Concerning “Greed” and Romantic Anti-Capitalist Nostalgia for a “Kinder,” “Gentler” Capitalism Past

Public outrage at "corporate greed" is hardly a new thing


If you ask protestors what the root of capitalist society is, one common response you will hear is “greed” or “corporate greed.” Greed, however, is hardly unique to the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism is not simply founded on greed. Max Weber made this abundantly clear in his outstanding introduction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. For it must be so: in a wholly capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction. (Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Pgs. xxxi-xxxii).

Beyond this basic point, the problem with seeing “greed” as the root of all society’s evils is that it mistakes an epiphenomenal characteristic of capitalism for something more fundamental. It is remarkable the way that capitalism tames the traits of greed and competitiveness into our everyday patterns of behavior. Capitalism exists in such a manner that it normalizes these personality traits throughout the whole of society.

Another consequence of blaming the gross disparity of wealth that exists between the highest echelons of the capitalist social order and the rest on a mere personality flaw (the poor moral constitution of the top 1%) is that it ignores the way that the capitalists themselves are implicated by the intrinsic logic of capital. This misunderstanding ultimately amounts to what might be called the “diabolical” view of society — the idea that all of society’s ills can be traced back to some scheming cabal of businessmen conspiring over how to best fuck over the general public.

(The “diabolical” view of society is not all that far removed from conspiracy theories about the “New World Order,” the Illuminati, or “International Jewry.” Indeed, it is not surprising to see that shades of anti-capitalism misrecognized as anti-semitism have cropped up amongst some pockets of Occupy Wall Street).

Capitalism is not a moral but rather a structural problem. Though he obviously enjoys the benefits that his great wealth affords him, it is not as if the capitalist acts independently of the (reified) laws of bourgeois economics. He is constantly compelled to reinvest his capital back into production in order to stay afloat. In this way, even the capitalist is made subject to forces beyond his control.

The critical theorist Max Horkheimer picked up on this in a fragment from one of his early essays on “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom”:

The businessman is subject to laws which neither he nor anyone else nor any power with such a mandate created with purpose and deliberation. They are laws which the big capitalists, and perhaps he himself skillfully make use of, but whose existence must be accepted as a fact. Boom, bust, inflation, wars, and even the qualities of things and human beings the present society demands are a function of such laws, of the anonymous social reality, just as the rotation of the earth expresses the laws of dead nature. No single individual can do anything about them. (Max Horkheimer, Dämmerung. Pg. 50).

These laws of the capitalist mode of production are regarded by bourgeois economists as natural and thus transhistorical, operative in every society past and present. This misrecognition of dynamics peculiar to capitalism as eternal laws of nature has been termed by Marx as “commodity fetishism,” and conceptualized by later Marxist theorists like Lukács as “reification.”

Such mistakes bear some relation to the old notion that wealth is acquired through the older (precapitalist) tactic of simple money-hoarding. Marx himself pointed out the difference between the premodern miser and the modern capitalist, stressing the compulsive character of the logic of capital:

Only as a personification of capital is the capitalist respectable. As such, he shares with the [precapitalist] miser an absolute drive towards self-enrichment. But what appears in the miser as the mania of an individual is in the capitalist the effect of a social mechanism in which he is merely a cog. Moreover, the development of capitalist production makes it necessary constantly to increase the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external and coercive laws. It compels him to keep extending his capital, so as to preserve it, and he can only extend it by means of progressive accumulation. (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 739).

The logic of capitalist accumulation demands that value be ceaselessly thrown back into the circuit, the perpetuum mobile, of production and circulation. Not even the highest 1% can afford to act outside this logic. If they try to defy it, they go under, and swiftly rejoin the so-called “99%.”


The widespread antipathy for corporations and big banks today underwrites an unfortunate nostalgia for the supposedly “kinder,” “gentler” capitalism of small businesses. Proponents of this view imagine that this earlier form of capitalism was somehow less capitalist, or at least less ruthless, than neoliberalism. Another symptom of this romantic anti-capitalism is the longing for a return to smaller family farms, instead of today’s heavily industrialized agriculture. This parallels the recent enthusiasm for “localism” or “locavorism.” The account provided by the brilliant American journalist, Nietzschean, and atheist H.L. Mencken swiftly dispels this saccharine memory of the “good,” “honest” family farmer:

…Let the farmer, so far as I am concerned, be damned forevermore. To Hell with him, and bad luck to him. He is a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal Jack of the human pack. He deserves all that he ever suffers under our economic system, and more. Any city man, not insane, who sheds tears for him is shedding tears of the crocodile.

