Sunday, July 26, 2009



Several banks currently offer “bounties” for referrals. Citibank, for instance, offers $100 to any accountholder who tells a “friend” about the bank and the “friend” opens an account. Its advertising pitch entices with the words: “Got five friends? There could be $500 in it for you.” But Citibank likely feared that “really popular people” with “lots of friends” would “cost too much,” so they limited the bounty to five friends. Wachovia offers $75 for referrals; I’m not sure whether there’s a “friend limit” on their offer. So I guess people are worth more at Citibank than Wachovia. One hundred dollars can buy more than seventy-five.

This whole “cash for referral” business disturbs me. Yet it is capitalism at its purest; it assumes that people cultivate friendships in order to exploit them for personal financial reward. That is the reason it bothers me so much. I do not have friends because I secretly wish to make money from them. I have friends because I respect them as individual human beings. In short, I resent the banks’ insinuation that people maintain friendships solely for their economic potential.

Among many other things, Karl Marx criticized free market enterprise for its tendency to reduce human beings to “exploitable labor power” or “amounts” useful to some economically superior master. In the eye of private enterprise, for instance, an employee is no longer “Fred Johnson,” the nice man from down the street with the model airplane collection who dreams to be a violinist. No, he is a “Junior Claims Clerk (Position Code 45A)” who represents 8 man-hours per working day, which in turn translates (after taxes, wages and costs) to $2,000 profit per week. He might be “Fred” to his co-workers. But in the economic hierarchy, he is an instrument. His labor does not even belong to him. It inures completely to his master’s benefit. In short, Marx argued that capitalism depends upon dehumanization and exploitation.

In essence, Marx made a humanitarian objection. Marx posited that human beings are unique individuals with hopes, dreams, ambitions and emotions. They are not mere commercial objects to be exploited for others’ gain; they have non-economic value, too. I certainly agree with Marx on these points. But it is impossible to talk about Marxism without considering the inevitable objection: “Well, it doesn’t work. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. People want to exploit each other and make money. They don’t want to be equal. It’s against human nature.”

This is the familiar “human nature” response to Marxism. According to this argument, socialism does not work because human beings are inherently selfish and only want to enrich themselves, even if that means trampling on others. To a large extent, experience bears this argument out. In our society, commercial hungers induce people to ruthlessly exploit one another. Everyone works for personal reward, and those with greater power take full advantage over those with less.

Still, is this not a pathetic admission? Put simply, the “human nature” objection to socialism assumes that it is “in our nature to exploit one another.” It assumes that human beings enjoy exploiting each other and—to some extent—being exploited. It assumes that human beings don’t really mind being reduced to instruments and amounts, as long as they get what they want from the exchange. In this sense, the real objection to socialism reads as follows: “We can’t be socialist because we are only human. We like exploiting and being exploited. Exploitation gives us lots of neat things and we like having more neat things than our neighbor. It would be really nice if we all were equal and everyone owned the same things. But that makes us feel angry because we want the full rewards from our work.”

In short, socialism “fails” because human beings lose emotional control when they think that others benefit from their work. It is too much for the human mind to accept. To avoid that emotional response, people prefer the old exploitation system. It might be unfair. It might be difficult. But at least it feels “natural.” It accords with people’s emotions. Hey, people in a free market system might face exploitation. But one day they might get to exploit others. And at day’s end they get to own as many cars as they want and take home their own pay. Who doesn’t want that?

In this light, is it not sad that the “human nature objection” to socialism reveals itself to be based entirely in emotion? There is nothing intellectually better about capitalism. It just panders more effectively to the innate emotional satisfaction that flows from exploiting others and being exploited. After all, it feels good to exploit. So everyone strives for it. Plus they get to own stuff in the process.

