[Marxism] Capitalists and Other Psychopaths

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 13 14:16:59 MDT 2012

NY Times May 12, 2012
Capitalists and Other Psychopaths

THERE is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, 
what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, 
consider the following. A recent study found that 10 percent of people 
who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of 
interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for 
lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 
percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, 
cheat and break the law.

The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would 
find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and 
capitalism is predicated on bad behavior. This should hardly be news. 
The English writer Bernard Mandeville asserted as much nearly three 
centuries ago in a satirical-poem-cum-philosophical-treatise called “The 
Fable of the Bees.”

“Private Vices, Publick Benefits” read the book’s subtitle. A 
Machiavelli of the economic realm — a man who showed us as we are, not 
as we like to think we are — Mandeville argued that commercial society 
creates prosperity by harnessing our natural impulses: fraud, luxury and 
pride. By “pride” Mandeville meant vanity; by “luxury” he meant the 
desire for sensuous indulgence. These create demand, as every ad man 
knows. On the supply side, as we’d say, was fraud: “All Trades and 
Places knew some Cheat, / No Calling was without Deceit.”

In other words, Enron, BP, Goldman, Philip Morris, G.E., Merck, etc., 
etc. Accounting fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety 
violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury. The Walmart bribery 
scandal, the News Corp. hacking scandal — just open up the business 
section on an average day. Shafting your workers, hurting your 
customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. 
These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with 
what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught.

I always found the notion of a business school amusing. What kinds of 
courses do they offer? Robbing Widows and Orphans? Grinding the Faces of 
the Poor? Having It Both Ways? Feeding at the Public Trough? There was a 
documentary several years ago called “The Corporation” that accepted the 
premise that corporations are persons and then asked what kind of people 
they are. The answer was, precisely, psychopaths: indifferent to others, 
incapable of guilt, exclusively devoted to their own interests.

There are ethical corporations, yes, and ethical businesspeople, but 
ethics in capitalism is purely optional, purely extrinsic. To expect 
morality in the market is to commit a category error. Capitalist values 
are antithetical to Christian ones. (How the loudest Christians in our 
public life can also be the most bellicose proponents of an unbridled 
free market is a matter for their own consciences.) Capitalist values 
are also antithetical to democratic ones. Like Christian ethics, the 
principles of republican government require us to consider the interests 
of others. Capitalism, which entails the single-minded pursuit of 
profit, would have us believe that it’s every man for himself.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “job creators,” a phrase 
begotten by Frank Luntz, the right-wing propaganda guru, on the ghost of 
Ayn Rand. The rich deserve our gratitude as well as everything they 
have, in other words, and all the rest is envy.

First of all, if entrepreneurs are job creators, workers are wealth 
creators. Entrepreneurs use wealth to create jobs for workers. Workers 
use labor to create wealth for entrepreneurs — the excess productivity, 
over and above wages and other compensation, that goes to corporate 
profits. It’s neither party’s goal to benefit the other, but that’s what 
happens nonetheless.

Also, entrepreneurs and the rich are different and only partly 
overlapping categories. Most of the rich are not entrepreneurs; they are 
executives of established corporations, institutional managers of other 
kinds, the wealthiest doctors and lawyers, the most successful 
entertainers and athletes, people who simply inherited their money or, 
yes, people who work on Wall Street.

MOST important, neither entrepreneurs nor the rich have a monopoly on 
brains, sweat or risk. There are scientists — and artists and scholars — 
who are just as smart as any entrepreneur, only they are interested in 
different rewards. A single mother holding down a job and putting 
herself through community college works just as hard as any hedge fund 
manager. A person who takes out a mortgage — or a student loan, or who 
conceives a child — on the strength of a job she knows she could lose at 
any moment (thanks, perhaps, to one of those job creators) assumes as 
much risk as someone who starts a business.

Enormous matters of policy depend on these perceptions: what we’re going 
to tax, and how much; what we’re going to spend, and on whom. But while 
“job creators” may be a new term, the adulation it expresses — and the 
contempt that it so clearly signals — are not. “Poor Americans are urged 
to hate themselves,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” And 
so, “they mock themselves and glorify their betters.” Our most 
destructive lie, he added, “is that it is very easy for any American to 
make money.” The lie goes on. The poor are lazy, stupid and evil. The 
rich are brilliant, courageous and good. They shower their beneficence 
upon the rest of us.

Mandeville believed the individual pursuit of self-interest could 
redound to public benefit, but unlike Adam Smith, he didn’t think it did 
so on its own. Smith’s “hand” was “invisible” — the automatic operation 
of the market. Mandeville’s involved “the dextrous Management of a 
skilful Politician” — in modern terms, legislation, regulation and 
taxation. Or as he versified it, “Vice is beneficial found, / When it’s 
by Justice lopt, and bound.”

An essayist, critic and the author of “A Jane Austen Education.”

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