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Steal Something from Work Day
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Find out more about your rights as a buyer - opens in a new window or tab and exceptions - opens in a new window or tab. Postage and packaging. In our fantastical visions of the near future, we see ourselves reclining on patio furniture while savoring lattes, stocking our larders with the finest of produce from local markets. When we travel, we are greeted by friends and strangers with gifts of bounty and luxury. And when guests are received by us in turn we show them a night on the town like no other.
A cornucopia of goods, freely taken and given, all at the expense of those who would exploit our lives, all in the spirit of the negation of capitalist relations.
The Key to Awareness: Break Free from all the Sh!t, Maguire, Fiona, Used; Good B | eBay
These words have been written with the hope that others beside ourselves might take up this project and make it their own. A critical essay on the possibilities and limitations of stealing time at work as a revolutionary practice. Our contributor is one of the countless grad students who have better odds of participating in an anarchist revolution than landing a tenure track position. Like anything stolen from work, this text bears the imprint of the context in which it was created—yet hints at what it will take to abolish that context.
Thieves of time, one more effort to steal back the world! It is impossible to steal from work. If you are at work, you are either an employee or a boss, or else both. A boss cannot steal from work because he or she already owns the apparatus of production; an employee cannot steal from work because working means being part of that apparatus. If I get away with it, the staplers and printer cartridges my bag are just a category mistake, a peculiar misgrouping of my little hands with other company property.
The labor of workplace theft is a ruse, but the ruse rouses. The soul is an engine calibrated for pursuing the impossible: as long as capitalism makes equipment out of people, people will make off with equipment. This is a sign of life. The question is how the ruse relates to capitalism, how capitalism absorbs and reverses it, and whether the ruse can help us to abolish capitalism.
It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. Strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces… whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces. His basic insight will be as familiar to dishwashers lolling in the locker room as to conspirators planning revolutions:. The space of a tactic is the space of the other.
Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a distinct, visible, and objectifiable space. It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. Since de Certeau was writing in the s, computers have rapidly replaced both letters and lathes in our workplaces.
Digital spaces may operate differently than the ones he was examining. Yet the problem is not just that de Certeau was writing thirty years ago, but that he presumed an eternal present. The space of tactics, he says,. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment.
As far as de Certeau can see, free moments are free, but they are doomed to remain forever transitory: born to lose. Vanity of vanity, nothing is new under the sun. He is, after all, a fine theorist of secret games like ours. A good Jesuit, de Certeau flourishes a mind like a filigree of silver: he is refined toward ornate visionary practice and ordered instruction. If one does not expect a revolution to transform the laws of history, how is it possible to foil here and now the social hierarchization which organizes scientific work on popular cultures and repeats itself in that work?
He presents the academy as a place where la perruque can have different effects, precisely because, in a regime grounded in science, the university is the factory that produces the systems of control:. Let us try to make a perruque in the economic system whose rules and hierarchies are repeated, as always, in scientific institutions. In the area of scientific research which defines the current order of knowledge , working with its machines and making use of its scraps, we can divert the time owed to the institution.
So here we have the Poststructuralist Battle Plan :. De Certeau claims that as social scientists, academics can make clandestine use of science, the means by which everyday life is produced, and thus undermine the structural difference between the theoretical remove of strategy and the immersed immediacy of tactics.
If shops have lathes, what could we use at a university? Funding, projectors, libraries, food, photocopiers, scanners, USB voice recorders, staplers… bricks and ivy! The academy is an armory waiting to be raided. But we should be suspicious of this plan because the most expensive piece of academic machinery is the well-exercised brain. A stapler can be removed from its post, but prying your brain loose from the system in which you have immersed it is something else entirely.
You never actually arrive at the moment when you have just stolen a graduate-student brain. The moment, instead, is always either the discovery that this was not in fact a graduate student brain, but the brain of an unemployed writer with an unpalatably narrow range of expertise, or the expansion of the academy to incorporate a range of once-threatening ideas. But neither that shop, nor that fleeting movement, nor the tactics that flow through it are significantly enhanced by the thousands of college students a few blocks away. The marks of la perruque are all over the classroom—professors and students working to use the academic machinery against itself and other hierarchical structures.
Personally, I have both taught and attended courses that teach potent radical texts. Students who get high marks for understanding Marx, Bakunin, Fanon, Debord, and Solanas are no more likely than anyone else to engage in the struggles those texts endorse. The university seems to be a machine that provokes people to commit a perruque in which they redirect their attention to structural inequalities, then neutralizes this by means of a flood of relativizing information. The now-harmless critique is administered to classrooms as a sort of vaccine against outbreaks of mobilizing rage, while technologies of cathartic distraction beer, usually, with or without basketball expel the remainder safely from the system.
