Farewell to an Economy of Generalized Envy

Envy is on the rise. It seems strange to say that about something so timeless — or at least so biblical — but historically speaking, phenomena like envy tend to wax and wane in keeping with broader economic trends. To acknowledge that is to recognize that envy is not so much a psychological category as an economic one; more precisely, it is the psychological reaction to regimes of scarcity.

That was how I had intended to begin this afterthought for Bidoun. Then something slightly unexpected happened. I was fired from my job. It’s always a great feeling when that happens. Not that I had much of a job to speak of: as regional editor of an art magazine, I was participating less in a life-sustaining wage economy than a symbolic, reputation-based, envy-engendering economy. And that’s why I got fired: the more information I produced, the more envy became an inevitable by-product for the editor-in-chief. Anyway, to celebrate this fleeting euphoric moment, I went out for a few dozen beers with some fellow immaterial laborers—fellow members of the new international “cognitariat.” “You mustn’t take it personally,” commiserated one friend. “The boss was envious — as if there isn’t enough to go around.” I guess some people take getting fired personally, and transferring the blame to the other party struck me as testimony that we get by with a little help from our friends. Cheers! Our other friend disagreed: “Congratulations,” he said, “you produced a surplus, and the boss had to forcibly impose scarcity — always the last-ditch effort of a system unable to face its contradictions.” “Actually,” he added offhandedly, “I feel kind of envious.” It struck me that their very different usage of the word “envy” was not so much due to idiosyncrasy as it was reflective of a shift in the objective conditions of envy production in today’s global economy. In the first instance, envy is linked to an artificial economy of scarcity— there’s not enough to go around and we are envious of what we don’t have; in the latter position, envy is the expression of desire to be freed from this artificially-maintained scarcity.

It so happened that one of my last self-appointed duties at the magazine was to review a book by McKenzie Wark called A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), which by any account is a fascinating book, but which under the circumstances provided me with the conceptual tools to link my personal encounter with envy with the broader economy of envy in our society. It is a rare thing, and the measure of genuine intellectual creativity, when a writer is able to develop and deploy a full-fledged conceptual vocabulary for sustained use. The book becomes at once the staging ground and the first application of a new way of talking. A hacker, in Wark’s lexicon, is very different from the image of the super-specialized anarcho-programmer that the term still conjures up for most people; indeed it was only in reading the book that I came to realize that I too am a sort of hacker. A hacker, he claims, is someone who taps into knowledge production networks of any kind, and liberates that knowledge from an economy of scarcity. In a society based on private property relations, scarcity is always presented as natural; but in the contemporary context, where intellectual property is the dominant property form, scarcity is artificial, counterproductive, and the bane of all hackers for the simple reason that appropriating knowledge and information by no means deprives anyone else of it. This is a key issue in artistic practice — indeed, Wark discusses hacking as if it is an artistic practice — for the system of value-production in the mainstream art world is also premised on an envy-fermenting regime of scarcity, one underpinned by the author’s signature.

Wark hacks his rather unorthodox theory out of Marxism: like Marx, Wark believes human history can be conceptualized in terms of class relations and conflict. Today, he argues, this conflict is most acute between what he calls the “vectoralist” class (which has come to supplant the hegemony of the capitalist class) and the new productive class of hackers. Wark derives his name for the new dominant class from its ownership of the “vectors” of our society. A vector is the means by which anything moves: vectors of transport move objects and subjects; vectors of communication move information. Hackers, on the other hand, are the abstract producers of all that flows through the vectors. At the moment, Wark admits, hackers like artists continue to regard one another enviously as rivals, rather than as fellow members of a class with shared interests. However, he continues, “the hacker class does not need unity in identity but seeks multiplicity in difference.” In Wark’s mind, it seems, hackers of the world need not so much unite as continue to untie, freeing knowledge from illusions of scarcity. For those who might find Wark’s picture overly rosy, the book is full of accounts of actual zones of hacker liberty, including this gem from free software advocate and producer, Richard Stallman: “It was a bit like the garden of Eden. It hadn’t occurred to us not to co-operate.”

