Need has no Law

Allegory, particularly in the form of personification, was one of the most important forms through which late Medieval society attempted to understand itself. And few literary texts display the ways in which allegory served to capture and bind together the abstract and the concrete, the temporal and the eternal as William Langland’s Piers Ploughman, a work composed in the late fourteenth century. At the conclusion of the text, the narrator, Will, awakens from a dream vision. What has been revealed to him, however, does not pertain to the spirit, but to the flesh. He is starving, and the soul can no longer ignore the demands of the body. Frightened, and without any prospect of a meal, Will encounters the allegorical figure of Need. Need offers him a kind of salvation, but it is a salvation of the flesh: he may take what is necessary for his survival without regard to conscience or doctrine, for “Need has no law and shall never fall in debt for the things he takes his life for to save.” Just as he needs no one’s permission to drink water from a ditch, Need tells Will, he may appropriate the food or clothing he requires not to perish from hunger or exposure, even if they are the property of another.

Langland here invokes the principle, by his time established in canon law, of “necessitas non habet legem,” reminding us that necessitas was typically understood not as “necessity” (defined in  opposition to freedom or chance), but as physical need, above all, the need for food to sustain human life: need has no law, that is, laws determining ownership and use of goods do not apply to cases in which an individual, lacking food, clothing or shelter, faces the risk of death. Moreover, this principle indemnified those who stole to supply a third party with necessities, as well as those who did not steal food or clothing, but objects that could be sold in order to purchase what was necessary to existence. To be sure, the great Medieval thinkers, from Thomas Aquinas to William of Ockham disputed the fine points of this principle: whether urgency required a suspension of property right (jus) or simply restored the original community of goods granted by God to all humankind; whether the act constituted the crime of theft from which the thief, after the fact and more or less automatically, would be immunized, or whether the act was performed outside the law’s jurisdiction, in a pre-legal state in which property as such did not exist. The principle itself, however, was never really in dispute: the allegorical figure of Need was this principle brought to life and given voice.

Today, we have little taste for allegory even in its historical incarnations. There appears little hope that Need will come alive and speak to us as he did to Langland’s Will, and even less that he would deliver, or we would hear, a lesson in what might be called the non-illegality of theft in cases of starvation or exposure. To understand how completely this doctrine has been forgotten and the extent to which its forgetting is the necessary condition of political and economic thought from Locke and Adam Smith to the present, we might turn to what in fact is an allegorical figure we do not recognize as such, the personification not simply of a powerful hurricane, but of both the state of need and the state of exception: Katrina. The occasion of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina allows, or compels, us to acknowledge the extent to which the principle “need has no law” appears unthinkable, as if it were nothing more than a superstitious remnant of the “dark ages,” without any connection to the economic realities of our time.

Although within a few days of the hurricane, nearly a thousand people had died in New Orleans itself, many directly or indirectly from exposure, or the lack of water, food and medicine, few observers thought to question the enormous mobilization of resources to combat “looting,” a term that designates precisely the acts that Langland’s Need tells us cannot justly be prevented or punished. Even the public declaration by the Governor of Louisiana that national guard troops had been given the order to “shoot and kill” looters, despite the fact that the residents had had by that point no “legal” access to drinking water for three days (during which the average temperature was 35 degrees Celsius) and no significant measures had yet been taken to provide them with food, water and medicine, did not seem particularly noteworthy, let alone deserving of condemnation.

Perhaps Katrina spoke, and speaks, to us, as if she were Need’s own child, in incomprehensible words of wind and rain and water. Like Shakespeare’s Tempest, the storm embodied and represented in its violence the violence of the neo-liberal order itself, as if Katrina’s fury were a dim allegory of a far more extensive destruction.  This destruction operates according to the double strategy displayed so vividly in New Orleans ten years ago. On the one hand, the state acts by refraining from action, by exposing populations to total destitution, at the same time that it appropriates and offers up for sale vital resources which, once appropriated as property, confer on the proprietor immunity not only to the claims, but to the needs, of others. On the other, the rights and privileges granted to property owners are regarded as so absolute that those who violate these rights, irrespective of the circumstances that lead them to do so, can be killed with impunity (and not only by agents of the state but increasingly by private individuals).

Can we imagine what Need would say to us now, at a time when states have been ordered by their creditors to liquidate emergency food supplies and to allow the private and privative appropriation of water, when climate change makes exposure to the elements a matter of life and death, that is, when the age-old right to subsistence, and finally existence, has been revoked in order to secure the world for capital investment? But Need, coextensive with our physical existence, is already among us, urging us to revoke the revocation of the right to go on living, to submit property right and market providentialism to the demands of life, and above all to resist the necro-economy that recognizes no limit but the power of those who refuse its inhuman order.