U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“No Bound for Riches Has Been Fixed For Man” (S-USIH Conference Guest Post)

Editor’s Note: Over the next several days, we’ll be having a series of guest posts reporting on the Sixth Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference, which took place earlier this month in Indianapolis. The following is Ben Serby’s review of the USIH conference panel, “No Bound for Riches Has Been Fixed For Man: Greed and the Intellectual History of Twentieth-Century American Capitalism.” Ben is a doctoral student in American History at Columbia University. His most recent paper, which he presented at the S-USIH Conference in Indianapolis, was entitled “Their Dialectics and Ours: Herbert Marcuse and American Marxism, 1940-1960.”

Where does greed fit into the history of American capitalism? While, as Andrew Hartman asserted, historians have more often treated greed as “an object of antipathy, rather than an object of analysis,” a critical examination of the use of the concept might help to denaturalize some of our most deeply embedded assumptions about capitalist social relations and ideology. The three panelists – Andrew Seal (Yale University), Robin Marie Averbeck (UC-Davis), and Kurt Newman (UC-Santa Barbara) – presented papers that covered a wide range of events and contexts. Still, a tight thematic unity can be discerned: all three dealt with the relationship between a moralistic discourse of greed and the structural dynamics that it serves to obscure.

Seal’s paper, entitled “The New Testament of Dale Carnegie: Capitalism Beyond Accumulation?,” situated its subject – whose 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People made him into a famous “self-help Messiah” – in a context of rising profits for business amidst declining investment in in capital stock and the labor force, or what Martin Sklar called capital disaccumulation. With much of the industrial proletariat rendered superfluous from the standpoint of production, and with the rise of a new class of salaried workers, new possibilities emerged for the pursuit of different lifestyles. Carnegie, Seal asserted, was a “vital…diagnostician of capitalism” who registered this major transformation and in some sense offered a roadmap for individuals seeking to thrive in its wake. The point of his book was not simply to help readers to “accumulate” an ever-increasing number of friends, but instead to continually renew their relationships in a fluid, unpredictable economy that potentially rendered anyone useful.

Under the new regime, openness and flexibility had become more than just virtues: they were now the key to success. But is the friendship that’s based on a possible, future utility really any less instrumentalized than the one that’s based on present cash value? According to Seal, Carnegie believed that it was possible both to be in earnest and to hope that a friendship might work to your material benefit later on. Greed – a selfish desire for personal advancement – is therefore in no necessary contradiction with sincerity. Seal concluded by noting that Carnegie’s moment is still our moment. As long as market unpredictability, perpetual technological innovation, and unnerving competition for employment remain with us, How to Win Friends will remain an indispensable tool for deciphering the distorting effects of capital disaccumulation on personal relationships.

Next, Averbeck presented a paper entitled “The Greed of the Poor: Dependency and the Post-War Political Imagination.” Examining the ways in which leading postwar sociologists such as David Riesman, Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan – “the pluralists,” in her shorthand – tended to characterize policies and initiatives aimed at reducing inequality as perpetuating dependency, she suggested that these intellectuals shunted aside questions of class, poverty, and exclusion. Moynihan, for instance, regarded the militancy of community action programs in the 1960s as unjustified because he assumed that access to existing political structures was equal and open to all. Democracy was an accomplished fact, not an ideal waiting to be realized through hostile self-assertion. The pluralists – or, better yet, the Panglosses – therefore feared the destruction of liberal institutions at the hands of the “greedy poor” and the nihilistic intellectuals who manipulated them into demanding more from what was already a generous welfare state.

According to Averbeck, the pluralists emphasized the ways in which the psychological anguish experienced by the poor might lead to a rejection of the entire political system. Their fundamentally cultural analysis of “status anxiety” and alienation simply papered over the fact of material want, and assumed the overcoming of class antagonisms within the Affluent Society. By targeting “dependency” (and labeling it greed) in a capitalist system that makes dependence structurally necessary, she noted, they were able to “talk about the consequences of capitalism without actually talking about capitalism.” Like Seal, Averbeck gestured toward the relevance of her discussion to the present moment by connecting the pluralists’ vilification of the “greedy poor” in the 1960s to the subsequent neoliberal war on social programs, unions, and the working class.

Newman’s paper – entitled “I’d Like to Buy A Disavowal: Greed and the Psychopathology of Everyday Neoliberal Life” – picked up where Averbeck left off chronologically.Having performed a close reading of the Wall Street Journal editorial page during the first Reagan administration, he noted a shift in tone from austere faith in the free market system to a giddy embrace of increasingly destructive patterns of greed, excess, and ostentation. The old business establishment, he showed, at first condemned the upheaval of the early 1980s – a time of massive mergers, leveraged buyouts, and aggressive Wall Street accumulation – as being characterized by excessive greed and heralding potential catastrophe. Their anxiety about the detrimental effects that “merger mania” could have on credit markets and overall productivity was so great that they called on the federal government to regulate and curb these activities. But, according to Newman, the WSJ soon acquiesced to the new logic, sanctioning the leveraged buyout as a legitimate tool and once again affirming its faith in the market as a mechanism that actually tempers greedy behavior.

This faith remained unshaken by a wave of SEC indictments and the 1987 market crash that followed. Greed, then, was not repressed; it was disavowed. Newman therefore concluded that a “fine-grained intellectual history of capitalism must begin” with “changing strategies for fending off the specter of greed,” because the spirit of capitalism appears not to be the restrained calculation on which Weber and Smith insisted, but rather, the barbaric acquisitiveness with which they contrasted it.

For my part, I think an intellectual history of American capitalism could build from here. In addition to historically specific disavowals of greed, what about changing modes and methods of describing – and modifying – economic behaviors that conflict with capitalist efficiency and threaten the vitality of the market? How has the discourse regarding, say, subsistence farming, evolved in the hands of capitalists and their critics? It seems to me that it might be revealing to ask whether Averbeck’s pluralists, for instance, feared the unincorporation of a segment of the American population both as consumers and as workers, and to consider what, if anything, this anxiety might have to do with the construction of the figure of the “greedy poor.” And what about that other, more archaic greedy figure – the horder – who refuses to throw his possessions into circulation and therefore stubbornly resists the logic of capital (“self-expanding value,” in Marx’s phrase)? An intellectual history of capitalism should ask how a regime of labor discipline, productivism, and maximum efficiency both combatted and replaced conflicting economic logics not only with legal coercion and physical violence, but also by means of the pulpit, the editorial page, the self-help manual, and the research report.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ben, thanks so much for this eloquent and insightful review. It is an extraordinary gift to the participants (and would be, even if the comments were more critical or harsh–we so often just don’t hear anything about papers!).

    I agree that the “hoarder” is a missing person in the panel. The “hoarder” is a key figure for Marx, and also a central character in gendered narratives of capitalism-as-greed. In my youth, this took the form of the villainization of Leona Helmsley and Imelda Marcos. Earlier in history, the “Howland widow will trial”–Louis Menand has an excellent New Yorker piece on it–crystallized Progressive Era concerns about greed.

    I also want to say that the project of an intellectual history of greed and capitalism is still germinal, but I hope that anyone who is drawn to write about it feels like it is open terrain. Sometimes historians try to “claim” areas, which is insane. I hope we can do the opposite. (I would love to see a Ben Serby essay on greed and capitalism, for example!)

    And if anyone else wants to think aloud about ways this might fit in with their research, we can also open up a new thread for bouncing ideas around (including projects that take as their theme the rejection of the salience of greed to the intellectual history of capitalism).

    In any event–once again–thanks again for this, Ben.

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