The Capitalist Myth of Scarcity

Is the gilded age idea that “commerce leads to prosperity” holding up in our modern world?

Leftist economic systems are rooted in the idea that workers should share ownership of the means of production and that humanity should strive to live in a state of material equality. One of the central arguments levied against such leftist economics is the idea that they are utopian and unrealistic. “Human beings are inherently greedy,” say reactionaries, “and there are simply not enough resources for everyone to live in such a state of equality and comfort.”

In this blog we have already discussed the concept of human nature, and explained how humans are inherently altruistic in nature, and how capitalism throws humanity into an unnatural state of greed and competition which is detrimental to society.

So let’s turn now to the second point, that vital resources are too scarce for humans to live equally. According to this perspective, there simply is not “enough to go around.” We don’t have enough nutritious food for every mouth to be properly fed, we don’t have enough safe and comfortable housing for every person to be sheltered, we don’t have enough material for everyone to be comfortably clothed, etc., etc., etc.

Capitalism throws humanity into an unnatural state of greed and competition which is detrimental to society.

Capitalists have even claimed that thrusting humanity into competition with one another over resources will somehow eliminate poverty!

“Capitalism emerged from all these moral arguments as a successful, self-perpetuating system that people generally seem to agree is humanity’s best shot at one day beating scarcity and poverty,” claims Michael Maiello in his Forbes article. Maeillo’s argument falls on the same old neoliberal line of thinking that competition will lead to excellence so long as it’s fairly regulated.

Such thinking stretches back in time far enough that Marx himself refuted it in the Communist Manifesto. He referred to such liberal pro-capitalists as “Bourgeois Socialists:”

They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois Socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. . . [R]eforms, therefore, that in no respect affect the relations between capital and labour, but, at the best, lessen the cost, and simplify the administrative work, of bourgeois government. Bourgeois Socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech.

Free trade: for the benefit of the working class. Protective duties: for the benefit of the working class. Prison Reform: for the benefit of the working class. This is the last word and the only seriously meant word of bourgeois socialism.

It is summed up in the phrase: the bourgeois is a bourgeois — for the benefit of the working class.”

“It’s for your own good!”

In other words, Marx pointed out that it’s the reactionary notion that capitalism can somehow benefit the working class which it actively oppresses which is unrealistically Utopian. Such concepts serve only the bourgeoisie — that is to say, the wealthy capitalist class — by aiming to fool workers into believing that capitalism can be regulated and restrained into benevolence.

Even more devious is the capitalist myth that for the needy to be supplied with shelter and clothes and food, others will have to make great sacrifices. In other words, those who buy into the notion of capitalism will often claim something along the lines of:

“I work hard. I don’t want to give up my hard-earned money so some lazy bum can get free housing.”

The reason these hopeless ideas about scarcity have so much traction in the world is that, for thousands of years, it was very much true.

In the mind of a reactionary capitalist (and those workers who’ve been bamboozled into believing capitalist propaganda), life on this earth is a zero-sum game, where in order for some to win others will necessarily have to lose.

This world view is held not just by right-wingers. Even the most compassionate liberals will sadly throw up their arms and cry:

“I wish we could help every person who is starving or homeless, but it’s just not realistic. We just have to try to do the best we can for people in need, but it’s unrealistic to think we can ever truly solve all of the suffering of the world.”

It’s a myth that is so deeply embedded into the collective consciousness of the Western world, so baked into our culture, that it’s taken completely for granted almost universally. It’s the primary excuse given for why we have vast tent cities in great cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where homeless people scrape for a meager living on the very doorsteps of wealthy tech giants and financial behemoths.

The feudal era was a period of struggle over the scarce resources of the land.

The reason these hopeless ideas about scarcity have so much traction in the world is that, for thousands of years, it was very much true. The feudal era was nothing if not a period of struggle over the scarce resources of the land. Lords and kings fought wars to control this land because food production was the most vital industry in that time and the amount of physical labor required to render one’s daily bread from the earth was enormous in comparison to the relative ease of mechanized agriculture that would later be developed hand-in-hand along with capitalism and industry.

Going hungry was a very real threat in this era, when pestilence and famine and ill weather were constantly looming threats which could cause immense suffering and death within the relatively fragile communities of the pre-industrialized feudal era. So it would seem logical to continue on in fear of scarcity while finding it difficult to believe that there could ever be enough to go around.

