The Village Without Greed [Part 2]

DR: The financialising of industry and how it incentivises acquisition are manifestations of capitalism, the cornerstone of society. We have reached a point where banks, other financial bodies and large entities, including the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, are deemed ‘too big to fail’. I have no doubt that if such entities collapsed tomorrow, the economy would break down, everyone would suffer and lives would be lost. Yet, if it is this capitalist system that breeds the ‘devil of rapacity’, perhaps with foresight of the long run, we should abolish it.

But are we now—impossibly, disastrously, dystopically—miles away from the idea of a commune or a proper commonwealth or a village without greed?

I’m not too sure. In today’s global landscape, greed seems so ‘natural’ and prevalent that, in order to bring about change, a catalyst is required – something that can transform millions of discontented grumblings into an uprising en masse, in nothing short of a revolution. After all, Trotsky once remarked that if poverty was the cause of revolutions, there would be revolutions all the time because most people in the world are poor. However, do not historical events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, emulate the triumph of capitalism, often argued as the best system thus far?

As Winston Churchill once said: ‘The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.’

JS: As T S Eliot said of Dr Johnson, so I say of Churchill: a dangerous man to disagree with. But there must be some sliver of idealism that finds a way to split the difference between capitalism and socialism. Norway? Sweden? The key word for understanding the Swedish people is the untranslatable ‘lagom’—which refers to an equal sharing around of drink (just the right amount), pouring equal amounts in everyone’s glass—but by extension refers to equal measures of everything, from blessings to miseries. And perhaps that balance is some distant echo—by analogy—of Aristotle’s idea that only a perfectly balanced soul can make us happy, so we must pursue ‘a golden mean between extremes’. In our village without greed, the inhabitants must balance out excesses and deficiencies. Once we start to think globally, it would seem the chance for this sliver of idealism melts to nothing. But surely certain countries—or Scandinavia—at least approach the idea of equal sharing? Or I am being naïve and economically obtuse? It would not surprise me.

DR: I think the key to a world without greed lies in answering this question: is inequality inevitable?

Looking back to history, there was once no need for Economics as a study — the world as we know it did not exist. Man’s continuity relied on resource allocation through ways unlike the modern market system: resources were allocated either through tradition, religion or the ‘whip of authoritarian rule’. Adam Smith spoke about Egypt and remarked that ‘every man was bound by a principle of religion to follow the occupation of his father, and was supposed to commit the most horrible sacrilege if he changed it for another.’ Over time, the chains of tradition, religion and the authoritarian whip loosened, and now the majority of the world is made of mixed capitalist economies.

Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, asserts that these capitalist economies today inherently comprise income inequality and poverty, at least in our world of inequality-enhancing policies. He argues that inequality persists so long as the rates of return on investments exceed the rate of economic growth. Following this line of thought, Scandinavian success can be explained in one way: Sweden, Finland and Norway have growth in per capita incomes as much or greater than, for example, in the United States.

It is politics and policies that breed economic inequality. Poverty is man-made and unless politics is reformed from today’s rent-seeking society, inequality will continue. This, however, is extremely problematic as those who have the most power to instigate reform and improve social welfare tend to be the same people who are writing laws and making policies that directly oppose it. This corruption is self-perpetuating and, as time progresses, more and more difficult to combat. In no foreseeable future can I realistically see an end to it.

Even the introduction of an ‘authoritarian whip’ that forces a redistribution of wealth and therefore income equality would not change a greedy mind set. The basic economic problem is that we only have finite resources available to satisfy infinite wants. This is the reality of the modern world.

I argued in the beginning of this dialogue that greed isn’t natural but perhaps that applies only to earlier humans, like those from the Indus Valley civilisation of 3300 BC in the Bronze Age. Over time, humans evolve in order to adapt and survive. Today’s graspers tend to be rewarded in society, fulfilling positions of power and authority. How can we then pursue Aristotle’s idea of a ‘golden mean between extremes’ when political and therefore economic decree is stacked up against us?

But are we now—impossibly, disastrously, dystopically—miles away from the idea of a commune or a proper commonwealth or a village without greed?

In optimism — probably; in reality– yes.

JS: If so, then once again any sliver of idealism (and economic fairness) melts in the heat of Realpolitik. And the sad world of greed wags on. But is it really too late to seek a newer world. I am also reminded of Aristotle: ‘To be brave one need only act brave’. Why not

also say: ‘To be fair, one need only act fair’. That is, give the employees stock options, longer holidays and—most important of all—some way of being involved in the creativity of their work. In our village without greed, everyone can be an artisan, work only a few hours per day and subsist on a ration of grain and lentils and the odd fish speared in the Euphrates and now flopping about in the shallow basket you wove this morning. I know our village without greed can work only on a very smaller scale. Greed begins the moment someone thinks about storing up more grain and spearing more fish to sell to other villages. When any form of money enters the picture, life becomes a shell game and the villager who never once thought of being tricky and acquisitive, suddenly finds surplus and money fascinating. And we are on our way to Monopoly and monopolies. Our villagers’ minds forget craftsmanship and give in to the pull of having and owning. And so we end up in our fabulous shopping malls staring in stupefied lust at shiny and cheaply-made baubles we cared nothing about until we saw them two seconds ago. Is this a slippery slope argument or an inevitable, bullet-proof and ballot-proof narrative?

DR: Is it really too late to seek a newer world?

The argument that today, a capitalist society encourages, breeds and perpetuates greedy behaviour, assumes that human beings reflect the institutions in which they find themselves. Is the narrative you depicted – the evolution of greed – inevitable? It doesn’t have to be.

Following the belief that greed is not inherent to ‘human nature’ (unlike self-preservation), perhaps the key to our village without greed lies in political moralism. If humans are so malleable, we can solve the problem of greed and achieve a redistribution of material wealth, reaping the moral benefits available in the modern world and thus abolishing, in Kenneth Minogue’s words, ‘the two central pillars of politics: the individual, as self-interested, and the nation-state, on the ground that it is merely the organisation of collective selfishness’. If politics and economic allocation today were replaced by moral judgement, there would be no greed, crime, or poverty, for people would be perfectly socialised.

As previously expressed, I see not in the foreseeable future a time where such an idea would come to be. However, in the (very, very) long run, if the right steps are taken (‘give the employees stock options, longer holidays and—most important of all—some way of being involved in the creativity of their work’), perhaps our village without greed, or a world with equality, could evolve.

In recent decades, people have become disgruntled and dissatisfied with the current system: a new, liberal millennial revolution is in work with newer generations leaning to the left, and at some point in the future, when the capitalist system breaks down (perhaps through unrecoverable financial crises), the one which replaces it could be in line with the ethos of cooperation that underlines our village without greed.

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