From need to efficiency

In the Idea of History, R.C. Collingwood wrote: “so far as man’s conduct is determined by what may be called his animal nature, his impulses and appetites, it is non-historical; the process of those activities is a natural process. Thus, the historian is not interested in the fact that men eat and sleep and make love and thus satisfy their natural appetites; but he is interested in the social customs which they create by their thought as a framework within which these appetites find satisfaction in ways sanctioned by convention and morality.”

Christopher Berry, in his book, The Idea of Luxury, quotes Collingwood in order to set up a contrast with Marx, who, Berry contends, is generally given credit for ‘historicizing’ needs and satisfactions. For Berry, what needs to be understood, before one makes the contrast work, is the distinction between basic and instrumental needs. The need to eat, for instance, might make a man go forth from his house in search of food, but if the man lives in a small town in Iowa in 2010, he will undoubtedly use his car and go to a grocery store or a restaurant, in the process putting himself in contact with the entire global system of, for instance, the supply of petroleum. The latter may be merely instrumental to the former basic need – but the instrument can be so necessary that the basic need will be unmet if the instrumental need is unsatisfied. Every earthquake shows that what is fundamental and what is secondary can be overthrown and reversed in the wink of an eye.

For Marx’s views on the subject, Berry quotes the classical passages in the German Ideology. Marx, who knew dialectics like a great gambler knows cards, certainly saw the abstract antithesis between need and satisfaction, and the thousand social resolutions that this antithesis set in play. Yet Marx set his face against philosophical histories that shuffled around categories as if there were no circumstances. Collingwood, following the classical bourgeois code, dissolved circumstances into ‘thought” – the thought that creates social customs; whereas Marx traced circumstances into thought, and in so doing opened the ‘basic’ needs to history.

To be open to history, for Marx, meant to be function in some mode of production.
Within neo-classical economic theory, the needs have been submerged in a vocabulary of efficiency – but of course need and satisfaction linger, here, just below the surface. Philip Mirowski has described the marriage of political economics and models derived from nineteenth century physics, which was both an attempt to make economic scientific and a way of translating what Mirowski calls folk psychological concepts, and Marx would call ideological ones, into terms that seem mathematically sound and unquestionable. Efficiency, seen as the correspondents in human society to the notion of “least action” in physics, has served the purpose of displacing the utopian opening that emerges when economics is put in contact with the discourse of needs, even if that utopian opening remains on the level of “unscientific socialism”, since it is evident that the economic system under which we labor, capitalism, has produced a class of owners whose needs are met with such overwhelming means, and a class of laborers whose needs are met with such parsimony and lack, that one wonders how it could possibly be a just system.

Thus, it is a rather shrewd turn to move the conversation to the question of efficiency. Efficiency has a value neutral sound. Moreover, its measurement and definition remain in the hands of a priesthood. So much so that it is sometimes hard to unstick oneself from the ideological determination of efficiency and ask questions about the efficiency of the system as a whole. For how could one ever say that a principle of least action is obeyed in a system in which the satisfaction of the need to eat depends on, among other things, the return on investment for the petroleum company extracting oil from a Nigerian swamp? Instead of promoting a least action principle in shortening the number of action steps between need and satisfaction, Capital tends to do just the opposite, multiplying to an almost miraculous extent the degrees between need and satisfaction.