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.

Hannah Arendt on Academic Freedom

We often say that colleges and universities deserve some sort of freedom from political interference. But for Arendt, freedom just is politics. The idea of freedom from politics is largely oxymoronic for her, and involves fundamental misunderstandings of the component terms “freedom” and “politics.” But of course, we seem to know what we mean when we use “freedom from politics” so these misunderstandings are obviously institutionalized in ways that are at odds with Arendt, such that it takes some excavation to determine how this divergence is possible, and whether we can adjudicate the disagreement:

“As long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community so that they then can be granted, either as individuals or social groups, a freedom that lies beyond both politics and life’s necessities, we are indeed justified in measuring the degree of freedom within any political body by the religious and academic freedom that it tolerates, which is to say, by the size of the nonpolitical space of freedom that it contains and maintains.” Hannah Arendt, Introduction into Politics.” The Promise of Politics (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), pg. 136.

The disdain with which Arendt articulates the justifications for religious and academic freedom in this passage is remarkable.  What seems obvious to us seems equally absurd to Arendt, such that she has to spell out our mistake: “as long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community….”

(She might as well write, “if you insist on starting from absurd premises, then yes, it’s true, absurd conclusions will follow….”)

She is not just exasperated that we are so devoted to universities and churches that we’ve set them outside of and above politics, but seems to believe that when we see the assumptions required we will reject them. (Loyal readers will recall this post on Christianity and the flight from politics.) For Arendt, politics is not merely about providing the bare necessities of communal life: if anything, communal life serves to provide the conditions of possibility for politics. But our communities are decidedly non-Arendtian: why should we accept that reversal?

Here, a brief Arendtian recap may be in order: she argues that the Platonic (née Parmenidean) ideal of freedom from politics is predicated on the belief that speech carried out before the many becomes corrupted or deceptive, while speech among the few can achieve truths “higher” than political freedom. We now regularly encounter these “higher” or “realer” truths: science, religion, justice, beauty, family, wealth, health, culture, morality, and happiness are all often celebrated as the true purpose of politics, those ends that politics must achieve but for which politics should be forsaken. So obviously Arendt is on to something in her diagnosis. But it’s thus striking that Arendt is nearly alone among political theorists and philosophers in claiming that the true purpose of politics is politics–the coordination of collective action–itself!

For this she is often accused of romanticizing the Greek polis. She goes so far as to say that many people and places have taken the “higher” purposes of politics so seriously that they’ve lost track of politics in the first place:

“Politics as such has existed so rarely and in so few places that, historically speaking, only a few great epochs have known it and turned it into a reality.” (Arendt, Promise of Politics, 119)

But I don’t think this is properly-speaking a romantic view of the Greeks, since the Greeks are to blame for losing track of the meaning and significance of politics (for themselves and for Europe too) when they built the Academy:

“In order for their institution to succeed, the few had to demand that their activity, their speech with one another, be relieved of the activities of the polis in the same way the citizens of Athens were relieved of all the activities that dealt with earning their daily bread.” (Arendt, Promise, 131)

Arendt has often received criticism for her view that politics is only possible for those who are free from necessity because others (slaves, peasants, capitalist workers) labor. She always acknowledge the horror of this dependency and exploitation, but it’s hard to ignore how elitist she sounds in those moments. Here she accuses those seeking academic and religious freedom of a similar kind of elitism: to turn politics into a means-to-an-end of something that cannot equal it.1

Universities are not, then, havens from politics, but in their purest forms they become hierarchical substitutes for politics. This helps to explain the kinds of inconsequential wrangling that often trouble departmental life: having determined that only academic merit can satisfy our fundamental political needs, we then get lost in minutiae in a fight for recognition.

And then there is the not-so-pure form: acknowledging that the university is partially shielded from politics, we retreat to it with a fantasy that Arendt diagnosed as an Archimedean (“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth”) whereby we desire to engage in politics without being engaged by it, to act on the world without being acted upon. The university becomes a place to engage in politics, to affect policy and act as a political agent, but one that is sheltered from the consequences of ordinary political spaces. It becomes a microphone or a platform with which to shout one’s projects without having to listen.