And if you leave, it only gets worse: I have spent full years of what I occasionally pass off as an academic life diverting my energy and resources into sneakery and tactics. The university cannot be drained in this way. Elsewhere, de Certeau seemed to understand this tendency of the university to reabsorb subversion quite well. He is asked to eliminate the danger of the other … ejecting those dangerous individuals from the social body, and keeping them temporarily or permanently isolated.
The Key to Awareness: BREAK FREE from all the Sh!t
There was a graduate student from the anthropology department, a self-described Marxist, who came frequently to our Occupy encampment. He would tell us that if we really wanted to change things we would go home and read more theory. Yet the problem is not the academy. De Certeau is right in asserting that nearly everyone sneaks time from work to do their own projects, even if they are being watched.
Every workplace has two reflexes that work to prevent la perruque from damaging the functioning of the system. Release is a simple reflex. Jobs that can be done by machines already are, so the remaining jobs must accommodate the fact that humans require play.
Get the inside right. The outside will fall into place.
Play: that is, a space of free movement so the system can adjust to inevitable tiny changes without shattering. A gear also requires play; humans just require more play than gears, and tend to fracture more dramatically when they are not provided with it. Recapture is a more complex reflex, and while it is ancient, it seems to be becoming more important these days. We can see historical traces of recapture, for instance, where certain pre-existing facets of slave religions have been nurtured by masters in order to promote docility. It was in this creative space that a 3M employee invented the Post-it note, making the corporation countless millions.
Or maybe that future is already here. Consider your own recent moments of la perruque. What were you doing? Think hard, because some of your favorite activities may have been designed to leave no harsh mnemonic trace. Were you fiddling around online? Workers who engage in tactics of la perruque, but use the reclaimed hours to participate in a digital capitalism that commodifies user attention, merely sneak from one job to do another. Would that we had more lathes. Because we cannot build with computers, we ply games like Farmville or World of Warcraft, becoming background objects for other players; we add stars and comments to Amazon products improving their sales; we self-surveil with Facebook; and we help search engines anticipate human desires by performing as a human test audience for them.
Tactics are immanent, whereas strategy is transcendent, so la perruque is always a movement down and in. Imagine a book stamping on a human face forever. As an aside, the video game industry is a phenomenally successful experiment in recapture by the military-industrial complex. Some argue that the first game was Tennis for Two , created on a computer properly used to calculate missile trajectories, but most claim it was Spacewar! Perhaps in , someone thought the proliferation of video games was too wasteful a perruque. The Air Force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.
It is has been a long recapture, but a successful one: 40 years after the release of Spacewar! De Certeau offers a hint. It is even developing, although held to be illegitimate, within modern market economy… the loss that was voluntary in a gift economy is transformed into a transgression in a profit economy: it appears as an excess a waste , a challenge a rejection of profit , or a crime an attack on property. Waste, challenge, and crime! One of his most powerful tools for this purpose was his analysis of the potlatch, a cycle of ritual gifting among the indigenous Kwakiutl people of the American Northwest.
So gifting spirals. We are weighed down by generosity, and collective efforts to relieve ourselves produce spirals of accelerating gifting. A madness of generosity. It is not clear why de Certeau, writing in the s, saw this in la perruque, but it should be familiar to anyone mired in Facebook. Social media is already a potlatch. In a certain number of cases, it is not even a question of giving and returning gifts, but of destroying, so as not to give the slightest hint of desiring your gift to be reciprocated. Whole boxes of olachen candlefish oil or whale oil are burnt, as are houses and thousands of blankets.
Recent historians have suggested that the potlatch only reached this immolative form when the Kwakiutl were confronted with the crisis of colonization. Previously, the spirals of gifting had been acquisitive rather than destructive. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps in the furtive laboratories where tactics are invented, we are only now discovering a mode of laziness that manifests as revolutionary sabotage.
Perhaps here can we finally put on la perruque to end all perruque. Throughout history, workers have stolen from their workplaces under capitalism and socialism socialism alike. Haraszti suggests that this stealing is actually the most creative and enterprising activity that takes place in the factory, implying the possibility of a world in which all labor would be equally creative and free.
So long as there are managers, workers will rob their workplaces—not just for personal gain, but above all to keep alive that which is best in themselves. It is not made for sale as an additional source of income. The word does not appear in most dictionaries, but appears to have been the most widely used equivalent in England and North America. Is there any chance of homers? Many factors must be taken into account when you want to change your job. Some will pay a high price to obtain a position that allows them to make homers. The government journals portray workers who make homers as thieves.
If the factory guard finds a homer in our pockets or on our bodies, he has caught a thief. The real damage to the factory is the time lost in making an object—time which cannot be utilized by the factory. The secret of this passion for homers is not a simple one. Workers on hourly wages turn to homers when they have given to the factory what the factory has demanded, or when they have a free moment.
