Lessons From My Narcissist Father: Kleptomania and the Boundaries of Need-Based Consumerism

My father has been stealing for as long as I can remember. As a child I witnessed him simply walking out of bookstores, one hand clasped in mine and a pile of magazines and books in the other. Nobody ever stopped him and I never said a word. Years later, as an adult, I watched from a distance as he carried reusable shopping bags stuffed to the brim straight past the cashiers of a well-known health food chain and out into the parking lot.

My father’s behavior is undeniably pathological—the result of a narcissism that renders him unable to differentiate between himself and the rest of the world. The store is full of products and — to him — these products exist for his use. He takes what he needs without considering the moral implications of his actions.

There is a certain appeal to my father’s pathology. As an anarchist, I believe that stealing from corporations may be justified due to the massive amounts of waste produced by corporations worldwide on a daily basis. We can lessen this impact somewhat through thoughtful consumerism, like my own veganism, but perhaps illegal consumerism is the way to truly undermine these institutions and eliminate this waste.

I was recently quite moved by Peter Gelderloos’ article “Veganism: Why Not,” which argues against veganism as a method of resistance, astutely noting the ways in which veganism plays a role in “greening capitalism.” Philosophies such as veganism, Gelderloos argues, are ultimately a consumer-based choice, and therefore only further entrench the participant within the mire of rampant consumerism.

Upon finishing the article, I was struck by the notion that perhaps the best method of effecting change would be to steal one’s food—essentially dropping out of the capitalist sphere completely. I found myself returning to my father’s pathology as a potentially enlightening concept: products are here for our use, we have access to them, we have a need, why not take what we need?

Like any other system of ethical consumption, however, stealing from capitalists comes with moral quandaries of its own. I refer to my father’s actions as pathological because they are not need-based, they are want-based. As far back as I can recall, I have never seen my father steal something he needs. In fact, the majority of the time he shoplifts items he specifically does not need and will never use—books he will never pick up, supplements he doesn’t need to take, duplicates of items he already owns. My father may be a unique case but analyzing his actions made me reconsider the extent to which all forms of consumption are ultimately rooted in capitalist consumerism.  

During a brief stint as a retail manager of a bookstore, I made the decision to ignore what I deemed need-based shoplifting. A teenager steals one copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for a school assignment—I turn my head. A group of people fill their cars with bargain products to sell on EBay—okay, that’s a problem. Yet who am I to decide whether or not that eBay store was necessary for the survival of some member of that group? I quickly realized that in attempting to tease out need-based from want-based shoplifting, I was simply creating my own moral hierarchy and positioning myself as the judge.

To exist within a capitalist culture is to be disoriented by the ever-blurring boundaries of need and want. Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder defined by the urge to steal—yet the urge to steal is ultimately and fundamentally linked to the urge to consume we all experience. We are all constantly living on the brink of the same malignant narcissism that fuels the kleptomaniac—the urge to take, regardless of need or consequences.

How much does the behavior of the kleptomaniac actually differ from the average consumer? Further, how much does the behavior of the dumpster diver unpacking their “haul” on YouTube differ from either? We may even consider that the kleptomaniac and the overzealous dumpster diver both exhibit a unique form of conspicuous consumption in which, to paraphrase Baudrillard, the very rejection of consumption forges a pathological drive to consume.

If we are to pursue a truly ethical mode of consumption, we must take it upon ourselves to differentiate our needs from our wants—abolishing all hierarchies, particularly the ones existing within our own governing philosophies.

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