Problems of Lack and Desire: Self, Society and Wellbeing

The society we live in is characterized by problems of lack and desire. This is not only true of our society but is a truth about all society. These problems are basic human problems of living. The problem of lack is straightforward: How does one adapt to conditions of economic, material, environmental scarcity? The problem of desire refers to what one does when conditions are material and environmental conditions are favorable: How to capitalize on one’s affluence? The very fact that these conditions are problems—and how we collectively manage them—may say a great deal about the nature of our human needs. Perhaps it will be best to illustrate these concepts with a graphic:

Problems of Lack and Desire

In conditions of lack or physical danger/threat (i.e., lack of safety), it is apparent that humans self-organize into small units, or tribes, that are akin to hunter-gatherer units. These units—ranging from 20 to approximately 150 individuals—appear to be highly cohesive, egalitarian, conservative in values, and highly cooperative. Labor may be somewhat specialized but not to the point of requiring a management tier. Everyone must be directly involved in operating the task at hand.

In conditions of abundance, humans are compelled to organize into units that optimize the collection, storage and distribution of resources. This is the management of desire. Hierarchical organization can allow units to cooperate and aggregate under a scale far larger than anything recognizable in everyday tribal life. Under this mass scale, and specialization of labor, are the conditions to favor development of particular interests, talents, identities and values. Finally, competitiveness is valued in conditions where the demonstration of physical prowess, inventiveness, industriousness—individually developed features—result in that individual’s access to greater material wealth and resource (e.g., mate, food, shelter) selection.

Of course this is all a simplification. In reality, throughout history, most societies have operated in conditions which required the management of lack and desire. Indeed, this struggle seems to fundamental to our nature of being that we may have uniquely evolved to this dyadic ecosystem. As if a healthy society works to the beat of a circadian rhythm that pulses between lack and desire. Under persistent conditions of threat/lack, humans are not necessarily happy. In these conditions of poverty/danger, we may see tighter human groupings—which may foster a protective layer of connectivity—but also a conservatism that may stiffle innovation, expression and dissent. Under conditions of persistent abundance, unique problems of managing desire arise. Individuals may become hyper-competitive, disconnected and increasingly disoriented from anchor points that ground our lives in meaning, value, purpose. It seems that neither condition is homeostatic and we, as individuals, have particular drives that correspond to a need to regulate both of these conditions.

Some have suggested a hierarchy of human needs while others have suggested a multi-level organization. Although beyond the scope of this essay, let us assume vis a vis Self-Determination Theory, that we all have basic needs for autonomy, belonging and competence. My thesis is that these needs are managed by our ability to regulate between conditions of lack and desire. Let us consider autonomy. In conditions of lack/scarcity, there appears to be a egalitarian organization to tribes or social units. Under radical egalitarianism, autonomy fails because the individual is required to sacrifice their individuality in service to enhancing the wellbeing of the group. This is a perversion of the utilitarian ethic. However, in conditions of persistent abundance, specialization develops which breeds hierarchical organization of skills, labor, and power relations. It is likewise difficult to exercise autonomy when one is subject to the constraints imposed by others up and down the hierarchy. Similarly, belonging is most easily facilitated when we avoid groups that are extremely conservative (i.e., prone to outgroup bias) or extremely liberal (i.e.,lacking internal cohesion/identity). Competence is also most obtainable in conditions that are neither hyper-competitive or cooperative to the point where one fails to perceive any sense of mastery or control over the final outcome.

Perhaps like the cultivation of mono-crop agriculture—which may simultaneously heralded as a ‘wild’ success for plants and also their domestication/exploitation by humans—we find ourselves in extremely prolific conditions that also result in greatly increased vulnerability to stress, disease and loss of resilience.

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