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The Age of Mammon
Greed in the modern world
In 1785 James Watt perfected his design for the steam engine. Soon thereafter, worker productivity rose dramatically. Watt’s steam engines could be used to power looms, grind grain, pump bellows for blast furnaces and many other tasks that had formerly required man, wind, or water power. A single machine operator could do the work of 50 or more manual laborers.
This was wonderful news if you had the capital to purchase expensive machinery. For skilled workers and artisans, it was a disaster. Minor aristocrats fared little better, as they too found their traditional way of life threatened by upstart nouveau riche tycoons. As the 19th century dawned, European nobility began its slide into irrelevance. Titles and bloodlines mattered less than wealth in this new world where “capitalists” held most of the financial and political power.
Impoverished lords and ladies still held onto their increasingly empty titles. The working poor held onto nothing at all. And as the economies of scale that destroyed homestead businesses took aim on smaller corporations, many once-prosperous small merchants found themselves unable to compete with their larger, better-funded competitors.
The Industrial Revolution that began in England spread throughout the world. Unsurprisingly, impoverished workers were unsatisfied with their lot. And so Karl Marx and his disciples grew increasingly popular with their promises of a revolution that would overthrow the greedy capitalists and their bourgeois lackeys and raise up the humble proletariat.
You can only control your subjects through terror for so long. After Stalin, Soviet leaders used price controls and guaranteed employment to keep the populace under control. The people grumbled, but so long as they had food and rent-controlled housing they kept their discontent to a bare minimum. The circuses were shoddy and the bread stale, but it was sufficient for a time.
America’s robber barons had more resources at hand, and so were able to stave off their revolution. In the postwar period, America’s standard of living rose while the Soviet Union’s stagnated. Once the Soviets believed their system of government was destined to conquer and all evidence to the contrary was simply so many speed bumps on the road to Proletarian triumph. When their empire collapsed, Americans assumed our triumph was the End of History.
Today America’s standard of living has not only stagnated but declined. We are finding it increasingly difficult to live as well as our parents and grandparents did, and our leaders are finding it more challenging to keep us supplied with the cheap imported goods that once pacified us. The faux velvet Made in China glove has slipped off the iron fist, and our robber barons and bankers are trying desperately to hold onto their loot as Capitalism chokes on its contradictions.
Communism and Capitalism ultimately represent two heads of the same hydra. Both philosophies reduce the human experience to economics. Communism divided the world between the haves who controlled the means of production and the have-nots seeking to seize them. Capitalism divided the world into markets and consumers. And through their inordinate interest in money and financial power, both systems — and the world — fell prey to the deadly sin of Greed.
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.
Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.
Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)
No multinational corporation can ever be “big enough.” The economies of scale that destroyed home businesses and petty aristocrats are equally lethal to big companies competing against bigger ones. Large conglomerates have more money for research, for lawfare against competitors, for bribes to regulatory agents and government officials.
A company which cannot grow cannot survive. But continuous growth is unnatural. As eco-philosopher Edward Abbey noted in his 1968 Desert Solitaire, “Growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness.” And this cancerous madness has infected not only our economic sphere but even the very way we view the world. Martin Heidegger noted in his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”:
The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In sowing grain it places seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase.
But meanwhile even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order, which sets upon nature. It sets upon it in the sense of challenging it. Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium.
Once we envisioned the world as a great and terrible Creation. Today we envision it as a trough at which the smartest and strongest can eat their fill while the rest must be contented with their leavings. Beautiful landscapes are judged valuable not for their beauty but for the revenues that tourists might bring in.
To keep revenues growing plutocrats must keep their expenses down, and salaries are an expense. Under neoliberalism, many high-paying jobs have been “offshored” to countries with lower wages and fewer workplace regulations. While our erstwhile Soviet competitors concentrated on building their industrial and manufacturing sectors, we found it cheaper and more efficient to let others handle those dirty and dangerous tasks. Bourgeois environmentalists who were happy to see polluters shut down were less concerned with pollution in far-flung places.
