Steal This Article

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Girl Stealing Grapes, Henriëtte Willebeek le Mair (1915)

"Stealing is stealing. I don’t care if it’s on the Internet or you’re breaking into a warehouse somewhere—it’s theft."

—United States Senator Patrick Leahy

If a rich person has something you need, you should take it. And if a big corporation has something you want, you should steal it. Instead of paying retail prices when you go to a chain store, just don’t pay. After all, you earned it.

The rich people who run these big corporations like to act as if we live in an age of austerity. So do their spokespersons in politics. We just don't have enough money anymore! We’re running out of things. In this economy, you are lucky to have a freelancing gig. Full-time jobs are a stop on the way to collecting unemployment, not a career with a picket fence and a pension. It has something to do with the economy and it is all very confusing.

The truth is the human race has never been better off. We live in an age of plenty. The problem is one of distribution: Instead of being used for the benefit of all, that plenty is exploited for the benefit of a select, privileged few, who profit from polluting and in some cases sabotaging the commons. Natural resources, from the land beneath us to the electromagnetic spectrum all around us, are monopolized by corporations bound by law to maximize quarterly profits, not the good of society. Our mutual inheritance is passed on to a handful of wealthy people who rely on the labor and genius of others to make themselves wealthier.

Those at the top take all the credit in the best of times and blame everyone beneath them the rest of the time. At all times, though, they take the money.

But the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority is not the result of some higher law and a can-do attitude. It does not reflect the way things always were and always must be. The reason some dads are rich and others poor is that the rich dads (and moms) got together and created a political and economic system that benefits rich people. As the saying goes, you need money to make money.

Having money means defining right and wrong. Under capitalism, property is defined by those with the most dollars. Historically you could go to prison for “stealing” a slave or letting them liberate themselves. Human beings were property until a shift in values and a bloody civil war decided they weren’t. Isn’t it possible that what is considered private property today will be rendered illegitimate by future generations? And why wait?

Change comes about when those in power feel scared: when they feel that conceding to the public interest is the only way to maintain their status. Charity may build a few hospital wings, but fear builds a universal health care system. If you want to improve your life, start thinking outside the ballot box and the system the rich created and the values it teaches. Start thinking about getting what is yours.

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of our sample experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week. The average worker lost $51, out of average weekly earnings of $339. [...] That translates into wage theft of 15 percent of earnings.

—2008 UCLA study of low-wage employees in Los Angeles, California

It’s easy to steal back your money from the rich. You probably do it all the time. Ever buy a movie on iTunes instead of downloading it for free on The Pirate Bay? Yeah, keep not doing that. Ashton Kutcher will be just fine, unfortunately. Send some money to a janitor at Universal Studios if you really feel bad about it.

If you really want to scare the rich while enriching yourself, you’ll eventually want to advance from stealing bogus “intellectual” property to actual, in-real-life stealing. At a big-box retailer and feeling a little bold? Grab what you can and run out the door. No minimum wage employee really wants to chase you—they’re more likely to steal from their workplace than anyone else is. They have no right to detain you once you reach the great outdoors either. You should probably have a friend waiting in a car.

Like most things in life, the key to getting away with something you are not supposed to be doing is acting like you are supposed to be doing it. If you act suspiciously, people are going to get suspicious, so please don’t do the whole, I’m-doing-something-shady, glance-over-the-shoulder thing you see potheads do at music fests. Be cool.

Find a store with a self-checkout line to build your confidence. If management wants to replace the working class with computers that maybe aren’t quite as good at protecting company property, make them pay for it. Yeah, scan a few items—but don’t scan a few more. Nonchalantly pass your items a bit too high over the scanner and into your brand-new backpack. Oh, did that barcode not register? Guess we’ll never know.

You could, of course, get caught. That’s always a risk and it shouldn’t be downplayed—guess who owns the justice system? So it’s best to be prepared. Try scoping out the place you plan on liberating goods from beforehand. Get acquainted with where all the cameras are, the exits, stuff like that. The less bogged down by details you are come go-time, the less anxious and better off you’ll be.

"Security experts say that as many as 30 percent of the average company’s employees do steal, and another 60 percent will steal if given a motive and opportunity."

—National Federation of Independent Business

Everyone hates their boss. Despite all those empty words about the office as a “team,” we all know there’s a hierarchy: The workplace is a coercive environment, and you’re not the one doing the coercing. You are not there because you want to be there, but because the alternative is impoverishment, a fact your boss knows as well as you. No matter how cool the guy or gal in charge, they can ruin your life as soon it becomes convenient. The company your labor helped build could dismiss you any day now.

