The Dynamics of Greed


In my last post, The Power of Greed, I talked about how greed has acted as a causal force of history and can be found as an underlying source of most of the problems in the world today. While greed seems to have reached new heights in the world’s current extreme inequality. the point of looking at greed isn’t to condemn anyone (society, capitalism, the rich, the greedy or greed itself).

What I think is important is to look at the functional dynamics of greed, to see how it creates harm. If you look into it closely you see that greed can work in complex ways. Greed can cause harm directly like when someone is shot for their money. Or it can work indirectly as when a company sells a product it knows is unsafe or dangerous (as in the reported cases of Chinese companies that sold contaminated food); or even more indirectly, when the pollution from a manufacturing company causes future harm. Greed can also work passively through the allowing of suffering to persist that one could end, lessen or at least have influence upon the lessening or ending.

Regardless, however, of the variety of ways greed manifests itself, the essential thing to realize about greed is how it actually operates. Acting out of greed negates those who bear the consequences. The sufferers are not perceived as human in the way that the perpetrator senses himself. They are diminished, blotted out, their humanity rendered invisible.

In the state of greed, humans don’t relate to others as fellow humans, it is a world of non-human relations. The victims of greed are not sensed as human in the same way that the perpetrators experience themselves. Those others aren’t felt as equivalent to oneself, rather they are like cartoon characters flickering across the LCD screen of one’s cognition. One can’t be expected to treat those others as one would wish oneself to be treated if one isn’t fully attuned to their humanity.

In other words, when acting out of greed, others aren’t people at all, they are simply objects. They might be tools that can be utilized for one’s purposes, or obstacles on one’s yellow brick road, or just irrelevant occupants of the fallout zone of collateral damage.

Perhaps the purest example is that of slave holders (I’m thinking of those in the pre-Civil War South, but the same would apply to that long chain of slaveholders throughout history). They took other human beings to be their property, merchandise that could be bought and sold, objects whose purpose was solely to advance one’s economic interests. Being simply objects, they could be transported across the ocean, chained to the walls, in incredibly cramped and insufferably abject and unhygenic conditions. They could even on occaision discarded overboard in attempts to profit from insurance contracts. They could be whipped, beaten or raped without recourse. Their children or spouses could be sold away from them. Their interests, there feelings were not deemed worthy of any consideration at all.

Obviously, you couldn’t treat a slave that way and at the same time experience them as being a human being. Not in the same way that you would experience a relative, a friend, a fellow church member or even a passing white stranger in some far-off town, or even on another continent, to be human. The considerations that one might give to this set of others, the understandings one would have of them, the sentiments one might feel about them, the regard, respect, concern one might feel obliged to give them, the moral treatment to which one might feel they were entitled, none of these would apply to slaves.

Slaves were in essence conceived of as humanoids, creatures resembling humans but void of interior humanity. Their existence as humans was utterly nullified, their status as humans annulled. The slave holders were oblivious to the humanity of the slave, their minds could not be penetrated by any perceptions of human characteristics.

In his treatment of the slave, the slave holder was unencumbered by surges of sympathy. There was no overflowing of fellow feeling towards these subjects of his abuse. It was a relationship barren of human sentiment, a human vaccuum.

Of course, not every slave holder was equally bereft of feeling, not every slave equally abused. My example is the archetypal slave holder, an archetype rooted in cruel truth. And even the most benevolent, humane slave holder was still asserting the ownership of another human being, validating their reduction to less than human, sanctioning the conceivability of human beings as property. So, in that bleeding over of human sentiments into a non-human relationship, greed still flourishes, though in a somewhat diminished, less virulent form.

Whenever you find greed fueling an action where the person harmed is immediately present, you’ll find this negation of their humanity, its invisibilty to the actor. As with the more kindly slaveholder, this nullification varies with the scope of the action, the degree of harm, and the particularities of the individuals involved.

The examples, of course, are endless. Everything from the tyrant who kills a relative who might be a rival to their dominion, to the mobster who orders a hit on someone suspected of disloyalty, to the drug dealer who tries to hook young kids on his dope, to the boss who makes employees fear for their jobs in order to get them to work harder (as a note, I was once told upon being promoted to a management position in a small high-tech company that: “You’re job isn’t to help people, your job is to create fear.”; a mandate that I tried to create the illusion that I was following, with quite limited success, until leaving the company within a year).

The point is that in all these cases, those harmed are not seen as fully human, rather they exist as items to manipulated in behalf of greed. Their harm doesn’t flow from a desire to harm, it is just an irrelevant consequence. And not just irrelevant, but invisible, incapable of being perceived, thus “blinded by greed”.

