U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Andrew Hartman’s Comments on “No Bound For Riches Has Been Fixed For Man: Greed and the Intellectual History of Twentieth-Century American Capitalism” Panel

Here are Andrew Hartman’s incisive comments on the panel “No Bound For Riches Has Been Fixed For Man: Greed and the Intellectual History of Twentieth-Century American Capitalism,” convened recently at the S-USIH conference in Indianapolis. Interested readers can find the panel abstract here. Andy Seal’s paper on Dale Carnegie and the links between greed and “insincerity” is here; Robin Marie Averbeck’s paper on the deep psychic structure underlying the trope of the poor-as-greedy is here; Kurt Newman on greed and the 1980s is here. 

Panel Comments

“What does harm? Greed… Having more, having more, having more… It leads you to idolatry, it destroys your relationship with others. Then too this greed makes you sick, because it makes you think of everything in terms of money. It destroys you. And in the end—this is the most important thing—greed is an instrument of idolatry because it is contrary to what God has done for us. Saint Paul tells us that Jesus Christ, who was rich, made Himself poor to enrich us. That is the path of God: humility, to lower oneself in order to serve. Greed, on the other hand, takes us on a contrary path: You, who are a poor human, make yourself God for vanity’s sake. It is idolatry!”

This harsh ethical critique of greed given by Pope Francis last year, which was widely hailed—except perhaps by the greedy!—represents a return to a moral economic paradigm that pre-dates the political economic language endowed to us by Adam Smith. Instead of being ordered by rational agents and the impersonal logic of international markets, the moral economy is organized by moral agents and notions about how people have certain inalienable economic rights such as the right to eat. As E.P. Thompson among others has shown, before political economic sensibilities took hold, when grain prices rose above a fairness threshold, peopled rioted. They rioted because they believed greedy merchants were treating them unfairly and were thus acting immorally.

Political economy was supposed to have rendered such moral economic logic obsolete. Even Marx, whose earlier humanist writings moralized against the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, came to think of moral economic language as unhelpfully nostalgic and even superstitious. In thinking about the coming revolution it was better to be clearheaded and political economy was best equipped for such realism.

Although there have been strong strains of moral economic thought in twentieth-century American historiography—most noticeably in the post-Hofstadter populist-infused indignation at the corporate order—for the most part historians, especially intellectual historians, have avoided greed as an object of study. Perhaps this is because greed is more easily an object of antipathy instead of an object of analysis. This, I would argue, is unfortunate because an intellectual history of greed is an excellent approach to take if one wishes to denaturalize and demystify American capitalism. The three fantastic papers we have just heard do precisely this.

Andy Seal’s smart recuperation and revision of Andrew Carnegie exemplifies how greed can help us rethink the intellectual history of American capitalism. Andy carefully unpacks a genealogy of the American moral economy by distinguishing between covetousness and avarice in relation to the capital regimes of accumulation and what Marty Sklar called disaccumulation—or when the labor force is scattered. Greed is involved in both regimes of capital, and yet the latter requires a subtler disposition that Andy isolates as insincerity. Carnegie is the prophet of insincerity: (quote) “I will smile at you and treat you well not because you deserve it, nor because I want something from you now, but because you may be of use to me in the future.”

What Andy is doing here with a new regime of capitalism and its attendant sensibilities reminds me of what Bethany Moreton does when she shows that out of the crucible of Wal-Mart labor relations emerged a new patriarchal archetype that reconciled conservative gender expectations to service capitalism. This is high praise because I think Moreton’s book is really innovative.

But I am left with a puzzle. Andy argues that Carnegie should not be thought of as a self-help guru—as an antecedent to Oprah—because he was too dark for such flighty optimism. But Carnegie does seem consistent with the twentieth-century trend to psychologize labor relations, and in this way he does seem like a stripped-down, Disnified version of Freud or the Frankfurt School: Capitalism with a better attitude and without death and barbarism. I don’t think this renders Andy’s fascinating revision moot, but opens up more questions.

