Vile Maxims 

Adam Smith wrote that the ‘masters of mankind,’ who at the time were the manufacturing owners in England, pursue their vile maxim: “everything for ourselves and nothing for other people.”

Noam Chomsky has written at great length about how this is as true today as it was when Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. I cannot possibly improve on the case the great professor makes in a mere essay, but simply draw out a few strands and hold them closer to the light.

There’s something very wrong about the world we live in. People tell me that the problem is deeply rooted in human nature. That we cannot possibly change it, that greed and self interest are as much a part of what makes us human as our opposable thumbs and brain size. Greed makes people abuse welfare. Greed makes people steal and use drugs. And greed makes massive financial institutions wreak havoc on the world economy behind their responsibility and demand (and get) a bailout from the taxpayer. The first two cases in which greed informs behaviour are harshly punished. The latter is not.

This is not news to anyone. Even the most reptilian neo-liberal accepts that corporate greed is negative (or perhaps they don’t, I am not particularly interested in knowing). If only because it makes the corporate interests lobby governments to pervert the free market to their own ends. But the masters of mankind have us tied up in the belief that Human Nature cannot be changed. If greed is not good then at least it is ineradicable. That way the masters can continue their plunder of the world while the rest of us toil for less and less.

I don’t think greed is necessarily a part of human nature. In fact empirical evidence taken from the myriad forms of human society demonstrates the weakness of the human nature claim. Pre-european Māori tribes engaged in inter-tribal warfare (that increased dramatically after Europeans brought the musket), but Māori society was remarkably stable, and quite immune from the pressures we like to worry about. Like individual property rights.

Our society is built to be greedy. That is capitalist nature, not human. We built the society, and we can fix it. How do we do it? A violent Revolution? I am not at all sure that storming the proverbial Bastille is the way to go. Instead, I want to look at the ails of society, which is what Marx and Engels were concerned with in the very first place. Deny and disagree with their conclusions if you wish, but their analysis of industrialization was deadly accurate. You don’t have to answer for Stalin if you invoke Marxist theories, just as supporters of Bernie Sanders do not have to answer for Trump. I say that as a throat clearing for any vocal critics.

What needs to happen now is the lower 90% of people who would have been known once as the proletariat, has to reclaim the power they once had as factory workers to unionize and agitate against the bourgeoisie. Over the years the means of production have been outsourced and the working class thereby disempowered. A sweatshop worker in China cannot hold Nike to account, multi-nationals assume the privileged of being neo-states in all but landmass. Financial regulation and deregulation espoused by the frightful hack Alan Greenspan established the new proletariat dubbed the ‘precariat’ because the working class is now characterized by insecurity. Zero-hour contracts, no health insurance, fire at will policies, the erosion of welfare so that the worker who predictably loses their job cannot pay their rent or their bills. All for ourselves and nothing for other people, the vile maxim sits at the heart of this filthy Society.

But it is based on a lie. This is not a zero sum world. Advances for some people are not necessarily imply detraction for others. If you are fortunate to be thriving in this Society I do not want to injure you or harm your prospects. I want to meet Society work for more people, like trans and non-binary people. The poor, the ill, those abandoned by Society and kept in cages. The first step is to listen to these people, the second is to make concessions. In order to get to that place it needs to be accepted that workers have rights and must be able to agitate for better conditions. They can continue to represent themselves better than any demagogue hoisting the red flag.

Lastly, security needs to be attained in all its complexity, not just in physical terms when considering domestic and international terrorism. The American Dream was about individual security. A family sustaining itself without government interference. That dream is dead as long as workers are precarious on the edge of oblivion. So be cautious when dubious and smug politicians talk about the economy. The word they actually mean to say is plutonomy, and growth for 0.1% does not strengthen the economy overall. But it does invite them to lavish parties on expensive yachts and stroke them in just the right way.

Instead of citing particular pages, much of this essay is based on Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World. Additional reading from The Meaning of Marxism by Paul D’Amato.

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