WHAT MAKES CAPITALISTS TICK?
September 12, 2020
[Also related: "Small Business Persons & Egalitarianism"]
Many people wonder, What makes a capitalist such as Jeff Bezos tick? The man owns more than $180 billion dollars. That's more money than he could ever spend on luxuries to enjoy personally, so what's the point of his aiming to amass an ever larger and larger fortune?
Here is what I think makes Jeff Bezos tick, and likewise virtually all other capitalists. (I define a capitalist as a person whose main role in a capitalist society has been, and still is, to acquire wealth from the labor of other people, not from his/her own labor, and to maximize* this wealth as much as legally allowed.)
Capitalists want to own as much capital (i.e., money or equivalent wealth that can be used to acquire even more such wealth) as possible.
Capitalism is a social system based on the idea that acquiring as much such personal wealth as possible is morally good, in fact that it is a most noble aspiration. Why? Because of the "Invisible Hand" notion first coined by one of the earliest and greatest defenders of the capitalist system--Adam Smith. Smith argued that there was an "Invisible Hand" that made capitalism the best social system possible because it channeled individual greed (which, defenders of the capitalist system say, is the motivation of all people) into production for the good of all: The baker bakes bread only to make a profit for himself, but the result is that everybody has bread to eat.
The capitalist system is defended by all the people who think society should be geared to letting people try to accumulate as much capital as possible. This doesn't mean, however, that all such people have exactly the same reason for wanting society to be this way. There are different flavors of motivation behind wanting to acquire as much capital as possible.
Power to Shape the World
One motivation is power to shape society. A person such as Bill Gates seems to crave having enormous power to control (with his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) the direction of public education and how medicine will be used in the world, as I discuss in great detail here.
The late David Rockefeller headed a family with a combined wealth in excess of a trillion dollars, and David Rockefeller relished the power to control U.S. foreign policy and, in recent years, all things related to climate (as I discuss in detail here.) It was said of David Rockefeller that if he were made the president of the United States it would be a demotion.
In a capitalist society, money is power--power to control what other people will do, by controlling the money that they work to earn as one's employees. Money is also power to control what the government does, by not only bribing legislators but also by doing things such as threatening to move a key industry elsewhere and put many people out of work unless the politicians do what the rich person wants. Remember when Jeff Bezos was making U.S. cities compete with each other to offer the most attractive conditions to get Amazon to locate its second headquarters in their town? That's power!
Some capitalists want great wealth for a narrower kind of ego gratification, apparently, to judge by Donald Trump's habit of putting his name on big buildings and paying to have over-the-top gold-plated luxury living quarters.
Some capitalists want great wealth because they view it as a marker of being a winner instead of a loser. They may view life as a competition of everybody against everybody and they want to win, not lose, in that competition. They may give a lot of their wealth to genuine charities (as Carnegie did) because their goal is simply to be rich enough to make it obvious to everybody (and to themselves) that they are a winner big time.
Absolute Security for One's Descendants Forever
Some capitalists may want great wealth to provide maximum security for their own (not other peoples!) children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren down the line forever. Who knows, maybe this is what motivated John D. Rockefeller or some of his heirs.
Not Merely Personal Luxuries
No matter how wealthy capitalists become, even when they possess more wealth than they could ever even dream of spending on purely personal luxuries, they crave yet more wealth. To be powerful means being more powerful than others, to have more wealth than others, and so however much wealth one has, it is never enough. Likewise, to be absolutely assured that one is a winner and not a loser requires always more wealth than one already has, least others pass one by. Ego gratification has no limit, and thus craves ever more wealth. Absolute security for all of one's descendants forever also requires wealth beyond limit. This is why the richest capitalists keep focused on getting even richer.
Sometimes--not very often!--a capitalist stops aiming to maximize his/her wealth for the motives discussed above and instead behaves in a much different manner to benefit other people. I wrote about such individuals in my article titled "Some Rich People ARE Good." Such people are the rare exception, and the capitalist system does not enable them to remain successful capitalists for very long.
Always a Kind of Greed
The point is that whatever the particular flavor (of the motivation to acquire as much wealth as possible) is the motivation of a particular capitalist, the motivation is a kind of greed. The capitalist system glorifies and promotes greed. Capitalists are hogs. The capitalist system elevates the greedy people--the Greedy Gusses--to power. People who are not greedy do not aspire to succeed in life as a capitalist, or for lack of sufficient greed they fail as a capitalist if they try to be one. People who are not greedy generally aspire to succeed in very different and more socially desirable ways than by being a capitalist. (Read here how the non-greedy people in almost half of Spain in 1936-9 replaced capitalism with egalitarianism and then outproduced the former capitalism.)
