June 3, 2007

Bataille with Keynes

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Self indulgence — duncan @ 5:56 pm

So I’ve been reading Bataille’s ‘The Accursed Share’, his long-contemplated work of ‘political economy’. (Only the first volume. Volumes two and three peer at me, with unblinking pineal eyes, from library bookshelves. I’ve a feeling they’re going to get postponed for quite some time.) It is, of course, fabulous. This is mostly just because it’s an account of economic exchange that takes its bearings from Maus, rather than Adam Smith. In my wilder moments, I dream of an entire alternative economics, thrusting aside both Marxism and neo-liberalism, growing upward towards the light of actual human behaviour, all rooted in the thick, rich, tawny soil of Maus’s essay on the gift. ‘The Accursed Share’ shows us the way.

(Perhaps worth saying here, to get my cards on the table: it strikes me that nothing has done as much harm to radical economic thought as Marxism. Marx acts as a great centre of gravity, pulling would-be alternative economists into his orbit. But Marx was wrong about so much; as economics, his thought is mostly bunk. I say this in massive, albeit not complete, ignorance of the multitudinous and sophisticated tradition of Marxist theory. I say it in substantial ignorance of Marx himself. Throw the thoughts down, get them out there, revise if necessary, reject if necessary. Debate, discord, progress. This is not supposed to be any kind of measured judgement. (And we’re saying nothing, here, of the historical catastrophes of actually existing communism.))

But I’ve also been reading Keynes’s ‘General Theory’. Bataille only mentions Keynes once – in the Preface, where he’s defending his decision not to get lost in the maze of detailed economic theorising. “I preferred to give, in general, the reasons that account for the mystery of Keynes’s bottles, tracing the exhausting detours of exuberance through eating, death and sexual reproduction.”

The reference is, of course, to Keynes’s immortal remedy for unemployment. Here it is, on page 129 of my edition of the General Theory. “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.”

Let’s all stop for a moment to applaud Keynes. (Let’s admire in particular the way he offers his bottle/coalmine proposal as a compromise with those who don’t support government expenditure on housing.) The point is that this idea of useless expenditure, which paradoxically serves to generate wealth, is at the heart of Bataille’s work. That’s partly because it’s at the heart of Maus – for the potlatch economy is an economy in which expenditure without utility is the source of maximum status and – therefore – income.

Now I don’t want to be overhasty in drawing out the parallels here. Clearly there’s a considerable difference between winter festivals of the Tlingit and Haida tribes and Roosevelt’s New Deal; and we won’t get insight into either by conflating them. Still – it’s all very interesting.

What I want to focus on now, though, is the doubt this throws on some of Bataille’s bolder claims about his project’s distance from capitalist economics. At the conclusion to his treatise’s first volume (in a chapter, relevantly enough, on the Marshall Plan), Bataille moves into his most abstract and quasi-Hegelian mode.

“The beings that we are are not given once and for all; they appear designed for an increase of their energy resources. They generally make this increase, beyond mere subsistence, their goal and their reason for being. But with this subordination to increase, the being in question loses its autonomy; it subordinates itself to what it will be in the future, owing to the increase of its resources. In reality, the increase should be situated in relation to the moment in which it will resolve into a pure expenditure. But this is precisely the difficult transition. In fact, it goes against consciousness in the sense that the latter tries to grasp some object of acquisition, something, not the nothing of pure expenditure. It is a question of arriving at the moment when consciousness will seek to be a consciousness of something; in other words, of becoming conscious of the decisive meaning of an instant in which increase (the acquisition of something) will resolve into expenditure; and this will be precisely self-consciousness, that is, a consciousness that henceforth has nothing as its object.”

Well – one could spend an entire career unpacking this paragraph. We’ll let almost all of it fall by the wayside, for now, and pick up just one thread, concerning the idea of “pure expenditure”. The issue is the relation of the idea of “pure expenditure” to capitalism.