As every sector of industry and agriculture is becoming increasingly automated, shouldn’t the average worker’s quality of life be increasing?

But this fear ignores the incredible advances of the industrial revolution and 300 years of agricultural development! It’s a belief that flies in the face of the plain facts that modern technology could allow for every human to be housed and sheltered and fed. We cling to ancient fears of scarcity the way a child clings to the primordial fear of evil spirits in the dark.

And yet our entire society and all the powerful institutions of modern liberal democracy are built upon this outmoded superstition: that in order for some to have, others must go without.

This was evident over a hundred years ago, when Pyotr Kropotkin wrote The Conquest of Bread. In this seminal piece of anarcho-communist literature, Kropotkin explained how even at the turn of the last century technology had introduced tremendous surplus and bounty to the developed world:

On the wide prairies of America each hundred men, with the aid of powerful machinery, can produce in a few months enough wheat to maintain ten thousand people for a whole year. And where man wishes to double his produce, to treble it, to multiply it a hundred-fold, he makes the soil, gives to each plant the requisite care, and thus obtains enormous returns. While the hunter of old had to scour fifty or sixty square miles to find food for his family, the civilized man supports his household, with far less pains, and far more certainty, on a thousandth part of that space. Climate is no longer an obstacle. . . The prodigies accomplished in industry are still more striking. With the co-operation of those intelligent beings, modern machines — themselves the fruit of three or four generations of inventors, mostly unknown — a hundred men manufacture now the stuff to clothe ten thousand persons for a period of two years. In well-managed coal mines the labour of a hundred miners furnishes each year enough fuel to warm ten thousand families under an inclement sky.”

Keep in mind that this book was written in 1909! Think of all the incredible advancements we’ve made in agriculture and industry in the decades since Kropotkin wrote those words!

Here are some more dismal and contemporary facts to consider:

  • Modern farm subsidies are such that farmers very often destroy crops of food, or are even paid to grow no crops at all. According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2007 and 2011 the United States government paid more than 3 million dollars in subsidies to 2,300 farms where no crop of any sort was grown.
  • Real estate speculators now often build empty houses and apartments simply to warehouse their wealth. Empty homes outnumber the homeless 6 to 1.
  • Corporations have been increasingly turning to “fast fashion,” producing cheap and poorly made garments to increase consumption turnaround, drive down production costs, and ultimately increase profits. This is leading to environmental crises as more artificial clothing waste is generated. In addition, poor people in the US are literally being reduced to wearing tattered rags as these cheap garments aren’t holding up over time. Ultimately these tattered remnants are dumped into Africa and other developing nations where they are worn by people in extreme poverty, which also disrupts local domestic garment production.

“Clothing Poverty” is reducing the poorest people on Earth to dress in the tattered remnants of the “fast fashion” items of the developed world.

And so we have this world where food is destroyed or not grown at all while people go hungry. We have this world where the homeless gather without shelter in the shadows of empty apartment buildings. We have this world where clothing is made cheaply and the poor dress in rags despite incredible advances in textile and garment manufacturing industries.

These problems are exacerbated further by the fact that factories and farms and other production facilities are so often shuttered simply because they “can’t turn a profit.” As Kropotkin elaborates:

Today the soil, which actually owes its value to the needs of an ever-increasing population, belongs to a minority who prevent the people from cultivating it. . . the mines also belong to the few; and these few restrict the output of coal, or prevent it entirely, if they find more profitable investments for their capital. Machinery, too, has become the exclusive property of the few. . . And if the descendants of the very inventor who constructed the first machine for lace-making, a century ago, were to present themselves to-day in a lace factory at Bâle or Nottingham, and demand their rights, they would be told: ‘Hands off! this machine is not yours,’ and they would be shot down if they attempted to take possession of it.”

