“Why do I shoplift things?” a user called liftingstones asks on their Tumblr page. “Because I need things to live, and the companies have the things, and they are not sentient creatures capable of experiencing pain because I took it from them.”
Tumblr might be known for meme pages and cosplayers, but the platform also hosts a thriving shoplifting community. Members blog, brag, offer tips, post pictures of their hauls—and sometimes express anti-capitalist political motives for their pilfering. Shoplifting has risen dramatically since the pandemic began. And although not everyone in Tumblr’s “lifting” community does so out of economic need, many do. Retailers, police departments, and loss prevention researchers have reported a rise in theft of basic necessities, items like food and hygiene products. Many of the lifters on Tumblr see lifting not only as a way to meet their material needs, but also as a distinct culture. Still, this is nothing new: the embrace of shoplifting as a political phenomenon has its roots in a time long before the Internet.
In 1971, the charismatic American activist and socialist Abbie Hoffman published Steal This Book, a guide to subverting the government and corporations by any means possible. It sold more than 100,000 copies. Among many other topics—guerrilla broadcasting, drugs, weapons, communes—the book laid out techniques for shoplifting.
Hoffman helped bring shoplifting as a political act into the mainstream by outlining a theory of capitalist society that sees, according to the book’s introduction, “corporate feudalism as the only robbery worthy of being called “crime,” for it is committed against the people as a whole.” He questioned deeply ingrained assumptions about illegality and harshly condemned capitalism as an exploitative system.
As Hoffman wrote, “The dictionary of law is written by the bosses of order. Our moral dictionary says no heisting from each other. To steal from a brother or sister is evil. To not steal from the institutions that are the pillars of the Pig Empire is equally immoral.”
Since the advent of retail, shoplifters and retailers have been locked in a kind of arms race. Loss protection departments work tirelessly to build an arsenal of strategies and technologies to protect merchandise and profits, while shoplifters continue to find workarounds and new ways to thwart these departments’ best efforts. Clothing sensors and other forms of electronic article surveillance have been around since the 1970s, but, if you have the right tools, they can be easy to remove. More recently, CCTV systems and facial recognition technology have been deployed to deter shoplifting; reading some of the posts of Tumblr, it’s clear that these more recent technologies are a topic of concern among lifters. There have been significant advances in inventory management as well, with retailers developing artificially intelligent tools and utilizing technologies like radio frequency identification devices. But this hasn’t deterred the dedicated lifters.
Before Tumblr’s lifting community emerged, there was another medium for lifters to share techniques and encourage theft. In the early 2000s, the decentralized anarchist collective known as CrimethInc endorsed strategies to subvert capitalism by dropping out of it: quit your job, get off the grid if you can, dumpster dive, squat, scam, and shoplift. Some of these tactics and ideas were outlined in Harbinger, the group’s newsletter, as well as in their many books and zines. The following is a quote from a CrimethInc Special Report, available in their 2000-2009 archive.
“Shoplifting is a refusal of the exchange economy. It is a denial that people deserve to eat, live, and die based on how effectively they are able to exchange their labor and capital with others. It is a denial that a monetary value can be ascribed to everything, that having a piece of delicious chocolate in your mouth is worth exactly fifty cents or that an hour of one person’s life can really be worth ten dollars more than that of another person. It is a refusal to accept the capitalist system, in which workers have to buy back the products of their own labor at a profit to the owners of capital, who thus get them coming and going.”
CrimethInc was part of a broader community promoting scamming and shoplifting as a response to the injustices of capitalism. Zines like Evasion and Scam were circulated widely among alternative communities, providing not only advice and ideology, but also a sense of community for a generation of alienated young people looking to remove themselves from the system.
It’s important to note that there are critiques of the ideas and tactics that these collectives and zines promoted. Murray Bookchin, the prominent anarchist and political philosopher, warned against the rise of “lifestyle anarchism,” which he described as a sort of shallow politics based on individual acts to make a statement, shock people, or otherwise “make themselves look cool”—at the price of effective organizing and a more coherent ideological underpinning.
Tumblr’s shoplifting groups are an intriguing example of how this sort of “lifestyle anarchism” might play out within certain contexts or communities. It can be a highly individualistic form of resistance, and it does little to address the roots of any systemic problems. Yet, at the same time, when deployed as part of a broader strategy of fighting back against oppressive systems and building collective power, it can certainly serve a purpose.
The ideas articulated by CrimethInc have deep historical roots. In 19th century Europe, for example, an ethic of “individual reclamation” took hold in certain anarchist communities. Stealing from the rich was viewed as a legitimate and reciprocal form of direct action against a capitalist class that was exploiting the labor of the poor. Another conception that emerged around the same time was known as illegalism, which embraces criminality in the forms of theft and shoplifting.
In the modern day, shoplifters, both with and without ideological frameworks, share lifting strategies online. Many of their preferred forums are obscure, and many, like Reddit’s lifting communities, have been taken down for violation of platform rules against illegal activity. Shoplifters have coalesced on Tumblr, which has become one of the primary forums they utilize to connect with like-minded purloiners.
