Radical media, politics and culture.

Trevor Bark, "Crime and Custom," Part 2

hydrarchist writes Welcome to Part 2

Moral Economy definition

What was Thompson's moral economy then, and how did it relate to the food riots? What were its' features and can we identify the same sorts of ideas into modern history? This 'Moral economy' theses is perhaps the most well known formulation of the social crime debate. In particular it speaks of the relationship between the rulers and capitalists, and the people within certain types of crowd.

"The food riot in eighteenth century England was a highly complex form of popular direct action, disciplined and with clear objectives. How far these objectives were achieved - that is, how far the food riot was a "successful" form of action… cannot be done until the crowd's own objectives are identified. It is of course true that riots were triggered off by soaring prices, by malpractices among dealers, or by hunger. But these grievances operated within a popular consensus as to what were legitimate and what were illegitimate practices in marketing, milling, baking, etc. This in turn was grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action.

While this moral economy cannot be described as "political" in any advanced sense, nevertheless it cannot be described as unpolitical either, since it supposed definite, and passionately held, notions of the common weal - notions which, indeed, found some support in the paternalist tradition of the authorities; notions which the people re-echoed so loudly in their turn that the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people….

It was about the crowd's 'moral economy' in a context which the article defines… my object of analysis was the mentalite, or, as I prefer, the political culture, the expectations, traditions, and, indeed superstitions of the working population most frequently involved in action in the market; and the relations - sometimes negotiations - between crowd and rulers which go under the unsatisfactory term of 'riot'… to understand the 'political' space in which the crowd might act and might negotiate with the authorities… [includes] a larger analysis of the relations between the two. [19]

The context was the bread riot and this was common because the poor largely lived on bread throughout the country (Thompson 1991) There simply were not the regularised shops as there are today, nor any refrigeration system. Markets were important social occasions and in the socialising information and politics were exchanged. We should also be aware that as one of the few times when people got together was market day, then these both give the possibility and opportunity for political mobilization. The impersonal nature of shopping today doesn't give the collective feeling which occurred in the past. This is not to say that there is no socialising in shopping today, nor that market days are unimportant to people in some parts of the country. Nor is it ignoring the growth of car boot sales, markets or other systems of marketing including those of the grey and black economy. For example, I have been approached by men (and they were solely men) in vans on the streets of Hackney and in supermarket car parks in Tottenham asking if I wanted cheap electrical goods. For our purposes then, it is important to note that if

"Economic class-conflict in nineteenth century England found its characteristic expression in the matter of wages; in eighteenth century England the working
people were most quickly inflamed to action by rising prices."[20]

The Bread riot was not merely the result of economics, and the famous idiom of the pauper who slaps his/her hand on their empty stomach and decides to riot to get food. There was a more complicated custom behind all of this. As Thompson (1991, P. 2) correctly identified, it is the category 'culture' which has transplanted that of 'custom' in both popular and academic discourse.

It is precisely the very notions of culture that should have led scholars to trace the historical lineage and modern expression of social relationships like those found in the moral economy theses. The moral economy maybe read as the predecessor of what was known as the social contract during the Fordist era. This is where in exchange for wage labour and full employment the worker was 'guaranteed' certain services, like education for the children, healthcare, unemployment benefit and so on. These deeply felt needs and culture are

"custom… as sui generis - as ambience, mentalite, and as a whole vocabulary of discourse, of legitimation and of expectation… Many customs were endorsed and sometimes enforced by popular pressure… many of the classic struggles at the entry to the industrial revolution turned as much on customs as upon wages or conditions of work… in the eighteenth century custom was the rhetoric of legitimation for almost any usage, practice, or demanded right… Nor should we underestimate the creative culture forming process from below. Not only the obvious things - folk songs, trades clubs and corn dollies - were made from below, but also interpretations of life, satisfactions and ceremonials."[21]

It is also why we must think about the new moral economy of the poor.


"The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an 'immense collection of commodities'; the individual commodity appears its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of a commodity" Marx (1976, P. 125)

In order to situate shoplifting properly it is necessary to delve into history, for shops like shoplifters do not appear as if by magic. The retail site is an ever changing feature of society today with its' own personnel and culture, as are the shoplifters. At the same time i have isolated relevant features such as the shoplifters personality, their characteristics, their culture, and situated them in the negotiated world of the shop as they attempt to shoplift. The current high profile literature on globalisation impacts on the goods we buy in shops, and Klein (2000) has firmly fixed peoples attention on brand name goods in our shops. We have to talk about what shoplifting means today and what are the market conditions, what do people want to buy and do they care where it was made under what sort of employment practices? Also when it has been shoplifted how is it distributed? This is not a project or tour de force on shoplifting around the world, but of its role in the global bazaar concentrated in Britain but also in the global cities where the world capitalist control and command insitutions gather (G8, IMF, World bank, World Trade Organisation; in Seattle, Prague, Genoa etc.) Marx in the quotation above realised that it is the commodity that is the distilled essence of capitalist society, for without exchange there is no accumulation. He would also have realised that the concentration on the commodity is an abstraction that isolates and analyses one particular aspect of society in order to make plain its real connections and essence.

