On Scarcity

We are asked to understand that competitiveness is important. We are told that accountability is essential in education, lest our students be denied the skills they need in order to compete in a global economy. An economy can’t exist without competition, we’re told: without competition, people will not work hard, they will not innovate, they will not improve productivity. One has to be competitive, or else one will be left out.

What remains unspoken is that competition insures that someone will, in fact, be left out. Competition insures that some family will undergo financial ruin, that someone, somewhere, will spend a winter night sleeping on a steam grate, or shoot himself for losing his job, or take an overdose of sleeping pills for not passing her exams. Competition ensures that someone with less money will do violence to someone with more money precisely because of that difference in the amounts of money they possess.

The commonly given reason for competition becomes evident in that final example: we are made to understand that there isn’t enough to go around. Enough money. Enough employment. Enough land. Shelter. Food. Water. (Air?) As we see from recent discussions of American national policy, there isn’t even enough education to go around: students and schools need to get competitive. To compete. For what? For spaces in the good schools, so one can get a good job, a privileged space in the economy, so one can get enough food, enough shelter, enough money.

By this reasoning, we can see as well that there aren’t enough A’s to go around in the academic economy. We understand that there are a limited number of passing grades.

Don’t we?

Competition relies on two notions being tied together: the notion of scarcity and the notion of individuality. And yet class relies on the notion of scarcity being tied to the notion of communality. Classes exist only as groups arrayed in hierarchies of privilege and dominance; in competitive relations. So perhaps competition isn’t reliant on individuality except in the space individuality creates for the play of competition. Consciousness feels internal, and so our senses of success must feel internal as well. School reinforces this: do your own work, earn your own grade. There aren’t enough A’s to go around.

And yet anybody who’s gone to high school understands that individuality gets created via alignment with groups. People say “I’m a nerd” or “He’s a burnout” and yesterday’s nerds become tomorrow’s technocrats and yesterday’s burnouts become tomorrow’s service-economy proletariat. Classes are groups competing against one another for privilege, but they’re not competing as groups, they’re competing as individuals. These groups are made up of individuals with common characteristics, and in such a sense the’re not classes, because they aren’t historical formations possessing class consciousness of common action. This is why class is defined individually and relationally, and why the groups are constantly dissolving and reforming. When we talk about class, the dominant trait of commonalty is economic, since the economy is what pits the individuals of the group against one another in competition, but classes within the economic groups are splintered by race and politics and gender and occupation, the high school teacher against the cop against the shopkeeper against the sculptor against the infantry captain against the sales rep, even though such individuals might possess and earn the same amounts of money. Scarcity drives competition on the individual level and not on the group level.

After all, we all want to see ourselves as middle class, and thereby deny that class exists. There is only the individual who makes it on her or his own merits, we understand, since scarcity is a fact of life. There aren’t enough passing grades to go around, and those who earn the passing grades — well, maybe part of it was mom and dad, and maybe part of it was luck, but no one wants to believe that he or she wasn’t good enough or didn’t work hard enough, so all success must be primarily attributable to hard work. None of this, of course, can be attributed to scarcity, since scarcity is a precondition and therefore must affect everything equally. . . Right?


Ah. The poor. Well, it’s probably relatively easy to believe that the poor didn’t have parents who could offer them the same sorts of advantages that other parents offered other children, or to believe that bad luck is a fact of life. And if you’re not poor, it might even be easy to believe that they weren’t good enough or didn’t work hard enough. And if you’re poor? Perhaps the easiest thing to believe is that your innate talent and hard work simply hasn’t paid off yet. After all, scarcity is simply a condition of the world, and affects everybody equally. If you’re competitive enough, you don’t have to worry about scarcity.

And if you don’t have to worry about scarcity, you’re middle class. Isn’t that the definition at the heart of things? Isn’t that how Americans who bring in over $100,000 a year can still call themselves middle class? All of us, middle class or not, want to consume without ever wanting to admit that some can consume more than others. We want to see ourselves as middle class because being middle class means being able to desire that which we do not need. Those who fall below the delimiter of the middle class desire that which they do in fact need.

That’s the economic version, at least. We’ve made it fancier, attached meanings to it, as is the human habit. We’ve built up cultural practices around the habits of wanting what we need versus wanting what we don’t need, and how we represent such things to ourselves. No one needs rugs on their floors, but those who are culturally lower class buy fancy new rugs that cost a lot of money because the value still lies in the economic transcendence of want, whereas those who are culturally upper class possess old threadbare rugs that have lost any economic value they once possessed and thereby become more distant from the locus of need, while at the same time increasing their value along other historical and therefore less material axes. One imagines that, had we the cultural will, we could produce enough rugs for all. But there would never be enough old rugs to go around. And no matter how much wealth we produce, there will never be enough success to go around.

How did this happen? When did scarcity become an epistemological condition and competition an ontological imperative?

2 thoughts on “On Scarcity

  1. Michelle

    Mike, there is always some post on your site that I would like to print off and read and underline and make comments all over in a way that is just not feasible in this box! Your ending reminds me of my own inability as a child to conceive of the notion of not enough money. It boggled my mind that anyone had to want for anything because it just seemed obvious the solution was simply that the U.S. Mint do a better job printing up more money!! ;)

    But I have a question: DOES everyone want to be middle class? That’s a thought I’ve not considered before. I understand your point but do you really believe that as a majority, most people do? And when does the actual desire for material possessions cross the boundary of class issues and reflect our desires for the aesthetic? My new blue room for example – I certainly didn’t need the new blue paint on the wall or the new hardwood floors. Or the new baseboards or the door knobs or the new fan or the new fan pulls or new blinds. But when I create an environment within which I can feed a craving for peace and balance, versus a competitive desire to possess, it’s not really an external motivation or related to class. Is it? Or does that even make sense?

    I know that you’re addressing reality and that for practical purposes, nearly everyone in our culture fits your description. But it’s just sad. I cannot relate to it anymore. For me, the purpose of competition is to improve my mind and yes, some base part of myself that I can’t yet erase competes because it validates my thoughts. But I really have no current desire to be #1 to get the #1 job to have the #1 house, etc. and I left that desire at the door of an office in 1994 and so far, it’s not come back. There’s just so much more to life.

    I’m a little embarrassed because I always post such simple-minded comments to your complex postings but I am going to post anyhow.

    PS, I love the rug example. It’s very effective.

  2. Mike


    I don’t think everyone necessarily wants to be middle class — that would be itself a nice bit of class bigotry on my part — but at the same time, if one definition of being middle class is wanting things that one doesn’t need, then I think most people do desire a freedom from material want — we’d really like to not worry so much about making rent next month — and in such a sense want at least that aspect of middle-classness. And I think that’s maybe an answer to your question about the desire for accumulation versus desire for the aesthetic, too: they may take different forms, and so may be classed differently (we often view accumulation as crass and the aesthetic as “classy”; consider the idiot yuppie farce of the “voluntary simplicity” movement, with the keyword being “voluntary” — after all, “involuntary simplicity” would just be another word for being poor, and therefore terribly gauche, right? In fact, maybe the appeal of the movement is in highlighting the voluntary aspect, in saying, “Look, I’m so secure in my life — so upper class — that I can pervert a stylized appearance of want into an aesthetic choice!”), but both involve a transcendence of want. And that, plus what you have to say about the “#1″ thing, kinda takes me back to thinking that the whole idea of class is really more about fear of falling — fear of doing worse — than it is about wanting to do better. So not simple-minded at all (quit bein so rough on yourself), I think; you’ve made me attempt to better articulate my notions about the desire for class mobility.

Comments are closed.