Touchstone Terms: The Accursed Share

This is a part of a series on terms and concepts that I find particularly resonant.

We usually say that the fundamental rule of economics is scarcity: there are never enough widgets (food, housing, gadgets) to meet all the demand And even where we seem to be endowed with wealth, we still face opportunity costs for doing one thing rather than another: we have finite time and attention, and at a fundamental level we cannot both have the cake and eat it. Economists study the allocation of that scarcity and costly selection among those opportunities. Thus (in his famous call for the reintroduction of slavery in the Carribean) Thomas Carlyle called economics a dismal science, since it forced such unhappy choices upon us. All the more reason to explore alternative framings, just as George Bataille did in his book The Accursed Share.

Imagine you and your friends are splitting a pizza, and there is an extra piece. Who gets it? And what happens next? Perhaps it becomes the prize in a game of trivia. Perhaps the winner has a little extra energy, perhaps they get fat. Perhaps it goes to one of your friends who is pregnant, because she is “eating for two.” Perhaps the most popular or amusing member of the group gets it. Perhaps you decide to throw it out. If your group always gives the extra piece to the same person, though, patterns of preference emerge.

In George Bataille’s three volume The Accursed Share, he imagines a primitive subsistence society that gathers just a little more food or other basic goods than it needs: who gets the extra share? What do we do with the remainder? Bataille uses this simple concept to construct a remarkably compelling just-so story of the political economy of both inequality and culture. Even recognizing that it is a kind of ahistoric just-so story, I continue to find the “accursed share” deeply intriguing and I return to it often.

As a framework, it strikes me as particularly important for those who work on political economy, like an artist using a camera obscura to see a scene differently for more accurate drawing or painting. The “accursed share” allows us to rethink economic problems in terms of the distribution of the excess rather than scarcity. It takes the economist’s tool of limited resources and flips it on its head. As Bataille puts it: “it is not necessity but its contrary, ‘luxury,’ that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.” (pg. 12)

As he spins out the concept to apply it to historical and traditional societies like the Aztecs and Tibetans, or to 20th century questions of political economy, societies that find themselves with growing productivity and wealth become increasingly stressed by the excess. They often develop techniques for expending their growth, like potlatch gift ceremonies, monastic non-working sects, or invasion of other countries. Yet these are, fundamentally, coping strategies for a problem: there is more than enough to go around. And he claims that the modern industrial capitalism has broken all of these coping strategies by creating not just an excess but a growing one, a continual disruption that gets reinvested and accelerates the next crisis of extravagant, opulent luxury.

Luxury and Culture

On Bataille’s account, culture just is the by-product of the accursed share. As patterns of “who gets the surplus?” develop, societies produce not just subsistence but hierarchy, not just inequality but cultural justifications for that inequality.

In other times and places, societies cultivate a class of religious or scholarly ascetics to whom the “accursed share” is owed. Perhaps, as in Tibet, monks adopt ritualistic poverty alongside disciplined unproductivity: they beg for their meals and yet do nothing to participate in the agricultural labor that makes their meals possible. In this sense, the remaining share is “accursed,” but also blessed and sanctified.

On Bataille’s view, then, variations in culture are the product of the patterns in our distribution of the excess. In that sense, Bataille has a version of Tolstoy’s dictum: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” All subsistence societies are equal; richer societies develop patterns of inequality that make them distinct.

In a deeper sense, the allocation of the surplus is closely tied to meaning-making, as well as to status. Sometimes it is easier to simply burn the excess. But someone must do the burning, and esteem and status are be left over as a residue of that role (along with, perhaps, a few items or treats snatched from the fire before they are consumed.) Or the excess can be expended on a class of artists, who make art, music, or literature that aspires to be uselessly beautiful. (Some part of the excess might even be devoted to philosophers….)

Still, the remainder is a kind of live grenade in an egalitarian culture. It (and its recipient) is cursed unless it can be invested in increased productive capacities or expended harmlessly. Industrial innovations have historically been quite difficult, so instead the extra is given over to some class whose “true” purpose is to expend the remainder harmlessly in mere luxury, in the creation of beautiful things, in the telling of stories that bind the community together, or in the maintenance of norms of sexual abstention and productive authority.

