Scarcity and Abundance

More from The Age of Aesthetics.

The basic premise of capitalism has always been scarcity. Economists see deprivation, or “opportunity cost,” or the necessity of giving up something one wants in order to have something else instead, as the primordial – and necessary – condition of humankind. Even when we do not suffer from absolute want, we are still menaced with the fate of Buridan’s ass, which starved to death because it could not decide between two equally desirable sources of food. Such is the underlying premise of all neoclassical economics, including Virginia Postrel’s fantasy of consumer plenitude. Life is a matter of making difficult “choices,” as we measure costs and benefits “at the margin.” Aesthetic style, Postrel warns us, “is still one of many different possible goods. Choosing more aesthetic value means forgoing some alternative. The age of look and feel, like every other era, demands trade-offs.” Even in the Age of Aesthetics, we are still compelled to economize, to prioritize, and to sacrifice.

The classical justification for capitalism is precisely that it generates maximal returns from its presupposed initial conditions of scarcity. Scarcity is equivalent, in theological terms, to original sin. We can never know abundance, because we have been expelled from the Garden of Eden. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” No matter how affluent we become, we are still condemned to a form of life in which every decision we make, and every action we take, involves a concomitant sacrifice. This is the way in which Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” – that old Calvinist/Puritan asceticism, with its valuation of toil and rejection of waste and expenditure – still persists in the frenzied consumer capitalism of today. Even for F. A. Hayek, the intellectual godfather of postmodern free-market ideology, with his vision of the market as a marvelous information-processing, self-organizing, and evolving system, the bottom line is still that the market is good and right because it subjects “man” to “the bitter necessity of submitting himself to rules he does not like in order to maintain himself against competing groups.” Producers must always battle over limited resources, and consumers must always decide how to allocate limited means. The Malthusian/Darwinian struggle of market competition is supposed to ensure that these resources are used, and these means expended, as efficiently as possible. Abundance would cause market rationality to fail, just as it would put a stop to the process of natural selection. It is only insofar as scarcity continues to work as a goad and a spur, so that “the discipline of the market” remains in full force, that production and innovation are able to continue.

Even Marx and Engels are far from despising this logic. In the Communist Manifesto, they note how toil driven by scarcity has created unprecedented accumulations of wealth. They celebrate how “modern industry has established the world market,” and how the capitalist mode of production has brought into being “more massive and more colossal productive forces” than ever before in history. Marx and Engels evince no nostalgia for pre-capitalist modes of production. Nor do they condemn capitalism, as many later critics have done, for multiplying artificial needs. The impact of capitalism, Marx and Engels say, is revolutionary; and to this extent the system is something to be praised and admired, rather than scorned. For “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

The irony behind Marx’s praise of revolutionary capitalism is really the “objective irony” of the capitalist system itself. For capitalism’s dirty little secret is that it cannot endure its own abundance. This is the key to Marx’s theory of crisis. Again and again, Marx and Engels say, “there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production.” The wealth that capitalism actually produces undermines the scarcity that remains its raison d’etre. For once scarcity has been overcome, there’s nothing left to drive competition. The imperative to expand and intensify production simply becomes absurd. In the face of abundance, therefore, capitalism needs to generate an imposed scarcity, in order to keep the system going. Capitalism refutes Malthus, but finds it necessary to reinvent him. We can see the fruits of this dilemma today when, even amidst unparalleled worldwide prosperity, and unprecedented accumulations of wealth, the Western welfare state is driven into bankruptcy, and Third World debt is made to mount to unsustainable levels.

What Marx and Engels call “over-production,” William Greider describes as the “supply problem” of global capitalism today. You can increase productivity and efficiency by paying workers less, and by hiring less of them. This is the point of capitalism’s continual “revolutionising [of ] the instruments of production.” In the last thirty years, new information and communications technologies, together with improvements in shipping and transportation, have made such a “revolution” possible. But every transformation has its price. Lowering wages and intensifying the exploitation of labor leads to losses in consumer purchasing power, even as there is more and more stuff for consumers to buy. In theory, lower prices based on lower production costs are supposed to compensate for the imbalance. In practice, however, the compensation is never enough. On a worldwide level, too many goods still remain unsold. Today, as Greider shows, we’re stuck with a”permanent oversupply.” It is not the case that there are too many people who want to drive, compared to the number of automobiles available (or even environmentally sustainable). It is rather the reverse: far more cars are being produced – even without using existing factories to capacity – than there are people who can afford to buy them. The system is stifled by its very success.

