The National Accursed Share League

The french philosopher Georges Bataille (1897–1962) wrote a really solid theory of economics in three parts entitled “The Accursed Share” (1946–1949). The Accursed Share was a holistic view of economics as placed in the larger human condition. It was finally translated into English in 1991, thus allowing me to write a college thesis on the book the next year.

Essentially, Bataille states that the planet is covered in swirling eddies of excess energy, which know no human boundaries. These eddies are then harnessed by the labor of men, who use that energy to convert into food, buildings, what have you, through labor. Labor then produces currency. Boom. Economics.

However, these eddies do not swirl exactly evenly over the globe, and thus in some places and in some times, the eddies can be harvested and converted into materiel in greater quantities — indeed, in quantities greater than are needed to just feed and house society.

This excess energy (“the accursed share”), Bataille posits, will eventually destroy a civilization through war or indolence unless it is “burned off.” Here enters Bataille’s theory of the “Potlatch.” Bataille borrows the term from the Native Americans of the pacific northwest, where a potlatch was a massive, excessive, gift giving feast. The whole point was to show how wealthy your tribe was through gift giving and destruction of assets. Says anthropologist Dorothy Johansen, “In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished.”

Bataille painstakingly shows that this practice of pointlessly destroying your wealth was by no means confined to the pacific northwest native Americans. He offers up examples from throughout history — human sacrifices, the building of pyramids, etc.

Indeed, Bataille posits that the act of potlatch is central to the human condition, and you cannot understand economics from a purely rational point of view. You must include the concept of excess “the accursed share,” and the concept of the Potlatch — the non-rational destruction of wealth.

It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to place the Super Bowl in the provence of Potlatch. Forty million people waste the day doing nothing but stuffing their faces staring at an electronic box. Hundreds of millions of dollars are squandered through barely, marginally effective advertising, illusion-of-safety-based “security measures,” disrupted air traffic at one of the nation’s largest hubs, tens of thousands of over-priced hotel rooms purchased by the struggling, increasingly strained middle class, and excessive salaries for the players and producers of the event.

The important thing to remember is that to the average citizen of the society, unless you were the one being sacrificed in a human sacrifice, a potlatch can be a hell of a lot of fun. And the potlatch is essential to the smooth-functioning of an economy. For not only does it keep those resources from being spent on war, but, more importantly, it burns them up. It completely wastes them. For to do otherwise, the energy would stay bottled up in the society and destroy it.

So, go Pats.