Friday, November 15, 2013

Capitalism and Greed

I think I have had an epiphany, maybe just a lesser insight, perhaps I just woke up to reality, maybe my aging (and I fear dimming) grey cells suddenly had a burst of energy; whatever, I may have (sort of) solved something that has been puzzling me for a long time, namely, the problem of greed.

During my relatively long lifetime I have had the privilege of living with many different kinds of people, from some truly “primitive” in the New Guinea Highlands, to the more sophisticated in Fiji and Hawaii, to American Indians on the Northwest Coast and the American Midwest, to the French, Germans, and, of course Americans. I have also lived with many different groups of people, from Hippies to the Poor, to the Middle Class. Never, during any of these times, did I have reason to believe that greed played a major role in their behavior. In fact, I would say that it was far more characteristic of all people to share and care for each other than to take advantage of others. Indeed, in most cultures, greed, if it exists at all in rare cases, is punished by sanctions, in extreme cases even by death. Thus I do not believe that greed is a universal characteristic of humans.

Because of my lifetime experiences I have had much trouble in recent years trying to understand why it is that we have seen the growth of so many millionaires, multi-millionaires, billionaires, and multi-billionaires. These individuals have amassed fortunes so huge, and so far beyond any reasonable use, even beyond the imagination of most people to comprehend them, that it makes no sense whatsoever. I have attributed this to greed. It has always seemed to me that for someone to have fortunes so huge as to make them relatively useless for any personal benefits beyond those of everyday life to be sort of purposeless. I mean, really, how many million dollar baseballs, Marilyn Monroe dresses, multi-million dollar paintings, rare postage stamps, thousand dollar shower curtains, gold faucets, and antique vases, does one need? More importantly, when 99% of the population is living in poverty, unable in some cases even to feed their children, why do these obscenely wealthy individuals feel no shame, or guilt, or even express any empathy for the less fortunate? How, that is, do you explain their greed?

The explanation for this came to me today as I was cooking a great pot of chili. Or at least I think this may be the answer. In a capitalistic society like the one we currently live in there is no concept of greed. Think about it, greed just does not exist. The goal of capitalism is to make a profit, or, in a somewhat different description, to accumulate capital. And so, if the goal is to accumulate capital and make profit, accomplishing this does not constitute greed, but, rather, success. This is why you can find people claiming that greed is good, greed represents success. If you are a billionaire, with wealth far beyond anything you can do with it (other than use it to make even more capital) you are not greedy, you are a success, a role model, someone to be admired.

And so it is that the sin of avarice (greed) is no longer relevant in the world of capitalism. There is no greed in Mudville, merely the earmark of success. Never mind the exploitation of labor and the environment that allowed the success, never mind the human misery and environmental damage you caused because of your greed (sorry, success), greed is good, greed is what makes capitalism work, at least it will for a time. Greed is no longer greed, it’s what makes our world go round. Wheee! Let’s hear it for greed!
  “Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.” 

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