Scarcity is never a problem for capitalism; only abundance is. In the mid-twentieth-century, there were two great efforts to resolve the difficulties of oversupply. Both of them worked by stimulating demand. Fordism involved paying workers more, so that they could afford to buy the cars they made. Keynesianism increased demand directly, through government deficit spending. But in the 1970s, with the switch to flexible accumulation, these policies were largely abandoned, because they impeded the smooth flow of capital. Today, although the Bush Adminstration runs huge budget deficits, these do not serve to stimulate demand, since their main effect is to transfer wealth from the ma jority of the population to the extremely rich, who do not correspondingly raise their level of consumption. On the other hand, military Keynesianism – the United States government’s extravagant spending on its armed forces, – is the one “demand-side” policy still in effect. America’s weapons of mass destruction are perhaps the most spectacular examples of Bataillean unproductive expenditure that the world has ever seen. But aside from this, the social stimulation of demand is condemned as “waste”; all that is supposed to be left to the private sector. Even the basic “social safety net” – that last-ditch guarantees of subsistence that is all that remains of the welfare state – is denounced as paternalistic and intrusive. Institutions like the Federal Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund insist on deregulation, and only permit market-based, “supply-side” adjustments. Abundance is reigned in, in the name of market stability. In consequence, the more that productivity is unleashed, the more the “supply problem” returns with a vengeance.

13 Responses to “Scarcity and Abundance”

  1. Dan Smith says:

    Why the Bataillean/dialectical framing of the issue?

  2. Steven Shaviro says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “dialectical.” I suppose you could read what I am saying about capitalism producing abundance, which in turn “contradicts” the basic premises of capitalism, as an old-fashioned marxist/dialectical way of posing the questiong. But thinking about abundance, and Bataille’s general economy, seems to me to be a way of avoiding a logic of negativity and contradiction. This might be clearer in context of other parts of the manuscript, some of which (when they are in good enough shape that I am not totally embarrassed by them) I will try to post eventually. I don’t think, in any case, that “crisis” works dialectically — I am thinking more of Deleuze/Guattari’s proposition that capitalism is always confronting its own limits, and always pushing back/reproducing those limits… which seems to me to be a “Kantian” way of understanding Marx, rather than a Hegelian/dialectical one.

  3. Gordon Potter says:

    “America’s weapons of mass destruction are perhaps the most spectacular examples of Bataillean unproductive expenditure that the world has ever seen.”

    I really like this statement. It is a poignant way of illustrating expenditure for expenditure’s sake. Which is perhaps another way of pointing out the autonomous nature of expenditure, an expenditure that grows and grows without recourse to a so called “rationality” or enlightment logic.

    I also, like this phrase “military Keynesianism”. I like it because for all the Econ 101 BS that I hear from conservative comentators, it always felt like they simply flat out ignore the more Keynesian realities of goverment expenditure in the 20th century. But I wonder if some of this gives Bush and his NeoCon cronies a little too much credit. At least with Clinton one could say that he cynically (or even perhaps sincerely) employed conservative agendas (welfare reform, debt reduction, etc) as the perennial political triangulator that he was. But I suspect Bush is not so cognizant of the economic realities as Clinton was, or even Reagan. Bush is at the whim of an ever expanding deficit. A ballooning deficit and autonomous expenditure.

    Anyway, great analysis and economic insight Steven. Looking forward to the larger work.