Earlier in the book, Bataille has discussed Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, the thesis of which he admires and endorses. For Bataille, pure expenditure is linked to the experience of the sacred. As he puts it in the last line of his last endnote: “the author of this book on economy is situated (by a part of his work) in the line of mystics of all times…” So he’s interested in the relation between economics and religion, and he makes much use of Weber and, especially, R.H.Tawney, whose ‘Religion and the Rise of Capitalism’ he quotes extensively.

Now according to Weber and Tawney the medieval Catholic church had instituted an economic system in which God is a part of the economy. Thus the ultimate object of much economic expenditure was to bring you closer to the divine. Glorious cathedrals, richly furnished monasteries, all the pomp and luxury of the old religion: these are forms of excessive expenditure – expenditure that is apparently without worldly utility. In fact, of course, this expenditure had a very earthly purpose: the enrichment of the priesthood –and it was the scandal of this corruption that did as much as anything to give impetus to the Protestant revolution. The canonical example is papal indulgences – the documents by which wealthy sinners could purchase, at eye-watering prices, a secure place among the blessed come the final trumpet. (Or trombone, apparently, in Luther’s German.) As Bataille puts it: “An immense army of secular and religious clergy squandered the surplus riches of Europe, inciting the nobles and the merchants to rival squanderings. … In making a gigantic waste the means of opening the gates of heaven to mankind, the Church gave a painful impression: It had succeeded less in making earth heavenly than in making heaven banal.” Luther’s revolution was an immense turning away from this vision of Christianity – and from this economic organisation of the church and of the faithful.

Thus, in the Protestant ethic, expenditure would not be directed towards God. It would not be directed towards glory. But neither would it be directed towards material luxury or dissolute pleasure. All the surplus economic energy – which, in medieval Catholicism, was directed towards the construction of cathedrals and the glorification of the clergy – had to be directed back toward ordinary human endeavour; but, in the eyes of austere Protestantism, it couldn’t actually be consumed without the faithful being sucked down into the allure of the pleasures of earthly life.

Result: investment. For Bataille, following Weber, the Protestant religious ethic was essential to creating the material conditions in which investment became the principal form of the expenditure of economic surpluses. Thus it was Protestantism that gave the impetus to the creation of the capitalist ideal: the growth of the economy through investment and production. After Calvin, production, not consumption, became the object of economic activity; and as much money as possible would be reinvested.

The issue here isn’t the truth or falsehood of Weber’s or Bataille’s claims. I’m sure all this stuff has been challenged; and one tends to be suspicious of any historical narrative even a quarter as neat as this one. But we’re interested not so much in the facts of the case as in the structure of Bataille’s argument. And Bataille argues that capitalism is inherently future-oriented: that capitalism’s theoretical understanding of itself gives priority to accumulation over expenditure, and thus that capitalism gives no place to absolute expenditure: the expenditure of the potlatch or general economy; the expenditure of Bataille’s mysticism and eroticism, in which absolute nothing of the self is held in reserve, but everything is given over to a something that has no identity as a thing, but is, rather, a pure nothingness.

Is Bataille’s characterisation of capitalist economies adequate?

Let’s tack back to Keynes – and consider this noteworthy remark from the General Theory (p. 104 of my edition).

“Consumption – to repeat the obvious – is the sole end and object of all economic activity.”

Now – economic ignoramus that I am – I can’t say to what extent Keynes is actually repeating the obvious here, and to what extent he’s smuggling his own thought’s axioms in under cover of self-evidence. But let’s assume it’s the former. And let’s attempt a triangulation between three concepts that have been put into play by the texts we’re looking at: Pure Expenditure, Consumption, and Investment.

In economics, the line between consumption and investment is notoriously ambiguous. Here’s how my Oxford Dictionary of Economics puts it, in its entry on consumption: “All these distinctions are rather arbitrary at the edges: for example… cars bought by individuals are reckoned as consumption, while cars bought by their employers count as investment…. Spending on building dwellings by convention counts as investment rather than consumption; consumption includes the imputed income from the services of owner-occupied dwellings.” And so on and so forth. In the General Theory, Keynes has this to say: “Any reasonable definition of the line between consumer-purchasers and investor-purchasers will serve us equally well, provided that it is consistently applied. Such problem as there is, e.g. whether it is right to regard the purchase of a motor-car as a consumer-purchase and the purchase of a house as an investor-purchase, has been frequently discussed and I have nothing material to add to the discussion.” In other words, Keynes more or less legislates the problem of the difference between consumption and investment out of existence, by saying that, arbitrary as any given choice of boundary-line may be, as long as we’re all agreed on the choice, it doesn’t matter.