Those photons aren’t processed because under the spell of greed, the world is only an extension of oneself; like an infant seeing the universe as one big me. The world isn’t a space for participating with other humans, but just a giant vending machine.

However, most suffering caused by greed comes not from those instances where the suffering is so immediate and direct. Rather it arises from the invisibility of remote consequences. Here, one archetype might be Bernie Madoff, getting very rich by deceiving investors through the illusionary returns of a pyramid scheme.

The harm itself didn’t become tangible for a number of years (while federal investigators thought the fraud began as early as the 1970’s, Madoff stated that the fraud began in the 1990s). In fact, Madoff’s fund appeared to be making a lot of money for investors. The fraud only unravelled starting late in 2008; the total size of the fraud was estimated as approximately $65 billion. There’s a good summary of the details in the Wikipedia entry, “Madoff investment scandal”.

Throughout the duration of the fraud, there was actually no harm to be seen, harm was only a future possibility (though I haven’t read anything on what Madoff’s thoughts about this were, but it seems he must have had some understanding that this possibility amounted to inevitability). But nonetheless he could conduct his “business” without direct exposure to consequences. Once there were consequences, business was no longer possible, those consequences as fatal to Bernie as he was, as they were the fiscal lives of his investors.

This invisibility of consequence is something I think you’ll find in some form whenever you look at greed operating from a distance. Other examples include the corporate lobbyist trading campaign contributions and other goodies for favorable legislative treatment, the bank that looks the other way in laundering money, the arms dealer, the car company that covers up possible defects that would cost only a few dollars per vehicle to prevent, the chemical company that makes life miserable for journalists investigating environmental damages their products might cause, the auto shop that fixes something on your car that wasn’t broken, even the ad agency that creates a misleading advertisement.

Here the dynamics of greed get a lot more complicated. There a lot of factors that can vary. The amount harm can vary in degree and range (how many people affected and how badly). One’s degree of involvement in the harm can vary, from being only a subsidiary cause to being the sole agent. The possibility of harm can range from small to almost certain. And the forseeability of the harm, one’s ability to calculate it’s possibility, can vary, as can the degree to which it can be comprehended.

For although harm might be created, greed can only be invoked if one is ability to comprehend the consequences. Otherwise it must be seen as inadvertent or accidental. If the consquences can’t be divined then it is innocent harm, even if it occurs through the pursuit of one’s self-interest.

The range of factors involved make truly looking at any individual act of greed a complex process. I’m not interested in constructing a schematic analysis of the dynamics of greed. What I want to focus on is the way greed renders its consequences invisible.

As I said, you can’t point at greed where the consequences are indecipherable. I’m referring to consequences that are comprehensible but are whited-out by greed. They enter the sphere of perception but are essentially over-ridden by the possibility of self-gain.

It is a more subtle version of the dynamic found in the negation of the slave’s humanity.  Perception  becomes dominated by the value that might be gained for one self. One turns an oblivious eye to the harm that might befall others in the process; they are irrelevant and their harm inconsequential to oneself. The agonizing deaths that might result from your company’s pollution don’t penetrate one’s conscousness; one sees only the potential lawsuits, the endangered market opportunities, the precariousness of one’s stock options, the hazards to one’s career.

This seeing for oneself effaces the envisioning of consequences, extinguishing any of those thoughts that might arises. The world of consequences is opaque, the world of self-benefit vivid and alluring. Or perhaps better to say that the consequences are made inert, transmuted into lifeless phantasms. Fluttering transparently on the fringes of consciousness they are neutered particles, void of charge, incapable of stimulating effect.

In the book, How Monkeys See The World, Dorothy Cheyney & Robert Seyarth state: “Apparently, monkeys see the world as composed of things that act, not things that think and feel.” (page 308). But is this much different from the perceptions of someone acting out of greed? The difference is that in the case of human greed, the thinking and feeling of the humans may be understood on a conceptual level, but only as part of the calculation of strategy and tactics of self-advantage. Their thinking and feeling are simply data that one must take account of in order to most effectively grasp for oneself, not as wonderous arisings that merit appreciation and concern. While they may be understood to think and even feel, they are still primary understood as things, objects to use.

This outward dynamic of greed that I’ve been talking about, is a dynamic of invisibility of consequence. This invisibility arises through a self-eclipse of the world of others, a blotting out all consequences except the consequences for oneself. It is an unconsciousness of the tangible humanity of others.

In greed, the world isn’t an environment one exists within, not a space of mutual human interaction. Rather the world is inverted into a place that exists for oneself, a field of self-gratification; other humans simply potentialities for self-enhancement. Ultimately, greed is the theology of the self.







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  1. Pingback: The Spell of Greed | Unfolding Human

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