The Power of Greed


In my last post, An Edifice of Vast Inequality, I talked about the enormous inequality produced by today’s world-system. As I stated there, my point isn’t to promote a political-economic agenda, or a platform of policy recommendations. My goal not to berate capitalism, to proclaim the evil of capitalists, to sound the trumpets for revolution or to cry out “Le Guillotine”.

The intent of that post was just to show the results of the global economy as manifest in today’s actual concrete living reality. Further to make some indications of how the results are generated systemically, by an integrated structure of relationships. And to suggest that those results are corrosive of human relations and destructive to the potential of global human community.

I think that in considering this immense inequality any person with even a modest level of human empathy, with any feelings of human solidarity, will feel that is disturbing. But I’m not trying to generate feelings of outrage, disgust or despair (though I can see how any or all of those might arise from thinking about this).

Rather, I believe it is important to look closely at how the dynamics of greed are responsible for this state of the world. I think that if you analyze this, you’ll find that greed is the most powerful force in creating the ills (or negative outcomes) of humanity.

Human history is a history of greed, at least going back to the earliest states. Our current configuration of nation-states emerged out of a long-played out process of human groups competing over territories. That process was been driven primarily by greed.

What we call the history of civilization is a history of warlords, a history of emperors & kings, warlords wanting to expand their domains, consumed by the desire for more, more territory, more riches.

I recently watched Warrior Empire – The Mughals, a History Channel documentary. The Mughals were descendants of the Mongols who attacked existing states in India because of the tremendous riches that had been accumulated by the Indian Rajas. They eventually conquered most of India because they were better warriors, with superior technology and strategy.

For a time, the ruler of the Mughals was the richest man in the world ruling, I believe over 1/4 of the world’s population. Their first conquests were in the 1500’s and the last stronghold of the Mughals wasn’t defeated by the British until the early 1800’s. After the Taj Mahal was built is said that the ruler had the hands of the 2000 plus workers cut off, so they could never build anything else as nice.

The Mughals didn’t rule the India in order to benefit that 1/4 of the population, and they didn’t become rulers because they had a better program or the support of the people. They conquered in order to fuel the vast greed of emperors and they were able to conquer because they were fierce warriors, with a greater capacity for killing. The ruler who built the Taj Mahal had killed several members of his family to prevent competition but ended spent the last 8 years of his life imprisoned by one of his sons, who proceeded to kills his other brothers upon seizing the throne.

And of course, the Mughals weren’t superceded by the British because the British cared more about the Indian people. Nor was their primary focus to serve the Indian people but rather to use India to generate more profits for the Lords of London.

This story of India from the Mughals through the British, is the story of human history in a nutshell. From Sumer threading through Genghis Khan, then Pizzaro and Cortes contiuning to the today in the likes of Kim Jong Un, so much of human history has been a tapestry of unrelenting greed and remorseless conquest undertaken in its pursuit.

This isn’t intended as a history of greed, though that would be a worthy book for someone to write. The intent is to illustrate that the harms that humans inflict upon other humans are to a large degree propelled not by malevolence towards others but rather by the avarice of the self.

When you look at those areas of life involving human harm, when you examine the underlying causes of avoidable human suffering, you find that to a large extent the are sparked by greed. That isn’t to say that greed is the root of all human created ill. The other major factor is hatred (or malevolence or aversion); which I think has some connection to an expanded concept of greed, but that’s not a case I want to make here.

The point is that when you look at the things that bedevil humans, those areas that cause us grief or obstruct our fulfillment, those things that subtract from human well-being, you almost always find, either right at the core, deeply entertwined or as a signifigant subsidiary cause, the force of greed.

When I say greed, I mean desire beyond reasonable need and without regard to consequence; natural desire elevated to fundamental purpose.

Living creatures down to single celled organisms are wired to fulfill their needs to keep on keeping on as long as possible. For most creatures, life entails a delicate balance between desire and the capacity of the world. Human ingenuity with its expansion of the ecosystem of human possibilities create an inflationary universe of desire; greed is opened up to the imagination of infinite enticement.