Not only will they then be punished, the discovery will also offer an excellent opportunity to demand increased production from them. Workers on conveyor belts, or on fully automatic machines, completely delivered from the pressures of time, are only likely to make homers in their dreams. Technological development has given these workers a moral superiority, which at least forces the government satirists to look for a new theme in their attacks.
But the piece-rate worker manages his time himself, and each minute that passes without an increase in the number of pieces represents a financial loss for him. With the constant pressure of piece-rates, the factory does all it can to preach the morality of labor. In fact, management has to admit that nothing—neither prohibitions, nor punishments, nor public humiliation by the security guards—will persuade them to give it up. Making homers is a real addiction; those who go in for it know that they do themselves more harm than good. The bosses and the rate-fixers view the persistent refusal of piece-rate workers to give up this habit in terms of the basest instincts.
Why, then, are piece-rate workers so fond of making homers? Then, certainly, homers would be worthwhile, since every worker could do repairs, and make small gadgets cheaply and with little effort. Some of my colleagues still harbor a nostalgia for the days of the domestic artisan, but they rarely talk about their feelings, except when they are embarrassed or are making an excuse if someone catches them out. Perhaps the mechanics and fitters, who are paid by the hour, really do have the means—thanks to homers—to set up their families, since they have at their fingertips, in the workshop, all the tools and machines necessary for household repairs large and small.
But I am chained to my machine even if, at the most once a week, I find after an interminable number of runs that I have won a little time for myself. It is impossible for the piece-rate worker to flit across the workshop like a butterfly and to fiddle around with other machines. The foreman would see him at once, and fix him up with more work.
Besides, the others are also riveted to their machines, and in any case our machines are too specialized, too large, too powerful, and too complicated: they themselves dictate what we can make with them. And so in fact homers are seldom useful things. Bizarrely enough, when they are, it is generally not for some outside use, but for something needed within the factory. In theory, there are special workers to manufacture the base plates and braces for mounting pieces, but in fact we must make them ourselves. It is an unwritten rule that when feasible we make everything our jobs require with our own machines.
Such operations have real utility, but are also infuriating. They are hardly paid but they are necessary to get through faster, or even to complete a job. Without doubt, the reason is that we plan this work ourselves, and can complete it as we think best. Our machines rarely give an opportunity for other useful kinds of homers.
For piece-workers, homers are ends in themselves, like all true passions. Here the passion is for nothing other than work, work as an end in itself. The diverse forms of homer have only one thing in common: they have to be of a size that can be surreptitiously smuggled out of the factory. Some have not kept to this rule; and finished objects lie gathering dust in their locker, or their tool boxes, or beside their machines, until the worker changes his factory, when they try to get them out, or, if this is hopeless, give them away.
For us, the potential of milling machines, lathes, and borers stimulates and at the same time limits our imaginations. The raw material is chiefly metal. The objects that can be made are key-holders, bases for flower-pots, ashtrays, pencil boxes, rulers and set squares, little boxes to bring salt to the factory for the morning break, bath mats made out of rolls of white polystyrene , counters in stainless steel to teach children simple arithmetic a marvelous present , pendants made from broken milling teeth, wheels for roulette-type games, dice, magnetized soap holders, television aerials assembled at home , locks and bolts, coat-holders for the changing-room cupboard, knives, daggers, knuckle-dusters, and so on.
He scans the raw materials around him, weighs up the unexploited capacities of his machines and the other auxiliary machines, like the small disc-cutter in the corner of the section or the grinding-machine, as he examines the hand tools at his disposal. Then he decides. He decides on what he will accomplish and works to realize that chosen object and not for some other purpose.
If he uses the product itself, then before all else he will relish the pleasure of having accomplished it, and of knowing when, how, and with what he made it, and that he had originated its existence. This humble little homer, made secretly and only through great sacrifices, with no ulterior motive, is the only form possible of free and creative work—it is both the germ and the model: this is the secret of the passion. The tiny gaps that the factory allows us become natural islands where, like free men, we can mine hidden riches, gather fruits, and pick up treasures at our feet.
We transform what we find with a disinterested pleasure free from the compulsion to make a living. It brings us an intense joy, enough to let us forget the constant race: the joy of autonomous, uncontrolled activity, the joy of labor without rate-fixers, inspectors, and foremen. A complex organization forces me to maintain a minimum level of quality in my daily work. In making homers, quality, which itself arises as I have envisaged it, is the aim itself, the profit, and the pleasure. The joy of this unity between conception and execution stands in extreme contrast to our daily work.
M— was making a homer. In outward appearance, nothing had changed. The same movements, which otherwise served only to increase production for the factory, were transformed by what he was doing into an activity of an entirely different kind. By making homers we win back power over the machine and our freedom from the machine; skill is subordinated to a sense of beauty.