“Tumblr’s been really helpful to me and has taught me different ways to move my body, how to remove shoplifting tags, how to get past some security devices,” M, whose Tumblr blog is titled “fvckcapitalism,” told me over the phone. “Everyone likes posting haul pictures, and I think posting them gives your brain endorphins. But I really like to give people advice or offer input about stores. I like to hear people’s experiences and read their advice as well.”
Because of the sheer volume of lifting posts and accounts, Tumblr’s shoplifting community has generated a fairly comprehensive set of best practices. A hallmark of these materials is the highly specific guides tailored to different stores. Need some makeup from Ulta? You can quickly locate a how-to guide. Best techniques to avoid detection at Rite-Aid? Tumblr’s got you covered. Does Dick’s Sporting Goods count items in their dressing room? Does Anthropologie have RFID? What kind of security tags does Victoria’s Secret use? The list goes on.
“I don’t want to get too specific,” M told me, “because I don’t want to give away how people do things. But I think without Tumblr I would have never considered ways to remove shoplifting tags, I would have just been like, oh, I can’t have that.”
Tumblr’s lifting blogs also provide a sense of community. “None of my friends in real life shoplift, so it’s nice having friends on Tumblr that do,” M said. “It helps with some of the isolation and alienation that comes with lifting.”
The ideological justifications cited by each blog are even more disparate than those of the Crimethinc collective, but there is a loose code of ethics that many on Tumblr subscribe to. Supporting other lifters and not getting greedy are two precepts that come up often. Lifters are urged to only take what they need, and not to lift too much of a single item to avoid detection by loss prevention departments or employees.
“[I] know seeing hauls of like ten of the same palette and millions of things is intriguing, but that’s what gets us caught. you can hardly take one palette without it being noticed let alone five. please don’t be greedy,” urfavoritelifter writes.
Another important rule that many adhere to: do not steal from small businesses.
“I avoid any small businesses,” M told me. “Primarily, I like to focus on stores that use prison labor. And sometimes it’s also just stores [that are owned by] large corporations.”
Other posters articulate similar anti-capitalist critiques of the consumer economy, including feminist analyses around the role of commodities in gender performance. In a 2016 post by a user named “Fancy Broke Gal” titled “Why lifting makeup is 100% okay,” the writer explains that “a capitalist patriarchy economically profits on the hatred of women… this is why women are forcibly bombarded with images of what were [sic] supposed to look like since birth.”
“Makeup, contrary to what anti lifters say, IS a need. The temporary relief and confidence that comes from makeup is something I personally NEED… even though it is a disgusting tool of patriarchal oppression. Think critically about makeup even though we all love it, and lift it instead of lining the pockets of the white men who subjugate us.”
“I first lifted myself when I was like twelve or thirteen—a poor kid who hung out at the mall. My mom also shoplifted because we lived in extreme poverty,” M said. “Continuing up to just a few years ago, lifting was still a necessity for me. There was a time three years ago where I had a job interview and my partner was like, ‘Don’t you have any pants without holes?’ I was like, no, I don’t.”
More recently, M has come to see shoplifting as a means of furthering economic justice.
“I feel so frustrated and so angry and so burnt out and helpless against capitalism. And it’s a small thing that makes me feel less helpless. I still shoplift for myself, but I also shoplift things for my friends who are more oppressed than I am: things like care packages for disabled friends or people who have transitioned,” she said. “I shoplifted a ton of tampons and donated them to people who had been through a hurricane and lost everything.”
Although M is no longer living in extreme poverty, she does still steal for herself—things like fancy cheeses, clothes, and food and toys for her dogs.
“It is not at this moment a necessity,” M told me. “It allows me to enjoy life more and be less stressed out and have things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to have.”
Tumblr’s shoplifting blogs invite us to examine some interesting questions that we may not otherwise consider. Under a capitalist economic system, what is the line between a need and a want? Is that even a relevant question? Is the theft of luxury goods less radical than the theft of, say, food? And who decides what qualifies as a luxury item?
These are questions that the DIY zines of the early 2000s also posed. Still, those zines were contained within a very specific milieu. Tumblr’s lifting blogs, on the other hand, are available online for anyone to access. Collectives like CrimethInc put ideology front and center, whereas lifters are often first drawn to Tumblr for how-to guides or to share haul pictures. An anti-capitalist ethos isn’t inherent to the community, but it’s something an aspiring lifter might stumble across and be compelled to ponder.
The Tumblr lifting community exemplifies the complexity of shoplifting: a practice that can be alternately individualistic and consumerist, compulsive and pathological, radical and redistributive. But the ultimate questions that these groups raise are ones of systemic inequality and normative values. Should only those with wealth be allowed to have nice or luxurious things? Should caretakers, service workers, janitors—anyone living in poverty or making minimum wage—be barred from regularly partaking in the things that make life a little bit richer? This seems to be the general consensus under capitalism. Tumblr’s lifting community, like the zines and books that preceded it, compels us to at least consider these questions, and perhaps begin to examine some of the assumptions that we carry around as we navigate the contradictions of this economic system. ♦
Robert Raymond is a writer, founding co-producer and creative director of the Upstream Podcast, and senior producer of The Response. He is passionate about exploring the intersections of sound design, storytelling, and eco-socialist principles to help ease our way out of these tumultuous times.