  4. Dan Smith says:

    Hmm. I guess I’ll wait to see how you develop things, Steve, but Bataille has always seemed to me to hinge on a release of the desire to “control” the dialectic and an accompanying unabashed embrace of absolute negativity, which Hegel couldn’t do because of his investment in determinate negation. Btw, could you say a bit more about our WMDs as an example of unproductive expenditure? I think that might help me get a better sense of your line of thought. — Thanks, DS

  5. Steven Shaviro says:

    No, I think that reading Bataille in terms of Hegelian negativity is a red herring (even though Bataille himself sometimes interpreted his own insights this way). The crucial point is that expenditure comes first. It is scarcity, with its correlates of conflict and negativity, that is a reactive formation against abundance, rather than the reverse. Expenditure is not “absolute negativity,” but that which cannot be captured/defined in terms of negativity (even though, from the point of view of negativity — which is a POV we can’t really escape today — it can only be seen as a remainder).
    As for Bush’s WMDs, what could be a better example of a “catastrophic expenditure of excess energy,” of potlatch, of a sheerly wasteful, orgiastic display?

  6. Dan Smith says:

    Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on Bataille. Still not with you on the WMD-unproductive expenditure connection. But maybe that’s because I think it rests on a Bataillean logic that separates and renders distinct far too easily that which is not readily separable and distinct (the distinction between and respective valences attached to restricted and general economies is the most obvious example).

    It seems to me that an attachment to abundance-expenditure-transgression-anti-production etc. is just as problematic as an attachment to its/their *opposites*. I guess you could say I call your approach dialectical because *one one level* it appears to depend upon a logic of opposition. At the same time, however, I also see you working from a Deleuzean perspective of immanence through the concept of abundance (in which opposition, as it were, is a secondary phenomenon). I’m willing to learn to read Bataille differently–and perhaps your project will help me do that. But for the time being the folding together of Bataille-Deleuze, for me, comes with tensions. Which is not to say such a folding or your project is “wrong” (I love all of your stuff). Rather, it’s that abundance doesn’t seem to be “first” consistently; that the scarcity-abundance dichotomy (and it does appear to operate as a dichotomy) takes on a primacy that displaces (or jockeys for position with) immanent abundance.

    Of course, my notion of folding together these two thinkers (and their attendant tensions) presupposes a difference between them that you’ve placed in question. In any event, I am looking forward to your project and the insights it will undoubtedly generate. — DS

  7. Steven Shaviro says:

    Deleuze hated Bataille, but that doesn’t mean that we are obligated to keep them separate. Transgression is something of a red herring, too. For one thing, Foucault (in his early essay A Preface to Transgression) rightly redefines it in Kantian terms instead of Hegelian ones. For another, whatever sense “transgression” has for Bataille, it is not an adequate term to grasp expenditure or general economy. The important link is that Bataille on expenditure, following Mauss on the gift, is crucial for any attempt to think about what is wrong with mainstream economics and its assumptions of homo economicus, “free” markets, and “rational choice.”

  8. Dan Smith says:

    Agree to disagree on Kant too, I guess (this sounds more like a conversation to be had over a few beers than on a blog). Or at least how Kant is being positioned here (and by Foucault). Bottom line: these are quibbles – looking forward to the project. – Sincerely, DS

  9. if america’s WMDs are examples of Bataillian unproductive expenditure, (which they are), then philosophically, suicide would be the ultimate gift– which means, america must self-destruct in order to continue to assert its power. is capitalism a ‘death wish’?

  10. [...] with anxiety while I waited: There is something about abundance that produces a sensation of scarcity. When it was my turn I snagged a veggie burger, a scoop of couscous, a scoop of potato salad, a [...]

  11. Michael says:

    “Scarcity” is a different animal in different contexts. If we look five years down the road, then we may have a different attitude.

    For publishers, abundance has its own concerns — the “free” content can win the day, in spite of its demonstrable dearth of quality; it will drive a different approach to editorial oversight, editorial investment, scholarly quality.

    Further, if we presume a print-centric intellectual environment (see, then there are problems that spill out into the physical world.

    Most of your arguments presume a world of energy abundance; if we presume otherwise, other conclusions follow.

  12. [...] worked hard enough to wrestle it from someone else (read a more theoretical/historical explanation here).  Now we’ve operated on this premise so long that maybe there isn’t enough in the [...]

  13. [...] search term “maintaining abundance in a scarcity driven world” found a blogpost over at from 2005. Now Abundance is something I have been attracting into my life for [...]

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