One-hundred and fifty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln warned that greed leading to wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people would results in the decline of the republic. Today the culture of high-consumption idolizes greed in all its forms, and only berates it when the capitalist system is in trouble. A number of super-rich, including German-born Canadian billionaire Stephen Jarislowsky argued that ‘extreme' greed was to blame for the global recession of 2008-2011. Nevertheless, he stated that all people want to be rich, an assumption he makes based on popular cultural trends, which he and most people may believe is 'natural' - human by nature wish to acquire as much as possible, and therein rests the element of greed.
Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street and the sequel this year made the term greed a part of popular culture and subject to ongoing debate amid a global recession. The term “greed” indicates “desire for excess” and implies abuse of material accumulation. However, the Freudian definition of greed differs from that of a modern economist who follows Adam Smith’s free-market theory, and that definition differs from the one of a Lutheran theologian, and so on with each field having its own definition and nuances of the term.
It is also significant to consider that in some cultures like the US “greed” may be an integral part of how to achieve the American Dream, while in others like India before British colonial rule greed (individual or institutional) is identified as the primary source of evil (The Bhagavadgita). Historically, greed does not have the same value in Eastern cultures, especially in China and India, as it does in the West. This is partly because western societies are more individualistic and less collectivist, especially Protestant northwest Europe and the US that emphasize individual achievement more than collective welfare and harmony.
In the Orient, social status rooted in noble birth, education, the arts, spirituality as well as political power designed to maintain harmony transcended the sheer accumulation of individual wealth associated with merchants and money lenders whose role was not elevated until the Europeans imposed colonial or semi-colonial rule in Asia. In Western Civilization, greed has a long history that in terms of legal measures to contain it goes back to the era of Solon the lawgiver, who accused the Athenian landowners of undermining social harmony and destroying the city-state:
The man whose riches satisfy his greed
Is not more rich for all those heaps and hoards
Than some poor man who has enough to feed
And clothe his corpse with such as God affords.
I have no use for men who steal and cheat;
The fruit of evil poisons those who eat. (Solon Poems)
Athenian greed for wealth, power, and prestige in the fifth century led to the demise of the city-state with the Peloponesian Wars marking beginning of decline for classical Greece. Virgil and Seneca attributed greed (avarice) to the deterioration of Roman society, decay in morals and civil harmony. Drawing largely from the Apostle Paul, the early church fathers (”Primitive Christianity”) recognized greed as one of the seven deadly sins (all of them predating Christianity) and deemed this vice a catalyst to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
As a transitional figure between the Medieval World and Renaissance, Dante condemned greed not only on the part of the temporal (secular) world but of the spiritual realm as well. In the name of God, the Catholic Church was selling indulgences and becoming the richest institution and largest landowner in Europe.
The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual’s intellectual awakening, a process achieved through merit, and the Industrial Revolution held the promise of machine holding humanity’s answers for all its material problems.
Enlightenment and Industrial Capitalism provided a further impetus to the bourgeois value system and ultimate goal of creating a material world that would replace the Kingdom of Heaven. Hence, greed, an irrational impulse that ran counter to the Enlightenment’s focus on reason, must be at the center of the new society’s practice. Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith’s contended that self-interest promotes the greater social good because the market’s “invisible hand” determines what has value for the consumer and thus profit for the producer necessarily benefits society.
From Industrial capitalism to financial capitalism and the emergence of robber barons of the 19th century, greed worked to polarize society socioeconomically, ethnically, racially, religiously, and in terms of gender. During the Progressive Era, politicians tried moderating the runaway culture of greed. In reality, capitalists prospered more under Progressive presidents from Roosevelt to Wilson than they had before, a fact that resulted in massive capital accumulation during the 1920s and led to the Great Depression.
The 1930s convinced many Americans that the culture of rugged individualism and greed of capital concentration during the previous decade had caused economic dislocation and social catastrophe. The era of the “Big Bands” and coming together as a nation, implicit collectivism (Socialism to FDR/New Deal critics) moderated the culture of greed as did the war that followed. However, the Cold War meant a necessary ideological return to the culture of greed as the implicit essence of capitalism in a struggle for dominance against Communism.
The value system of greed as an unspoken but practice integral part of the American way of life, a value system and way of life to be exported to the rest of the world, was well on its way. Not that war-ravaged Europe was not anxious to emulate its NATO leader and capture some of the prewar glory associated with the greed of imperialism. In spite of the Civil Rights movement and the cultural revolution of the 1960s that spread beyond urban America to much of the Western World, despite the humbling effect the Vietnam war had on America, greed would remain at the center of the cultural milieu.
“You can call it greed, selfishness or enlightened self-interest, but the bottom line is that it’s these human motivations that get wonderful things done. Unfortunately, many people are naive enough to believe that it’s compassion, concern and ‘feeling another’s pain’ that’s the superior human motivation.” This from Walter Williams, African-American academic who became the darling of the white establishment in the 1980s when Reagan-Thatcher neo-liberalism was triumphant and the Communist bloc was about to fall.
Yes, free at last to say publicly what was on the minds of most about the virtues of greed, the greed that makes the solipsist feel good, the kind of greed that means life. Greed works because it has defeated the Communist bloc and integrated those countries into “our economic system,” greed is great because it means accumulation of more regardless of endemic poverty for about one-third of the world’s population. Greed never took a rest as globalization was responsible for its diffusion and acceleration during the Clinton decade that laid the foundations for the economic crisis of 2008-2010.
And then came Bush to make individual and national greed a revered patriotic duty. Yoshi Tsurumi, former professor at Harvard University wrote on 04/07/05 in the Harvard Crimson: “Thirty years ago, President Bush was my student at Harvard Business School… In those days, Bush belonged to a minority of MBA students who were seriously disconnected from taking the moral and social responsibility for their actions. Today, he would fit in comfortably with an overwhelming majority of business students and teachers whose role models are celebrated captains of piracy.”
Since the 1980s, as neo-conservatives have captured the Republican Party, America’s business education has also increasingly become contaminated by the robber baron culture of the pre-Great Depression era. Yes indeed, the institutional structure which includes colleges and universities have helped to disseminate the value system of greed that Wall Street practices during business hours and always with 100% transparency! The roots of the culture of greed are very deep and complex, and cannot be moderated in a short period or by the political establishment that sees no alternative to acting opportunistically.
Cultural revolutions take years if not decades to have an impact, and unless accompanied by events in society that force people to alter their habits and value system, the status quo remains unchanged because it means survival. The failure to begin addressing change in the culture of greed, individual and institutional (public and private), the failure of institutions to teach that greed is not a virtue, will result in the decay of society as it did in the case of societies built on individual and institutional greed.