Friday, April 10, 2009
The path of Greed
These London demonstrators seem to
instinctively get philosopher Francois
Flahault's point that "The desire for
existence that has taken the path of greed
becomes a blind addiction. A way of being
that one cannot undo." (Photo: Leon Neal /
AFP / Getty Images
Daya has made the profound observation that "It had taken man 2,500 years to come back to the truth stated by the Buddha... It was man’s greed which led to inequality and suffering, it will continue to cause suffering, until we can do away with our greed and envy."
This article by François Flahault, makes the same point.
The Abuse of the Desire for Money or the Drugs of Capitalism
by François Flahault
Are politicians thinking about the common good when they talk about "moralizing capitalism?" Undoubtedly, they are primarily thinking that they must calm discontent to maintain their credibility: a democratic state is supposed to fulfill the function of third party between the powerful and the weak. Yet now, even in the United States, which, through skillful electoral marketing, had long succeeded in making the poor vote for the rich (a success that has created imitators), the crisis has just reminded everyone that a gap exists between those two groups.
Must the search for the common good translate itself into a "moralization of capitalism?" All things considered, that would be a rather advantageous compromise for economic actors. Since everyone is painting themselves over in green (as ecology makes compulsory), why not also "communicate" the ethical character of companies, as long as a few concessions are being made anyway?
To the extent that it underestimates the balance of power, moral discourse plays its role, however involuntarily, in concealing those power relationships, that is, in the staging of rationality. The big economic and financial groups are powers, forces. We need to extend Montesquieu's great idea about the limitation of powers to the relations between politics and the economy. Since every power naturally tends to exert and extend itself, none self-limits of its own volition. Only one force can limit another force. In these last few months many economists have said what must be done to reform capitalism. Now, it remains to gather together the forces that would allow it to be done: a thing all the more difficult to do, given that one of the great victories of economic power has been to convert politicians to a doctrine which facilitates the supremacy of economic power.
Economic science generally and the free market doctrine in particular can be seen as a staging of rationality. Justifiable and convincing in many respects, that staging only makes it all the easier to forget power relations and the desire for power.
As we have seen, the faith in self-regulation applied to financial markets is altogether illusory. But if the role attributed to it in economic theory is questionable, there's another role it plays that the theory does not discuss, but which it fulfills particularly well: convincing economic actors (especially the most powerful ones), and, where possible, politicians, that it is useless to concern themselves with the common good, useless to worry about the long term. One need only leave it to the invisible hand: natural providence which all by itself achieves the common good. Under the appearance of rationality, the lack of accountability that is encouraged this way leaves the field wide open to the strongest.
The Desire for a Rolex
This staging of rationality is used to give credence to the figure of the individual transparent to himself, of the thinking person in a world of things. What must not be allowed to show through is that at the very heart of economic calculations, humans continue to grapple with one another, and that, within those interactions, they are not as transparent to themselves as they want to be or believe themselves to be.
In reality, trust, mistrust, desires, passions, all that has no less place in business than in private life - to which one would like to confine affect. Calculations, figures, cleverly thought-out strategies, yes, the means are rational. But the ends? The desire to enrich oneself has nothing rational about it. It's a matter of passion, if one understands "passion" to mean all that relates to the desire to exist, to the desire to enjoy one's place among others, and, if possible, a good place. A childish desire that persists into adulthood. The desire to own a Rolex, for example. Nonetheless, the desire to exist is not necessarily puerile. Testifying to the universal life force that moves us all, it deserves our complete attention.
The desire to exist has no content fixed by our genes, no object that responds to it, as water does to thirst. That makes it a desire without object or limit. Hence the reason desire for money is so largely shared: money is that substance which exists in unlimited quantities and with which one may buy all that one wants.
Except that it's not a substance, but the fruit of shared trust, a liquid that exists only on condition that it circulate. That's why abuse of the desire for money ruins confidence and trust, drying up its circulation. If there's any truth the crisis has returned to our notice, it's certainly that one. Already in 2003, economist Frédéric Lordon took the excess in the desire for money altogether seriously. The following year, Michel Aglietta and Antoine Rebérioux published "Dérives du Capitalisme Financier" ["Aberrations of Financial Capitalism"] (éd. Albin Michel).
How would they have been heard? The desire for existence that has taken the path of greed becomes a blind addiction. A way of being that one cannot undo. For a person who has embarked down the path of excess, orienting himself to a more moderate way of life would be experienced as a reduction in diet, as being less. Ask repentant (or laid-off) traders: they will tell you about this intense addiction that tied them to the unfolding of numbers across the screen and to money that became, as for Dostoyevsky's "Gambler," simultaneously everything and nothing.
Another lesson from the crisis: the fact of being a cog in an immense machine maintains a feeling of legitimacy. For the more a way of being is shared, the more it seems justified to those who have adopted it. If I lose my way along with others, I am unaware of losing my way.
Even when, under the impact of mimetic competition, my greed spirals out of control. To maintain one's position among others is experienced as a justification. What's important is that those who pay for the game, whatever their number and whatever harm they undergo, be outside the circle of those who stick together.
François Flahault is a philosopher and director of research at the [French] National Center for Scientific Research whose most recently published book is Le Crépuscule de Prométhée. Contribution à une Histoire de la Démesure Humaine ["Twilight of Prometheus. Contribution to a History of Human Excess"], (Mille et une nuits, 2008).
Translation: Leslie Thatcher