The Conquest of Scarcity

IN 1892, the first of three major books by the social anarchist Peter Kropotkin appeared under the title of The Conquest of Bread. Kropotkin argued that the problem of scarcity, which loomed so large among economists of the conventional sort, was becoming an anachronism in view of the recent development of the forces of production.

The real hardship and desperation which he saw all around him were really the product of artificial social arrangements and misanthropic theories of human nature, which held that people had to be compelled to work. It made far more sense, Kropotkin argued, to guarantee each person “the right to well-being” and to elicit from these individuals, no longer at risk of sinking into poverty or homelessness, their creative powers that were now more freely given.

Kropotkin held that people were quite happy to do something useful for up to five hours a day after which productivity tended to decline in any case. Compulsion was necessary to keep people on the job for long hours, but it actually served little purpose other than the aggrandisement of the powerful and the grinding-down of the workers.

This was in many ways an early statement of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) idea and, for that matter, the theory of ‘bullshit jobs’.

Crucially, although UBI and every related notion is conventionally seen as ‘money for nothing’, Kropotkin contended that most of us already receive money for nothing in any case, given that our general standard of living owes more to the society and the age into which we have been born than our own personal efforts.

You could be a really hardworking peasant in the Middle Ages and yet still not advance very far in material terms, whereas today people were generally better off but in a really haphazard sort of a way that still left many people’s basic needs unaddressed.

Eero Järnefelt, Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood), public domain artwork reproduction via Wikimedia Commons/Google Art Project

There was a kind of general usufruct of modernity, in other words, that none of us really did anything to deserve and yet to which, by the same token, all were equally entitled. Yet not all received their entitlement.

In that sense, The Conquest of Bread was, also, an early expression of the idea of the ‘postcode lottery’ and of what’s since come to be dubbed ‘privilege’.

Society would advance considerably, Kropotkin argued, if only the idea that we were all entitled to the usufruct of modernity was acknowledged. And if the subsequent superstructure of the economy were built on top of this idea, rather than on the rotten foundations of atomistic individualism, scarcity, compulsion and fear of falling into hardship.

All that the latter view achieved was to breed misery, ‘busywork’ and crime: huge social costs which amounted, effectively, as a subsidy to a handful of plutocrats, who stole everyone else’s potential utopia.

If you really wanted to see who was getting ‘money for nothing’ in modern society, you shouldn’t look to the bottom of the pyramid but rather to the top.

Edwin Seligman, one of the founders of the American Economic Association and the son of a banker, contended that in spite of all political differences, Kropotkin gave the conventional economists a run for their money.

Another radical, who also gave conventional economists a run for their money, was Karl Marx. But he was more theoretical and verbose, more often praised than read (a bit like Adam Smith in that sense).

On the other hand, Kropotkin’s short and compelling books were widely read by the workers of the early 1900s. His straightforwardly-expressed notion that the interlinked ideas of scarcity and compulsion were out of date, artificial and dysfunctional in modern technological society had the ring of practical common sense.

Though not everyone agreed with Kropotkin’s revolutionary politics, his economic theories had a broad progressive appeal to anyone who thought that money, like muck, was best spread thin as fertiliser on society’s fields and not heaped up to fester.

You didn’t have to be an anarchist to grasp that metaphor: which actually predated the Industrial Revolution, Marx and Kropotkin by several centuries. But which was made more relevant by the unprecedented conquest of scarcity, which modern industrial technologies had lately wrought.

Decommodification. The usufruct of modernity, which is however easily concentrated by regressive mechanisms and instruments such as the land market and networks of supply that are easily kinked. Networks of access that are easily monopolised.

So pervasive in the real world market that the alternative is decommodification, of keeping the networks of supply as open as possible and just physically delivering the product.

In State Housing in New Zealand, published by the New Zealand Ministry of Works in 1949, the right to housing is treated as a human right:

Housing was to become a Public Utility, the right to live in a decent dwelling being regarded as on the same level as the right to education, sanitation, to good and abundant water, to an adequate road system and to a certain amount of medical care. Probably it would be true to say that this premise has now gained fairly wide acceptance. … In these days, physically speaking, the house is a kind of knot in a network … with larger and more complicated knots for shopping centres and other community facilities — all of which are necessary if people are to carry out easily the wide variety of activities that are our conception of civilized life.

This is also seen as the way to achieve optimum lowering of cost and economies of scale for all: something that is one of the key usufructs of modernity.

In effect, as the Swiss architect Le Corbusier wrote, a house was to become a “machine for living in,” subject to the scale economies of other machines. Housing was to be developed as a total package with state funding for land building and for infrastructures such as railways.

The land was only worth what the infrastructure made it, infrastructure that produced more value locally but also lowered property values again if more paths were put in elsewhere, just as with the pressure of water in a piping network or voltage in an electrical network. The city itself was a meta-machine, capable of being represented by a London Underground-type diagram with dials on each location showing the degree of ‘pressure’ on the land, pressure that could be manipulated. Such was the reality of urban modernism, which went well beyond the architectural level.

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Chris Harris

Chris Harris


I am an urban historian from New Zealand with a special interest in New World cities. Somewhere along the line I picked up a PhD on planning and economics.