The bazaar according to Ruggiero is the descriptive term for the attempt

"made to identify a continuum between irregular, hidden, semi-legal, and overtly illegal economies. This continuum is given the name bazaar, which captures the notion of a constant movement, a form of occupational commuting... between legitimate and illegitimate activity characterising many urban contexts." [22]

Furthermore, there are other reasons why the shoplifter, shoplifter/shopper and the shopper are blurred. It's the shopping experience that is the background in which the shoplifter works and

"The manifold complexities of interaction involved in shopping produce different kinds and types of shoppers, all of whom can, for example, provide valuable camouflage" [23]

Whilst I have every intention of avoiding what Ruggiero has called the 'sociology of misery' [24] by not having a condescending attitude. Nor allowing the dominant liberal anti-sweatshop ethos [25] to prejudice the delivery of questions regarding the origins of branded goods. For I think people can answer my questions best if they are put with a non-judgemental attitude, and I think they can liberate themselves by and in the process of their everyday and subversive behaviours anyway. Though I could not avoid alluding to another of Ruggiero's concepts, 'the causality of contraries'.[26] It again manifests itself in the modern high tech consumer age when you look at the similarities between shopping and shoplifting, and shoplifting research has always shown that shoplifters come from all social classes. For as Kraut says the motivation for shoplifting

"is the same as for normal shopping: the acquisition of goods at minimum cost." [27]

Furthermore, I argue that there are many motivations for shoplifting that do not simplistically and mechanistically deserve being ascribed with criminal intent by the security forces. Without assuming the judgemental attitude of Katz I largely endorse his argument that

"as unattractive morally as crime may be, we must appreciate that there is genuine experiential creativity in it as well. We should then be able to see what are, for the
subject, the authentic attractions of crime and we should be able to explain variations
in criminality beyond what can be accounted for by background factors." [28]

For whilst I realise that physical harm is a result of crime for some people, for the perpetrators there is more positive value and expression that the negative aspects that police and the powerful continually identify .[29] This 'genuine experiential creativity' and the 'authentic attraction of crime' needs further expansion, some of this can be found in realising that there is a positive and active creation of value and values in the process of committing crime for some people. In the first "Theses on Fuerbach" Marx realised that

"sensuous human activity, [was] practice" [30]

and meaningful for the participants. In relation to shoplifting this means that the act carries with it different meanings for the participants and different emotional effects. For the political shoplifter, it is a blow against capitalism and might make them happier, for the fashion conscious it makes them feel good to have the nice clothes, for the needy it is simply an economic survival strategy, and so on.

A lot of debate around shoplifting revolves around whether people are just greedy, or are they genuinely needy. Campbell says

"there is no statistical evidence to suggest that shoplifting is a particularly middle-class activity. And there can be no justification for the assumption that economics is an irrelevant factor. The evidence strongly suggests that lack of money plays a part (see Arboleda-Florez et al., 1977). On the other hand, it would be romantic and inaccurate to paint a Dickensian picture of shoeless orphans stealing loaves of bread. Sixty-six per cent of girls in 1959, for example, stole clothes or cosmetics - luxury items… The issue seems to be not genuine need but greed at all social class levels" [31]

However, this does seem to be a rather dated approach. Some or most women today would regard cosmetics as a necessity, as they would clothes, and it is only bourgeois moralism about the sanctity of law that breeds the discussion about need or greed in relation to the shoplifters motivation. As I mention later about girls living up to 'supposed ideals', so to is life portrayed as complete if you possess things. As we shall see who can blame people for taking things that are put in the open for them to want, feel, wear, taste and savour when the shops choose the self-select method of shopping above the staff select method in order to maximise profits. Also for the very poor in today's society to engage in any sort of branded lifestyle so avidly promoted in the media people have to shoplift or fund their purchases through other informal methods.