Wark’s book, it seems to me, has everything to do with art. Of course the art world is rife with envy from top to bottom, north to south. I’m not arguing that it’s full of jealousy-smitten strategists, intent on one-upmanship like everyone else; that would miss the key to the story of how the symbolic economies of the art world mirror those of the world at large. The art world is so good at the strategic exploitation of inequalities in symbolic capital (which it persists in referring to as “talent,” so as to sweeten the pill and give culture the airs of a natural science), and by having artists and writers not merely accept but actually insist upon non-monetary remuneration and interpersonal competition — which is a fancy way of describing envy — that it has become a model that is studied in MBA-level management courses. But there is also a heuristic dimension to the problem. Take one example: one of the vectors of access to the prestige economy of the international art world is the English language. This point was underscored with corrosive and insolent matter-of-factness in 1992 in Zagreb conceptualist Mladen Stilinovic’s embroidered work, An Artist Who Speaks No English is No Artist. While that sort of quip had critical overtones some fifteen years ago, today it has become a statement of mere fact. And this is the sense of Prishtina–based artist Jakup Ferri’s recent video work of the same title: the artist, his face tightly cropped, addresses the viewer, apparently in English. The words, at any rate, are English and verbose, but they appear strung together by some random alien logic, intent on pulling the language apart. The result is utter gibberish and the effect is dizzying to the point of nausea — watching it is like trying to walk a straight line while drunk. Ferri here breaks with omnipresent “English envy,” displacing scarcity with a deluge of surplus.

But of course the experience of envy is as widespread as it is oppressive, for the experience of scarcity in the world is all too real. Wark writes: “As more and more of nature becomes a quantifiable resource for commodity production, so the producing classes in the overdeveloped and underdeveloped world alike come to perceive the power the vectoral class has brought in the world: the power to steer development here or there at will, creating sudden bursts of productive wealth, and, just as suddenly, famine, poverty, unemployment, and scarcity.” On a more positive note, however, Wark senses “a detectable air of desperation in the work of the vectoral class, a constant anxiety about the durability of a commodified regime of desire built on a scarcity that has no necessary basis in the material world.” Scarcity, in other words, is the product of class rule, and not an objective fact of nature. But until we can grasp that admittedly counterintuitive point of view, envy too will appear an objective fact of interpersonal psychology. Perhaps in a pastoral society there was an objectively limited amount of arable land, but it was vastly greater than what is required to sustain human needs, and historically transformed into a scarcity only through forced displacement and enclosures. (Olivier Razac makes this argument in his devastating study, the Political History of Barbed Wire.) Under industrial capitalism, scarcity was maintained by the cunning ploy of paying workers slightly higher wages enabling them to buy back at the end of the day a portion of the goods they had just finished producing. But under vectoral capitalism, scarcity has become hard to sell. “The vectoral class commodifies information as if it were an object of desire, under the sign of scarcity. The producing classes rightly take all commodified information to be their own collective production. We, the producers, are the source of all the images, the stories, the wild profusions of all that culture becomes.”

And it is just that wild profusion which may well make scarcity itself a scarcity! This is truly the irony of ironies: that profusion is relied upon by the vectoralist class to produce a surplus of desire (to consume) along with the scarcity of the desired object. There can be no fundamental limiting of the free productivity of the hacker class — whose role it is to fuel the free productivity of desire with images and stories, new vectors with which to channel them, new means of perceiving them — and so the system induces the very productivity that exceeds the commodity itself. Scarcity is destined to be outstripped by surplus, and it is worth imagining the difference between a human society framed in terms of scarcity and one premised on surplus. The first instance leads to legitimizing, a ruling class taking charge of scarce resources; the second insists that the productive classes produce more than their immediate needs, are deprived of this surplus — and want it back. That is basically what I had intended to say. Until reality intervened, as it always must, bringing envy closer to home than I had anticipated, and making me aware that the only way to thwart envy is to hack into the lack that produces it. Envy is not so much human as it is individual. Is there such a thing as collective envy? I’m not sure there is, and the reasons for that are worth contemplating. Suffice it to say that the only way to combat scarcity is with surplus — with the corrosive and strangely envy-eroding logic of the gift, the true bedrock of human sociality.