On Getting a Bit of Your Own Back

Technically, Proudhon was wrong when he wrote that property is theft. But they are inseparable in a way which is not captured by crime statistics, nor portrayed anywhere in five decades of cops and robbers films. The working class version of self-help is not the sort of thing of which Samuel Smiles would have approved, yet it is more universal than his prescription of inventiveness, frugality and diligence as a means of improvement. I mean pilfering.

The world of the workers is one where access to what is needed is heavily restricted by the rationing system of wages; while the world of the capitalist is one of abundance where desire has only to be expressed in pieces of paper for the object of that desire to be accessible. These two worlds come together, in part, at places of work; for there the worker glimpses, at second-hand, what it is like to belong to the master class.

Clock Cards

In factories the stores are always full of materials and tools which the machinist needs to complete his jobs; power flows unrestrictedly through the machine he operates and electric light floods from the roof of the machine shop—with no need for anyone to worry about bills. money for the meter, or who is going to pay to-day. For the machinist adds his measure of labour time to the products which pass through his hands. When the worker is surrounded by this beautifully organised system of social production, he cannot help contrasting it with the paucity of his private ownership; so he gets a bit of his own back as part of the vain attempt to redress the balance, after his employer has taken everything he makes, leaving him only a small packet of money.

Thieves do not form a sub-culture of the working class; most of us are at it. Hence the half-admiring description of the opportunistic worker — “he’ll steal anything that’s not bolted down”. While the sharp-eyed storeman who controls every washer is — “as tight as a duck’s arse”. Because the worker has no stake in what he makes, the battle between these two is often the only thing which lends interest to the working day. Anyone who doubts that the workers are resourceful enough to run a socialist society should consider their skill in outwitting the storeman.


What happens to the street trade with his barrow, who sharpened knives, shears and landmowers? Every cutter-grinder in the toolrooms where U have worked has two jigs under his bench. One mounts the cylindrical blades of the landmowers his friends bring in for sharpening; the smaller fixture holds the blades of the rotary mowers. Between them they earn him his cigarette or pin-money.

Learning how to get a bit of your own back starts early for most workers. Who does not have an atlas and a few school textbooks on their bookshelf? While teacher tried to stop us from stealing or “losing” books, she kept her house in pens, pencils, drawing pins, Sellotape and envelopes from the stockroom, taken while the school secretary’s back was turned.

Jobs which involve collecting money offer endless scope for self-help. The crowded early morning work ‘bus often arrives at the factory area before the conductor can collect the fares upstairs. So he stands on the platform as the passengers come down, takes their money and rolls a stream of 5 pence tickets for 25 pence fares. The ‘bus inspectors spend a lot of their time looking for discarded strings of 5 pence tickets; so a clever conductor takes them home with him. It is a poor man who does not fiddle enough for his own and his driver’s tea money this way.

I once knew a sheet metal worker whose whole house was decorated with low relief brass and copper ornaments, hammered from offcuts of material used in his work. So accomplished had he become in producing the cycle of jobs at the factory, that he was able to divide his time at work equally between jobs for the gaffer and his homework. Standardisation had taken all of his skill and inventiveness out of his trade, so he lavished it on those ornate and decorative tokens of his stolen labour.

Free For All

The existence of this universal fiddling is a strong argument for the futility of criminal reform. Petty crime is as natural an occurrence as rain in Manchester. Small wonder then that a few workers schooled in this tradition take to theft in a big way. The whole process is turned into an institution by dossers in cities. Most of the book on “alternative” London list places where free food, drink, clothes, telephone calls and other unlikely gifts can be had from firms engaged in promotions, display and publicity events.

Fiddling has its amusing side. Norman moved into a new council house. He was nailing down the linoleum in the toilet, when a carelessly aimed hammer struck the lavatory pan a glancing blow. It fell apart and there was water everywhere. Rather than face the wrath of his wife, he unscrewed the two halves from the floor, quietly carried them across the road to the unfinished houses, slipped in through an open window, exchanged the broken one for a new one and crept back home. His wife never learned of all this, but a few days later he was passing the time of day with the site foreman of the estate, who was complaining of vandalism. “They even get into the new houses just to smash the lavatories nowadays”, moaned the foreman. “It’s terrible” said Norman, “I don’t know what the world is coming to”.

Socialists know what they would like the world to come to. But the pity of it is that workers in general have no idea of how the stores of the world could be made freely available to them—and not surreptitiously.

Barry McNeeney

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