No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to students of the Anthropoidea. When the going is good for him he robs the rest of us up to the extreme limit of our endurance; when the going is bad be comes bawling for help out of the public till. Has anyone ever heard of a farmer making any sacrifice of his own interests, however slight, to the common good? Has anyone ever heard of a farmer practicing or advocating any political idea that was not absolutely self-seeking — that was not, in fact, deliberately designed to loot the rest of us to his gain? Greenbackism, free silver, the government guarantee of prices, bonuses, all the complex fiscal imbecilities of the cow State John Baptists — these are the contributions of the virtuous husbandmen to American political theory. There has never been a time, in good seasons or bad, when his hands were not itching for more; there has never been a time when he was not ready to support any charlatan, however grotesque, who promised to get it for him. Only one issue ever fetches him, and that is the issue of his own profit. He must be promised something definite and valuable, to be paid to him alone, or he is off after some other mountebank. He simply cannot imagine himself as a citizen of a commonwealth, in duty bound to give as well as take…

Yet we are asked to venerate this prehensile moron as the Ur-burgher, the citizen par excellence, the foundation-stone of the state! And why? Because he produces something that all of us must have — that we must get somehow on penalty of death. And how do we get it from him? By submitting helplessly to his unconscionable blackmailing by paying him, not under any rule of reason, but in proportion to his roguery and incompetence, and hence to the direness of our need. I doubt that the human race, as a whole, would submit to that sort of high-jacking, year in and year out, from any other necessary class of men. But the farmers carry it on incessantly, without challenge or reprisal, and the only thing that keeps them from reducing us, at intervals, to actual famine is their own imbecile knavery. They are all willing and eager to pillage us by starving us, but they can’t do it because they can’t resist attempts to swindle each other. Recall, for example, the case of the cotton-growers in the South. Back in the 1920’s they agreed among themselves to cut down the cotton acreage in order to inflate the price — and instantly every party to the agreement began planting more cotton in order to profit by the abstinence of his neighbors. That abstinence being wholly imaginary, the price of cotton fell instead of going up — and then the entire pack of scoundrels began demanding assistance from the national treasury — in brief, began demanding that the rest of us indemnify them for the failure of their plot to blackmail us. (H.L. Mencken, “The Farmer.” American Mercury: March, 1924. Pgs. 293-96).

Let us remember these words before imagining that a return to the era of smaller, family-owned businesses or farms would be in any way preferable to our present system. Let us also not forget that the small, local family farm was traditionally the locus of gross patriarchy, the domestic slavery of women, ignorance, illiteracy, and superstition (religion). We should not allow ourselves to be taken in by quaint rustic illusions of the past.

7 thoughts on “Concerning “Greed” and Romantic Anti-Capitalist Nostalgia for a “Kinder,” “Gentler” Capitalism Past

  1. We shouldn’t presume that the family farm would be the locus of the same social features as were found in the past. I see no reason to believe that a return to sexism and mysticism are the necessarily the results of societies that might manage to feed themselves from coordinated networks of smaller, locally-based farms in the future.

    The abolition of value production, an end to the divide between mental and manual labor, and a system that promotes human power for its own ends is a fundamental pre-condition for the continuation of human civilization (an end to our “pre-history”). And yet, how will we solve the problems that massively scaled agriculture presents for us: the poisonous inputs that are a necessary part of operations at that size (petro-fertilizer, insecticides). Of course that is a product of a system that promotes maximum production for the minimum cost, but how would food production look under socialism? I know next to nothing about farming, but many smart people in the food justice and local food movements do. They’ve seen what our present system has done to people and the environment first hand. They have good ideas that Marxists need to take up seriously and incorporate (not whole-sale, but in a dialectical manner) into a vision of socialism that we need to start developing before the “day after” the revolution. Mencken was writing in 1924. His words serve well to caution us against retrogression, but we use them to dismiss the critiques and innovations of “localism” in 2011 at our peril.

    • My experience has been that most of the people who are in the so-called food justice movement do not have any real idea of the scale and scope necessary to feed our surging human population, and to do it cheaply. They also don’t have any real idea of the actual conditions on smaller farms, particularly in poor nations.

      Yes, in the United States some small farms do fit the idyllic stereotype, where most of the owners tend to be upper middle class. But in most third world nations the conditions are worse than abysmal; mortality is high, work is very long and hard, and droughts and other natural calamities tend to be devastating. For most people in these nations, the land is something to be left behind, and for many the Green Revolution was a blessing. I know that’s how my Mexican grandparents felt when they decided to leave for the city.