Some** say that capitalists are no more greedy than ordinary people, that everybody is greedy--that workers want higher wages because they're greedy, and capitalists want lower wages because they're greedy--and that capitalists only do the nasty things they do because they must do so in order to compete in the capitalist system. This is profoundly wrong!
There is a vast chasm between the values of most people and the values of the ruling capitalist class
Most people have trouble understanding what makes capitalists tick because most people are not greedy. Most people have trouble believing that other people could be as greedy as the capitalists are. As Dave Stratman and I wrote in our "Thinking about Revolution":
What kind of people would dump toxic chemicals into a town water supply? What sorts of people would drill through 18,000 feet of sea floor under 5,000 feet of seawater in the Gulf of Mexico and ignore basic safety requirements, resulting in the worst environmental catastrophe in history? British Petroleum Corporation was engaging in the kind of behavior that corporations engage in every day–behavior that normal people find unacceptable and actually incredible; they are hard put to believe that anyone would knowingly do it.*** There is a vast chasm between the values of most people and the values of the ruling class—the Greedy Gusses—who run the world.
Warren Buffet, the billionaire “Sage of Omaha,” was right when he said that there is a class war and his side is winning. And his side, the side of the rich and powerful, has rotten values. The class war pits the people who do the work that makes human society possible–the electricians and teachers, the nurses and auto workers and IT folks, the carpenters and doctors and iron workers and secretaries and waiters–against corporate CEOs and bank executives and capitalists who reap the rewards. The super-rich have grabbed most of the treasures of the earth and the fruits of our labor for themselves.
But the class war is about far more than money. It’s also about values: the way we relate to each other and to the earth and future generations. The class war is a struggle over how we should live and what it means to be a human being. Most people have very different values from the class that runs society. Most believe in solidarity–people supporting each other. They believe in people having their fair share and no more. They believe in people having their say in the decisions that affect their lives. The ruling elite believe the opposite. They believe in competition and getting more than the other guy. They believe in inequality. They think there should be a few super-rich and powerful and that most people should be their slaves, and they work mighty hard to make it that way.
More than anything they hate democracy–not the lying, fake democracy we have now but real democracy where ordinary people make the important decisions. Within corporations there is no pretense of democracy or equality. Corporations are dictatorships. You abandon all hope of democratic rights when you punch in. Outside the confines of the corporation–that is, in corporate society–the ruling class makes a pretense of democracy and tries to paper over its real values. But beneath the facade, corporate society is a dictatorship.
Laws are designed to promote and protect corporate power. The formidable powers of the government–police, the Courts, the military–are arrayed on the side of the bankers and corporations to enforce their laws. Why are there so many deeply ugly goings-on in our society? Because we live in a dictatorship of the rich.
The class war is a conflict over what values should shape society, what goals it should pursue, and who should control it. This war goes on in every part of our lives. It affects how we feel about ourselves, how we relate to each other at home, to our friends, to our community. It affects how we are treated at work and how our children are treated at school. It affects whether we live in a state of contrived, constant warfare with people of other lands or faiths, whether our environment is completely destroyed on the altar of profit, whether we have a future at all. Class conflict is the central fact in our society. It lies at the heart of our problems. To solve our problems, we have to win the class war. Revolution means overthrowing the government of the rich and creat-ing a society where the people who do the real work of society have the power. It means destroying the present structure of power and establishing a real democracy.
* I emphasize the word "maximize" here for the following reason. This article is about what makes tick the people whose adult lives have been and are still all about trying to maximize the wealth they take and possess from the labor of others. This article is not about the non-greedy people who became owners of a business enterprise with a very different motive, of which there are many such people.
Some of these non-greedy people are small business owners (whom I discuss here) whose motive is typically simply to be self-employed and who typically earn their income mainly by their own strenuous labor.
Some other non-greedy people become owners of large businesses, often by inheriting the business. Such business owners may try to run the business in a way that benefits the employees and community, and not to maximize their personal fortune from the labor of the employees. The conflict (read about it here) between members of the family that owned the Market Basket grocery store chain in Massachusetts was precisely over whether the store should be operated as a profit-maximizing enterprise or one with a non-greedy aim. This conflict made headline news for months because it was so unusual for any owner of a large business to pursue non-greedy aims. I wrote about some similar business owners here.
Most of the time non-greedy business owners eventually are driven out of business by the competition, or their business gets bought by a larger corporation. The greedy capitalists operate according to the maxim: "In business, you're either growing or you're dying." In a capitalist society, geared as it is to promote the greedy maximum acquisition of wealth from the labor of others, it is the greedy people who enjoy all of the advantages and who shape the society in their interests, not the non-greedy ones.
** Karl Marx, for example, as I discuss here.
*** BP and Goldman Sachs, with help from President Obama, dramatically lowered the years of life expectancy of people in the Gulf Coast region just to make a buck, as reported here: https://newswithviews.com/Hodges/dave111.htm.