Capitalism was admittedly able to provide a higher standard of living for its proles than communism. But neoliberal capitalism has found itself running headlong into one of Marx’s contradictions. In moving their operations to foreign shores, America’s plutocrats have impoverished the working classes. And that decline is now being felt among America’s white-collar ranks as well.
Continuous growth has met the limits of growth and our lifestyles of constant and conspicuous consumption are becoming increasingly unsustainable. After 75 years of dominance, the Soviet Union collapsed when it no longer had the means to finance its empire. Several decades later, the Global American Empire is teetering on its precipice and the centers of power are shifting from West to East.
We have glutted ourselves on trinkets and driven ourselves into debt for peak experiences and shiny toys. For better and for worse, our artificially inflated standard of living is about to pop. How do we climb out of the wreckage, and how do we build something better to replace it?
To answer those questions, let’s take a closer look at Greed.
Covetousness denotes immoderation with regard to riches in two ways. First, immediately in respect of the acquisition and keeping of riches. On this way a man obtains money beyond his due, by stealing or retaining another's property. This is opposed to justice, and in this sense covetousness is mentioned (Ezekiel 22:27): "Her princes in the midst of her are like wolves ravening the prey to shed blood . . . and to run after gains through covetousness."
Secondly, it denotes immoderation in the interior affections for riches; for instance, when a man loves or desires riches too much, or takes too much pleasure in them, even if he be unwilling to steal.
As with the other Deadly Sins, Greed is rooted in a natural urge. There is nothing wrong with wanting enough money to pay your bills or with working to better your station in life. But when you stop seeing money as a useful tool and start seeing it as an end in itself, what was once a healthy desire for self-improvement and financial stability becomes a pathway to ruin.
After founding the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations Stock Market (NASDAQ), Bernie Madoff was by any standards a very wealthy man who could have lived lavishly on the proceeds of his honest work. But his desire to make even more money drove him to build a Ponzi scheme that destroyed his family and his reputation.
Covetousness lies between Envy and Greed and carries aspects of both. Often we find things desirable because they belong to somebody else. But we can also covet things for our own reasons. We desire money because it gives us power and status. We desire a luxury car because it lets us show the world our wealth every time we drive it.
Greed is often mixed with Pride. The greedy hoard money not to make themselves happy but to show the world that they are superior. Bernie Madoff was largely driven by his need to be seen by his friends and colleagues as a brilliant investor. As Geoff Colvin explained in a 2021 Fortune article:
As Madoff’s investment advisory business grew, he obviously couldn’t borrow money to cover losses. At the same time, he felt unable to tell clients he’d had a losing year—ever. So he established a practice, again unheard of on Wall Street, of telling investors in January what their return for the year would be… Since there was no way to hit the targets honestly, Madoff simply lied to clients and told them the targets had been hit. If clients wanted their money, he had to take it out of other clients’ accounts.
Eventually—exactly when is in dispute—there were no actual client accounts, just one gigantic checking account at J.P. Morgan Chase and a secret operation to churn out fake trading records and fake account statements.
The business had become entirely a Ponzi scheme.
And yet bad as these forms of Greed may be, they do not reach Greed’s nadir. There is still some demand for human affirmation in these commingled greeds. In its final form, the acquisition of money becomes its own end. The victims becomes Ebenezer Scrooge eating cold gruel and hoarding money they will never enjoy for reasons they no longer understand. Theirs is not the asceticism of the monk who gives up pleasures for his soul, but the asceticism of Gollum hiding away in a cave to protect his Precious.
We recognize the dangers of Greed, and shake our fingers at ostentatious displays of wealth. Yet we spend more than we have on things we don’t need. And this debt addiction and lust for toys is fueled largely by a practice which has been condemned at different times by all the major Abrahamic religions.
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