This explains why people willingly see themselves as amounts. In our society, people simply do not mind thinking in instrumental terms. They do not mind thinking of themselves—and others—as economic units. True, they also regard themselves as unique individuals with talents, desires, dreams and ambitions. But those “non-economic” characteristics take a back seat to economic viability. If becoming an instrument pays the bills or helps amass a fortune, that is exactly what most people will do. Judged against these objectives, individual “talents, desires, dreams and ambitions” mean little. After all, this is the mental outlook necessary to win in the great competition for the right to exploit others and get rich.

This is not just cynical resignation, either. This is merely the logical consequence of the bleak “human nature” that galvanizes capitalism defenders. The same “human nature” that rendered socialism an impossibility also transforms every person into a drab economic entity that alternately exploits and endures exploitation. This “human nature” reveals an inherent willingness in people to both debase themselves and to act with ruthless self-interest. Humanitarianism goes out the window in this analysis. If this is our “nature,” then it is hardly surprising that banks assume we view our “friends” as potential $100 “cash bounties.”

I suppose I should have expected these sentiments from a private bank. After all, banks are quintessentially capitalistic institutions. They provide capital to individuals, who in turn start enterprises. These enterprises instrumentalize employees, bringing the “investors” capital as a “reward.” In short, banks provide the grease that keeps the exploitation gears turning. They provide the means by which human beings sate their “nature” as commercial creatures. They indulge the “natural” human desire to both exploit and be exploited. It is thus no surprise that banks expect people to regard their friends as potential profit opportunities. Even more insidiously, there are two layers of exploitation at work here. Through their “referral rewards” programs,” banks exploit people’s natural desire to exploit others. In the end, two exploitations result: The man who refers a friend gets $100. At the same time, the bank makes untold interest on the new accountholder. “Everybody wins.” And everybody “feels good about it.” Personality had nothing to do with it. This is instrumentalism at its finest.

People are perfectly willing to engage in this sort of common exploitation. Banks know it. They would not offer rewards for referrals unless they knew people would respond to their entreaties. Economically, it makes perfect sense. But I still don’t like it. I like to think that people regard themselves as more than mere amounts. I like to think that people have other motivations for friendship than transforming the relationship into a check. I try my best not to exploit others, even when it may be economically prudent to do so. Still, it is difficult to escape the “exploitation cycle,” precisely because it is allegedly “part of our nature.” Because exploitation and its rewards provide such emotional satisfaction, it is difficult to fully ignore them. Human beings do not like abandoning things that make them feel good.

Marx was right that there is more to human beings than purely commercial motivation. But he failed to understand the deep psychological desire in most humans to exploit one another. That is why socialism did not work, at least in the 20th Century. It angered too many people because they did not get to exploit others as freely as they would have in a capitalist system. Worse, they did not get to own as much; they felt resentful that their work went to help others, rather than themselves. This failure was not about theory. It was about emotion: Namely, anger and resentment. People wanted to be selfish and the government did not let them. That was a recipe for failure in the 20th Century.

But what about the future? Will we ever escape the seductive emotional intoxication that flows from thinking in exploitive economic terms? Socialism failed in several countries because it required too much hyper-intellectual commitment. It required that people adhere to abstract principles, such as practical equality, common property ownership and humanitarian commitment to one’s fellow man. Those principles offered no outlet for the human emotional need to exploit and gain. As appealing as the principles were in theory, they could not subdue the burning emotional desire in most people to exploit one another, compete with one another and win personal rewards. People were not intellectually ready to surrender their own comforts for the common good. After all, there is no personal emotional reward in knowing that a poor person can get health care. Yet there is an immense personal emotional reward in knowing you just earned $500,000 that belongs solely to you.

Until human beings change the way they feel about personal gain, they will continue to regard one another as “instruments” and “amounts.” The strong will dominate the weak. Meanwhile, the young, enterprising weak will work to dominate those who come after them. Emotion drives this cycle onward. Perhaps emotion will play a lesser role as our species evolves. But for now, people are quite happy with the way things are.

Humanity will have to wait. For now, you are not my friend. You are $100 in my pocket. I think you’re great and everything, but $100 is $100.

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