The problem is that most of these “useless” projects find their way to a kind of usefulness: authority guides and directs labor efficiency; communities bound by solidarity better weather crisis and better plan for the future; beauty can motivate and inspire. The useless has a dangerous tendency to become useful, and even necessary.

The General Economy as Economic Existentialism

Bataille’s general economy is like a kind of metaphysical macroeconomics: it includes not just the financial economy but tries to be an economics of energy, time, attention, and lives itself. It’s supposed to capture the way that economic thinking can be applied to ecology and physics and art and pornography.

Perhaps this goes beyond mere accuracy, but there’s something temptingly provocative about his great insight that there is a convincing way to turn our protestations and anxieties of finitude and lack into realizable superabundance and excess. For Bataille himself, this was a reason to reject the instrumental attitude almost completely. He sees human reason and culture as servile to a base pragmatism that fails to take seriously the teleological issues with our efforts to perpetuate endless growth.

By focusing his “general economy” account on excesses instead of limits, Bataille flips the script of ordinary economics. The focus on “scarce resources” and “opportunity costs” tends to emphasize the idea that economics is about not having enough to go around: surpluses and profits then become a fortunate break from the unfortunate status quo. And yet a moment’s reflection shows that any stable economy has “enough” to sustain its current distribution. Certainly some people have better or worse lives, some people die later and others earlier. Infant mortality has been 50% in some places or 2% in others, but everyone dies eventually. It’s the patterns that matter, that mean something: it’s the patterns that make meanings. (And economics itself has tried to capture this insight with its work on signaling theory.)

Absent supply shocks an economy can plod along doing what it does in equilibrium, but the negative shocks (famine, plague, war, revolution) aren’t the only sort of shocks that should concern us. In fact, the positive shocks of population growth, the industrial revolution, the green agricultural revolution, and the digital revolution have shown themselves to be even more disruptive. When fewer workers can produce more stuff–but not yet enough to distribute it equally–what are we to do with the extra?

Often there’s something vaguely eroticized or pointedly orgiastic about efforts to expend the accursed share, Bataille argues, because the natural “primitive” response to plenitude is to have more babies. But societies usually learn that this kind of response to excess is not a good idea: when the accursed share is gone, there will be more people to feed and not enough to do it. Thus, eroticism–and indeed fetishes and perversions–are a “safer” alternative, culturally. Yet for cultures that are built on sexual propriety, this safety is also unsettling.

The Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution are supposed to have led to our downfall: the combination of normative thrift, sexual repression, and massively increased productivity created a massive and growing accursed share. In Bataille’s time it seemed that the most likely outcome of all that postponed saving and investment would be a final, self-destructive nuclear war! Bataille thus prescribed perversion and indolence as an alternative, which is why he was able to write provocative and gripping political economic theory as well as surreal fetishistic pornography. (Or perhaps because he felt driven to write both he found ways to meld them.)

I don’t see Bataille’s main value in his role as a romantic defender of uselessness, though he does help illustrate some of the consequences of that view. Instead, I find the concept of the accursed share most apt when we talk about wealthy societies that somehow, still, face budget crises or allocation problems. It’s never that there’s not enough: we’re well past “enough,” nor is “more” often the solution. We’re usually fighting over the particular patterns of excess and deficiency we’d like our society to embrace, and the fight itself is always one of those luxuries. So when we talk about wealth and inequality, I think it behooves us to keep the “accursed share” in the back of our minds.

A Civic Liturgy

My friend David O’Hara writes on Facebook:

On certain days of the year I return to readings of civic importance that suit that day. It’s a political parallel to the liturgical calendar, I suppose. So on Independence Day (July 4) I read the Declaration of Independence; on MLK Day (third Monday of January) I read one of his speeches; on Constitution Day (Sept 17) I read the Bill of Rights; and so on. Most of this is a habit that’s in my head, but I’ve decided to put together a calendar I can share with others, and I’d be glad to have your suggestions for what to add. My informal rules: (1) It should be short enough to read in a few minutes. (2) It should be a significant document that ought to be read by everyone at some point. (3) It should remind us of an important idea or event that is a legal or ethical or cultural landmark that has shaped our nation, and that should help us find our bearings when we lose sight of them.

If you have suggestions, I’d like to hear them. Don’t be bound by my rules, or by my nation and traditions. What would you include? What would you gladly read aloud with your neighbors each year on a certain date? Please include the date you’d set for the reading, and tell me why that date matters.

