The Heist, Consumer Capitalism and the ‘Criminal Undertaker


With another high-profile jewel heist dominating global headlines, Birmingham City University criminologists Professor Elizabeth Yardley, Professor David Wilson and Emma Kelly argue that, rather than sentimentalising criminal activity, these acts embody consumer capitalist ideology.

On Tuesday 31 July thieves stole two crowns and a royal orb from the Swedish crown jewels. After lifting the items from a locked glass case, they made their getaway in a speedboat waiting in a nearby waterway. This is just the latest in a series of high profile heists in recent years, including the theft of items from the famous Al Thani collection in Venice and the heist at Paris’s Ritz Hotel in January, the theft of millions of pounds worth of jewellery from reality television star Kim Kardashian in 2016 and the infamous Hatton Garden case in 2015.

These crimes grab headlines, their details echoing the plots of Hollywood movies. The perpetrators are often accorded a glamorous and heroic status, their audacity and shamelessness earning them considerable admiration. The sentimentalising of the criminal is evident in media coverage of these events, evoking the narratives of the Great Train Robbery and the ‘Ocean’s’ film franchise, where people are taking what they want from ‘the system’ and ‘the elites’.


However, romanticising the heist and valorising the thieves as deviant heroes distracts us from the broader issues. The concept of just going for it and getting what you want is the very embodiment of consumer capitalist ideology.

Those responsible for the Swedish crown jewels heist are what ultra-realist criminologists call criminal undertakers, people who will ‘get things done’ regardless of the harm inflicted on others (Hall, 2012: 204). They will undertake, by any means necessary, whatever they consider is required to achieve their ends. They don’t care who they hurt or traumatise – other peoples’ rights and feelings don’t matter, it’s all about getting what they want.

But what are their goals and ends? Is this just about the money? We would argue that this is a significant part of it. Turning the Swedish crown jewels into hard cash will not be easy. Given how recognisable these items are, this will require assistance from criminal associates to break up the valuables and sell on their constituent parts. Regardless, this is likely to be a considerable pay day for the thieves.


Alongside the obvious monetary gain, the perpetrators will also have earned themselves considerable status among their peers. In contemporary consumer capitalism, we’re all encouraged to stand out, to make our mark as individuals, not just separate from others but superior to them. In the words of two leading ultra-realists:

Consumerism exacerbates and plays upon the constitutive lack that lies at the heart of the human subject. It has intruded into the internal life of the subject and creates a cultural climate of anxiety and competition, we become oriented toward hedonism and excess and seek to separate ourselves from our communities by raising ourselves above them. (Winlow and Hall, 2017)

Commenting on the Swedish crown jewels theft, a police spokesperson said, “it’s 1-0 to them right now”. This comment embodies the very essence of the jewel heist – it’s about winning, it’s about taking the ultimate prize and getting away with it. But more than that, it feeds into the inherent narcissism of consumer capitalism – it’s about being seen to win and emerge victorious. Those responsible for this latest heist aren’t simply revelling in the value of the items they have taken but what the heist represents for their status as uber criminals; a cut above the rest, the top dogs.

However, satisfaction is always precarious in consumer capitalism – as soon as we get the things that we want, we lose our desire for them and immediately begin to focus on the next thing, the next holiday, the next car, the next gadget, the next high. We are never satisfied. This is as true for international jewel thieves as it is for everybody else. We have not seen the last of the heist.

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