Greed is really interesting to think about in these times of financial meltdown.
On the one hand, there is definitely a certain amount of personal greed in the world. It’s the kind of greed we call out when, say, I polish off the half-gallon of ice-cream when there was still half of it left. Let’s call it subjective greed, greed that is most visible in terms of a definite agent and the stuff they are trying to have for themselves—subjective because the latter are largely dependent on subjective tastes and wants of the agent. On the other hand, there’s a kind of greed that exceeds all human proportions of want and need. Let’s call it objective greed, greed that is objective because it operates beyond or otherwise with no regard for the constraints of subjective taste and want. It is harder to call out, but one form of objective-greed, if not simply its alternative designation, is the profit-motive.
I draw the distinction in the same way that Slavoj Zizek distinguishes subjective from objective-violence in his new book, “Violence.” However, I have yet to really think a full parallel with how he gets into symbolic and divine violence. I don’t rule it out though.
I feel that we need to make this distinction because why a person would push his or her company to make a profit of $250,000,000 over, say, $10,000,000—or, rather, why use profit to generate more profit to generate more profit to generate more profit—cannot be accounted for by greed in the stupid everyday sense sense that I eat all the ice-cream. The profit-motive is not reducible to simple human greed. The profit-motive is fundamentally inhuman, which is why Marx aptly described Capitalism as a vampire, a figure of the undead.
From one perspective, it seems like all this excessive systemic greed is really the conglomerate of our consumerism on the individual level of subjective greed. Left here, I think this is an extremely simplistic idea. This idea assumes, for one thing, that everyone fucked over by the “greed” of the system is also those who engage it for the satisfaction of their subjective greed. Tell that to the hundreds of millions of workers in China or SE Asia who live on less than a dollar a day. Also, if we think the only thing at play is subjective-greed, then we think the proper response to “Capitalist greed” is not substantially different from how we deal with subjective-greed: regulation.
If Capitalist excess (i.e. overproduction) were a function of everyday subjective greed, there wouldn’t be the excess though. There is no room for excess in our everyday experience of greed, which never makes us want more or other than what we want. When we greedily eat all the ice-cream and maybe start into another gallon, we eventually stop because we have had all we want. Simple human greed is basically rational only in the sense that it is regulated by a certain sense of “enough,” even if that is to the detriment of others.
What propels our economy is a profit-motive that is by definition beyond or other than human need and want; it is its own ends and makes us the means. To address, whether approvingly or critically, the engine of Capitalism as simple human greed is to fall for the economic equivalent of Kant’s “transcendental illusion.”