Greed is a bad thing. Most people are agreed on that. That’s probably why Boris Johnson was embarrassed last week to be caught celebrating greed for producing coronavirus vaccines.
And the fact that most people at the top agree with him is probably why it passed so quickly from the news headlines.
After all, that sort of thinking is the whole reason why pharmaceutical companies have had anything to do with making the vaccine in the first place.
Sun newspaper columnist Rod Liddle— who is always happy to say what the Tories are all thinking—put it like this.
“The main reason companies like Pfizer are so good at coming up with new medicines isn’t that they are really lovely people who care so much about the rest of us.
“It’s because they want to turn a profit. A humongous profit, if possible.
“That is the point of such corporations—to make vast amounts of money.
“Without that incentive, many medicines wouldn’t get made.”
For Johnson, Liddle, and most governments around the world, greed is the engine of progress.
This is the philosophy that has underpinned every push towards privatisation and marketisation for the past four decades.
They say that the constant drive to make as much money as possible, in competition with others, is the most productive and efficient way to run society.
Really they mean capitalism. But it’s quite handy for them to reduce it to the “greed” of the bosses.
When the system seems to be running well, they can celebrate “greed”—though they usually call it something like “entrepreneurialism.”
When everything goes wrong they can blame it on the “greed” or “excesses” of the few at the top, rather than the system as a whole.
We can think of plenty of greedy bosses ourselves. Philip Green, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos all get a regular kicking in Socialist Worker.
They’re the faces of the system we hate.
But even if Green decides he has enough yachts, Branson wants no more private islands, and Bezos stops buying mansions, they’ll all keep desperately grasping for profits.
The pressure to keep turning profits is greater than all of their greed—and it never goes away.
If the profits stop, they get overtaken by their rivals and get swallowed up or go bust.
So companies are in constant competition with each other to grab the biggest share of the profits and dominate their markets.
The way they do this is by investing some of their profits into ways to grow bigger and faster than their rivals, in order to continue making profits and expanding further.
The revolutionary Karl Marx, who spent his life getting to the heart of how capitalism worked, called this the “accumulation of capital.”
The whole system revolves around this continuous cycle of investing, profiting, reinvesting and expanding.
And in that way capitalism keeps reproducing itself—keeps growing.
In the nineteenth century, capitalism’s growth meant bosses were driven to exploit thousands of people in order to build the Suez Canal through Egypt. The bosses motivation for this was to expand trade between Europe and east Asia to maximise profits
Today capitalist growth has meant that trade ships have become so large that just a single one can block the whole canal up.
It’s a slightly awkward metaphor for the system itself.
This constant search for growth and profit makes capitalism an incredibly dynamic—and in some ways a productive system.
It rapidly produces new innovations and technology that can transform the conditions we live in.
More importantly, its ability to produce creates the potential to get rid of hunger, poverty and suffering.
But that same search for profit means that instead, it is the cause of unmeasurable suffering and destruction across the globe.
Marx said progress under capitalism was like “a hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”
He was describing the way the British Empire—pursuing profits for British capitalism—dominated and destroyed Indian society and brutalised the people who lived there.
It could just as well apply to the way so much of capitalist progress and growth has been built on the fossil fuel industry, destroying the environment.
Capitalism even turns that destruction in on itself.
Bosses rush in to produce commodities wherever profits can be made.
There is a frenzy of accumulation as they all pour capital into ways to undercut each other by producing more and selling for less.
Together, they eventually produce more than they can sell for a profit.
When that happens, accumulation crashes to a halt as bosses stop producing, selling and investing.
Behind all this is an even more fundamental problem and it is with accumulation.
As bosses invest more into machinery and technology, the rate of profit tends to fall.
That’s because the value of any commodity reflects the amount of labour time needed to produce it using the normal skills and techniques.
The one thing that every commodity has in common is that a certain amount of labour has gone into making it.
Comparing the amount of time it takes to produce commodities is what allows capitalists to figure out their value.
The more time it takes to make something, the more it can be exchanged for.
This was Marx’s starting point when explaining how accumulation works.
A boss invests money in the material and equipment needed to produce something and hires people to do it.
If the boss can sell the product for what it’s worth, they get back whatever money they’ve spent on equipment and material—plus the extra value of the work.
They pay back the workers only some of this extra value, and keep the rest for themselves. Marx called this surplus value.
Competition begins when another capitalist begins producing and selling the same commodity but undercuts the other by doing it for less.
This means the boss can’t keep selling their product at the same price.
So they invest some of their surplus value into new equipment that allows them to produce more of their product, which they can use to undercut their rivals by selling for less.
In the short term, they can make much more money. But they are also spending more on production and getting less back for every product because it takes less labour time to produce.
Their rivals are forced to do the same in order to avoid being undercut themselves.
The rate of profit is the ratio between how much bosses invest in production, and how much surplus value comes out of it.
As the cost of investing in production rises, and the surplus value that comes out of it falls, so does the rate of profit.
When the cost of investing in production becomes more than the surplus value—that’s a crisis.
Bosses try all sorts of things to keep the rate of profit high or stop it from falling.
They can try and reduce the amount that they invest in labour by slashing wages, cutting jobs or forcing their workers to work even harder.
This pushes up the rate of exploitation.
So far from being a purely positive engine of progress—accumulation is behind the cycle of boom and bust and underlying economic crises.
It is also the cause of destruction and misery.
Pfizer, as well as other pharmaceutical companies like Moderna, produced their vaccines because they saw an opportunity to make profit.
Then, in jealous protection of those profits, they slapped a patent on their vaccines so that they are only available from them, for a price.
The greed that is ingrained within the system stands between millions of ordinary people and vital, life saving medicine.
But if the bosses’ profits depend on how much they can squeeze out of ordinary people’s labour, then that also means ordinary people have the power to bring that system to halt.
Ending that system of greed and destruction can only be a good thing. We’re all aGREED on that.