April 22, 2019

Once, argues Nicholas Xenos (Scarcity and Modernity), “scarcity” did not exist. What existed with “scarcities,” or “periods of scarcity.”

He writes, “Of medieval origin, ‘scarcity’ derives from the Old Northern French escarcete. Its original usage denoted an insufficiency of supply, and by the fifteenth century the word took on a more specific meaning as an insufficiency of supply of necessities, or dearth. At the same time, the term acquired a clear temporal characteristic signifying a period of insufficiency, or a dearth. This remained the principal usages until the late nineteenth century, when neoclasical economics made the scarcity postulate its foundation and the term passed into general usage through its transmission into a concept signifying a general condition: not ‘a scarcity of,’ or ‘a time of scarcity,’ but simply 'scarcity’” (3).

The Greek spanis corresponded to this limited sense, and was linked to a notion of natural need: “The self-sufficiency of the household and the polis is a requirement of justice - natural needs can and must be met, where the means to satisfy them are lacking there is spanis - but unnatural wants are a threat to a well-balanced soul or a well-balanced community because they are by definition limitless.” Such desire were seen as an expression of hubris (3).

Xenos sees Hobbes as a key turning point. Hobbes defined desire in terms of lack: To desire is to “signify the absence of the object” (Hobbes). We are desiring beings, and so are in content motion, seeking to have what we lack. But the goods of the world are finite , and so, driven by desire, we’re constantly running into each other, which breeds distrust and fear. Only two things can control desire: Death; and self-restraint that leads to a truce, which needs to be enforced by a sovereign power. Xenos calls this “an institutional hubris,” and notes that Hobbes was aware that he was turning from centuries of Greek wisdom on the subject, but urged his readers to take a moment to reflect on their own insatiable desires. That will convince them that he’s right (4). 

Another factor enters in that further solidifies modernity’s belief in scarcity: Different societies judge “need” differently. What is subsistence among a hunter-gatherer tribe is different from subsistence in a modern economy. Once that relativity is admitted, though, “the distinction between needs and desires becomes difficult to maintain” (5).

Xenos doesn’t think that our sense of scarcity is driven by a lack of material goods. He notes the irony that economic theories that rest on the premise of scarcity arose in some of the wealthiest societies the world has seen. Lack-fueled desire is driven by social desires/needs: “Material goods never simply exist; they are situated within structures of meaning. They mediate social relationships and in so doing become expressive of needs that have their origin in those relationships.” These social needs include recognition and prestige; if some of those needs have natural limits, other’s don’t: The desire/need to keep up with fashion is “capable of apparently infinite expansion” (5).

For this reason, we, “denizens of this world of desire,” also inhabit a “social world of scarcity” (5)

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