However insignificant the object, its form of creation is artistic. This is all the more so because mainly to avoid the reproach of theft homers are rarely made with expensive, showy, or semi-finished materials. They are created out of junk, from useless scraps of iron, from leftovers, and this ensures that their beauty comes first and foremost from the labor itself. Many do not care if their noble end-product clearly reveals its humble origins; but others hold fervently to the need for a perfect finish.
There are also passing fashions in homers. And just as homers are a model of nonexistent joys, so they are the model for all protest movements. Making homers is the only work in the factory that stands apart from our incessant competition against each other. In fact it demands cooperation, voluntary cooperation—not just to smuggle them out but also to create them.
Sometimes my neighbor asks me to do the necessary milling for his homer, and in return makes a support for me on his lathe. Even in making homers, aid without a return is inconceivable. But it is not a matter of like for like: no one calculates how much his help is worth, or the time spent on it. Most friendships begin with the making of a joint homer. These different joys are obviously marred by the knowledge that they are only the joys of an oasis in a desert of piece-rate work. Slowly, the factory returns to itself, the computer dries out the oasis, the pressures of production continue unchanged.
Despite this, everyone is cheerful during these few precious minutes. I am convinced that homers carry a message. Workers would gladly renounce the artisan character of homers, but they have no other way to assert themselves over mechanized labor. They would gladly manufacture, often collectively, things which were useful for the community; but they can only make what they want to make on their own, or at most with a few others. So these two steps towards the senseless—producing useless things and renouncing payment —in fact turn out to be two steps in the direction of freedom, even though they are swiftly blocked by the wall of wage labor.
In fact, homers are a vain attempt to defect from the cosmos of piece-ratios. Suppose that all of our work could be governed by the pleasures of homers, then it would follow that in every homer is the kernel of a completely different sense: that of work carried out for pleasure. The industrial psychologist, the expert in managerial methods, the social technician, and all the growing number of specialists who are replacing functionaries once breathless with the heroism of labor cannot comprehend the hopelessness of their task if they are unable to understand the pleasures of homers.
Their task is to dry out the oases while filling the desert with mirages. Were it not that these experts in production are also dispensers of our livelihood, in command of discipline and achievement, we would enter the age of the Great Homer. This alienated sense, imposed from outside by wages and its denial, the consolations of forbidden irrationality , would be replaced by the ecstasy of true needs. Precisely what is senseless about homers from the point of view of the factory announces the affirmation of work motivated by a single incentive, stronger than all others: the conviction that our labor, our life, and our consciousness can be governed by our own goals.
The Great Homer would be realized through machines, but our experts would subordinate them to two requirements: that we use them to make things of real utility, and that we are independent of the machines themselves. This would mean the withering of production controls. We would only produce what united homer-workers needed and what allowed us to remain workers united in the manufacture of homers.
And we would produce a thousand times more efficiently than today. To take the whole world into account, to combine our strength, to replace rivalry with cooperation, to make that we want, to plan and execute the plans together, to create in a way that was pleasurable in itself; to be freed from the duress of production and its inspectors—all these are announced by the message of the homer, of the few minutes that resurrect our energy and capacities.
The Great Homer would not carry the risk of our frittering away strength senselessly; on the contrary, it would be the only way to discover what is even precluded by the homer of wage-earners: the real utility of our exertions. If we could direct our lives towards the Great Homer, we would gladly take on a few hours of mechanized labor a day, so long as it was needed. Otherwise, if everything remains as it does today, we face a terrible destiny: that of never knowing what we have lost. Connoisseurs of folklore may look on homers as a native, decorative art.
But they will, and the day will come when homers are no longer forbidden but are commercialized and administered. People who work on automatic machines will be able to buy homers in the shops after seeing them in magazines or on television. It brings us an intense joy, enough to let us forget the constant race: the joy of autonomous, uncontrolled activity.
They heightened security and monitored him carefully. Every evening, as the man left work with his wheelbarrow, the security guard would search him fastidiously—packages, boxes, bags, pockets, everything—but to no avail. Although the guard never found a thing, he continued to search the worker at the end of each shift—year after year after year.
Finally, decades later, the man was due to retire. We know you are stealing something. Yet every day I search your wheelbarrow and find nothing. How can this be? In the final analysis, stealing from our workplaces is not a rebellion against the status quo, but simply another aspect of it. It implies a profound discontent with our conditions, yes, and perhaps a rejection of the ethics of capitalism; but as long as the consequences of that discontent remain individualized and secretive, they will never propel us into a different world.
Stealing from work is what we do instead of changing our lives—it treats the symptoms, not the condition. Perhaps they figure the costs of it into their business plans because they know our stealing is an inevitable side effect of exploitation —though not one guaranteed to bring exploitation to an end. What would it look like to go about labor organizing in the same way we go about stealing from our workplaces? First, it would mean focusing on means of resistance that meet our individual needs, starting from what individual workers can do themselves with the support of their comrades.
