Greed and power narratives

Greed is good

Gordon Gekko is alive and well. His paean to greed is being echoed in the values and narratives of the people and the politicians and the economists that support a particular class in the US.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not here to indulge in fantasy, but in political and economic reality. America, America has become a second-rate power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. Now, in the days of the free market, when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today, management has no stake in the company!

All together, these men sitting up here [Teldar management] own less than 3 percent of the company. And where does Mr. Cromwell put his million-dollar salary? Not in Teldar stock; he owns less than 1 percent.

You own the company. That’s right — you, the stockholder.

And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their steak lunches, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes.

Cromwell: This is an outrage! You’re out of line, Gekko!

Gekko: Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.

The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated.

In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you.

I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.

Greed is right.

Greed works.

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.

And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

Thank you very much.

Of course as rhetoric this is powerful. It sets up an “us vs. them” worldview, management vs. the stockholders – the latter with whom we are supposed to identify. “Our” goals, intent and morals are superior and the other’s are inferior. Many effective narratives set up a distinction and place value laden statements on either side of the divide. Gregory Bateson once said that “information is the difference that makes a difference.” Reinhard Lettau, whom I knew in University, remarked that differences progress to distinctions, contradictions, conflicts and on to paradox. The Gekko monologue sets up a difference, a distinction, a conflict: management vs. shareholders and progresses all the way to parody.

It appeals to the rights and will of the majority. The shareholders outnumber the management and Gekko is asserting a democratic value in deposing the people who are more self serving and self-dealing rather than serve the interests of the majority, the shareholders. What creates the parody is the transvaluation of greed into the side of the good, the side of the majority, and against a bad, self-serving clique.

Self Excuses for greed

In an article on Bloomberg by Max Abelson the journalist interviews billionaires for their take on Occupy Wall Street. The comments of the billionaires is revealing of the moral tones that they take.

Jamie Dimon, the highest-paid chief executive officer among the heads of the six biggest U.S. banks, turned a question at an investors’ conference in New York this month into an occasion to defend wealth.
Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it,” the JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) CEO told an audience member who asked about hostility toward bankers….

Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” [Home Depot founder Bernard] Marcus said. “Are you kidding me?”

“Instead of an attack on the 1 percent, let’s call it an attack on the very productive… “This attack is destructive.” John A. Allison IV, a director of BB&T Corp

“If I hear a politician use the term ‘paying your fair share’ one more time, I’m going to vomit,”  Tom Golisano, billionaire founder of payroll processer Paychex Inc.

Now it is true that Max Abelson may just be a master of irony, letting the narrative of self appointed defenders of the privileged bare themselves in disabled defense of the narrative they are trying to put forward. But the narrative of the powerful of course needs no amplification, often it is the only story told.

Occupy Wall Street: Retaking the narrative

One thing that comes up regularly is that the OWS people “don’t have a program.” I heard this even at Christmas dinner among relatives and friends. 

Matt Taibbi had this view but confesses:

The first few times I went down to Zuccotti Park, I came away with mixed feelings. I loved the energy and was amazed by the obvious organic appeal of the movement, the way it was growing on its own. But my initial impression was that it would not be taken very seriously by the Citibanks and Goldman Sachs of the world. You could put 50,000 angry protesters on Wall Street, 100,000 even, and Lloyd Blankfein is probably not going to break a sweat….

That’s what I was thinking during the first few weeks of the protests. But I’m beginning to see another angle. Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It’s about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it’s flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left.

It is a class warfare narrative. But, the idea that there is a ruling class in America and that they have some form of power has been systematically obfuscated in much of our popular history, popular narratives and journalism. Rethinking that line and retelling that narrative is speaking in a different way to political power and class ideas.

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