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The Survival of the Fattest. Evolution of needs, lust and social value in a long-run perspective

Hanappi, Hardy (2004): The Survival of the Fattest. Evolution of needs, lust and social value in a long-run perspective.

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As recent data on average weight of human individuals in OECD countries vividly documents the primary metabolism of human individuals, e.g. physical reproduction, already produces deteriorating results. The concept of needs in the sense of desires for primary reproduction necessities has to be re-conceptualized.

What has been substituted for the power of needs was the desire for lust: Consumers are offered objects for which they subjectively should develop a substitute of an objective need, namely lust to consume. While the former concept (needs) has a physiologically rather limited range of extension, the latter one enables an evolutionary expanding dynamic with no evident limitation in sight. It is this contradiction that inspired the question posed in the title of this paper. To formulate it less metaphorical: If the demand side of the evolutionary development of modern societies is concentrating more and more on the emergence of goods and services that are independent of the primary metabolism of humans, will there be a feedback on this primary metabolism that endangers its further processing?

In hindsight the history of economic thought can be interpreted as providing answers to this type of questions in the form of theories of social values. A common denominator of these theories – perhaps the smallest one – is the contention that a model of the mentioned contradiction has to incorporate a systemic valuation system. Activities of members of societies should be regulated by a superimposed and commonly understood mechanism. While early contributions favored control by a set of direct behavioral rules, a command list, authors since Adam Smith in one or the other way refer to indirect regulation of economic activity via price structures. Note that Smith’s argument concerning ‘private vices becoming public benefits’ already related a non-metabolic motive, the lust for profit, with the metabolic notion of social welfare. Smith preaches this contradiction as moral philosophy. Karl Marx puts Smith’s observation in historical perspective; the productivity increasing capitalist system will be a necessary but finite episode in human history. And he adds an important dimension: The contradiction between private motives and welfare will work only temporarily and will produce another social contradiction, the one between exploiters and exploited. This new amendment explains the central role of Marx’ labor theory of value as a regulation device for the emergence of new contradictions. After Marx two strands of economic theory stand out as cornerstones of theories of social value: Jevon’s price theory and Schumpeter’s price-breakers theory. The former managed to establish itself as mainstream economics till today; the latter – in a self-referential way – seems to re-appear again and again as subversive swarming of theory innovators.

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