The magnitude of artificially generated scarcity is far greater on a global scale, when one considers the ways that rich capitalist nations push down poorer countries to benefit their profit margins. It’s all deviously interconnected: working people in rich nations are shoved down just as foreign populations are subjugated in one self-perpetuating cycle. Whenever industry is outsourced, the suffering thus caused is used to turn a profit, as Kropotkin explains:

Hundreds of blast-furnaces, thousands of factories periodically stand idle, others only work half-time — and in every civilized nation there is a permanent population of about two million individuals who ask only for work, but to whom work is denied. How gladly would these millions of men set to work to reclaim waste lands, or to transform ill-cultivated land into fertile fields, rich in harvests! A year of well-directed toil would suffice to multiply fivefold the produce of dry lands in the south of France which now yield only about eight bushels of wheat per acre. But these men, who would be happy to become hardy pioneers in so many branches of wealth-producing activity, must stay their hands because the owners of the soil, the mines, and the factories prefer to invest their capital — stolen in the first place from the community — in Turkish or Egyptian bonds, or in Patagonian gold mines, and so make Egyptian fellahs, Italian exiles, and Chinese coolies their wage-slaves.”

Capitalists need society to buy into the myth of capitalism so that they can maintain their vast wealth and sweeping power over this world.

Through capitalist processes such as this, and through war, and through countless other imperialist mechanisms, the developed world keeps its own working people unstable and unprosperous even as it turns the developing world into a massive sweatshop.

Why, then, does the myth persist? Why would the vast majority of modern society maintain a myth when it is so harmful to so many people in need?

The answer is as simple as it is depressing: capitalists need society to buy into the myth of capitalism so that they can maintain their vast wealth and sweeping power over this world.

Examine how a capitalist institution functions. There is a reason these institutions are called “for-profit” entities. A capitalist business exists for one reason and one reason alone: to generate profits for its shareholders. In order to continue generating profits, such a business must continue to expand, swallowing up more and more market share and seeking out new ways to capitalize on society. “If we’re not growing,” says the capitalist, “we’re dying.”

Such institutions have everything to gain from the myth of scarcity. The most fundamental law of capitalist economics is the law of “supply and demand.” A scarce supply will allow a corporation to drive up prices, and therefore profits, and so it will always be in the interest of a for-profit institution to promote the lie of scarcity.

“It’s scarce… but it’s good!”

I am a marketing professional. I have spent fifteen years peddling the notion of scarcity. “While supplies last” and “for a limited time” and “act now!” are some of the most basic watchwords of corporate advertising. Of course capitalists want society to believe that there isn’t enough to go around. Of course capitalists want consumers to believe that what they hold, whatever that might be, is immensely rare and special and therefore valuable.

Look at the way cars and consumer products have dropped in durability and quality over the decades. Today almost everything we purchase was conceived with “planned obsolescence” in mind, and some companies, like Apple, have been caught intentionally slowing down and degrading slightly older products to spur consumers into buying new products that aren’t really needed.

As capitalism has evolved it has become astoundingly capable of wrenching more profits out of less value. In advanced, later-stage capitalist societies such as the United States of America it has become necessary for many large corporations to turn to rent-seeking to continue increasing profits as traditional markets have become completely monopolized by a handful of corporate behemoths.

The mission of these corporations is to increase revenues and to cut costs — to drive up profits — nothing more, and nothing less!

Consider: Amazon, which is one of the richest corporations on the planet. They still manage to coerce municipal governments into giving them heavy subsidies and benefits wherever they dain to build an office or a distribution center. When a company like Amazon commands such an enormous market share that they are practically ubiquitous, of course they’ll turn to rent-seeking from public coffers to turn a higher profit. Such behavior is only a matter of course! As unsavory as it may be, Amazon is only carrying out the essential and most basic mission of a for-profit institution — to seek profit!

Consider: Monsanto, which has grown so ubiquitous in agriculture that they can no longer expand through traditional means of simply selling more seeds and more chemicals. Instead, they’ve had to turn to filing patents on genetically engineered seeds and chemicals and aggressively suing any farmer who stands in the way of their market dominance. They have to turn to lobbying congress to provide ever more subsidies and benefits for enormous multi-billion dollar corporations. This capitalistic initiatives inevitably pump up the profits for Monsanto even as they drive up the cost of food for consumers and drive down the income of small farms and agricultural laborers. Of course they do! This is what capitalist institutions must always do!

Consider: any American manufacturer, which must inevitably cease production in the US and export production to some poor developing country to drive down costs and increase profits. Can these capitalists be blamed for carrying out their one and only mission in this world? The mission of Nike or Ford or McDonald’s is not to increase the quality of life for workers or to take ethics and morals into consideration. The mission of these corporations is to increase revenues and to cut costs — to drive up profits — nothing more, and nothing less!

