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How to fight greed

November 19, 2011
Wednesday, December 3, 2008 – 11:00
By Tim Dobson

“Poor Human Nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from King to policeman, from the flathead parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and the weaknesses of human nature. Yet how can anyone speak of it today, with every soul in a prison with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?” — Emma Goldman

Everyone has probably heard one or another argument about what is in our nature. Humans are naturally greedy and selfish, the argument goes, therefore socialism, or a more equitable society, can’t possibly work, because it goes against our very nature.

The futility of trying to prevent wars is brought out by some in the argument “humans are naturally aggressive”.

If you were to ask the very same people making these arguments if they were greedy, selfish and aggressive themselves, they would probably deny it, yet if it is “human nature”, then all human beings must be that way.

But the argument itself betrays an inability to imagine a society based on co-operation, a society organised around the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

The argument is based on a belief that whatever exists today, must always have existed and must always exist. However, just as the world around us constantly changes, so do human beings, as they respond to the world.

Friedrich Engels pointed out in his 1883 book Dialetics of Nature: “All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change.”

Or, as Karl Marx put it, “all [human] history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature”. What is “natural” now would have been unheard of 1000 years ago, as it will be in the future. What is “natural” for us now will one day be seen as antiquated and outdated.

Greed has been a constant source of discussion around the latest crisis in capitalism, with many people seeking to blame greed as the cause of the problem.

PM Kevin Rudd, commenting on the crisis, said “We’ve seen the triumph of greed over integrity”, while the Australian Greens say “Greed got us into the global financial crisis”.

But is it just greed that caused the crisis?

The economic system under which we currently live, capitalism, is based on profit and competition. Businesses exist to make profit.

With more profit comes the ability and necessity to invest that profit, to make even more money.

Businesses must compete with each other to sell their goods, so there is a constant battle between businesses to achieve the most amount of profit. If they don’t compete, they rarely survive: bigger companies take over their market share or buy them out.

That is why even those who open businesses with good intentions — who want to provide a service to the community and want to pay their workers well — find it hard to survive. Profit is what is necessary for businesses to survive, not good intentions.

In the lead-up to the current financial crisis, the mortgage lenders and the banks weren’t acting illogically: they were acting logically under the laws of capitalism. They were seeking to make a profit.

The extension of massive amounts of credit is the only way that capitalism can continue to grow, particularly in countries like the United States, where real wages have declined since the mid ’70s.

Credit accelerates the development of technology throughout the world but it also turns capitalist production into the “purest and most colossal system of gambling and swindling” as Marx said in Capital.

Greed itself is a symptom, not a cause, of the current problems we face. The cause is an economic system based on profit above all else.

Under capitalism, labour itself is a commodity. Everyone needs to sell their labour power in order to receive a wage to be able to afford to live. But, to keep that wage, we must compete against other individuals in order to be hired. We are only employed as long as we help the business to maximise its profits.

In the US, around one trillion dollars — one sixth of gross domestic product — is spent on marketing each year. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview in 1998: “Marketing is manipulation and deceit. It tries to turn people into something they aren’t — individuals focused solely on themselves, maximising their consumption of goods that they don’t need.”

If we live in a world based on competition — between businesses to make profit and between individuals for employment — is there any wonder that greed exists?

Can we transcend this economic system to one no longer based on competition? Humans are social beings, we rely upon one another in order to survive and meet our needs, whether they be physical or emotional. Massive amounts of social co-operation have always been necessary in order for any society or even any factory to function.

To eliminate greed we need to look at moving beyond the economic system that encourages it. Resistance, a socialist youth organisation, fights for socialism, for a world in which our nature as social beings can flourish or, in the words of Marx and Engels, “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

From GLW issue 777

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