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3.2 Theoretical Limits in Economics

Neoclassical economics believes it possible to find objective laws allowing calculations, taking as a fundamental parameter the relative scarcity of the resources apt to satisfy needs and desires. This thought seems rather reasonable when the economy concerns hunger, thirst, the basic need for clothes and housing, and so on. However, it should be noted that the assessment of what is “strictly necessary”, while rooted in natural needs, varies greatly according to cultural criteria: it depends not only on the possibility for physical survival, but also on the way in which a way of life or a culture conceives of “normal” human existence—possibly articulated into different forms of “normality” relative to different classes, castes or orders. Anyway, this theory does not work when an activity, whether “necessary” or not, is performed with pleasure: in this case, it will probably be performed for the pleasure that lies beyond the strict satisfaction of a need, and this pleasure will produce a renewed desire. Many traditional activities, like hunting, fishing, agriculture, gardening, and crafting are often experienced both as necessary and as at least partially interesting—sometimes as enjoyable or even exciting. One could say that the reason is that they imply a “symbolic” and social meaning. But is there a human activity that is not “symbolic” and has no social meanings? The answer is: no. Even the most “necessary” and hard work suggests and indicates a network of human relations between people, groups and classes, or with nature. Indeed, when theory tries to distinguish the “symbolic” from the “necessary”, it resorts to the use of the word “symbol” to suggest the existence of a surplus. It is a tacit assumption of modern economic thought that suggests this metaphysical distinction. In turn, modern economic thought is strongly indebted to the modern metaphysical assumption of the existence of “objective” and necessary physical laws ruling human behaviour. Indeed, life is not “symbolic” (in this sense) but... real in all its relations and meanings, which always exceed the immediately “tangible” and “objective” individual things.

The skilful and successful exercise of an activity gives pleasure, and this pleasure reverberates on life itself. Life is all the more enjoyable, as Aristotle noted in the Nicomachean Ethics,[1] when the exercise of its activities is an “end to itself”. Some types of workers—craftsmen, for example, and especially artists— know it very well. Neoclassical economics does not know how to cope with these types of “needs” and desires, whether experienced within a profession or not, in the general equilibrium theory if not by employing the same term that is used for drugs: addiction (See Candela & Scorcu (2004, p. 42); Zorloni (2013, p. 121 ff). See also, with explicit reference to drugs, Becker & Murphy (1988)). This approach implicitly presupposes a therapeutic, negative interpretation of desire: it is something painful or potentially dangerous, something in excess that should be removed by consuming a good that will eliminate it. The need for culture is interpreted as a perversion of desire.

A same concept is used to explain any “consumption” of art and culture. It should be noted that this gap in the theory is a serious one: nothing less than the entire field of education belongs to the domain of culture. Plato gave the name of paideia to the process of growth of culture, and he called Eros the right desire that triggers this process. In the modern age the acknowledgement of these type of “needs” has taken the form of political and juridical “rights” to education and culture, to compensate for their disavowal on the part of economics. Of course, I agree with the need to implement these rights. However, even the concept of “rights”, in this context, shows just how reductive the approach to the issue actually is. A right to something is claimed when its value is denied by a dominant cultural system. The rights to culture claimed do not testify to any direct acknowledgement of the pleasure entailed by many practices, craft activities, and arts. Instead, they reveal a “negative” acknowledgement of the social discrimination faced by those who do not have access to culture and education.

This social circumstance has already been noted by several authors, from Veblen (1953[1899]) to Adorno (1998[1947]), to Bourdieu (1979). In La distinction. Critique social du gou^t the latter resorts to the concepts of “social capital”, “cultural capital” and “symbolic capital” in order to analyse how culture and art can provide a location of power within the society. He captures a feature of European societies since the eighteenth century, when the economic bourgeoisie first used art and culture to legitimize itself as the ruling class. The entrepreneur, the trader or the professional enjoys the artistic “aura” and its “distinction” by participating in an “event” or buying a work of contemporary art at a dizzying price. The same is true today. In turn, cultural professionals (“intellectuals”) and artists—if socially acknowledged—continue to enjoy the same privileges of the bourgeoisie. This is all quite true. I wish to note, however, that this analysis remains bound to a modern utilitarian prejudice. The fundamental heuristic use of the word “capital” betrays a conviction that human practices are essentially aimed—whether consciously or not—towards the attainment of positions of power. There is some truth to this. But the truth does not concern so much “power”, as the fact that no one likes to be alone and everyone wants to be well received. And so, this is not the whole truth. While it is easy to understand how the “consumption” of art can conceal an interest in social distinction on the part of occasional, passive or superficial users, to what extent does this interpretation fit the actions of those who are deeply engaged in culture and art? It suggests the reduction of artistic or cultural practices to the incomplete and fundamentally false representation of an interest, in a game of positioning within force lines governed by a power system. It is like saying that anyone who studies, or practices an art, does so as an effort, with the purpose of making up for this effort, and even attaining a surplus, through her/his future social position. What we have here is the modern utilitarian horizon of “do ut des”, although not in the sense of monetary exchanges. This interpretation conceals a movement which, although it does not appear on the glamorous surface of the media and of economic success, constitutes the vast field in which culture and art (even professionally practiced) find their vital root: the constant cultivation, by a lot of average people, of given practices throughout their lives, even when it is clear that they will gain neither social benefits from this, nor everlasting fame for

themselves or their descendants.[2] Imagine giving a teenager an electric guitar and letting her/him listen to Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin, or giving her/him a trumpet and letting him listen to Miles Davis. Probably, she/he will not become an obsessive compulsive, omnivorous consumer (See Peterson & Rossman, 2007), but will try to imitate Hendrix or McLaughlin or Davis, to intuit and draw upon a little of their poetry. In order to do so, that instrument will be enough for the teenager throughout her/his life. At most, this young person might become curious of other instruments and spend a bit of money, but not too much: she/he might buy some used ones on eBay. She/he will try to get a computer to listen to streamed music or download it from sites such as YouTube or Deezer, and avoid buying CDs. If she/he will not be able to earn a living as a musician, she/he will practice music for her/his own pleasure, whenever she/he can, will meet others with the same passion, and build with them relationships in certain types of community.

Neither neoclassical economics nor most sociological approaches have the

theoretical tools to understand the nature of those processes where the satisfaction of a desire, rather than consuming energies, increases them in proportion to their use and exercise. However this is exactly the idea behind ancient paideia and the desire mentioned by Plato in the Symposium. It is a desire that increases in proportion to its satisfaction. And this kind of desire is still acting upon us all. There is yet another ancient Greek word in the Western tradition: “energy”. Energheia is the word that Aristotle uses to indicate a practice that is “end in itself” and which increases through its exercise. The idea still lives on through free artistic and cultural practices, although it is has been stripped of its ancient “aura”.

  • [1] See above, note 2.
  • [2] However, see Bourdieu (1994: chapter 5)
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