Saturday, October 13, 2018


392. Greed and urge to manifestation

Theories of capitalism usually depart from the assumption of greed: the urge towards profit and income. People are driven to pursue them to survive, in a job or in a market, under the regime of competition, in shareholder capitalism.

But perhaps more important than greed and survival is the urge to manifest oneself: to ‘make a difference’, to be noticed, acquire attention or power. Salaries are not only sources of income but also signals of success in a power game.

The philosopher Plato spoke of reason as a charioteer that tries to reignin two horses: one of eros, desire, and one of thymos, the urge to self-manifestation. The philosopher Spinoza called it conatus. The philosopher Niezsche claimed that the urge to power is stronger than the urge towards survival.

One can appreciate that: it is also the urge of ambition, to ‘make something of your life’, and to ‘make a contribution to society’. That is also, more than profit, a drive for independent entrepreneurs. And they feel wronged when set aside as mere money grabbers.

An outcome of a mountain of research on happiness is that happiness consists of a combination of ‘pleasure and purpose’, in giving ‘sense’ to life. That concerns something bigger than yourself, or transcendence. That can be vertical, towards a God or heaven, but also horizontal, towards society. Not one’s own immortality but a contribution to what you leave behind at death. And if in that you make the best use of your talents, that can be pleasurable.

Then the drive to manifestation can be a virtue, and virtue ethics makes room for it, provided it is accompanied by, or is held in check, by the charioteer, in virtues of reason, moderation and justice.

However, success often leads to a neglect of such virtues, in self-aggrandisement, a feeling of being superior, elevated, ‘beyond the law’.

Money and manifestation are both addictive, not only for managers but also for stars in thirst for applause, and for scientists in search of publication scores and citations.

In capitalism, both greed and the urge for self-manifestation have become institutionalised, ingrained, in business culture, fed by managers having followed courses in economics in which they were told that self-interest rules supreme, as the motor of the economy. It has become an internal ethic that drives careers, salaries, and bonuses.

When confronted with increasingly vociferous critique from society, the inmates of these institutions honestly feel treated unfairly: they are only doing what society needs. Even supervisory boards of firms, having the task to correct management, go along, because those boards are recruited from the wider population of managers of other firms, sharing the same internal ethics and habits of thought.

So, part of the change needed is to compose such boards differently, with people not only from other firms, and not only as representatives of shareholders, but also from other groups of ‘stakeholders’, such as employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, and society at large, in particular with a view to the longer term future, in the interests of future generations and the environment.