It’s this conception of academic freedom that both inspires and worries me. It inspires me because I’d like to think we can find some shelter from the political currents of the day to think through the problems that confront us and investigate matters that require it, and that when that thinking and investigation is done our fellow citizens should listen to what we’ve figured out. It also inspires me because the company of disagreeing friends is one of the major sources of joy in my professional life. (Recall: 1, 2, 3)

But it worries me, too, because governments fund these havens, and they are growing increasingly disenchanted with our work. And it’s only natural that when political actors recognize a source of influence in their communities–an unmoved mover that is both powerful and claiming shelter from power–they will move to capture the “commanding heights” of that influential position. An Iowa state legislator even proposed partisan balancing tests for new faculty. (And the backlash surrounding his Sizzler certification is ample evidence of the exclusivity and signaling role of college education.)

Now, a standard reply is that the university has earned its role as a place outside of normal politics by welcoming a diversity of viewpoints. We inoculate ourselves from the claims of partisanship by encouraging educated disagreement, and take a voluntary vow of nonpartisanship in exchange for that freedom. But this is no longer sustainable. It’s both at odds with the evidence of partisan affiliations, and at odds with the consensus-building towards expertise we expect from the sciences.

We really don’t and shouldn’t welcome a diversity of viewpoints on race and IQ, for instance, which is both reasonable (internal to the disciplines involved) given the methodological shenanigans required to justify white superiority stories, and reasonable (writ large) given the fact that pseudoscientific racism actively hurts our students and our society.

I am tempted to end on the idea that academic freedom debates are a part of local, nested norms of safety and collegiality and freedom-from-interference, such that there is no generic answer about academic freedom, but rather a set of internal institutional norms that get articulated and adjudicated in practice. But sometimes in all that sophisticated distinction-making and precise line-drawing, I think we miss the fact that universities are parts of society as a whole, inhabited by faculty and staff with multiple conflicting allegiances and communities of interest. We don’t need principles of academic freedom because we are discovering the eternal and unchanging truths of these systems, but rather we need these principles as simple coordination mechanisms. Sometimes we need to be able to say: “This is not what we do, this is not who we are.”

1. It’s worth noting here that most legal defenses of academic freedom either make a professor’s rights subordinate to the public welfare via the claim that unimpaired investigations into the natural sciences produce public goods (i.e. Sweezy v. New Hampshire) or treat academic freedom as a tacit custom that governs university contracts with faculty. (i.e. Greene v. Howard University)

We Must Demand Professional Policing For All

I am a professional philosopher. That doesn’t just mean I do it for a living. Though I’m glad to be paid for my work, getting paid to do a thing does not make you a professional. Being a professional means that philosophy is my vocation and is closely tied to my self-identity. The norms of my profession have become personal norms; when my profession suffers a crisis, I feel it personally. Even if I lost my job I’d think of myself as a philosopher!

Yet most police officers are not professionals in this sense. Consider the collective horror, shame, and disgust we philosophers have at the abusive behavior of our fellow philosophers: think of what it means to be compared to Colin McGinn or Thomas Pogge. Why isn’t there that kind of horror, shame, and disgust among police officers at the drumbeat of police shootings?

Some police departments do have professional police departments. I’ve written before (for instance here and here) about my work doing civilian oversight of the NYPD, where–for the most part–I observed professionals at work. Yet even there the culture tends to be defensive rather than proactive. They saw civilian investigators as a no-longer-necessary evil, based on long-past departmental misdeeds. Yet we did that work precisely because the department had failed to engage in its own oversight. And corruption and abuse kept appearing, like whack-a-mole, whenever a part of the department found itself unsupervised.

