July 30, 2012

Seven Roadblocks to the Good Life: (2) Greed for Wealth, Prestige, Power

Webster’s dictionary defines greed as “an unsatiable desire to possess or acquire something to an amount inordinately beyond what one needs or desires.” I would modify this definition thus: greed is the desire to have more of a good, service, or experience after one has had a reasonable sufficiency. Greed violates the Greek slogan “nothing too much.”

Greed shows itself in five chief directions: getting and keeping goods and services; attracting attention to oneself; gaining recognition, prestige, status; attaining and maintaining security, and achieving and holding power.

Miserliness is the most extreme expression of greed for goods and services. The miser accumulates for the sake of accumulation, and short of extreme provocation he refuses to part with any of his hoard. In a society based on scarcity only a genius can reach this level of greed. In a modern, affluent society, however, the abundance and variety of goods and services makes it possible for even the rag-picker to acquire and accumulate more than he can use. Stories of beggars who die leaving valuable property and large bank accounts often make the news columns.

The average home in an industrialized community is littered, cluttered and stuffed with clothing, bric-a-brac, gadgets, utensils, appliances, most of which have no great aesthetic appeal and are seldom used. Despite this glut, the householder continues to acquire, greedily, as occasion offers.

Attracting notice to oneself is a second expression of greed. It begins in infancy and grows into extreme forms of egomania among adults. It is particularly prevalent in a society of potential abundance which measures success in life by the quantity and variety of possessions. “How much is he worth” means “how much has he accumulated.”

Greed finds a third outlet in the desire to gain and hold recognition, prestige, position, status. Status seeking and status keeping preoccupy people whose objective is to get ahead of others by climbing toward the top of the social pyramid.

Greed turned in the direction of power is usually called “ambition.” Power is the possibility of pushing others around, using others to advance the interests of the power-seeker, keeping others in a permanent position of subordination and, if possible, servility. The power-holder is able to satisfy his power urge by keeping the largest possible number of his fellows at his beck and call. In a private enterprise society the power-hungry gain and hold economic, political and social positions which enable them to say: “You work and I will enjoy the product of your labor.”

Greed for power may be seen in families, on school playgrounds, in the economy, notably in politics and in general social relations. It is found at all levels, local, regional, national.

Greed is one of the chief driving forces in an acquisitive society. The clever, the shrewd, the unscrupulous use their talents to get and keep more than their just share of life’s good things. By this unreasonable accumulation of material possessions the greedy separate themselves from their fellows and lay the foundations for a class and caste-divided society.

Greed is an essentially anti-social force. In an acquisitive society it not only has unique opportunities for expression but it absorbs attention, consumes energy and expresses itself in activities which are directed to the aggrandizement of one, rather than the advancement of general well-being.

(from Chapter III, The Conscience of a Radical, Scott Nearing, Harborside, Maine: Social Science Institute, 1965)

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