And so, at every turn, corporations and their wealthy owners will strive to maintain the myth of scarcity in society. Pharmaceutical companies will use scarcity as an excuse to drive up costs for medicine, real estate speculators and investors will use scarcity as an excuse to keep the homeless on the streets, and factory farms will use scarcity to drive up food costs and limit supply.

“Communist Youth, to tractors! Into the shock troops of the spring harvest!”

All of this discussion so far is just about the bounties we have right here, right now. Imagine the progress that will be made in the very near future! As robotic automation and “smart systems” continue to improve the ease of production will increase exponentially. This should lead to even more material equality, but instead it will only lead to more rent-seeking and more profit plundering, so that even more wealth is siphoned up from the working and consuming class in order to give the wealthy capital owners even more luxury and wealth and power over society. This same cycle will continue for as long as we enshrine capitalism and buy into its myth of scarcity.

We, the working people of the world, must do away with this vicious belief that we must push down the many to lift up the few. We must take ownership of the great potential of our technology and innovation for ourselves. Only by abandoning capitalism can we have any hope to clothe and shelter and feed the masses.

Imagine a world in which the genius and innovation of humanity is harnessed for the many, not the few. Conceive of a world in which hunger and poverty are eliminated and every human being is given a chance to live in comfort and to fully enjoy the fruits of human labor. Once we are able to abandon the capitalist myth of scarcity, it becomes obvious: this future is eminently achievable!

Let us abandon the cynical and ruthlessly self-serving lies of capitalism and acknowledge the great achievements of human agriculture and industry so that every one of us can live with the dignity, comfort, and luxury we each deserve.

All is for all! If the man and the woman bear their fair share of work, they have a right to their fair share of all that is produced by all, and that share is enough to secure them well-being. No more of such vague formulas as “The Right to work,” or “To each the whole result of his labour.”

What we proclaim is THE RIGHT TO WELL-BEING: WELL-BEING FOR ALL!

-Pyotr Kropotkin, the Conquest of Bread

4 Responses to “The Capitalist Myth of Scarcity

  • Good article and very well written. In terms of basic resources like food there is plenty. There is scare resources of things like computers and cars for example. So the question is how to distribute these resources? What are your thoughts on this?

    • Emerican Johnson
      10 months ago

      Great question, Matt. Things like computers and cars and concert tickets and scientific equipment are unquestionably more scarce than staples like food and shelter.

      Kropotkin touched on this question many times in the Bread book. For some situations he suggested rationing. For other things, like telescopes and grand pianos, he suggested building societies where people would use their spare time to help each other build the things they wanted to own. Remember that in an anarcho-communist society it’s assumed that every worker will have far more free time. Kropotkin estimated a work week of about 20 hours spent doing “necessary labor” such as growing food, building shelters, making clothes, etc. That was in 1909 — with today’s automation and other technologies I have no doubt the “necessary labor work week” could be dropped far lower and we’d have a great deal of free time to create the things we want to own.

      It would take some experimentation, to be sure. We’ve never had an anarcho-communist society so we would admittedly have to work some things out through trial and error. But I think it’s very much something we could work out.

      I often think about my love for motorcycles. How could I own a motorbike in an anarcho-communist society? There are a few possibilities. Maybe I’d join a motorcyclist club where members come together to literally build our own motorbikes. But say I live in a place where there’s not much in the way of raw materials — steel, for instance. Well, maybe some communes specialize in making motorbikes in their spare time and “trade” the bikes to other communes that are producing other “luxury goods” like guitars or massages or something. We could thus build collectives of mutually contracted societies that share the output of our “luxury societies.” Kropotkin goes into the utility of contracts and mutual aid a great deal in the Bread Book so I strongly suggest you give it a read if you want a more in-depth answer. I’ll also try to cover this more in blogs and videos to come!

      Here are some excerpts from Kroptoking:

      On Rations:
      “But if water were actually scarce, what would be done? Recourse would be had to a system of rations. Such a measure is so natural, so inherent in common sense, that Paris twice asked to be put on rations during the two sieges which it underwent in 1871. Is it necessary to go into details, to prepare tables showing how the distribution of rations may work, to prove that it is just and equitable, infinitely more just and equitable than the existing state of things? All these tables and details will not serve to convince those of the middle classes, nor, alas, those of the workers tainted with middle-class prejudices, who regard the people as a mob of savages ready to fall upon and devour each other, directly the Government ceases to direct affairs. But those only who have never seen the people resolve and act on their own initiative could doubt for a moment that if the masses were masters of the situation, they would distribute rations to each and all in strictest accordance with justice and equity.”

