Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Question Everything: Is Greed Good?


Mark Featherstone

As George Osborne, Chancellor of the Con-Lib Coalition government announced the ‘emergency budget’ to try to balance Britain’s deficit, I was put in mind of last week’s BBC Hardtalk interview with Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, and subject of Oliver Stone’s forthcoming documentary on the return of socialism in Latin America, South of the Border. Although this may seem like a strange comparison, I think that drawing a contrast between Chavez and Osborne is interesting because it sheds light on both the nature of contemporary society and in my view the key purpose of sociology today.

In the BBC interview, Chavez, who rarely talks to the western media, told us that not only does capitalism not work, but also that it is destroying the world. Unsurprisingly Osborne speaks of ‘economic emergency, toughness, and a prosperous enterprise led future’. Immediately, the difference between the two speakers is clear. The contrast between Chavez and Osborne could not be more stark. In Chavez’s talk the key point is the transformation of capitalism as a system of exchange, which is, in his view, inherently exploitative.

In Osborne’s budget speech the idea of the form of the economic system is bracketed out in favour of an attempt to re-balance the economy, cut debt, and create equilibrium. Clearly, from the realist’s point of view, Chavez’s talk represents a kind of utopian rhetoric. How is it possible to change the system today? Surely the idea of criticising capitalism itself, the system of economic exchange we live by, is madness? The Cold War is over. In the wake of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, all sane people accept that ‘there is no alternative’.

However, once we accept this position we close off the possibility of radical change and George Osborne is one of two characters pushed centre stage. The other is, of course, Gordon Brown. Whereas Osborne represents one phase of capitalism, bust, and the attempt to restart the economy from a stable base, Brown represents the other side of the capitalist economy, boom, characterised by the good times, when we spend money we have not got and worry about it later. George Osborne is bust, worry, and recession embodied and his best hope of maintaining any level of popularity is to try to blame everything on his alter-ego, Gordon Brown, and continue to talk about over-reaching, over-spending, and the over-inflated credit bubble of the New Labour years. Osborne and Brown are, therefore, the two faces of capitalism and they cannot be seperated.

But while these two characters represent the intra-systemic function of capitalism, which is why we will never see an Osborne or a Brown think about the value of the system itself, Chavez sits outside of capitalism and is in this respect extra-systemic. Chavez recognises the evils of capitalism related to poverty, inequality, domination, exploitation, and environmental destruction. He is, however, not the only extra-systemic character on the scene. The other character who reflects properly on the wider system is represented by another Oliver Stone invention, Michael Douglas’ brilliant Gordon Gekko, who famously told us in 1987 that ‘greed is good’.

Why is Gordon Gekko extra-systemic? Gordon Gekko is extra-systemic because he is not concerned with either boom or bust, but rather the ethic of the system. For Gekko the system is not evil, in the way it is for Chavez, but rather good in the original ancient use of the word, meaning the best way of living. Gekko sees opportunity everywhere. There is money to be made in the good times, and as Naomi Klein has recently shown us in her book on disaster capitalism, there is certainly money to be made in the bad times. This is why Wall Street, and Gordon Gekko, are such important cinematic creations. They tell us a lot about the contemporary world. In many respects the dominant philosophy in the world over the last thirty years was summed up by Gekko, ‘greed is good’. We don’t need to say any more.

And one would have to say that greed has been very good for a lot of people in the world for a very long time. The 1980s, 1990s, and much of the first decade of the 21st century have seen massive economic growth across the world, but also an ever widening gulf between the world’s haves and have nots. Supporters of capitalism would, of course, tell us about ‘trickle down’ and the ‘invisible hand’, explaining that society benefits from greedy people making money for themselves in the shape of job creation.

Unfortunately, this does not really help those people who suffer when the bubble bursts, the economy crashes, and we enter a period of bust. For this reason, and because it takes social effects as a by-product that either happen or do not happen, what we might call the social ethic of capitalism is profoundly asociological. The wealth of the greedy individual always comes first in capitalism. If there is a social effect, it is an unintended consequence, a kind of risk of the enterprise, a cost built into the project of making money in the shape of the inevitability that the capitalist will always lose some profit in social effects, thereby inadvertently wasting money giving to others.

However, perhaps even here, in wasting money on others, there is profit to be made if one plays the ethical card, thereby justifying one’s own greed by saying that it is in fact a socially responsible vice whereby making money for oneself makes money for others who are unable to do so for themselves. So update Gekko slightly, telling everybody greed is ethically good, and you can continue to make a fortune at everybody else’s expense, and avoid criticism. It is, of course, enormously important to be able to do this.

The capitalist philosophy of greed is enormously seductive, but it is also sleazy and needs to be kept out of sight, hidden behind a veil of respectability. This is why Gordon Gekko is such a brilliant characterisation of capitalism. An obscene or pornographic invention who says too much, tells it like it is, and reveals everything: greed is good, which one of us would not want to live a life of luxury, riches, and vice, if society allowed it?