Still, the culture at the NYPD seemed to be slowly changing, and I met many young officers who took their work seriously and evinced a desire for more than an exoneration; they aimed not just to mount a vigorous defense of the legality of their actions, but also to show that they had acted wisely and well, and that failures to do so were blameworthy even if they were not punishable.

I do not see that professionalism in the Baltimore Police Department. It’s quite obvious that the police department in Baton Rouge is not professional in this way. And we now know far too much about the unprofessionalism–indeed the thuggery and extortion–of the Ferguson police department. The list of such unprofessional departments is almost as long as the list of African-Americans killed during routine interactions that would never have led to violence with whites. And that’s just it: the one common feature seems to be that the unprofessional departments are primarily policing African-Americans.

I won’t pretend to give #BlackLivesMatter activists advice; their movement has its own leadership and needs nothing from me. But white citizens are and ought to be outraged by these killings as well, so it’s time for us to think about what kinds of changes to demand. We have a responsibility here and we cannot shirk it merely because we are not citizens of the specific cities or residents of specific neighborhoods that suffer under the boot of unprofessional departments. We must do what we can to professionalize the departments that police our fellow-citizens.

This will be a multi-pronged effort. Some parts will be legal, for instance, adopting a necessity rule:

Even when the police have a reasonable belief that a person is dangerous, the necessity standard does not permit deadly force if non-deadly or less deadly alternatives are available and adequate to meet the threat.

(And yes, the reason many officers are exonerated for their killings is because their states do not require that their use of force be necessary. That’s disgusting.)

We must also change training to emphasize defusing violence before it starts:

The key for the police in such circumstances is to slow things down: to ask questions rather than bark orders, to speak in a normal tone, to summon additional resources if necessary. Pulling out a gun on an anxious person may unintentionally raise his level of stress. In “suicide by cop” confrontations, this can make a bad situation worse.

Finally, we have to change the norms and cultures of law enforcement in the United States, specifically the sense that police departments give their officers that they are besieged by the public and must form a “blue wall of silence.” Law enforcement officers have strong professional norms against whistle-blowing and go further, even covering up each others’ misdeeds. This has become a professional norm of non-judgment of the behavior of officers when they are criticized by outsiders.

This is organized corruption at the national level. The more professional police departments are complicit just because they fail to deplore the activity of their less professional fellow officers. Police departments must respond to criticism by changing their collective attitude to each other and their jobs; they must change their culture. Right now, officers respond to criticism by saying or thinking that “Civilians can’t understand split second decisions.” This is that defensive move. They must become pro-active and use their own professionalism publicly. They must look at videos like the ones that show Alton Sterling being shot, and join in the criticism of those acts. They must say: “Officer, your job is to make split second decisions well and you have failed.”

Remember this article? “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.

This is what complicity looks like. Officer Sunil Dutta literally claims that calling him a “racist pig” is an excuse for him to use force; Sunil Dutta isn’t white, and that’s the only reason he will say this publicly. Yet he shares this position with many racist white officers, and thus provides them cover.

Police shootings must become not just a national embarrassment among liberals like me; they must be a professional embarrassment for everyone in law enforcement. Police officers should feel personally responsible to make #notallcops true; they should feel on the hook for proving the claim that “these abuses are outliers.” They must come to think that their honor is at stake, and that each and every shooting causes them dishonor.

So the norms of the law enforcement profession must change, and police themselves are unwilling to change them. Thus it falls to us, as citizens, to demand professionalism on our terms. We do pay their salary, and we are accountable for what our employees have done.

That means treating de-escalation and stricter rules of engagement as professional norms, and refusing to defer to law enforcement’s own norms of professionalism. We must conclude that unprofessional departments require civilian oversight, if even the professional departments need it. We must demand that our police departments begin building these new norms into officer training. We must demand that police departments replace the culture of the blue wall of silence with collective professional honor and shame.

The old saying, “Who watches the watchmen?” has an answer: democratic citizens watch. But we must stop merely watching, and act. We must work together to police the police.