Besides the constant risk of dismissal, we all know that there’s nothing “fair” about work; those who do the most of it are never the ones to reap most of its benefits, and that careerists who say what those in charge want to hear fare better than the ones who tell those in charge the truth.

Collective action is the ideal, but individual direct actions aren’t without merit, least of all to the individuals in question. You can always lift office supplies at the same time you try to organize fellow office workers.

Consider working less. Not working fewer hours (you get paid for those), but expending less effort. Slow down, speed racer. Worker productivity is not a good thing in the context of capitalism and it should raise a few red flags that those most invested in increasing it are the idle rich. They want you to work harder so they can pay you less. Indeed, Americans are already working harder than ever, the productivity of the average employee increasing more than 80 percent in the last 25 years. That increase in productivity has created an amazing amount of wealth, just not for those who produced it. Don’t feel lousy about taking some of it back from those who took it from you.

Remember: While you maybe don’t want that extra stapler or Keurig coffeemaker, Bed Bath & Beyond will probably accept it for in-store credit.

"It's fun pretending to be a cop chasing and capturing a robber. It can be even more fun to be the robber because you take things and try to get away with them before your buddy, the cop, catches you."

—“Learning and Emotional Problems: Stealing,”

There is $118 trillion of wealth in the United States alone, or about $375,000 per American. For every homeless person in the country, there are 28 empty homes waiting for them right now. Laws and culture deny them a roof over their head, not a dearth of roofs. It is our legal system that funnels a disproportionate amount of wealth to a small handful of people, not the benevolent hand of a just and caring god.

Even by the standard of 20th century capitalism, things are pretty not okay. If income had kept pace with growth in the economy since 1970, the median household would be making around $92,000. The actual number is $50,000 and falling. A record 46 million Americans are living below the U.S. government’s official poverty line. Debt is one of few things the country produces anymore: Go to college and you’re liable to make tens of thousands of debt dollars, graduating into a job market where getting an unpaid internship is something to gloat about on Facebook. Working harder isn’t an option. We’re being worked hard enough and it isn’t enough to pay the bills.

All the hard work undertaken over the last several decades has been accumulating wealth not for the workers but for their bosses. Since 1970, the average income of those in the top one percent has grown by more than 240 percent. These days, the average CEO of a company makes 354 times as much as the average worker, up from a ratio of 42:1 when Ronald Reagan was president. There is no reason to believe that CEO-ing has gotten that much more difficult. They’ve just gotten greedier. They’ve gotten away with it.

The Rev. Tim Jones caused an uproar by telling his congregation that it is sometimes acceptable for desperate people to shoplift—as long as they do it at large national chain stores, rather than small family businesses. Shoplifting, he added, can be justified if a person in real need is not greedy and does not take more than he or she really needs to get by. Jones’ Robin Hood-like sermon drew rebukes Tuesday from fellow clergy, shop owners and police."

—“English Priest Says Stealing Not Always Wrong,” Associated Press

We are almost all taught that stealing is wrong. In some cases, it really is. Stealing from your dear old grandmother’s purse is wrong (unless she’s mean). Do not sneak into town to steal gifts from poor kids on Christmas Eve. That guy in high school who stole my portable CD player just after I got the thing for my birthday—that guy was wrong. Seriously, don’t be a dick about it.

But the head of Walmart is not your grandmother. Stealing from a corrupt class of corporate elites who would rather a thousand Bangladeshis die horrific deaths in burning sweatshops than see profits fall half a percent, for example, is not wrong at all. Indeed, taking from the unjustly rich and giving back to the undeservedly poor, even if that’s just you and your own, is the most morally upright thing one can do in an age of multinational robber barons exploiting and polluting the commons.

Legally, corporations get all the attendant benefits of being considered “persons” but none of the consequences. They don’t even face the risk of prison. When banana mega-distributor Chiquita was caught funding the murder-by-death-squad of Colombian union organizers, the executives who authorized the blood payments got off with a fine and maintained their anonymity. After Wall Street trashed the global economy, the bankers responsible were sentenced to 18 months of stern rhetoric.

If there aren’t any consequences for greed, there will be more of it. We tried voting, but since Barack Obama became president America’s ultra-rich have seen their net worth grow 28 percent while 9 out of 10 Americans have seen their net worth fall. Any good Democrat will tell you a Republican would be worse, so what’s left? If you want a more just and equitable world, it would be insane to continue doing the sorts of things that delivered this one. Let’s try something different. Let’s try and see if that HDTV will fit in my trunk.