Newmedia on Fri, 2 Mar 2012 00:51:55 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Political-Economy and Desire

In preparation for some work on the impact of digital technology on  
"political-economy," I have been re-reading Mandeville, Smith, Maltham, RIccardo  
and others (including various commentators like Marx) to try to sort out 
what  *assumptions* were made about humans in the "beginning" of this  inquiry.
As many know, the overwhelming issue they were dealing back then with was  
"passion" and, in various ways, how to relate an economy which was driven by 
 passion with earlier notions of "morality."
(Btw, the notion that human economic activity is somehow "rational" was not 
 prominent among their assumptions and, from what I can tell, didn't 
actually  take hold in economics until it was proposed by those like Herb Simon in 
the  1960s, who, arguably, were really promoting artificial intelligence 
and had to  somehow fit computers without "desires" into their schema.)
Perhaps most famously, Bernard de Mandeville's 1705 "The Grumbling Hive: or 
 Knaves turn'd Honest" and his 1714 "The Fable of the Bees: or, Private 
Vices,  Publick Benefit" lays out an early version for what today we might call 
the  "commodification of desire."
The 300 year-long result of the changes chronicled by the early  
political-economists was global Industrialism (aka Capitalism?) and an  apparently 
endless parade of large-scale production/consumption -- which, while  certainly 
relying on a stream of technologies, was also fundamentally based  on a 
"revolution" in "moral sentiments."
Yes, it is important that this result has greatly increased the world's  
population, life-expectancy and overall living standards -- including in 
places  that industrialized but would not typically be called "capitalist."
What I'm wondering is if any contemporary "political-economists" have  
re-appraised the topic of desire and asked the question if one ever gets to the  
situation where "enough is enough"?  
Is there a "limit" to desire?  If so, then what are the  political-economic 
implications of changing that assumption about economic  behavior?
And, have any come to the conclusion that *yes* some have already  passed 
that point in a meaningful way -- so that they are now living in a  
"post-desire" economy?
The assumption most in the public sphere seem to make is that endless  
economic "growth" should be expected since the economy is endlessly driven by  
insatiable desires.  Or, alternately, if economic growth isn't possible  
(even taking into account population growth), then we still need to satisfy  
those expanding desires some other way -- typically by "redistributing"  what 
we already have.  
But is that a reasonable starting assumption -- specifically regarding  
endless growth in *desire* driving economic growth?
Clearly, "pre-capitalist" society didn't work that way.  Are the usual  
explanations (lack of technology, scarcity, etc.) -- particularly when 
presented  by those who *assume* endless growth in desire -- credible?
Indeed, why should "post-capitalist" society work that way?
A related question: what happens to consumption (and growth) when an  
economy shifts from material goods to services (as some economies  did when the 
term "post-industrial" was coined in the 1950s)?   Moreover, what happens 
when an economy shifts to "information" (as some  economies did when it became 
commonplace to refer to living in the "information  age")?
Do "people" ever have enough stuff?  And, is that the same question as  can 
"people" ever have enough love?  Enough sex?  Enough  excitement?  Enough 
attention?  Enough information?
Most importantly -- do assumptions about "human nature" originally made in  
the 17th/18th century still apply today?

Mark Stahlman
Brooklyn NY

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