Scrooge McDuck

Robin also uses the concept of greed to make an original historiographical intervention. She links up two important postwar discourses—pluralism or consensus thought, and culture of poverty thought—that have previously been considered as mutually exclusive vocabularies. Robin shows that whereas a pluralist like David Riesman fretted that middle-class Americans were too dependent on others—they were “other-directed”—a culture of poverty thinker like Daniel Patrick Moynihan transposed such anxieties onto the poor, and worse, implied that the poor were greedy because dependency bred unrealistic expectations.

To me what is so fascinating about these two seemingly disparate discourses is that both were a way to avoid analyzing capitalism in either political or moral economic terms. Such avoidance seems to be their very logic and function. Pluralists were post-capitalist thinkers because in their misguided belief that the labor-capital antagonism had been solved they assumed the role of psychological adjusters and technocratic tinkerers. Culture of poverty thinkers were post-capitalist because they supposed that poverty was a product of cultural lag not capitalism. This makes the idea of a “greedy poor” ironic to the extreme, because it’s a way to think about greed without capitalism.

But as fascinating as this revelation is, it leads to a new and important question: is the intellectual history of capitalism during the New Deal era largely an intellectual history of avoidance? Did the lack of political and, yes, moral economic analysis during the New Deal era leave American thought wholly unprepared for the return of the repressed that was unleashed by the Reagan Revolution?

This is a nice transition to Kurt’s remarkable new history of greed during the greedy 1980s. Just as capitalism had been sprung from the New Deal order, so too had talk about capitalism been unleashed. Whereas postwar social thought papered over the existence of capitalism, talk of capitalism somewhat surprisingly returned to the fore in the Reagan-era discourse of greed. Drawing on the quintessential archive of greed—The Wall Street Journal—Kurt argues that neoliberalism in general and the corporate merger movement in particular was accompanied by a debate about greed. Greed was disavowed: it was simultaneously acknowledged and denied. In other words, the moral economy came back into fashion in the unlikeliest of places: in the broadsheets of the capitalist class.

In his analysis of corporate critics like Martin Lipton, who argued that the merger movement traded long-term for short-term gain and was thus premised on greed, Kurt I think implies that many capitalist thinkers lamented that the era of the Protestant ethic had come to an end. Delayed gratification was no longer valued. Moral economy had seeped into the language of such criticism since greed was the problem.

This is really awesome stuff and yet I think Kurt is just barely touching the surface. I would suggest that Kurt get more meta in his analysis—which is a surprising suggestion since those of you who regularly read the USIH Blog know that Kurt is the Master of Meta. But here’s what I mean by this: how do we theorize the return of greed in the 1980s and the return of moral economic thought more generally? I can think of pat answers: the return of massive economic inequality has compelled us to ask new and old questions about a rapacious economic system. But there must be alternative theoretical and historiographical clues. Perhaps we can discover them in the Q&A!

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I just want to note that Adam Smith’s “political economic” thought might be equally viewed with ample warrant as “moral-political economy,” and thus not emblematic or symptomatic of a political economy which rendered “moral economic logic obsolete.” I’ll provide, by way of respective links, two examples, one from a post of mine several years ago, “Getting Adam Smith Wrong…and Getting Adam Smith Right,” the other from an article by Spencer Pack in the journal Logos: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2011/04/getting-adam-smith-wrongand-getting.html and http://logosjournal.com/2013/pack/

    • I think that’s exactly right. The parallel that suggests itself is to Darwin vis-a-vis Social Darwinism. But I think this point is very important for US historians, because it helps make clear why it was that the maturation of American capitalism in the Industrial Age was not set to a tune called by Adam Smith (or John Locke, for that matter)–but rather to a score by Frederic Bastiat and John Stuart Mill via EL Godkin. Bastiatian harmony and Millian free trade are very different, in letter and spirit, from Adam Smith.

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