Desire & Scarcity (was Re: Desire under the Elms)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Fri Jan 28 13:25:01 MST 2000


>JKSCHW at wrote:

>>Has it occurred to you that the only other bunch of academics other than the

>>pomists to talk about Desire are the neoclassical economists and rational

>>choice theorists?


>Um, uh, what about poets, psychoanalysts, and lovers, not to mention

>Iggy Pop? Who said anything about limiting the universe to academics?

Justin's remarks on Desire are on the mark.  Surely we'd do well to remember the fact that introductory textbooks on Economics all begin with the discussion of Desire & Scarcity.  In the world of Econ 101, it is the abstraction called Desire -- unlimited wants -- that makes us all, rich or poor, experience Scarcity.  And in this world of neoclassical economics, Time is perhaps the most scarce resource of all; we can do only one thing at a time -- hence the Need to make Choices and the appearance of Opportunity Costs (to which modern moral philosophy responds by giving us dialectical twins: Bentham & Kant).

Now, Desire as an abstract cause of Scarcity is a capitalist invention, an experience unknown in the world before capitalism:

*****   To say the same thing in different words: What Martin Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology (1954) calls "resources" are created as a public perception when, under the assumption of scarcity, the economy is, as economic historian Karl Polanyi describes it, "disembedded" from society. In Polanyi's words,

before modern times the forms of [human] livelihood attracted much less . . . conscious attention than did most other parts of . . . organized existence. In contrast to kinship, magic or etiquette with their powerful [influences], the economy as such remained nameless. . . . Only two hundred years ago did an esoteric sect of French thinkers coin the term and call themselves économistes. Their claim was to have discovered the economy (Karl Polanyi, "Aristotle Discovers the Economy," in Trade and Market in the Early Empires [Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957], p. 71).

According to Polanyi, "The prime reason for the absence of any concept of the economy is the difficulty of identifying the economic process under conditions where it is embedded in non-economic institutions" (ibid.). The economy is at once discovered and invented by disembedding it from the broader socio-cultural lifeworld.

Carl Mitcham, "Notes toward a Philosophy of Meta-Technology," _Techne_ Vol.1, Nos.1 & 2, available at <>   *****

We might also consult Marshall Sahlins's comments on "the Original Affluent Society": no Desire, no Scarcity, the abundance of Time.  On the other hand, in the world of Desire & Scarcity, class struggles emerge as the politics of Time: "A universe in pieces, abandoned, without hope, an image of the real....Everything has taken on the miraculous tint of time" (Louis Aragon).  Now, let us turn to Marx: "Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.  The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.  If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist" (_Capital_, Vol.1, Chapter X, The Working-Day, Section 1, The Limits of the Working-Day).

Desire as an abstract, consuming passion is the love child of Accumulation and Its Discontents (as the LBO home page says).  Lacan's error is that he identifies the origin of Desire as an effect of the acquisition of language upon needs.  Hence his inability to historicize Desire & insistence upon eternalizing It: "Pleasure limits the scope of human possibility -- the pleasure principle is a principle of homeostasis.  Desire, on the other hand, finds its boundary, its strict relation, its limit, and it is in the relation to this limit that it is sustained as such, crossing the threshold imposed by the pleasure principle" (_The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis_).  Here, Lacan, unbeknownst to himself, elegantly describes the economy of Desire as structured by the struggle over the working-day.  Since he doesn't know what he is doing, however, he thinks of Desire as indicative of the (in)human condition par excellence.  Because Lacan is a stranger to Marx and Marxism, he cannot possibly imagine the Abolition of Desire and the beginning of desireS.  The only solutions he offers us to escape the dungeon of Desire are (1) the purification of desire "beyond fear and pity" (Antigone & Socrates who kills himself to save truth are examples chosen by Lacan); and (2) the acceptance of one's "unbeing" and "subjective destitution."  In other words, spiritual solutions.

To sum up, to think of Desire as a dialectical twin of Scarcity and to reject Desire as an abstraction is not the same as denying desireS.  In fact, the emancipation of desireS depends upon the abolition of Desire, and this both Marx and Foucault understood very well.


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