Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Fulfillment of Scarcity, Part1

Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (1)"
-- Matthew 5:17-20 (2)
Given that the historical effect of Christianity is to progressively ruin the sacrificial system and that scarcity spontaneously emerges as traditional bonds of solidarity are abandoned, then we should expect this system to arise in a region where Christianity has long weakened these bonds. Why it emerged precisely where and when it did, as well as the role of the state in this process, is a question too complex to even begin to answer in the present context. Nonetheless, what mimetic theory gives us is a means for understanding the radical novelty of modern market economies and a reason for their "unnaturalness." Their historical specificity is related to the unique breakdown of the sacrificial system caused by Christian Revelation. It is also linked to rejection of that Revelation. Scarcity is what we live in, which is neither the sacred nor the Kingdom of God.

Taken together these two quotes can be seen to suggest that scarcity as a fundamental modern economic concept has arisen because we moderns reject Jesus' revelation of the fulfillment of the law. The justice of our modern economies fails to exceed the justice of the Pharisees (political leaders of Jesus' day) -- even though a majority of economic agents in the West throughout the modern era have claimed to be followers of Jesus. Dumouchel's analysis of scarcity in the light of Renè Girard's Mimetic Theory can help us to understand that failure.
The first key move in Dumouchel's essay is to understand that scarcity is a human experience not based on the quantity of goods available. (4) Consider, for example, the situation of a clear excess of goods in which those blessed with relative abundance continue to experience scarcity. The reality of mimetic desire is such that scarcity is experienced relative to our neighbor. Even if I possess an abundance of goods, I may still experience that as a scarcity if it is less than my more wealthy neighbor. Dumouchel cleverly quotes a modern textbook on economics which unwittingly undercuts its own definition of scarcity with this observation:
Compared with developing nations or previous centuries, modern industrial societies seem very wealthy indeed. But higher production levels seem to bring in their train ever-higher consumption standards. . . . People feel that they want and 'need' indoor plumbing, central heating, refrigerators, education, movies, radios, television, books, autos, travel, sports and concerts, privacy and living space, chic clothes, clean air and water, safe factories, and so forth. (5)
That scarcity is a human experience not based on the quantity of goods available can even be seen in the circumstances of lacking necessary goods, if one knows when and where to look.

In Part 2, we will once again take Dumouchel as a guide to when and where to look to see how scarcity as a human experience is not based on a lacking of necessary goods, before rejoining these reflections to Matthew 5.
Paul Nuechterlein
Contributing Theologian
Theology & Peace

1. It is a mistake to read "kingdom of heaven" as meaning a realm separate from earth, as a hope somehow contrary to what our Lord teaches disciples to pray, 'your kingdom come ... on earth as in heaven.' For more on this, see my webpage on Matthew 5:1-12.

2. NRSV translation modified by author for only one word: "justice" in place of "righteousness" in verse 20 (Gr: dikaiosynē).

3. Paul Dumouchel, The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays [MSU Press, 2014], 105-6.

4. Dumouchel call this the aporia of scarcity -- that, "Scarcity corresponds to no real quantity" (ibid., 12). This is because mimetic desire induces a circular causality between production and needs: "higher levels of production lead to increased needs, and increased needs require even higher levels of production" (ibid., 11). Obviously, this is a recipe for unsustainability: "The ambivalence of scarcity dissimulates the eternal vanity of growth that has now led humanity down a suicidal path with respect to its natural environment" (ibid., 12).

5. P. Samuelson and W. D. Nordhaus, Economics, 12th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), 26. [Note: the 19th edition is the one currently available, McGraw-Hill, 2009.)

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