Greed, capitalism and human nature

Posted on October 21, 2011

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There is a fresh excuse being offered to explain the crisis that continues to beset the world. But it is hardly new. During social and economic crises over the past century and more, the same old argument about greed being the source of human ills has been trundled out.

According to this argument, people are inherently greedy; it is part of our nature, an inborn instinct that makes our competitive, dog-eat-dog economic and social system perfectly logical. It is now being trotted out again as something about which we can do nothing, a burden that humanity must simply live with.

At the height of the the still booming 1980s, greed was actually hailed in many quarters. It was summed up in the1987 film, Wall Street, that included the famous line: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Brokers, money lenders, corporate executives and wheeler dealers of various types were making fortunes. In South Africa, once the mass uprisings of the decade had brought about the talks that led to a non-racial dispensation, much the same applied. Hope of a better life for all was in the air, encouraged largely by a growing tide of easy credit.

Then, on the back of the greed that motivated financial institutions, obscene levels of executive pay and a tangled mass of sub prime mortgages, came the crash. It, in turn, heralded the arrival of vast amounts of now toxic assets and catapulted the world into perhaps the most severe economic crisis in history.

As the crunch began to be felt, first in the United States and then Europe, various local luminaries, including then finance minister Trevor Manuel, insisted that South Africa was immune from the contagion. They were wrong and the consensus across the board now seems to be that worse is yet to come.

Against this background, blame is increasingly being laid on uncontrolled greed. Because, the argument goes, greed, in and of itself, cannot be dispensed with; it is part of “human nature”.

One of the latest proponents of this refurbished and threadbare explanation is Econometrix chief economist Azar Jammine. In a radio discussion this week he argued that, because of greedy human nature, there is really no alternative to the system in which we now live and in which so many suffer. The question, it seems, is only how best to control a perfectly natural impulse to accumulate as much as each of us can, irrespective of what we need.

This approach caused some caustic comments within the labour movement. Officials within the four labour federations maintained that the “greed thesis” flies in the face available evidence.

They, along with rank and file members, also listed a wealth of evidence, ranging from the caring and sharing among communities in rural areas and townships to the fact that unionised workers throughout the country willingly surrendered a day’s pay in 2000 to launch the multi-million rand Job Creation Trust (JCT) to benefit the unemployed.

The establishment of the JCT alone should have put paid to the argument that greed motivates unionised workers struggling for better wages and conditions. But it is also generally acknowledged that the majority of low-paid workers provides an unofficial social security safety net for up to ten dependents. And the greater the job losses, the greater the number of dependents and the greater the need for more income.

Numerous examples of poorly paid doctors and nurses working in rural and township clinics, often in difficult conditions also emerged, along with many cases of the practical application of that much discussed and all too frequently abused concept, ubuntu. Families with only one member in regular employment “sharing the pot” are more the rule than the exception in many areas.

But while greed seems not to be seen as inherent, it is also admitted that the idea of universal greed has wide currency and tends to be accepted even among people who profess that they are, themselves, not greedy. “In fact you will find very few people who will admit to being greedy, even when they say others are,” notes Federation of Unions general secretary, Dennis George.

He admits that the contradiction inherent in this position also tends to be ignored. So the idea of greed being an ingrained part of “human nature” continues to be propagated, often with justifications drawn from popular pseudo-scientific books. Well-respected American zoologist JP Scott once noted about such writings that they were akin to a “bad pizza”, having choice tidbits of information embedded in dough of half-baked ideas.

But in the modern, “scientific” era, the the concept of greedy, aggressive humanity goes back more than 100 years to “survival of the fittest” distortions of the work of Charles Darwin on human evolution. It was this distorted “social Darwinism” that led the Prussian general Friedrich von Bernhardi to claim in 1912 that war was “a biological necessity”.

“This is absolute nonsense,” says National Union of Mineworkers media officer, Lesiba Seshoka. Like several other unionists, he points to the essential difference between humans and other animals: the ability to reason.

And reason, says National Council of Trade Unions general secretary, Manene Samela, makes it clear that, in order to survive, humanity must stop the plundering of the earth’s resources by a minority motivated by greed.

“Of course there is greed. The system promotes it; greed is the incentive of the system,” he says.

Cosatu national spokesperson, Patrick Craven agrees: “Capitalism is based on greed and creates a moral climate which can seep through to the public sector. We need to fight for an alternative based on co-operation and mutual respect.”

One response of the labour movement is the campaign for decent work for everyone. Campaigning for decent work and a decent living for all is seen as spearheading the fight against greed.

“It is the opposite of the legalised looting and theft that is the present capitalist system,” says Confederation of SA Workers’ Unions, general secretary, Khulile Nkkushubana.