Well, I’m not in a position to challenge Keynes on matters of economics. Still – I’m not sure these matters can be disposed of as easily as that. Such ambiguities (cars bought by private individuals versus cars bought by firms, etc.) may indicate a certain arbitrariness “at the edges” of the concepts. But where does this arbitrariness end? What if this arbitrariness extends to the centre of the concepts of investment and consumption? What implications would this have for an economics that took these concepts as part of its foundation?

Investment is (as my ODE puts it) “the process of adding to stocks of real productive assets.” Or, in Keynes’s words, “current investment [is]… the current addition to the value of the capital equipment which has resulted from the productive activity of the period.” Investment adds to future production. Consumption doesn’t. Consumption is for now. Investment is for the future. Consumption is instant gratification. Investment is deferred gratification. All this seems straightforward. And (it’s worth emphasising) there is no problem with these somewhat fluid and ordinary-language meanings of the terms.

But what happens when we try to solidify these ideas? What happens when we try to give them more rigorous and fundamental definitions?

Start with consumption. What is the exemplary form of consumption? I would say: eating. That’s certainly the first dictionary definition. Here’s my New Oxford Dictionary of English again:

Consume, verb, eat, drink or ingest (food or drink): people consume a good deal of sugar in drinks.

And only then:

Use up (a resource): there has been a doubling in the amount of gas consumed by electric generators.

And after that (we’ll return to this one):

(especially of a fire) completely destroy: the fire spread rapidly, consuming many homes.

Eat and drink; ingestion; consumption. Consumers consume. They buy meat and drink, and vegetables, and wine. They buy drinks with sugar in them. And all this is consumed – it is ingested, incorporated. We are what we eat. We make this food and drink into our flesh and blood.

But… (to state the obvious)… we are productive resources too. This consumption is also the most basic kind of investment. It is an investment, if you will, in our own human bodies, our most fundamental productive capacity, without which there would be no life or production at all. What is the consumption of food and drink except (future-oriented) investment? If we didn’t eat and drink, we’d have no future!

If even this most obvious and central form of consumption is oriented towards some future production, what sense can there be in drawing a distinction between consumption and investment here?

I emphasise that I’m not doubting the meaningfulness of the terms. I’m questioning the extent to which their meaning can be made rigorous or formal. If, beyond a certain point, or in a certain context, the distinction between investment and consumption breaks down, this prompts the question: why is this distinction (to use the poststructuralist jargon) privileged in the way it is? There may be (indeed of course there are) sound reasons for the emphasis: but we shouldn’t confuse such reasons with the concepts’ self-evidence or ungainsayable solidity.

Now we may feel that eating is an ill-chosen example of consumption. Eating may indeed be a form of investment; but that’s because food is a necessity. If we turn to other forms of consumption – if we turn to luxuries – we find no such future-oriented justification. It is, then, in the consumption of luxuries that we are dealing with consumption proper.

If we make this move, we are back within the orbit of Bataille. For it is Bataille who wrote “it is not necessity but its contrary, luxury, that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.” And it is Bataille who focuses all his energy on the idea of excessive expenditure, surplus expenditure, superfluous expenditure. This superfluous expenditure is, for Bataille, the very meaning of the word ‘consumption’. And it now seems that this equivalence of consumption and superfluous expenditure is also at the heart of the most mainstream of economics.

These issues are too complex for me. In particular: everything is made difficult by the fact that, for Bataille, ‘economy’ means not just the goods or money economy, but also the economy of one’s soul – the psychic economy of Freud or Hegel. We need to make a study of the relation between this psychic economy and the real-world economy of goods and services: a study taking its bearings, no doubt, from the fact that money itself – the means by which the circulations of our real-world economy operate – is in many respects a psychic phenomenon. And there is so much more to be said than this.