Although Campbell was speaking 20 years ago about clothes and cosmetics not being a case of genuine need, I think she would be arguing you only need food to live. Today the difference is about the quality of life afforded by good food and/or good living. The class differentials in shopping today range from the Italian selection at Harrods at the expensive end, to market leftovers or the cheap supermarkets like Aldi and Netto, and the cheap ranges such as Tesco Value Sausages and Chips at the lower end.

Heroin Chic Women Steal the Brand?

Similarly, the social pressure to conform to supposed ideals on young girls that leads to dietary problems on one hand, also leads to the problem of over consumption by means of the 'five finger shuffle' on the other. Some existing research (Campbell 1981) has shown the high levels of economic pressure reported by delinquent girls that led to their shoplifting in England. Campbell went so far as to announce that it was "consumer fetishism" that led large numbers of working class girls into shoplifting.

Given the widely noted increases in individualism and consumerism in the recent past then this can only have fuelled the level of shoplifting. Of course, in relation to the modern general demand for brand names this has an intensifying effect on the girls pre-existing consumer fetishism and leads to more shoplifting. This also applies to boys who are also increasingly fashion conscious. In shoplifting today like Campbell noted when we consider that the girls

"have by no means escaped the sex- role trap. They may feel freer to break the law of the land but not necessarily the law of the female's position in a consumer society, where women themselves are still a commodity." [32]

This debate is largely merely skating around the surface of the issue and not dealing with the structure of society at all. In an ideal world would shoplifters feel the compulsion to shoplift? Would there be shops in an ideal world? In today's capitalist society the fact that people do shoplift in defiance of the law should be enough to tell you that they need to do it in their own eyes, and as E.P. Thompson said

"If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men [and women] over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition." [33]

I am not arguing that shoplifters form a class in their own right, or that they are only working class, for anybody with any knowledge of the history of shoplifting would reject that notion. I am arguing that the way class is mediated through different environments includes that of the shop, shopping, and shoplifting, and teasing out the relevant relationships and activities is important.

One of the main aspects of shoplifting is what is called on the street, the 'buzz', 'did you get a buzz'. This for my purposes will be the term used to describe an activity which gives the individual a hit of naturally produced adrenaline, due to their own or/and possibly groups behaviour. This is a painkiller that leaves you with warm and happy feelings. For shoplifters of all types describe this effect and it is a common experience across all sorts of crime. The rituals of the catch, and the celebration of it, is a means of self and class valourization. In brief this means that shoplifters revel in both the act of shoplifting itself and in the cultural celebration as well. This releases positive feedback in many forms and also includes the cultural techniques of neutralisation e.g. denial of victim - 'shops can afford it' and so on.

More of us…

"There is no telling who connive at poaching; the Name of them is legion"
F.M. Denwood, Cumbrian Nights, 1932.

Whereas the social crime debate illuminated the criminalisation of the poor, with custom becoming crime under economic liberalism. The new economic transitions or neo-liberalism are creating social and economic conditions similar to the previous period, and now there is a reversal of the transition with crime becoming custom.

The assertion that crime has become custom has not only to do with the first world, for if the processes that Klein writes about are correct then the newly industrialised areas, the export processing zones, appear to be Fordist to the degree that the factories are large. However they appear to be skipping the post war Keynesian social contract that much of Western Europe and the USA had. If that is the case then the peasantry newly displaced from the land with it's own conceptions of revolt (James C. Scott, J. Ditton, Walton & Seddon) may well engage in routine covert insurgency. Of which arson was the most dramatic in the mid 19th century in Britain (Hobsbawm and Rude), although poaching also was widespread and aggressive (Hopkins, Hay et al, 1975) Captain Swing was unfairly classed as a firestarter in the 1830-31 disturbances or riots, but the rural proletariat lived up to its reputation later and "triumphed in this role for 20 years after" (Hobsbawm and Rude) I am a little bit reticent in calling the Swing events riots because like Rule (1979) and Thompson (1991) I see the organised and disciplined nature of the crowd acting and maintaining internal discipline.

If there is no space for the unrespectable to go 'respectable' in the third world through trade union, education, religious and labour movement mediation that accounted for much working class discipline then the self regulating mechanisms favoured by free marketers may well mean that freer and unregulated people may be found. Within the first world the neo liberal economy emerging through decades of high unemployment and soaring crime rates may de facto be said to have shown that 'crime has become custom' for pauperised and semi excluded workers. However, it is well known that there is no mechanistic criminal reaction to unemployment or semi employment, just an alienation that is mediated through many forms. Nor is there any mechanistic way of telling whether crime rates definitely did rise at a certain time because there are tremendous problems with police statistics and other methods of trying to decide the rate of crime.

Go To Part 3.