It would establish togetherness through the process of attempting to seize back the environments we work and live in, rather than building up organizations on the premise of an always-deferred future struggle. A workforce that organized in this way would be impossible to co-opt or dupe.
No boss could threaten it with anything, for its power would derive directly from its own actions, not from compromises that give the bosses hostages or give prominent organizers incentives not to fight. We might also ask what would it look like to go about stealing from work as if it were a way to try to change the world, rather than simply survive in it. So long as we solve our problems individually, we can only confront them individually as well.
Stealing in secret keeps class struggle a private affair—the question is how to make it into a public project that gathers momentum. This shifts the focus from What to How. Remember the story of the hardware store employee who embezzled enough money to get a college degree, only to find himself back behind the cash register afterwards! Better we invest ourselves in breaking its values as well as its laws! Perhaps workplace theft could be an Achilles heel for capitalism after all: not because it alone is sufficient to abolish wage labor and class society, but because it is the sort of open secret that must remain suppressed to preserve the illusion that everybody believes in and benefits from the present system.
Stealing from work one thing at a time will take forever, literally—it would be more efficient to just steal the whole world back from work at once. Stealing something from work is not enough when work is stealing everything from us. Steal from Work to Create Autonomous Zones —The shocking true story of how a photocopy scam nearly escalated into global revolution.
What Became of the Boxes —An adventure in proletarian revenge. This narrative is dedicated to the courageous individuals who attacked the Whole Foods during the general strike in Oakland on November 2, ; whatever the papers say, many of us employees would be overjoyed if you paid a visit to our workplaces. I am twenty-eight years old. I am wearing a black apron in the canned food aisle of the well-known corporate natural foods grocery store at which I work. I am hostile, reactionary, and dangerous.
This is a threat. I work in the Bakery Department. Confused by my response, she heads straight to the customer service booth to submit a complaint. This is not the first time this has happened; I disappear to my hiding spot. Thus begins the career of Carlos, grocery store guerrilla and ghost in the machine, the shadow employee known throughout the store for disobedience, obstruction, and customer service performance art. It was an incredibly isolated phase of my life.
Between the hours I spent working and recovering from work, I schemed plan after spectacular plan to break free from my loneliness, only to have them crushed when I stepped back through those sliding doors. The Loss Prevention Agent LP stalked the isles, attempting to blend in among the shoppers, though not much good at it. LPs are the scum of the retail industry, the vilest of would-be cops. This was incredibly risky: not only was I risking getting fired for preventing their apprehension, but I had to be secretive enough not to attract attention to any of the shoplifters I was attempting to make contact with.
Somehow the middle-aged rent-a-cop did not attract their attention. I was desperate to approach the would-be shoplifters in black, but I knew that could mean getting caught myself, so I decided to start with the LP instead. I walked to the back of the store and used the intercom to call for the LP by his first name, asking that he call me back at that number. Then while the LP attempted to return the call I headed to a different phone at another location in the store, from which I called for the LP over the intercom again.
Miraculously, this little stunt bought just enough time for the shoplifters to leave untouched by the confused loss prevention agent. Afterward, the LP and the store manager questioned me as to why I had called twice and never picked up. My answer was simple and easy enough to believe: I was trying to contact him about the group of shoplifters I had seen. This put the blame back on the LP. A few months later, I met those same shoplifters in black outside my workplace and told them about what had transpired. They are my friends now and although I no longer work at that store, I do what I can to keep them safe when we are together.
Everyone was expected to work at least one dairy shift a week; although I did my best to evade it, I was often stuck stalking the dairy floor. On one of these shifts, I broke one of the large metal sliding doors by slamming it too hard in a fit of rage. My second target was those deafening speakers. On one of my closing shifts, after my bosses had left for the day, I took the opportunity to paint the connecting wires with clear nail polish I had pocketed from the beauty section.
I chose this method instead of just cutting the wires because I was already under suspicion for the dairy doors. Following several broken doors, a new speaker system, and a long list of health code violations, I was taken off dairy duty. In the course of my final days as an employee, I took it upon myself to leave messages throughout the store. Armed with a permanent marker, I wrote anti-capitalist slogans under items, on items, on the bathroom stall doors, on baby diaper boxes, and on all the self-help customer computers, being careful never to get caught on the security cameras.
Despite all the amusing things I wrote, this was the only one shoppers seemed to notice. And walking around the store with my permanent marker was one of my many ways of looking busy while doing as little work as possible. Aside from breaking the dairy doors, writing graffiti, and carrying out psychological warfare against my employers, most of my antics consisted of petty vandalism and general bad behavior. Most of the grocery team would mark off items to bring home or just blatantly put groceries in their bags as they were leaving for the night.