For a long time of course this life was the province of the adventurer, the philanderer, the cheat, but what has happened recently is that capitalism has more or less legitimised the pursuit of luxury in line with Gekko’s advice in the creation of a society organised around the principle of enjoyment and pleasure. But quite apart from the fact that legitimation takes all the fun out of fun, the social effects of this transformation are disastrous, and this is part of what has happened in what David Cameron calls contemporary broken Britain. When the individual has no responsibility to anybody but themselves and their own enjoyment, society is in trouble, and no amount of attempts to attach a minimal sociological dimension to greed by talking about trickle down and the socio-economic benefits of consumption will change that fact.

The problem of the capitalist philosophy of greed is, therefore, that it is enormously seductive, because it taps into our base desires, and it produces a normless society, that is endlessly on the edge of collapse, and for this reason makes the philosophy of greed, pleasure, and enjoyment even more seductive. What we can see then is that the kind of society this philosophy produces is not really one anybody would want to live in unless you could be sure you would be able to satisfy your desires and would not consigned to the mass of people consigned to the endless frustration at not being able to enjoy in a society geared around endless enjoyment.

And this is not the worst of the story. The division between those who enjoy and those who are frustrated probably marks out the key division in rich western nations, but the problem of the haves and haves not takes on an entirely new dimension based on survival when we turn out attention to the relationship between the west and the rest. It is here, in the division between two kinds of inequality (rich societies based on a division between those who enjoy and those who are endlessly frustrated versus a global economy of haves who live in luxury and have nots who struggle to survive), that the difference between Osborne and Chavez resides, and the reason why it seems so strange to compare them.

An effective comparison between them requires us, rich westerners, to make a shift in perception, suspend our normal view of reality, and see the world from a different point of view. We have to move from thinking like Osborne, who talks about the economy of enjoyment and frustration, in a society where people more or less accept capitalism as a good way to live, to thinking like Chavez, who talks about the economy of luxury and immiseration, where the situation is more or less intolerable for the majority of people who live on the edge of survival. This is properly sociological.

But making this shift throws up new questions. Why is making money, why is greed, always exploitative? Why can’t I be greedy, have things my own way, and forget about other people. Do I have to hurt other people? Is capitalism really a zero-sum game, where my making money means you must live in poverty? Does capitalism have to divide over enjoyment and frustration and luxury and immiseration? The answer to these related questions sends us back to classical sociology. Karl Marx teaches us that like society, capitalism is a relation, a relation based on unequal exchange and exploitation, and that there can be no real equality under capitalism. If I make money, I make money out of you, and you are exploited. My enjoyment is premised on your frustration and so on.

In light of this recognition one can see that it is perhaps the greatest trick that capitalism has ever played, a trick it has been able to play particularly well over the last thirty years, to conjure the idea that capitalism is fair and that is possible to have some form of equality in capitalist social relations.

In the first phase of industrial capitalism there was little sense that this was a system based on anything but naked exploitation. Hence, the rise of socialism and communism. In the wake of the first great crash in the 1920s, a new form of capitalism emerged based on social responsibility, but the problem with this was that it was honest to its word. The result of this honesty was a contraction of capitalism as a profit producing machine. Hence the rise of the current brand of capitalism based in naked exploitation and the fantasy of reform aimed at producing more equal societies, and a more equal world.

The evidence of this new fantastic brand of capitalism is everywhere. Consider the third way, which suggested that it was possible to have free market profiteering, and a society based in greed, and social welfare, and a fair society. And what about philanthropic capitalists? Contrary capitalist who make enormous amounts of money, only to give a small portion back to the people they exploited in the first place, once they have made their money and secured their position at the top of the economic food chain.

There is no doubt that there is a great deal of fantasy about the new brand of capitalism, but the problem may have been that too many people let the fantasy run away with them and actually bought into the idea of endless enjoyment without exploitative social relations. The problem with the fantasy here is whether it was consciously understood to be a fantasy and was therefore a cynical attempt to deceive people, dampening down their unrest, unhappiness, and frustration, or whether the exponents of the third way actually believed in the fantastic idea of socialistic capitalism.

Regardless of what one thinks about this, it seems that today the idea of endless enjoyment is over, and nobody believes that it is possible to have this, that, and other without paying for it, with the result that we are now entering the so-called age of austerity where we will have to suffer and stop enjoying ourselves. I think that it is likely that the result of this belt-tightening will be the rise of a new form of class consciousness, a new sensitivity to exploitative social relations, similar to that rehearsed by the recent ‘outing’ of the financial sector and bonus culture and MPs and their corrupt expenses culture, and that this will make Chavez’s extra-systemic anti-capitalist message more relevant to those in rich western countries, who have for too long ignored the socialist critique of global capitalism because they simply did not need to bother about the poverty of those in far off places.

It may be the case then that after twenty or thirty years on top Gordon Gekko, the philosopher of capitalism unleashed and desire realised, may be about to give way to Chavez, the champion of public ownership, free health care, and free education, as we are forced to do what Marx told us to do long ago, and good sociologists should always do, question everything, including and especially those things that seem absolutely beyond question, such as the capitalist system itself.

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