Whatever problematic area you consider, you’ll find the involvement of greed. If you look at hunger, you’ll find that it’s mostly a subsidiary of poverty, that is, the reason people go hungry, isn’t primarily because of the lack of food, of a human inability to produce sufficient food to feed the planet, but rather because particular people don’t have the financial capability to buy the food their bodies require. So, in essence, we don’t have a hunger problem, we have a poverty problem.

The reason we have a poverty problem is deeply tied to human greed. That is, the reason we have poverty isn’t because our world doesn’t generate sufficient resources for everyone on this planet to live a decent and dignified human life. It is more because “the rights” to most of those resources end up channeled to a relatively small percentage of humans as made indelibly clear by the fact (as I quoted in my last post) that The World’s 85 Richest People Are as Wealthy as the Poorest 3 Billion.

This isn’t to say that the dynamics of poverty aren’t complex or that the solutions to it are simple.  Books like The Bottom Billion, Enough, Economic Gangsters, and Poverty in World History explore some of the factors involved in the creation and perpetuation of world poverty.

However, the underlying reason the world’s resources are so unequally distributed is greed; greed emanating from the wanting of more, more, more by those who already have so much, and their resistance to allowing the world’s riches to be more evenly spread. 

And this power of greed works on a world of global imbalances formed by colonialism and slavery, which were nothing but pure manifestations of greed cloaked in self-rationalizing narratives of superiority. Imbalances aggravated by kleptocratic governments which used the emergence from colonialism as an opportunity for plundering their own peoples.

The whole history of war, as I said earlier, can be seen largely as fuelled by the desires of kings, emperors, sultans, sheikhs, potentates, tyrants, of people who saw the world as an object which existed solely for their personal gratification. In our current time, the greed entwined with war often arises is somewhat less explicit ways.

Much of what lies behind military postures and actions is the idea of “national interests”. What constitutes these “national interests” are generally “territorial interests” and “economic interests”. Territoral interests represent land greed rather than money greed, and are a form of group greed. Economic interests are clearly a form of money greed. Further, when you look at what is professed by “national interests” it turns out that these interests mainly are to the benefit of a few.

Further, there is a whole system whose existence is depenedent on war, the military-industrial complex, arms merchants, and the expanding sector of private military corporations, the Blackwaters and their kind. For this sector, war is just business, an opportunity for profit.

And when you look consider the problems of crime and violence, again you find entanglement with greed. First, much of what comes to mind when we think of violence is the result of organized crime, that is crime organized for profit. The violence is not fundamentally motivated by an emotion of hate but is rather an instrumental tactic to protect a revenue stream, either against the government with its desired monopoly on violence or felonious competitors and one’s confederates who might sell out to them.

This includes all the manifestation of gangs, mafia, syndicates, drug cartels and their kin. And it radiates out to the harms caused by their wares including the drugs, the weapons, the human trafficking, the illegally dumped waste. Because one’s product line is appraised not by the human value it creates, but simply by the profit margin. In this sense, all these varities of organized crime are simply pure expressions of capitalism, enterprise unconstrained by value, human purpose downsized to return on investment.

And of course, there is the inverse of organized crime, that is the law and order complex. Just as with the military industrial complex, the function creates a system that benefits from the problem it is supposed to “solve”, whose interests are intimately connected to its continued well-being. In this case, it includes the whole complex of lawyers, judges, police and prisons.

That isn’t to say, that in either case the military or the legal that they don’t unfortunately continue to serve necessary functions in the world today. Nor is it to say that the people participating in those worlds are acting only out of self-interest. But it is necessary to understand you have to understand that both sides (crime & law or military & war) form interacting systems, and that there is money to be made on either side of the equation.

In particular, you have to look at mass incarceration in the U.S. as being an especially egregious example of the lure of profit in public policy. Prisons being until recently one of the few true growth industries left in this country, with the U.S. having the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world. And the extremely high rate of incarceration of African-Americans has had a profound and destabalizing impact on their communities, and on society in general.

