U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“No Bound For Riches Has Been Fixed For Man”

What follows is the introduction to Panel 10 of this weekend’s S-USIH Conference— “Greed and the Intellectual History of Twentieth-Century American Capitalism“– which will be Friday afternoon from 4:15-6:00 and which features regular USIH bloggers Kurt Newman and Andy Seal in addition to frequent commenter Robin Marie Averbeck. I will be chairing the panel and commenting on Kurt, Andy, and Robin’s truly excellent papers. This panel was conceived by Kurt, who also wrote the introduction, which I am posting below as a preview of excellent things to come. See you all in Indy!

In Politics, Aristotle worries a line from Solon (which we have chosen for our panel title) like a bad tooth: “No bound for riches has been fixed for man.” This lack of any natural limit on the accumulation of wealth makes greed into the horizon of every economic system: “for all getters of wealth increase their hoard of coin without limit.”

Thus, at the very beginning of political and economic theory, we find an intense confrontation with the subversive powers of “greed.” (And, of course, we also find there Aristotle’s peculiar solution, which was to have enormous influence throughout the middle ages and, within certain strains of Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim thought to this very day: if the problem of economy was greed and the will to hoard, the solution must be found in the oikos itself: in the principle of “economy,” in balance and moderation).

Once capitalism began to take root in the eighteenth century, however, as Duncan Foley notes, the Aristotelian fix no longer seemed to work very well. Capitalism was visited by a persistent anxiety: “the question of how to be a good person and live a good and moral life within the antagonistic, impersonal, and self-regarding social relations that capitalism imposes.” Adam Smith’s alchemical gesture, prefigured in mysterious texts like Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, was to transform “greed” into its opposite. “Private vice” became, in a Mandevillean turn, “public virtue.” This operation, as we know, has only ever been partially successful.

Thus, today we face a paradoxical situation. On the one hand: what two terms go together more obviously than capitalism and “greed”? Is not Gordon Gekko’s maxim (“greed is good”) the single most famous phrase ever uttered by a capitalist about capitalism? Is not Ayn Rand the mascot of the free market order? At the same time, the system zealously guards against the association of the free market system and greed. In key management texts like Good To Great and The Purpose-Driven Life, tremendouslabor is expended to align capitalism with the forces of moderation, compassion, and self-restraint, and to depict recklessly greedy corporations as excessive exceptions.

Perhaps relatedly, scholars of the intellectual history of capitalism have shied away from talking about “greed.” Within the literature of the history of capitalism there is, in fact, an almost phobic avoidance of any discussion of “greed” and its jealous drives to accumulate and hoard. Historians have mostly dodged a genuine encounter with that “most filthy avarice” (in Max Weber’s words) which haunted the moral universe of feudalism and was then sublimated and incorporated into capitalism’s operating system. Many scholars, it seems, agree with Weber’s statement in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism that the “acquisitive drive” and “striving for profit” have “nothing to do with capitalism in itself.”

In this panel, we beg to differ. We seek to ask questions about why the intellectual history of “greed” and capitalism confronts the contemporary historian as a forbidden planet, and to present some preliminary examples of what an intellectual history of “greed” might look like.