      On Building Telescopes:
      “But we expect more from the Revolution. We see that the worker compelled to struggle painfully for bare existence, is reduced to ignorance of these higher delights, the highest within man’s reach, of science, and especially of scientific discovery; of art, and especially of artistic creation. It is in order to obtain these joys for all, which are now reserved to a few; in order to give leisure and the possibility of developing intellectual capacities, that the social revolution must guarantee daily bread to all. After bread has been secured, leisure is the supreme aim.

      “No doubt, nowadays, when hundreds and thousands of human beings are in need of bread, coal, clothing, and shelter, luxury is a crime; to satisfy it the worker’s child must go without bread! But in a society in which all can eat sufficiently the needs which we consider luxuries to-day will be the more keenly felt. And as all men do not and cannot resemble one another (the variety of tastes and needs is the chief guarantee of human progress) there will always be, and it is desirable that there should always be, men and women whose desire will go beyond those of ordinary individuals in some particular direction.

      “Everybody does not need a telescope, because, even if learning were general, there are people who prefer examining things through a microscope to studying the starry heavens. Some like statues, some pictures. A particular individual has no other ambition than to possess an excellent piano, while another is pleased with an accordion. The tastes vary, but the artistic needs exist in all. In our present, poor capitalistic society, the man who has artistic needs cannot satisfy them unless he is heir to a large fortune, or by dint of hard work appropriates to himself an intellectual capital which will enable him to take up a liberal profession. Still he cherishes the hope of some day satisfying his tastes more or less, and for this reason he reproaches the idealist Communist societies with having the material life of each individual as their sole aim. — “In your communal stores you may perhaps have bread for all,” he says to us, “but you will not have beautiful pictures, optical instruments, luxurious furniture, artistic jewelry — in short, the many things that minister to the infinite variety of human tastes. And in this way you suppress the possibility of obtaining anything besides the bread and meat which the commune can offer to all, and the grey linen in which all your lady citizens will be dressed.”

      “These are the objections which all communist systems have to consider, and which the founders of new societies, established in American deserts, never understood. They believed that if the community could procure sufficient cloth to dress all its members, a music hall in which the “brothers” could strum a piece of music, or act a play from time to time, it was enough. They forgot that the feeling for art existed in the agriculturist as well as in the burgher, and, notwithstanding that the expression of artistic feeling varies according to the difference in culture, in the main it remains the same. In vain did the community guarantee the common necessaries of life, in vain did it suppress all education that would tend to develop individuality, in vain did it eliminate all reading save the Bible. Individual tastes broke forth, and caused general discontent; quarrels arose when somebody proposed to buy a piano or scientific instruments; and the elements of progress flagged. The society could only exist on condition that it crushed all individual feeling, all artistic tendency, and all development.

      “Will the anarchist Commune be impelled by the same direction? Evidently not, if it understands that while it produces all that is necessary to material life, it must also strive to satisfy all manifestations of the human mind.”

      • Thank you for the good answer. Think that fulfillment of individual cultural and intellectual needs should be the goal of a communist society after it has been established and basic needs are given to all.

        Tristram Hunt wrote about Engels: “This great lover of the good life, passionate advocate of individuality, and enthusiastic believer in literature, culture, art and music as an open forum could never have acceded to the Soviet Communism of the 20th century, all the Stalinist claims of his paternity notwithstanding”

        Source:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Engels#Personality

        Communism is often described as the collective over the individual(mainly by right libertarians) but individual liberty and collective cooperation would be combined in a communist society. Allowing people to fulfill their individual needs through working with other people. This in my opinion would be one of the best aspects of communist society and not something too Utopian to achieve

        • Emerican Johnson
          10 months ago

          Really great points and I couldn’t agree with you more. I came to Communism as a former rightwing libertarian and I still believe individual liberty to be paramount to enjoyment and happiness in this life. I don’t see why we can’t have a collective and supportive society that also nurtures the individual and allows for complete freedom of expression and individualistic development!

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