All good things come to an end, however. Cameras were installed throughout the store, most of them in the back stock area where my team usually worked. My reign of terror came to a close soon after when upper management ordered my boss to get rid of me. In a generous gesture, my boss instead informed me of the decision and offered me the option to turn in my two-week notice. I put in my two weeks just in time for summer and took the opportunity to spend my free time making connections with other anarchists, fostering friendships that were only possible because I was no longer giving my time to that terrible job.
How embarrassing! Back then, employees were allowed to blast a stereo even during daytime hours; it was a different era. The employee who had put it on was this big skinhead-looking guy. It was an unwritten rule that if you were into punk or ska or other underground music, you got a discount. Then they put him on night shift by himself, and things started getting interesting. I learned to use some of the big machines. Customers would come in and mistake me for an employee, and I would help them with stuff while my friend knocked out his jobs for the night.
I probably spent three nights a week there, working and hanging out from midnight to 5 am. I remember stumbling back to my apartment in the early morning loaded down with crates of photocopies, watching the street sweepers and paper delivery trucks pass—the secret underbelly of the city. Sometimes I made conversation with homeless people or other night owls like myself, up to no good. Despite all the copying he and I were doing for ourselves, my friend was still a more efficient worker than most of the other employees, because he was careful not to make mistakes and waste paper.
For good or for ill, big-time workplace thieves usually make better workers. Much later, when he got promoted to management, I wondered whether there was a connection there—whether stealing from his employers actually helped prepare him to swindle wealthy customers. At the time, though, that was still far in the future.
We took smoking breaks together, standing out in front of the store at three in the morning comparing notes on music, politics, gossip, our philosophies of life. I never hung out with this guy outside the copy place—we were from different crowds—but our mutual commitment to photocopying drew us together, even if he was doing it for work and I was doing it to overthrow the government.
There is a kind of camaraderie unique to those who labor together; I bet it predates wage slavery by a thousand generations. Other friends of his started spending their nights there, mingling with the eccentrics and insomniacs who came in to make copies and ended up making conversation. The place became a sort of graveyard-shift salon where the most unlikely cast of characters gathered to jest, scheme, and experiment. In the witching hour, we entered an alternate reality in which we ran the place, like the goblins that come out at night in fairy tales.
The store had just expanded to offer personal computer stations, and a handful of high-school dropouts taught themselves programming between 2 and 5 am every night. Some of them later made successful careers for themselves during the dot-com boom, defying the barriers of social class and education. Of course, my friend could produce the new cards behind the counter at his leisure. Corresponding with people around the country, we discovered this was going on elsewhere as well: it seemed that everywhere there was a night shift at one of these franchises, there were people like us.
We heard about a branch in the Bay Area where they were so sure of their power they even had bands play late-night shows right in the middle of the customer service area! Everywhere we went we looked for one, and usually we clicked with the employees we met. Across the continent, a network was forming, consisting of employees and volunteers like myself. We believed in freedom of the press, god damn it, and the more photocopies we stole and circulated outside the exchange economy, the better we understood what that really meant.
What had started as humble workplace pilfering was escalating into a full-scale insurgency as we spread from city to city like a virus. What happened? The immune system of corporate America swung into action, and various people were fired or even led out of stores in handcuffs — but that clumsy show of force would have had little effect on its own. In some ways, we were victims of our own success.
Meanwhile, new opportunities opened up for others among us, in the form of promotions and new career paths; even when these resulted directly from collective illegal activities, they ultimately tamed the ones who pursued them. I think our story must be a fairly typical one. I remember one night, I walked into the store at PM with a friend visiting from the other side of the country.
Behind the counter was an employee I had not yet been introduced to, and a new employee he was training. We could hear him explaining to her:.
Whatever they ask for, give it to them for free. This is a tale of two cities. Both are nominally suburbs of the same Rust Belt metropolis, but both are large enough to be major cities themselves.
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They share the same local bus system and the same daily newspaper. What separates them is ten miles of suburban sprawl and the tremendous chasm of class privilege. Trendy and expensive restaurants rival those of the metropolis. Attractive white people can frequently be seen jogging on a network of bike trails intended for recreation only!
This means it used to be a separate city before the expanding suburbs caught up with it, and there is still a large, relatively old, relatively dense urban core. This urban part of New Stolp is mainly lower- and working-class, and includes a large Mexican immigrant population. The Latin Kings are active there, and high-school students at New Stolp East are subjected to searches using metal detectors upon their arrival each morning.
In the downtown area, the old stone and masonry buildings are mostly vacant, tenantless. And finally, as if to give expression to this division and make it more formalized, a county line runs through the municipal area such that Huffmanville and the suburban part of New Stolp are in one county, and the old, poor, urban part of New Stolp is in another. In the middle s, I was a commuter across this gap between worlds: I lived and worked in New Stolp the urban part , and I went to a well-funded private liberal-arts college with a leafy campus in Huffmanville.
