For the Love of Money
“Greed is good”, croons Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street. Stone was later surprised to discover that his anti-hero, Gekko (an allusion to a reptile by that name), is actually worshiped as a hero on Wall Street.
Is greed “good”? Are the greedy reptiles, in the sense of being an atrophied or retrograde form?
Greed is celebrated in capitalist culture, even when it goes by the sanitised and euphemistic term “profit motive”. Greed — the wanting energy — has been considered, since Adam Smith anyway, the engine of social progress. Other terms for capitalism have been used: “acquisitive individualism” or “possessive individualism”. Ostensibly, so the theory goes, private avarice and vice generates public goods — the lead of private sin is transformed into the gold of public virtue by the mysterious alchemy of an “invisible hand”.
This is a failure of understanding.
Lots of people will be quick to point out that the theory is confirmed by historical experience: capitalism does “deliver the goods” as promised, and so the philosophy of acquisitive individualism and of “greed is good” morality is true, as Mr. Gekko affirms. Or, rather than celebrate greed as good, they may otherwise shrug their shoulders with resignation and accept greed as “human nature”, against which rehabilitation or resistance is futile. “Money is the root of all evil”, they may admit. Well, then, let’s embrace (or at least tolerate) the evil that delivers the money and the goods — greediness.
But “money is the root of all evil” is a misquotation and a distortion. The correct statement is “The love of money is the root of all evil”. The common omission of the first three words in the statement is interesting, perhaps significant; perhaps deliberate. For when the full statement is given, then it is clear that “greed” isn’t the power engine of social development and progress it is assumed to be. That is merely superficial. It is this quality of “love”. Greed is simply perverted love, perverted in the sense that it has as its end (money) what is only a means to an end. Greed, in that sense, is a form of idolatry, and idolatry is another term for narcissism.
What the greedy don’t even recognise in themselves is this implicit quality of love, which has become impure, perverse, or distorted.
The question may arise of whether a type of society that has erected itself upon a vice (and the vicious) can endure and survive its own contradictions for very long. More to the point, however, is not whether “greed is good” is a suitable foundation for the conduct of social life, but the delusion that results by the omission of the factor of “love” from the understanding of greed as being a perverse form of love — the broader indication being that a great many in society are really not thinking clearly or soberly (which is another perverse effect of greed. It tends to narrow the possibilities of perception and becomes a trap, in that sense).
And therefore I raise the issue once more of whether we aren’t indeed at “the end of history”, in the sense that the “rational pursuit of self-interest”, in the form of acquisitive or possessive individualism, hasn’t become identical with the irrational pursuit of self-destruction, owing to a basic delusion and error about the relationship of love and greed.
We are reminded again, in this respect, of what I’ve taken to calling Khayyam’s Caution: “only a hair separates the false from the true”. But what a hair! As thin as the veil of Maya or as thick as “the Cloud of Unknowing”. “The love of money is the root of all evil” gives clearly that greed is a perverse form of love, and cannot be the engine of social development, but only of its disintegration and dissolution. It’s not the “greed”, but this “love” that is precedent and is the true engine, and our banal social philosophy has set up a false opposition between love and greed. Greed is the perverted or misdirected action of an impure love. But love is still the foundation and the key thing. It is the factor that needs to be liberated from the chains of delusion and an impure relation or, as they say, made “unconditional”.