Relative scarcity

In a culture where the Duane Reade drug store on my corner is selling The Great Santini DVD, you have to wonder whether the tortuous paths commodities take to get to market are even capable of being analyzed. Clearly the whole system has become so huge and unwieldy, the distribution of goods follows its own Byzantine logic, seeking out sites for profit making, or colonizing new spaces for the market, with Borg-like efficiency. It seems to make no sense to talk about scarcity in such a culture, but if “stone-age economist” Marshall Sahlins and economist William Leiss are right, it may be that there is the most scarcity in a society that is surfeited with goods. There is a bit of semantic, epistemological jujitsu in this: rather than economics as a discipline growing up to deal with real scarcity, economics may have posited scarcity to develop itself, thereby creating it in the society it purported to describe, or at least emphasizing it as the defining principle of social organization — with the consequence of rationalizing individualistic dog-eat-dog competition rather than cooperation.

Scarcity, they argue, is not some absolute, ontological condition whose meaning is universall applicable to any context. Scarcity is, in fact, relative, defined, in Sahlins’s words by “a relationship between means and ends.” What one feels he is lacking is determined by what others in society are capable of getting. Social emulation and the process of adaptation work to make us perpetually discontented — as mass production offers the chance for the zero-sum society in which some must have while others have not to finally be defeated, humans stubbornly seek out ways to make the playing field unlevel again, finding ways to create a symbolic scarcity (at the level of social or cultural capital, to use Bourdieu’s terminology) when no material scarcity exists. Is this because the need for distinction runs as deep in the human species as the need to eat? Is class hierarchy then engrained in the human species. What a dismal thought, but one seemingly implied by all Veblenite modes of theorizing.

The alternative is to attribute the quest for distinction to the superstructure capitalism cultivates. This is implicit in Sahlins’s conjuring of a pretopian stone-age society in which there was no quest for individual distinctiveness and thus no sense of scarcity, even in the midst of what seems like material deprivation. Sahlins argues that nomadic societies enjoyed greater leisure time and an adequate diet procured with the least amount of labor. (The cost: perpetual mobility and a callousness to those less mobile members of society — the elderly, infants.) Such societies didn’t manufacture scarcity in order to create class hierarchy.

In The Limits to Satisfaction Leiss picks up this point, stressing scarcity is experiential, a state of mind. We feel scarcity, and not because we’re vain and capricious, but because social validation is fundamental to our well-being, and it is that commodity that continues to be rationed even amidst a superfluity of Great Santini DVDs and 6 oz bags of Ranch-flavored Doritos and the like. Scarcity is always going to exist when goods are used for social distinction, and producing more goods will obviously not solve this. In fact, producing more goods may be necessary to lend others their comparative scarcity — overproduction of a sort may be a precondition for scarcity. And that’s a really dismal thought.

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