Saturday, February 7, 2009

Is Gordon Gekko an inevitability of capitalism?

The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you buddy? It's the free market. And you're a part of it. You've got that killer instinct. Stick around pal, I've still got a lot to teach you.


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.

--both quotes from Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in the landmark movie WALL STREET (1987) written by Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone.


Great thread at Amber Rhea's blog, has me thinking more deep thoughts about capitalism, as I was a couple of weeks ago.

Can capitalism be good? Or is nasty greedhead Gordon an inevitability?

Amber writes:

I’ve been wanting to write a post for a while about my thoughts on capitalism, socialism, and finding a balance. It’s no secret that I do not identify as an “anti-capitalist,” yet I pal around w/ a fair amount of people who do. Basically, I’m too much of an evil capitalist for the liberal Commie tree-huggers I know, and too much of a liberal Commie tree-hugger for the Libertarians I know.

Anyway, one thing I’ve always had trouble wrapping my head around wrt anti-capitalism is, what would a non-capitalist society/economy look like? How would it function on a day to day basis? What would life be like for the average person? How would people be compensated? How would personal property be handled? What would the role of the state be? (because I know some anti-capitalists are also pretty anti-state, which to me seems to leave an impasse with an anarchist Utopia as the only logical conclusion.)
And she got some interesting replies. Joseph comments:

The term “Capitalism” itself is often kind of meaningless in these conversations - different people using it to mean whatever they don’t like at the time. Are we talking about free trade? Mode of production? Some mysterious end-product of the Protestant Work ethic?

When I think of Capitalism, I think of a particular system of production in which people may own capital and work to maximize the profits they gain from that capital. There are lots of great things about this system - it has helped lift many people out of poverty. But it’s not the end-all, either. Left without any regulation, the pursuit of profit may lead to things like sweatshops, bank collapses in which people lose all of their savings, and environmental catastrophe.

If I support regulating these excesses, am I then an anti-Capitalist, for not allowing that system of production have free reign? Depends on your point of view, I guess.
There is also some back-and-forth with a cool person named Reverend Bob--who quickly gets right to the heart of the thorny issue:

(a) A corporation laying off X,000 workers and losing their skills forever is good business.

(b) A corporation outsourcing Y% of its labor, which not only loses its manufacturing capability but creates competitors, is good business.

(c) A corporation cutting Z pennies off of dividends to stockholders is not only bad business, it’s unthinkable.

And finally here are MY comments--predictably, the most long-winded of anybody's:

Once upon a time, Edmund Burke and other conservatives believed that successful capitalists owed something to the poor and the community… remember that Scrooge was considered by his fellow businessmen to be an asshole. He was not considered typical; Dickens did not mean for him to be taken that way. He was the “bad capitalist”… the tag I use on my blog (when I chronicle capitalist abuses) is “bad capitalism”–not simply “capitalism” in general. I am aware that much innovation, personal liberation and lifestyle-improvements have come about due to capitalism, and I am also aware that some people do not seem to be able to participate in capitalist enterprises without criminality and open theft.

Lenin believed that capitalism would always mean theft… his famous remark “give em enough rope” (that capitalism would sell the rope to hang itself) reflected that. But various socialists I have admired such as Michael Harrington, thought there was a place for an ethical, democratic capitalism, answerable to the people.

What happened during the Reagan era is that Gordon Gekko was born… “greed is good”…and suddenly, the whole approach to making money changed. It became a proudly cutthroat and almost solitary activity. The community was secondary. The idea that capitalism can be innovative and upgrade our collective standard of living, which was the driving concept of the 50s (new dishwashers! cars! laundry soap!) took a backseat to the concept of PERSONAL wealth. Suddenly, it was about YOU as an INDIVIDUAL, not about the country or the community getting ahead as a group. “I’m all right Jack!” took over. And this kind of capitalism is ALL FUCKED UP–but keep in mind, it is Reaganism/Thatcherism… not necessarily what capitalism can be or ought to be.

And now, we have a royal mess, caused by Wall Street greedheads, virtually all of whom came of age (or came to the height of their financial power) during the Gordon Gekko era. So, people are wondering if capitalism can ever be forward-thinking again, working to improve ALL of our standards of living, or is it just something to destroy the environment and kill off more polar bears? We are at a crossroads. What will we choose? (I am forever-hopeful that since we chose Obama, we know what kind of trouble we are in. And could therefore fix it. Maybe.)

It will take innovation and new minds to create a new kind of capitalism that benefits everyone. But there are vestiges of Reaganism left, the people who think any questioning of capitalism makes one an automatic unpatriotic socialist. No, not true… I work in capitalism, and I am aware that it can do much good. The supplement/alternative medicine industry is a good example of how people can learn to take their health into their own hands; our business is virtually all consumer-driven. So is the entertainment industry. Other capitalist businesses/industries? Not so much.
(I've added some links in my above comment, for further discussion.)

Is Gordon Gekkoism the inevitable result of a profit-oriented system? Or can profit be used to advance good causes?

I think we all know that CAN ideally happen--but will people be that generous? Are folks able to be that generous and collective-oriented in our turbulent economic times? Or does this kind of money-nervousness just make us all worse?


EDIT: This subject is also on my mind as local greedhead-swine John M. Sterling, chairman of HomeGold, goes on trial here in South Carolina. He swindled regular folks out of about $278 million and it has taken six years to get him to trial.