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Sunday, November 30, 2014

gekko [gordon, not geico]

i think the time has come to say a few words about the seven deadly sins -- wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony -- and more particularly, about greed.  appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, karl marx was not a moralist, nor was he a nineteenth century incarnation of an old testament prophet, railing against the personal characterological deficiencies of british capitalists.  his central thesis is that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class -- that profit is the value form of the surplus labor extracted from workers over and above what is required to reproduce their conditions of existence. 

the collective labor of the entire working class, which marx sometimes figures for dramatic effect as the labor of a single worker, is devoted to the production of four classes or categories of output.  the first category is the wage goods [food, clothing, shelter, etc.] consumed by the workers to replenish their capacity for further laboring, including what is needed to raise their children to replace them when, like spindles or shovels, they wear out and are discarded.  the second category is the capital goods needed to replace those that are consumed in the production process, so that production may continue in the next cycle -- seed for the next crop, wool for carding, spinning, and weaving, tools and machines as they wear out, and so forth.  the third category is the luxury goods consumed unproductively by the owners of capital and their subordinate associates -- land-owners, financiers, the military and police, etc.  this category does not include the wage goods consumed by managerial employees even when those managers are also owners.  [left hand not required for bolding.]  those goods belong to the first category.  finally, the fourth category is the extra output that can be devoted to expanding the scope of production -- in other words, economic growth.  this includes the wage goods that will be consumed by the additional workers brought into the production process, which of course presupposes the availability of previously unemployed workers [the so-called reserve army] desperate to find work.

nothing in the efficient working of this system and the consequent endless accumulation of capital presupposes that the owners of capital be, like midas or gordon gekko, personally greedy.  indeed, as marx makes clear and max weber showed us in his great monograph, the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, the less the capitalist consumes in unproductive personal consumption [i.e., by being greedy], the more rapid, efficient, and successful is capital accumulation.

now there is no question that the wall street financiers who pay themselves billions of dollars in bonuses  and style themselves masters of the universe are thoroughly despicable human beings.  but if they were all replaced by self-denying unitarian-universalist vegan tree-hugging humanities majors, capitalism would go right on accumulating capital by exploiting the working class.  were it not for his many other gifts to us, i would be tempted to say that karl marx's greatest achievement was once and for all to establish that greed has nothing to do with capitalism.


Chris said...

No doubt people have the potential to be greedy, altruistic, humorous, kind, cruel, loving, sharing, boring, dull, etc.

And of course any mode of production can contain people of all stripes, so of course capitalism does not require just greedy people, and feudalism does not require just incredulously loyal people. But Marx does seem to argue - and he's no doubt right - that while greed is not the MO of capitalism, it certainly is the predominantly expressed trait in capitalism, and capitalism is a system where greed is rewarded and can take the helm. In a socialist society, there would still be greedy people, but greed would be rewarded and held in high esteem. In a capitalist society, there are certainly altruistic people, but altruism does not get (monetarily) rewarded, and you won't get far exercising it.

My point being, we have tons of capacities, but under capitalism greed becomes predominant. Under socialism, probably not.

Chris said...

"in a socialist society, there would still be greedy people, but greed would NOT be rewarded and held in high esteem."*

Magpie said...

The Bearded One in his own words:

"To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose [i.e., seen through rose-tinted glasses]. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them."

In reality, it's not different from what Adam Smith wrote here:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

well done, magpie. i could not have said it better myself.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

"Use values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad , the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation." (Volume 35, page 164.)