‘All property is theft’, Proudhon’s slogan of the French Revolution, became popular in the late 1960s. Until then, shoplifting was largely seen as a children’s activity. Suddenly those owning shops were designated enemies of ‘the people’, and it was a particularly bad time for bookshops in university towns. Even university libraries now need very costly security systems. This attitude to capitalism and private property is best illustrated by Jerry Rubin, leader of the Yippie movement (the paramilitary wing of the hippies) which arose after police rioted at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago in 1968. He wrote Steal This Book, on the basis that all commercial operations are a form of theft. Most shops were then vulnerable to a bold approach, and what was known as liberating goods became a popular pastime for under-30s and has remained so. By 1972, gangs of mainly Australian shoplifters specialized in taking large items from big stores in London’s Oxford Street.
   A culture of making criminals into anti-heroes in the French existential tradition of Sartre and Camus evolved through a long series of American movies from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Thelma and Louise or Reservoir Dogs in which shoplifting, bank robbery or murder are admired. This development has been assisted by police actions in which innocent parties have been jailed, as in various anti-IRA operations, or shot, as in numerous US police raids. There is also an increased reliance since the 1970s on violence or torture as part of police interrogations, especially in the Third World. These elements have effected the legitimization of criminal activity in the eyes of the young and underprivileged, or in the case of so-called champagne socialists, the overprivileged. In 1997 a vicar, the Rev. Papworth, attracted hostile attention in the press for suggesting that the poor should not be condemned for stealing from supermarkets. Six months later Jimmy McGovern, writer of the widely-praised television series Cracker, about a police psychologist, announced that shoplifting was one of his habitual activities. Security in shops is more intense as open counters and counter assistants have been replaced by detectives, cameras and expensive alarm systems set off by tags at electronic checkouts. No doubt shoplifting will continue until attitudes change, both from industrialists towards their customers and from young people towards society, which sanctions a psychologically insidious and yet voracious materialism to be cultivated by the subtle water torture of television advertising.
   Further reading
    Hoffman, A. (1969) Woodstock Nation, New York: Random House (seminal exposition of underground philosophy).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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