This provocative Spiegel interview with Czech moral economist Tomas Sedlacek nicely dovetails with the conversation surrounding David Graeber’s work on debt. The issues are framed as religious allegory:
SPIEGEL: Has the crisis in financial capitalism reduced greed to what it was once before, one of the seven deadly sins?
Sedláček: Mankind’s oldest stories tell us that greed is always Janus-faced. It is an engine of progress, but it’s also the cause of our collapse. Being constantly dissatisfied and always wanting more seems to be an innate natural phenomenon, forming the heart of our civilization. The original sin of the first human couple in the Garden of Eden was the result of greed.
SPIEGEL: Not of temptation and curiosity?
Sedláček: Desire and curiosity are sisters. The snake merely awakened a desire in Eve that was already dormant inside of her. According to Genesis, the forbidden tree was a feast for the eyes.
SPIEGEL: Just like the suggestive images of modern advertising.
Sedláček: Eve and Adam grab the opportunity and eat the fruit. The original sin has the character of excessive, unnecessary consumption. It is not of a sexual nature. A desire for something she doesn’t need is awakened in Eve. The living conditions in paradise were complete, and yet everything God had given the two wasn’t enough. In this sense, greed isn’t just at the birthplace of theoretical economics, but also at the beginning of our history. Greed is the beginning of everything.
SPIEGEL: So evil is the result of insatiability?
Sedláček: The demands of people are a curse of the gods. In Greek mythology, the story of Pandora, the first woman, who opens her jar out of curiosity, thereby releasing poverty, hunger and disease into the world, tells the same story as the Bible. In Babylonian culture, the Gilgamesh epic shows how desire rips man out of the harmony of nature…..The economics of equilibrium are doomed to failure. Eve’s desire — in economic terms, her demand — will never subside. And Adams’s offer to toil by the sweat of his brow will never be enough.
If we are talking about the human condition since the advent of agriculture, Sedlacek’s story has a great deal of validity. Sedlacek errs, however, in asserting that greed — always wanting more — is an “innate natural phenomenon” that marks the “beginning of our history.” This is a common error whether we are talking about economic history or religious history.
It arises from the illusion that everything essentially began with the Neolithic transition and “civilization.” As this myth goes, there was no history or society for the people who hunted and gathered for tens of thousands of years before settlements and cities. But these people, and some of their descendants who continued foraging until recently, had history. This history suggests that greed — always wanting more — is not an “innate natural phenomenon.”
Despite its faults, Marshall Sahlins’ classic essay “The Original Affluent Society” remains instructive on these issues. People everywhere and at all times haven’t been driven by greed. Given this fact, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that supernatural sanctions haven’t always surrounded greed. It was the reformist Axial Age religious movements, responsive to the destructive aftermaths of unfettered greed, that made it a spiritual and hence moral issue.
All this aside, there are less misogynist ways to read the Edenic myth. Sedlacek saddles Eve with the original sin of greed. I read it differently. As I see it (or because it suits my purposes), Eve is the courageous heroine who chose knowledge. She wasn’t the passive victim of temptation or seduction. There is no shame in that.