While the concept of justice evokes the beautiful image of the blind goddess balancing the scales, in the real world justice is contaminated by money. Despite a 50 year old ruling by the Supreme Court declaring the constitutional right of all defendants to legal representation, regardless of whether they can afford it, in practice the quality and availability of these services to the poor is woefully deficient, as discussed in And Justice For Some, a 2013 Moyers & Company program.

And while if you steal $100, you get shuffled off to a plea bargain granting you felony status, if you’re a scandal plagued investment bank like Goldman Sachs who sells your clients high-risk mortgage bonds while shorting them yourself and who in general bears a lot of responsibility for the financial crisis, you get bailouts, bonuses and a get out of jail free card. Essentially, we live in a world summarized by the book title: The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison.

Beyond these legal defincies of justice, there are also underlying systemic connections between violence and inequality. While an exploration of these is beyond the scope of this already over-extended piece, it is clear that the differential of resources between the rich and the poor create dynamics that engender crime and violence, including unmet needs, inadequate education and healthcare, high levels of stress and perceptions of disrepect and maltreatment among many others. The book Violence, Inequality & Human Freedom by Peter Iadicola & Anson Shupe discusses these topics in depth (though somewhat more stridently than I would).

And if you want to explore more deeply on the intersections of violence, money, capitalism, wealth and poverty and greed, I recommend Peter Linebaugh’s book, The London Hanged, which examines how the gallows was used in 18th century London to teach the lesson: “Respect Private Property”.

The connection between human woes and economic circumstance extends to the biological realm as well. In The Impact of Inequality, epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson demonstrates the links between inequality and poor health, lower life expectancies, lower quality of life and violence. On the opposite side of the equation you can consider pharmaceutical companies who seem to be more concerned with pushing the maximum number of pills than with their need, safety or effectiveness. Or a food industry that fills the grocery shelves with high sugar, high fat, low nutrition foods. Or a Republican right that would rather cut foodstamps than subsidies to rich farmers and corporations.

Greed is also central to the whole meta-biological problem of enviornmental danger. Damage to the environment continues in order to protect revenue streams, analagous to a mafia hit, although here the harm is passive, a not wanting to change practice, an unwillingness to clean up one’s mess. It manifests in a sort of willed blindness to what economists call external costs.

This infestation of greed extends all the way to our social nucleus, corrupting our political system. 2 Moyers & Company programs from 2013, illuminate the extent ot this. In America’s Gilded Capital, Marc Leibovich discusses his book This Town, about the power of lobbying in D.C.  The United States of Alec explores how ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) while presenting itself as a non-partisan entity actually works to promote right-wing corporate special interests while trying to remain as invisible as possible, a quiet subversion of democratic process.

All of these topics are worthy of much greater analysis than this sketch is capable of. The point of all of this was to try illustrate in as few words as possible (and ending up with many more than I wished) the comprehensiveness of greed, the centrality of its involvement in self-created human woes.

While aware of the dangers of falling into a simplistic argument, a meaningless reductionism, still wanting to consider the causes and conditions underlying that myriad of concerns that we see as humanity’s problems. We tend to see an array of troubling areas, violence, war, poverty, hunger, health, environment, politics. Or even more finely grained, we look the immensity of particular issues in which these are manifest, down to specifities like whether to ban sodas over a given size, or even more specifically as to which size soda should be banned.

And while I realize that it is necessary to engage concretely with the particularities of our ongoing human undertaking, I also think that its important to comprehend the forest. While we can’t help but be immersed in the urgent demands of the present, it’s necessary to look at why we have the problems that we have, how they arise, their underlying structures, their causal matrices. If you look exclusively at surface manifestations, then you end up just pushing around a giant heap of lego blocks hoping they’ll transform into a palace.

When we look at the things that cause us grief, specifically at those which are within our realm of influence, so often we find the presence of greed, in various manifestations, with varying levels of involvement, direct, indirect, residual, overt, covert. The urgency of our self-willing propogates suffering not through an intent to harm but through a willingness either to harm or to allow harm in our self-pursuit.

The gravitational pull of greed permeates the entirety of our human existence. If we look into the many problems we see in the world, at a more fundamental level, we find that this problem of greed is implicated in so many of them. This power of greed moves humanity like the hypnoticism of the moon tides the ocean.













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