Marx was way ahead of his time, part II.

Marx, 1844:

The need for money is for that reason the real need created by the modern economic system, and the only need it creates. The quantity of money becomes more and more its sole important property. Just as it reduces everything to its own form of abstraction, so it reduces itself in the course of its own movement to something quantitative. Lack of moderation and intemperance become its true standard. Subjectively this is manifested partly in the fact that the expansion of production and needs becomes the inventive and ever calculating slave of inhuman, refined, unnatural and imaginary appetites — for private property does not know how to transform crude need into human need. Its idealism is fantasy, caprice, and infatuation. No eunuch flatters his despot more basely, or uses more infamous means to revive his flagging capacity for pleasure, in order to win a surreptitious favor for himself, than does the eunuch of industry, the manufacturer, in order to sneak himself a silver penny or two, or coax the gold from the pocket of his dearly beloved neighbor. Every product is a bait with which to entice the essence of the other, his money. Every real or potential need is a weakness which will tempt the fly onto the lime-twig. Universal exploitation of communal human nature. Just as each one of man’s inadequacies is a bond with heaven, a way into his heart for the priest, so every need is an opportunity for stepping up to one’s neighbor in sham friendship and saying to him: “Dear friend, I can give you want you need, but you know the terms. You know which ink you must use in signing yourself over to me. I shall cheat you while I provide your pleasure.” He places himself at the disposal of his neighbor’s most depraved fancies, panders to his needs, excites unhealthy appetites in him, and pounces on every weakness, so that he can then demand the money for his labor of love.

(From a slightly annoying translation, the one in Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd. ed. p. 93-4 is more readable, but then I couldn’t copy and paste, could I?)

Andrew Leonard on the financial crisis, 2009:

But strangely, what makes this book work is that while “Busted” is on the one hand a classic trashy Americana let-it-all-hang-out mea culpa worthy of Dr. Phil it is also a cogent analysis of how the mortgage lending market got out of control and submarined the U.S. economy. If you come to “Busted” angry at the losers who took out mortgages they couldn’t afford, you will not find your rage assuaged by Andrews’ self-flagellation. You will want to slap him silly, and if you have been reading him for a long time, you might even feel a little betrayed. But if you are looking for one of the clearest explanations of how, for example, bad mortgages were packaged into securities that supposedly transformed risk into Triple A safety, “Busted” delivers. Chapter by chapter, I found myself alternating between amazement at how a guy at the top of my profession could be such an irresponsible doofus, and grudging admiration at how well he was telling a story that I have been following minute-by-minute, blog-post-by-blog-post, for the last three years.

Ultimately, the true litmus test for how readers will react to “Busted” will be their willingness to agree or disagree with Andrews’ opening manifesto: “No matter how egregious my judgment may have been, it pales in comparison with the self-enriching recklessness of those at the top of the financial ladder.”

I happen to agree with that statement. Through his reporting, Andrews definitively makes the case that Wall Street’s insatiable hunger for mortgages of any quality — in fact, the worse the better! — that could be bundled up into securities and then resold, provided the critical incentive encouraging the subprime mortgage sector to explode to such huge dimensions. As individuals, we do not deserve all the blame for living beyond our means — we were encouraged to do so and seduced into doing so by a host of characters, from Alan Greenspan to the biggest Wall Street bankers to the incorrigible telemarketers who never stopped calling.

Note how one need neither release the irresponsible debtors from blame nor release the seductive lenders from it. Both those who pander to depraved and immoderate fancies (in Marx’s delightful terms — in the better translation, the word “pimp” appears in several places) and those who indulge them in themselves are blameable.

(Previously. Evidently I need a Marx category.)


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