      Yes, our current mode of production of food is rife with problems. But we left behind older methods for a reason, and I don’t see us going back to it anytime in the near or far future.

      • JCP I confess you must be infinitely more well acquainted with the totality of the food justice movement (or “most” of it!) than I am.

        You maybe right about their conceptions of the conditions on most of the agriculture done around the Earth, but then, count anarchists among the guilty too. I have friends who’ve visited a cooperative farm in Argentina, not by a long shot the poorest country in S.A., and evidently it was clear that they knew they weren’t ‘prefiguring’ any new world. They were forced to exploit themselves and were well aware of it.

        There’s an assertion that most of the owners of small farms tend to be upper middle class, what sorts of studies/figures are you basing that on? My own anecdotal evidence is from working at greenmarkets in NYC before the economic crisis, and small farmers who were struggling then were easy to find if you talked to people. I won’t say that you wouldn’t find some a few Malthusians or chauvinists among them, but trust me they also know plenty about hydroponics. So do many of the “so-called food justice” types it’s quite easy to consign to petti-bourgeois irrelevancy.

        Btw, we also left older methods of warfare behind. Let’s not make a virtue of the necessity under a particular period of capitalism in Mexico that your grandparents, or billions of other people in the 20th-21st century have had to. Once social relationships between people start undergoing a constant revolution in permanence, our relationship to the land will necessarily be on a completely different basis.

  2. You’re quite right to talk about capitalism being a structural phenomenon rather than the product of greedy people, and to warn against the idealising of rural life but, once again, you don’t appear cognisant of the profound interest in and sympathy for rural pre-capitalist and semi-capitalist societies which Marx developed in the last period of his life. One only has to read some of the texts he produced during that time – the Zasulich letter, the 1875 letter to Russian socialists, the 1882 Preface to the Manifesto, the Ethnological Notebooks, the Notes on Russia’s 1861 Land Reform and its aftermath, and so on, or consider the changes he made to his earlier texts – the removal of the sneering reference to the breakup of the Russian peasant commune from the 1875 French edition of Capital, for instance – to see that Marx had moved away from the rather jejune contempt for the ‘idiocy and backwardness or rural life’ which is a feature of the work of the 1840s and ’50s.

    And the late Marx’s notion that there might be a way to combine pre-capitalist and post-capitalist modes of production and build socialism on a rural as well as urban basis was shared by other important thinkers of his era, like Morris and Belfort Bax. It’s also worth checking out the writing of Lenin in the ’20s on cooperatives, which contradicts images of the Bolshevik leader as an opponent of small-scale production and a ruthless advocate of centralisation of the economy. He had perhaps come to see that it wasn’t possible to dragoon Russia’s peasantry into some urban 21st century utopia without immense suffering.

    It’s probably reasonable to say that, apart from the Holocaust, the worst crimes of the 20th century were committed by intellectuals trying to modernise and centralise rural economies, and turn farmers into workers.
    These crimes occurred in capitalist as well as officially socialist nations. In 1970s India they were perpetrated by communist intellectuals and right-wing technocrats working *together*:

    Given the history of the last 150 or so years reviving anti-rural rhetoric about backwardness and idiocy is not an option. A little more subtlety is required. And the longing of, say, New Yorkers for grass under their feet and sun on their faces and – perhaps – ten acres a mule isn’t simply a reactionary fantasy – given the alienating nature of modern capitalist society it may be in some respects understandable and healthy…

  3. I’ve been reading some of your blog posts (excellent blog BTW), and I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard of hydroponic farming:

    Hydroponics tend to be far more efficient with land, water, and resource use, and can potentially solve many of the problems with our current agricultural system. It also has much higher yields to boot. They are highly mechanized, and they can be made local too, since most of them can just be built in skyscrapers or in other centralized locations in town centers.

    They are already being built in South Korea, China, and the United Arab Emirates, in the hopes that they can help feed their growing populations while using less resources.

  4. farmer as “prehensile moron”… no need to contrast an american farmer with the capitalist state. a farmer tilling his own personal plot of land is a fairly recent invention coinciding with the development of the capitalist state – not just in america – also stolypin reforms in russia at the turn of the twentieth century. farmer is an agrarian alienated from the traditional community of his kind through the capitalist process. the dynamics of this are murky but trending toward an expansion of agricultural production with maximum automatization on the one hand and utilization of cheapest labor on the other. american farmer in his original and contemporary state is antithesis to the tribal villager of the preceding millenia. the only analogy i can think of is retired roman soldiers who were given allotments of conquered land. george washington is certainly a good example of the latter.

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