This is an obvious nod to the liturgical tradition in which a year’s worth of sacred texts and meditations are laid out for repeated reflection, with themes that build towards a traditions’ major holidays.

I have something like this practice, and indeed I think of Facebook as trying to establish personal liturgies through its continual reminder of photos and events from each day in past years. So here are some thoughts:

  • New Year’s Day (January 1st): I like to read and reflect on habit-formation at the beginning of the year, rather than jump into making resolutions. For instance, William James’ “Habit” from The Principles of Psychology.
  • Martin Luther King Day (Third Monday in January): Usually “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” though sometimes his last speech or his “Where do we go from here?” speech.
  • President’s Day (Third Monday in February): I don’t really celebrate this holiday, though for a while I liked to read the Farewell Address. It’d be a good day to read selected Federalist Papers (I’m a fan of #9 and #10.)
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages

(I imagine the ironic points of light are muzzle flashes or bomb explosions exchanged by the putatively Just. The “irony” is that their violence is almost always unjust.)

  • Constitution Day (September 17th): This is the day to read as much of the constitution, including the Bill of Rights, as you can. But it’s also a good day to read Juan Linz’s “The Perils of Presidentialism.”
  • Election Season (Technically October and November, every two years. But when is it not election season?): The text that always inspires me during this period is Bruce Ackerman’s “The New Separation of Powers.” But that’s highly idiosyncratic.
  • Election Day (the first Tuesday after November 1st): Of course most of us spend this day reading exit polls. But perhaps it would be better to read the chapter in Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy on “Socialism and Democracy.” And  perhaps Amartya Sen’s “Democracy as a Universal Human Value” would be even more appropriate.
  • Thanksgiving (Late November): In the US we have dual duties on this day: to remember our massacre and colonization of the indigenous peoples, and to practice gratitude with friends and family. So I propose: Robert Frost’s The Gift Outright and Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Apologetic History of the Indies(I often post The Oatmeal’s comic on Las Casas to social media for a similar purpose.)
  • Christmas (December 25th): Like it or not, the US treats Christmas as a secular public holiday. And that means that everyone should watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

There are also irregular events that become opportunities for a civic liturgy. Like birth, marriage, and death, they don’t happen on a regular schedule but they deserve recognition in a civic liturgy.

For instance, from time to time we are called upon to serve on juries. At times like this, when it happens to me or friends, I like to share Alexis de Tocqueville’s discussion of the jury in Democracy in America. After national tragedies, I will sometimes read Jack Gilbert’s poem “A Brief for the Defense, though I struggle with whether it lets us off too easily. After many mass shootings, I re-read Dan Kahan’s “Modeling Facts, Culture, and Cognition in the Gun Debate,” but it doesn’t seem to help.

This is far from a complete list. But I think the idea of a civic liturgy is an important one, and I’d like to see more work done filling in the calendar. A liturgy creates a shared set of texts, a shared opportunity for reflection, and perhaps even the preconditions for shared values. Join me, and David, won’t you?

(I’m going to keep coming back and updating this as I get new suggestions.)

The Frustration of Dialogue and Deliberation

It’s the third day of the Frontiers of Democracy conference, and the mood is different than I can recall. Last year during the conference we received news that Great Britain had voted to leave the European Union: this year the conference began with a preconference on authoritarianism. Many attendees answered an ice-breaking prompt from Caesar McDowell about what they don’t want to talk about here with some variation of “the election” or “Trump” or even “the party system.” Yet we also had a plenary session on US democracy’s vulnerabilities led by the Democracy Fund, where they delved into the crosstabs of their latest voter study group report.

Later today we’ll discuss Peter Levine’s framework for responding to the election of Donald Trump, which one plenary speaker described as reminiscent of “the John Birch Society” for its resolutely anti-administration approach. And I’ve also heard devoted deliberative democrats talking about refusing to “trust the system” and even “blowing up the system.” One panel was titled “How to start a revolution,”  though I had to miss it because it conflicted with the panel I ran on Civic Games. (An attendee of the revolutionary conference reported to me that she walked out a lot less optimistic than she began.)

