New Internationalist

Why Are We Greedy?

Issue 137

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THE RICH [image, unknown] Why we want more and more

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Why are we greedy?
Wanting enough to keep body and soul together, perhaps a few luxuries, fair enough. But why do we want more and more, and admire those who have the most? Roger Griffin cleans the dust off the ideas of the great thinkers, from de Tocqueville to Galbraith, who have answers for our actions.

WHEN multi-millionaire Paul Getty was interviewed by the BBC’s Alan Whicker he made sure the occasion was someone else’s dinner party to avoid the cost of entertaining. He was careful with money:

‘Care clings to wealth: a thirst for more grows as our fortunes grow.’ Nearly two thousand years after Horace wrote these lines social psychologist Erich Fromm observed greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction’. But while both writers point to the craving for material possessions as a timeless weakness there is a profound difference between them. The Roman poet was condemning a vice on a par with the other classic ‘sins’ such as pride and sloth. The contemporary social critic is commenting on an all-pervasive mentality.

What lies behind the urge to accumulate?

Various attempts have been made to answer such questions. In the early 19th century French social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville explained the ‘feverish acquisitiveness he observed among Americans as the natural response of immigrants. After all, they were fresh from the deprivations of the Old World and being unleashed on the unlimited resources apparently offered by the New. This might also explain the greed of Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and other white settler colonies. But it would not account for the insatiable consumerism so rife a hundred years later among the descendants of such settlers and also in the modern Europe they left behind. J K Galbraith implies a psychological explanation of a different kind in his analysis of our Affluent Society. He refers to a ‘dependence effect’ of buying, arguing that the relentless production and consumption of goods so basic to our way of life ‘only fills a void it has itself created’. The futile attempts of the consumer to satisfy his addiction to material wants Galbraith compares with ‘the efforts of a caged squirrel to keep abreast of the wheel that is propelled by his own exertions’. But reference to fevers and compulsiveness are little more than metaphors and do not get to the heart of the matter: what has caused such self-defeating behaviour to be ‘normal’?

A more profound theory about the emergence of the ‘consumptive’ society was formulated by Max Weber. In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism he set out to explain how people are ‘dominated by acquisition as the purpose of life; and no longer as a means of satisfying their material needs’. Another paradox was that the desire for more and more money was so often combined with ‘the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment. The clue to the rise to social prominence of such materialist’ moreons’ in the West was to be found in the spiritual crisis provoked by Calvinism. Its radical rejection of any certainty of salvation that had been bound up with traditional Catholicism brought about an ‘unprecedented inner loneliness’. Believers could no longer be sure they were not damned to eternal torment. The solution was to combat temptation by total dedication to purity and work. In this way there appeared the phenomenon Weber calls worldly asceticism’ with its typical watch words ‘waste not, want not and ‘time is money’. The parable of the talents telling us that ‘for unto every one that bath shall be given, but from him that bath not shall be taken away even that which he bath’ now started to be quoted as if God himself endorsed the principles of economic laissez-faire.

But however relevant Weber’s theory is to an understanding of the formative period of capitalism, it only raises new questions in the context of modern society. Now that God is not only dead but never existed for the vast majority of Westerners, why do so many still feel the urge to ‘succeed’? Why do the Jackie Kennedies and JR’s of the world continue to exert fascination over millions from the newspapers and television screens of all countries? And are the wealthy really ‘so ascetic - The private lifestyles of Prince - Andrew or Paul McCartney are light-years removed from those of Calvin or Cromwell, for whom music and even the eating of Christmas puddings were suspect activities.

Nevertheless Weber’s premise that there is something fundamentally irrational about the West’s consuming passion’ has been endorsed by most subsequent social theorists. One of the most sustained and original critiques of it is offered by the writings of Eric Fromm. His Sane Society investigates the charge that the ‘normal’ values of the West are in fact sick. It’s an open and shut case for him. Most of the inhabitants of industrial society are so much in the grip of a collective neurosis that we are hardly fit to stand trial. The web of materialist and competitive forces which shape our lives precludes a healthy relationship with our work, our fellow human-beings and above all ourselves. Alienation is not only the lot of workers and unemployed. In a less conspicuous way alienation permeates even the lives of the well-off, whose money has come not from personal creative work but from nebulous transactions, a permutation of figures on certificates and balance sheets. In fact the silicon age is in the process of making wealth even more metaphysical: in the latest banking systems money is literally no more than the electronic pulses stored in the computer’s memory - even the digital read-out for mortals is secondary. Fromm suggests that the key to the psychology of someone afflicted by greed is that the need for genuine emotional security has been perverted into one for securities. Personal growth has been bartered for capital growth. Eric Fromm’s later book To Have and to Be concentrates on the psychological defect which has caused people, sensations, time, health, love, even ideas and beliefs, to be treated as something to be owned rather than enjoyed. The last few decades have seen the appearance of the ‘marketing character’ for whom everything, even his own personality, has become a ‘commodity’, something for which to create a demand. Such people are unable to care ‘not because they are selfish but because their relationship to others and to themselves is so thin. This may also explain why they are not concerned with the dangers of nuclear and ecological catastrophy even though they know all the data that point to those dangers’, And why the plight of the Third World has less impact on them than the scratch on a new car. Thus, for Fromm, what ensures the perpetuation of the misery among the have-nots of the world is the spiritual impoverishment which goes with being a ‘have.’

When Princess Anne visited the drought areas of Western Africa recently on behalf of the Save the Children Fund, it was depressingly predictable that press coverage was given more to the fact that a ‘royal’ had the courage to witness such distressing sights than to the starvation and suffering she was there to publicise.

As long as the rich and famous are the focus of so much envy, adulation and fantasy it is difficult to see how the pathology of acquisitiveness can be stopped.

Roger Griffin is a specialist in mass communications at the Oxford Polytechnic, UK.

The value of a treasure hoard

Once upon a time, in China, there was a priest who was both avaricious and rich, He loved jewels, which he collected, constantly adding more pieces to his wonderful hoard, which he kept securely locked away, hidden from any eyes but his own,

Now the priest had a friend who visited him one day and who expressed interest in seeing the gems.

‘I would be delighted to take them out. so that I, too, could look at them,’ said the priest.

So the collection was brought and the two feasted their eyes on the beautiful treasure for a long time, lost in admiration.

When the time came for him to leave, the priest’s guest said:

‘Thank you giving me the treasure!’

‘Do not thank me for something which you have not got’, said the priest, ‘for I have not given you the jewels, and they are not yours at all,’

His friend answered:

‘As you know, I have had as much pleasure from looking at the treasures as you, so there is no difference between us, as you yourself only look at them - except that you have the trouble and expense of finding, buying, and looking after them.’


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