So much to do! So much to think!

But let me make a few more stumbling comments on the relation between Keynes’s ‘consumption’ and Bataille’s ‘pure expenditure’. For even here it is far from clear that these concepts can be rigorously distinguished.

In mainstream economics, Keynesian as well as classical or neo-classical, consumption is understood in terms of utility – with its apparatus of indifference curves and the rest. Bataille is implacable hostile to this apparatus. In her preface to ‘The Gift’ Mary Douglas writes that the fundamental purpose of Maus in the writing of that book was to wage war against utilitarianism. And Bataille is continuing this project. The whole point of Bataille’s book is to direct our attention toward that which exceeds all utility; both in the sense of usefulness (for pure expenditure is wholly useless), and in the sense of satisfaction (for a consciousness that has nothing as its object is also a consciousness that has moved beyond the algebra of pleasure and pain). Indeed, the most constant feature of Bataille’s thought is the idea that human behaviour is ultimately directed towards an experience that simultaneously exceeds, combines, and abolishes pleasure and pain (an experience that is also, while we’re on the subject, the end of individuation).

But the paradox (as Bataille himself points out – on, for instance, the last page of ‘Eroticism’), is that this experience of pure expenditure is also the experience that carries the greatest reward. Indeed – it is the experience that is most properly mine; for in the passage we began with, Bataille remarks that such an experience (of nothingness) is true self-consciousness.

And if this is an experience that carries reward – indeed carries the most reward – how can it be a form of ‘pure’ expenditure, a pure outgoing, a loss of self, an economic movement without reserve?

Bataille’s concepts of restricted and general economy have achieved considerable currency in modern thought. (Consider, as just one example, Helene Cixous’s deployment of the opposition in her articulation of l’ecriture feminine). The distinction sometimes seems a more theoretically respectable way of talking about the difference between selfishness and unselfishness. A general economy is one that is open to its outside – a hospitable, generous economy, whereas a restricted economy would appropriative and narcissistic. (And of course ‘economy’ here means not just physical economy, but also psychic). This opposition between restricted and general economies fits very well into the ethics of alterity that forms the basis of so much modern Theory.

But there is a strange ambiguity here. For Bataille is taking his bearings, in ‘The Accursed Share’, from Maus. But Maus’s essay on the gift does more than any other work ever written to challenge the opposition between generous and selfish economic behaviour. The whole point of Maus’s essay is that even the most extreme forms of gift-giving, which apparently have no self-interested or even rational motive, are still in some sense appropriative. (Which is not to say that Maus’s theory is just another version of the rational self-interested individuals of liberal economics). The potlatch economy is precisely not an economy without reserve. Yet ‘potlatch’ is often taken, in modern theory, to mean non-appropriative economic behaviour.

I’m equivocating horribly. But the general point is clear: the distinctions between investment, consumption, and Bataillian ‘pure’ expenditure are far from straightforward. Thus there might be stronger parallels between Bataille’s economic thought and economics proper than first appearances would suggest.


Well this post has a multitude of flaws in incompatible directions. Ignorant and simplistic yet impenetrable and complicated. If you’re not already interested in Bataille and Keynes, I can’t imagine you’ve even made it this far (so well done). On the other hand, if you know your stuff, you’re probably spitting blood at my wild errors.

Still, as I say, this is all a work in progress.


  1. Well, I just visited this site looking for a quick definition of restricted and general economy, and I got that much, sort of…but I’m impressed by your *genuine* (and I emphasize genuine, cause it’s so commonly faked) humility in the last paragraph.

    Comment by Anonymous — October 28, 2010 @ 12:36 am

  2. Entered your blog more or less by chance. I am reading Bataille to make (un)sense of economic growth. Your ideas are very inspiring. Thanks

    Comment by Anonymous — January 28, 2013 @ 11:52 am

  3. I have only just discovered Bataille so found your piece very helpful. I have been looking at the scarcity/surplus aspect of economics for sometime now and hope Bataille’s views will help. Cheers.

    Comment by Michael Williams — December 9, 2013 @ 12:09 am

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