Yet my colleagues here are certainly not contemplating the violent overthrow of the current order: one of the most popular plenary speakers was the President of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. He presented on the work of Chenoweth and Stephan, who used a century of data to show that nonviolent resistance movements are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones–and that the results of such civil resistance are nine and a half times more likely to be democratic when they do succeed than violent movements.

I rather suspect that this is a minor aberration, but for a conference that began in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama titled, “No Better Time,” and spent many years afterwards bemoaning the lost civic engagement of that campaign season, it has been interesting to watch how attitudes change and methods evolve. Many many of the civic professionals I know are embracing Black Lives Matter and the implicit rejection of deliberative methods therein. Professional mediators and dialogue facilitators are talking about the importance of action, symbolic speech and protest, and resistance. They are–we are–frustrated. I can’t wait to see what we do together next.

Resisting the Fatalism of the Behavioral Revolution

I love Peter Levine’s latest post, “don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic.”

“Tversky’s and Kahneman’s revolutionary program spread across the behavioral sciences and constantly reveals new biases that are predictable enough to bear their own names. […] These phenomena are held to be deeply rooted in the cognitive limitations of human beings as creatures who evolved to hunt-and-gather in small bands on African plains. Not only has the burgeoning literature on cognitive biases challenged rational market models in economics, but it undermines the “folk theory” of democracy taught in civics textbooks and widely believed by citizens and pundits.”

I think Levine captures something important about the literature on cognitive biases and heuristics: that they tend to put people in labs and poke them in such a way as to show the ways in which individuals are prone to mistakes. Yet this is widely known, and many of the worst mistakes to which individuals are prone are things we have developed solutions for in ordinary life.

“Behavioral science would have predicted the demise of the independent newspaper–but about a century too soon. In fact, “the press” (reporters, editors, journalism educators, and others) sustained the newspaper as a tool for overcoming human cognitive limitations for decades.”

As such, the lab work undermines methodological individualism but doesn’t actually help us understand communities of inquiry or institutions of knowledge-production. We are extended minds, always dependent on cognitive “prosthetics.” We depend on watches and newspapers and Google and our friends to remember and process information. And yet I think Levine is perhaps too optimistic about the possibilities of “prosthetics.” (One of Levine’s finer qualities is that he regularly make “too optimistic” seem realistic in retrospect.)

I think we should especially push on the idea that journalism is or has been a solution to cognitive limitations. The golden age of journalism was a short period of time marked by very low elite disagreement on major issues as they joined forces against communism and to first suppress–and then manage–the Civil Rights revolution for women and Black people. This cynical potted history of the trustworthy news ignores much–but so does the optimistic one.

I’ve always thought that the main power of the “behavioral” revolution was to give scientific precision and credence to insights from earlier philosophy, political theory and psychology, as well as parsing the size of effects and the disagreements between cliches that would often emerge. So sure: you can find a lot of Tversky and Kahneman in Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but you can also find a lot in those authors that has been overturned or rendered more carefully in later work.

And the big insights about democracy’s weaknesses–the ones that go back to Plato and Aristotle–those didn’t go away in the middle of the 20th Century. They were perhaps suppressed by the Cold War abroad and the race war here at home, but something big happened when the demographic models for redistricting got an order of magnitude better in 2010 than they had been in 2000. And those models are just getting better.

What’s more, the behavioral revolution can also be used for good: I’ve repeatedly defended these insights when applied to criminal justice, for instance. And one of the most famous “cognitive bias” studies come not from the lab but from the real world. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso showed that:

“experienced parole judges in Israel granted freedom about 65 percent of the time to the first prisoner who appeared before them on a given day. By the end of a morning session, the chance of release had dropped almost to zero.

After the same judge returned from a lunch break, the first prisoner once again had about a 65 percent chance at freedom. And once again the odds declined steadily.”

This is the kind of thing that we might have suspected before. Any professor with a stack of papers to grade might have suspected they were more lenient after dinner, for instance. But this is definitive, real world proof of a problematic bias, a result of the behavioral revolution.

Ironically, it doesn’t actually make me very fatalistic: it gives me hope. I hope that Israeli judges are reading this and worrying about it. I hope they are taking snacks to work. I hope that parole lawyers everywhere are taking note of these facts and acting to protect their clients from these biases. New information about our cognitive limitations doesn’t have to make us hopeless. And really, that’s Levine’s point.

“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?