which cheap t-shirts normally sell. They do it in order to sell it for a higher price than the item is actually worth. And when counterfeiting goes beyond the world of fashion and into the food chain, with condemned meat being sold to (usually poor) people as fit for human consumption, it gets dangerous.

    But John is spot on when he says “the issue came down to well off middle class people pointing the finger at poor working class people and telling them how bad they are”. There is nothing immoral about buying counterfeit goods, although it might often be stupid. But there is usually something immoral about selling them.

  5. jim mclean on said:

    Francis King,

    Suppose there are two sides of the coin, knowingly buying fake or smuggled goods and paying full dollar for misrepresented goods. You don’t buy real Gucci at a car boot sale. Now online auction sites, horrendous places, as a record collector I used to be horrified at the prices people were paying for clear fakes. Then I came to the conclusion that spending £5000 for a 50p record with fake label probably shows the buyer has more money than sense.

  6. Some would argue that there is no such thing as crime, just different forms of social harm. It is no accident that prisons are full of those on the lowest incomes.

  7. Next time I get arrested by the police I will need to tell them that ‘some would argue that there is no such thing as crime’.

  8. Francis King: Counterfeiters don’t put a fancy brand name on a cheap t-shirt in order to sell the cheap t-shirt for the price at which cheap t-shirts normally sell. They do it in order to sell it for a higher price than the item is actually worth.

    indeed. But do bear in mind that the owners of the companies producing the ‘genuine’ product put the fancy brand name on for exactly the same reason- in order to sell it for a higher price than the item is actually worth.

  9. jim mclean on said:

    Bloody good copies of GTA5 on the streets of Fife already. Ahhh you have to admire Scottish Enterprise. 🙂

  10. On the counterfeit good point I broadly agree. Regarding shoplifting do you see a moral difference between stealing from say Asda, which can afford it, or a small independent newsagent with very small margins?

  11. Noah,

    You don’t say? As far as clothes are concerned, though, we should insist on the billboard principle: if firms want us to walk around advertising their products, they should pay us the going rate for the advertising space.

  12. Francis King: if firms want us to walk around advertising their products, they should pay us the going rate for the advertising space.

    That’s an interesting point. Though it does apply in some cases already, eg to sports stars and other corporate-sponsored celebs.

    And re: people who wear ‘fake’ label stuff, at least they are paying less, and furthermore to a different bunch of capitalists, for the privilege of walking round being an advert for whichever firm gets the biggest cut of profit from the ‘real’ thing. (Btw- that firm being the owner of the label as distinct from the actual manufacturer in many cases).

  13. Andrew: Regarding shoplifting do you see a moral difference between stealing from say Asda, which can afford it, or a small independent newsagent with very small margins?

    Andrew, I see an obvious moral difference between the two. However, should someone in the position of taking what they need to keep body and soul together, and that of their kids in many instances, be bound by any such moral difference?

  14. Brilliant, John. May I post this at Madam Miaow?

    On the subject of shoplifting, I wouldn’t do it unless I was pauperised and hungry. I would add, however, that when my purse containing not only cash and all my cards, but a fifty quid note my late dad had given me for my last birthday before he died and which I couldn’t bring myself to spend, was lifted from my bag in the fruit and veg aisle at Finchley Road Sainsbury’s, the staff and security were insultingly unhelpful. They refused to call the police, allow me to view the cctv tapes or view it themselves and report back their findings. Neither did they file a report to management. They could not have cared less about theft in their store if it was from a customer. So I would applaud any little old lady nicking a joint of beef or her favourite tipple. Or anyone, actually.

    In retrospect I should have yelled for the cops.

  15. #21 Not only would I have insisted on calling the Police but would have asked them if the reason that they didn’t want to do so themselves was that one of them was responsible for the theft, which would also explain their reluctance to allow you to view the cctv.

  16. #22 Sorry, that may seem a bit over the top but I’m still smarting from the shit way I was treated by a certain leading (now merged) mobile phone company over some identity theft based fraud against myself which I became convinced was an inside job.

  17. jim mclean on said:

    Often feel like altering the usual sign Shoplifters will be Prosecuted to Working Class Shoplifters will be prosecuted.