Over the past year there has been a torrent of attempts by the bourgeois media to push the blame for inflation onto the working class. The latest claim is that petty shoplifting is driving up inflation. This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on the poor that only serves to highlight the much deeper crisis of capitalism.
While inflation slowed to 6.3 per cent in December 2022, food inflation rates have continued to rise, reaching a 40-year high of around 11 per cent throughout the fall of 2022. Staple food items reached even higher rates, with items like fresh vegetables clocking in at 13.6 per cent. Canada’s annual Food Price Report is predicting that an average family of four will spend an extra $1,065 on food in 2023, a cost that many will not be able to afford. It is also worth noting that the report’s prediction for 2022 was an increase of five to seven per cent in food spending, and that when all was said and done at the end of the year, the average family spent 10.3 per cent more! With the coming recession one can only expect higher-than-predicted numbers in 2023.
As a result there has been a sharp increase in people using food banks. And unsurprisingly there has also been an increase in shoplifting particularly related to grocery stores. As more people are pushed to the edge due to the cost of living crisis, shoplifting becomes the only viable solution for someone with no other options.
Where inflation comes from and where it goes
In early January Sylvain Charlebois, a researcher at Dalhousie University, wrote an article entitled: “We all pay for grocery theft”. In it he attempts to argue that the uptick in shoplifting is contributing to inflation. His argument goes something like this: as inflation drives the cost of living up, more and more people are forced to steal just to get by, which in turn forces companies to increase their prices, again forcing more people to turn to shoplifting.
This is quite rich coming from some of the biggest profiteers throughout the pandemic. Big retail grocery stores have been raking in enormous profits, as food is often the last thing cut in household budgets when times are tough. Loblaws, for example, in the third quarter of 2022 saw its profit rise by 30 per cent compared to the previous year, reaching $17.39 billion in the third quarter of the year alone. The company also paid its top five executives more than $1 million each in bonuses, with president Galen Weston Jr taking in more than $2 million in 2021. Walmart as well saw sharp increases, with sales up 8.2 per cent and revenue up $152 billion in the third quarter of 2022. In fact CEO pay across the board is reaching all-time highs with their pay averaging $14.3 million. But none of this is blamed for the rise in prices.
While major retailers are bringing in tens or even hundreds of billions each, a 2019 report by the Retail Council of Canada estimated that theft amounted to $5 billion in the entire retail sector. It is obviously hard to get accurate data, as most theft goes unreported. But what shouldn’t surprise anyone is that this number pales in comparison to the amount of profit big business made in the last period. This is the real theft that is taking place in society. Profits are the unpaid labour of the working class that the capitalist system is built around. In his article Charlebois claims that “In the end we all pay for grocery theft”—but clearly this isn’t the case.
In fact, a recent study looked into where all the additional income from inflation is going. The study found that 41 per cent of all the money from increased inflation was going directly towards profits. The study further highlighted that the majority of this money was going to the oil and gas sector due to increased fuel and transportation costs. The facts make it abundantly clear that petty retail theft is not a driving force in the economy.
Like the debunked “wage-price spiral”, the recent focus on shoplifting is another attempt to obscure what is actually happening, and blame the working class for a crisis caused by capitalism itself.
The reason we are seeing inflation is the fact that the money supply was greatly increased through quantitative easing—printing money—to bail out the bosses during the pandemic. As a result prices have increased to compensate for the lower-value money. This, combined with supply chain issues, the war in Ukraine, and corporate profiteering, is what is driving up prices. It is the result of a system inescapably bound up in its own contradictions.
In his article, Charlebois suggests that what is needed to combat this rise in shoplifting is more security in stores, stating that “you can expect more cameras, more surveillance, and more security in general as your favorite grocer won’t have a choice”(our emphasis). This simply highlights the hypocrisy of the capitalists, as they would rather shell out the money for more security than pay their workers a living wage or invest in production to bring down the price of goods. At the end of the day, it’s profit above all else.
On the other hand, there are some who have embraced shoplifting. There was a viral TikTok trend in 2020 of anti-capitalist teens shoplifting from stores to send a message to the bosses, particularly those stores that were known to treat their workers badly, contribute to anti-LGBTQ rights campaigns etc. While we sympathize with people trying to hit the bosses where it hurts, as we have seen this petty theft is a drop in the bucket when it comes to their bottom lines. There was also the popular internet meme which went viral during the baby formula shortage in the spring of 2022: “Remember kids if you see someone shoplifting – NO YOU DIDN’T.” Contained in this slogan is a strong sense of working class solidarity. However, what’s lacking is a way to tackle the root of the problem: the unaffordability of life under capitalism.
In the end the increase in shoplifting is only an aftereffect of the bigger increase in the cost of living. This can only be fought by a labour movement that demands wage increases above inflation, catch-up clauses to make up for lost ground, and full employment. We must also understand that the increase in the cost of living is itself a reflection of the bigger problems of the capitalist system, which puts profits above all else. The real thieves are the bosses of big grocery store chains, along with the rest of the capitalist class, who profit off of our labour. They need to be overthrown, and their wealth taken into the hands of the working class, if we are to ever live in a world where people aren’t forced to steal food in order to survive.