Basically, the only reason I went there was that it was close by and I had already taken all the courses I could at community college. But regardless, it was expensive, and I was determined not to go into debt to pay for it. Debt makes you a slave—I had already known that for a long time. For a long time I only took one three-credit course per semester, because that was all I could afford.
It was demoralizing. Things could have gone on that way forever—slowly, plodding along, one course a semester, three days a week—on and on, and in ten or twelve years or so I would eventually have graduated.
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But this was unacceptable to me. Why should that pretty, leafy campus be accessible only to the children of rich Huffmanville parents? I fumed, and realized that if I wanted to graduate from the place in a human timeframe I was going to have to do something different. I would have to make my own financial aid. Over the span of less than a year after that decision I successfully embezzled more than twenty-five thousand dollars from my place of employment: a hardware store, owned by two Huffmanville businessmen, where I worked as a cashier.
I was never caught or fired. And I graduated from college one year later. The store in which I worked was part of a regional chain of between ten and twenty others, all based out of a flagship store in Huffmanville. Definitely not a mom-and-pop operation, but not Wal-Mart, either. On the other hand, if it had been a big multinational corporation, there probably would have been too many security measures in place for me to do what I did.
The father had started the chain with the main store in Huffmanville, and the son was now president. This was also something that suited me: unlike many cases of workplace theft, I knew exactly who I was stealing from—I had looked them both in the eye when they dropped by our store one time for a surprise inspection. And I knew they could afford it. The store had no security cameras although the management claimed there were hidden ones, every employee knew this was a lie , there were very few clear lines of sight old layout; shelving nearly up to the ceiling , and the cash registers used an antiquated computer system since the owners were too cheap to replace it.
The standard wage for grunts like me was seven dollars per hour—just enough over the minimum wage, the managers must have thought, to buy our loyalty. But when the managers learned how proficient I was at running the cash register and handling minor problems that arose there and I was , they made me a permanent cashier—and eventually, as they gained confidence in me, they began to give me a considerable degree of autonomy in doing my job.
By a certain point I was basically running the front end of the store for them single-handedly, during the time I was on the clock. In their eyes, of course, this made me a valuable employee. I taught myself how to trouble-shoot the computer system, made snap judgments, and took care of problems with customers on my own without having to radio the manager-on-duty for help with every little thing.
To my benefit, they seemed never to consider that this same problem-solving ability of mine could be put to uses contrary to theirs. Remembering them, adding and subtracting them, keeping accurate running totals, all in my head—a skill which would prove to be quite useful, given the fact that my job involved handling a nearly ceaseless flow of cash every hour of every day, with minimal supervision. By this time in my life I was already familiar with anarchist principles, and I therefore considered all of my interests and those of the store owners to be in polar opposition.
I wanted to inflict as many losses on the store as I could possibly get away with, even in ways that did not directly benefit me. One of the ways I did this was by charging customers less for their purchases than I was supposed to. Like I said, I was very good at my job—and as anyone who has ever worked as a cashier before knows, all this really means is that I was good at getting customers through the line quickly. Is that belt sander coming up in the computer as invalid? Even the quantities were at my discretion.
Most customers were all too happy to accept the new prices I offered them. Just take your shit and go. It was always important for me to maintain the appearance of doing my job accurately and correctly, at least as long as no one looked too closely. And this may sound bad, but I was always more wary about giving unauthorized discounts to customers if they were white—it just seemed to me that white people would be the most likely to inform on me.
Why certain people feel they have to protect the interests of the store owners at the expense of themselves, the employees, and everyone else is beyond me, but some of them do it. They were just things that I needed. In order to get the money, I had to use other tactics. In the primitive computer program that the cash registers used, it took only a single keystroke, made by the cashier at any time during a sale, to turn that sale into a refund of the same amount.
In mathematical terms, all of the signs on the prices would be flipped instantaneously from positive to negative, meaning that the computer expected money to be removed from the drawer rather than put in. So, naturally, if the cashier wanted the amount of cash in the drawer to stay the same as the amount on the sales summary at the end of the day, he or she would just have to take the amount in question out of the drawer and stick it in a pocket.
A simple concept, but surprisingly difficult to execute repeatedly without getting caught. How did I manage to pilfer twenty-five grand this way? The answer lies in the principle of sustainability, something we radicals like to talk about a lot—being patient, knowing when enough is enough, being aware of your limits and not exceeding them. During this period, the store was robbed.
The robbers were smart: they hit the store at closing time on the biggest shopping day of the Christmas season, when the safe was as chock-full of cash as it would ever be. It still brings a smile to my face to know that I got away with far more loot than those robbers ever did. To my knowledge she never received any acknowledgement from the owners that she had had her life threatened on behalf of their money.
She even had to open the next day. As far as I know, no member of the management at the store ever discovered what I was up to—or if they did, they had no way of proving it. I was too careful. But my guess is they had no clue. Anyone who is familiar with hourly-wage-work power relationships knows that even the weakest circumstantial evidence is sufficient for a boss to terminate an employee at will. Perhaps ironically, when I stopped working at the store it was because I had achieved my goal: I was now going to college full-time in my senior year, thanks to the money I had stolen.
But the really ironic part is that I now regret what I did—not the stealing money part, but the spending it on college tuition part. I now dream of all the other things I could have done with twenty-five thousand dollars besides hand it over to them in exchange for a degree I now consider to be next to worthless. I could have bought a house; I could have opened my own anarchist reading library and coffee shop; I could have given the money to a struggling free clinic or community center…. The testimony of a wage slave who recalls his misspent youth in the stockroom of an upscale clothing store and recounts how he exacted his revenge, ultimately calling into question whether there is anything worth taking from the world of work at all.
My friends in high school though I was joking. How could they allow the sight of me in my duct-taped Chucks and Clockwork Orange hoodie? It made more sense when I explained that I worked in the back, in a stockroom where no one could see me. Occasionally my manager would pop in when the front was slow to tell me about a Rob Zombie concert, but other than that I was left alone with the clothes.
My responsibilities in the backroom were twofold: new stuff comes in, old stuff goes out. I wheeled in the boxes of new clothes delivered daily from the hidden passageways that run behind the stores of any proper indoor shopping mall. The khakis, and cardigans, and skirts, and chamois got opened, sorted, shelved, and most importantly, security tagged. This made me, essentially, the first line in loss prevention. That was a mistake. Pretty soon into working there, I figured out that I could steal whatever I wanted by just going for a walk out the back door, down that gloomy hallway, and out the door into the sunlight, to stash merchandise underneath a bush to grab after I got off.
It was pretty easy, since the other half of my job was to take the trash and empty boxes out. In fact, looking back on it, it was laughably easy, and it felt nice and vengeful in a workplace where we were all marched out one by one through the security sensor at the end of each night and had our bags checked to boot. I started stealing jeans and coats for my friends who wanted them, but I never took much for myself. Partly because Express Ltd. You feel a little cheap acting as if the stuff that the company has or makes could somehow compensate for the emotional toll work takes on you.
One particularly grueling day, when I was feeling that kind of nausea with the job and the boxes seemed endless, I had a stroke of genius: it would be a lot simpler to combine my two responsibilities into one. Why not just throw out the new boxes of clothes? No sorting, hanging, or tagging, and no smuggling or fencing, either—just garbage, straight to the dumpster. It was exhilarating: all of the fun and none of the baggage. They looked just like empties anyway. Was this theft? It was my time, my effort, and some sense of control that I was trying to steal back.
All that shit was just trash to begin with. In the repertoire of punk jobs there used to be a job known as poster tour. Many people who have spent a little time on college campuses can conjure a memory of this traveling spectacle. Picture it: a company orders absurd quantities of posters from overseas and sends forth its minions to market them to the gaping voids of personality that are the college students of America. The life skills needed for this job are similar to those required for other facets of the punk lifestyle, especially for anyone who has been on any other kind of tour.
Then you break down the sale, head to the cheapest motel the company could possibly find for you, fill out a bunch of paperwork, and cry yourself to sleep. Repeat this the next day, and the next, and the next—for six weeks. The job attracted outliers from several sections of society. The largest faction, due to the connections of our subculture and the viral nature of our relationship to employment, was the punks.
Besides us, there was a smattering of hippies, weirdos, a few wild cards including some non-subcultural, seemingly successful people , and a healthy portion of Europeans. People from the last category were in a unique circumstance. Through shady outreach efforts and middlemen, they were promised gainful employment in the USA—at a price, of course. To top it off, we were tasked with selling the drivel of American culture.
It goes without saying: the system was rigged. It was an easy way to motivate workers while making sure they could never get ahead. We needed to create a new landscape if we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity that was taking advantage of us. The first step is always to get organized. At orientation, we exchanged contacts, made friendships, and vetted each other for trust. Mixing fun and subversion, someone uploaded a bingo board to a blog and shared the login passcode with others.
This whole story precedes smart phones. The idea was that this would help us to keep in touch and allow us to report our winnings. The squares on the board included a fun mix of communal misery crying yourself to sleep, an easy square to win , impossibilities going a day without selling a Bob Marley poster, which was never achieved by any team , hijinx selling cute monkey posters to really tough sports bros , and bad behavior going skinny dipping, drunk dialing the boss, meeting with other poster teams on tour.
The blog served as a break room for us to gripe about our working conditions, share tricks, and foster a work environment that would be increasingly hostile to our employers.