The Attachment of Greed to Self-interest

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The Attachment of Greed to Self-interest

David P. Levine

Graduate School of International Studies

University of Denver

This paper appeared in Psychoanalytic Studies, 3, 3-4, pp. 131-140 (September-December 2001), Carfax Publishing (

This paper considers the nature of greed and of the self-interest connected to it. Self-interest need not be primarily an expression of greed, but when it is this has important implications for social institutions, especially those involving private property. Of central importance are the distinctions between greed and desire and between acquisition and satisfaction. Money is considered in its role of providing a way to pursue acquisition for its own sake, and thus facilitating the expression of greed. Emphasis is placed on the connection between greed and loss, with greed understood as a response to the threat of loss. The problem of greed and loss is developed through a discussion of Russell Bank's novel, The Sweet Hereafter. Distinctions are drawn between the self-interest that expresses desire and the self-interest that expresses greed or anger.
The Attachment of Greed to Self-interest
DAVID P. LEVINE, University of Denver
Greed and Desire

The idea that self-interest expresses greed plays a powerful role in much thinking about social institutions. This is equally true for those who celebrate the role of self-interest and for those who lament it, for those who believe that self-interest is the inevitable basis of human conduct and for those who would replace self-interest with what is presumed to be its opposite: generosity and sharing. Though prominent in shaping our thinking about self-interest, the part played by greed is as often denied as acknowledged. The denial of greed expresses the ambivalence it provokes, which stems from the danger it poses or seems to pose.

This danger stems, in part, from the link between greed and destructiveness. The destructive aspect of greed leads to its treatment by culture and social institutions as a threat that must be repressed, changed into an acceptable form, or used for purposes other than its own. This is notwithstanding the relationship of greed to our sense of aliveness. Joan Riviere notes that greed "represents an aspect of the desire to live. … By its very nature it is endless and never assuaged; and being a form of the impulse to live, it ceases only with death" (1964, pp. 26-7; see also Hyatt-Williams 1998, p. 46). However destructive greed may be, its connection to our sense of aliveness means that we cannot wholly eliminate its effects without endangering our original vitality. Further, we should not discount the possibility that it is the link of greed to vitality as much as its link to destruction that prompts its repression by society.

The connection of greed to vitality also connects it to desire. To be physically alive is to have and seek satisfaction of needs. This, in itself, is not desire. Desire for an object means something more than the need to have it to sustain life. This something more is the connection to the self, which is to say to an original vitality that connotes not merely being alive in a physical sense, but being alive in the psychic sense; thus "self-consciousness is Desire" (Hegel 1977, p. 109). This being alive in the psychic sense is what Winnicott refers to as the "true self" (Winnicott 1965; see also Bollas 1989).

Desire for objects expresses our psychic existence in relation to external reality in all its manifestations; and, in this sense, desire has no limits. Our desire for objects invests psychic meaning in our world. The idea of incorporation expresses the urge to include objects in our psychic universe, even when that universe is narrowly equated, as early in life it must inevitably be, with our physical being. Then, as psychic beings, our relationship to objects is that we desire them, which is to say we desire to subject them to our selves. This subjection of objects, or incorporation of them, destroys their independence (Hegel 1977, p. 109). The limitlessness and destructiveness of this moment of psychic experience is what links desire to greed, and accounts for the threat associated with greed.

We need, however, to distinguish this aspect of desire, present in all experience of psychic aliveness, from the specific deformation of desire into greed. The distinction lies in the possibility that we will come to recognize other psychic beings whose desire is both object and limit for us. We will come, that is, to recognize that our desire only has meaning and can only gain satisfaction when we acknowledge its limits in another (Hegel, 1977, 109-19). Then, desire is no longer for all objects, and no longer leads to their destruction, but is for particular objects and seeks their preservation in a relationship. When this development fails to take place, desire turns into greed.

Greed has two dimensions of particular importance for the study of self-interest. It involves exclusiveness and withholding from others (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983, pp. 128-9), and it involves a rupture between attaining or consuming an object and gaining satisfaction. This second aspect of greed is well expressed by Harold Boris when he distinguishes between greed and appetite according to whether satisfaction is a possibility or not. Unlike appetite, "further gratification only stimulates … greed" (Boris 1994, p. 38).

However familiar the notion of greed may be, it must also be a puzzle precisely because of its refusal to be satisfied. It is a desire, and yet it is not. This is because greed's end is not to gain satisfaction but to avoid frustration. We avoid frustration not by gaining satisfaction, but by giving up desire and replacing it with something else. What appears as the pursuit of self-interest might be the seeking after satisfaction of desire, or it might be the effort to avoid desire and replace it with something deemed of less danger to the self. Thus, desire and greed can also be distinguished by the presence or absence of a threat to the self as the driving force in conduct and relating.

The exclusionary quality of greed and of the self-interest connected to it gives us a first hint of the vital connection between greed and loss. Greed expresses the fear of loss, and the effort to defend against it. The greedy person is constantly aware of the threat of loss, and because of this is driven to attempt to take from others lest they take from him first. He must keep what he has safe from the depredations of others. Thus, greed exists in a system of greed, real or imagined.

Desire turns into greed when desire is bound up with the fear of loss. Then, what appears to be a desire for objects is not a desire at all, but a defense against loss. Because of this, where desire brings us toward others, greed pushes us away from them. The distinction between greed and desire is a distinction between the effort to attain and the effort to avoid a self-feeling.

The self-interest connected to greed becomes both self-denial and an attack on others. This leads to the paradoxical conclusion that pursuit of self-interest connected to greed, rather than finding the self as its end, serves only to affirm the loss of self. In light of this observation, we can say that the attachment of greed to self-interest involves a contradiction since the self expresses itself in its desire and negates itself in its greed.

Mirroring the attachment of greed to self-interest is its attachment to generosity, as is expressed for example in the ethic of sharing sometimes assumed to be the solution to the "problem" posed by self-interest. Much depends on whether generosity represents the return of what is good and valuable to its source (the other) so that this source can be maintained and preserved, or whether generosity represents a denial of the self. When generosity secures the other as a locus of the good and source of good things, generosity is connected to love. When generosity is understood, however, as a negation and depletion of the self, it is connected to greed, envy, and therefore hate.

The notion of sharing has especially strong connotations of the second kind, particularly when it is meant to deny the boundaries between selves. Where greed seems to withhold from others, to protect what we have from their rapaciousness, sharing insists that nothing is the privileged domain of the self. The self has nothing of value in itself, nothing of value to lose to others, and therefore nothing of value to take from them. In this negative sense, the ethic of sharing expresses the same attachment of greed to self-interest as does the ethic of self-interest.
Greed and Acquisitiveness

For the adult, greed may appear in the form of acquisitiveness. Then, the impulse to incorporate takes the form of an impulse to acquire. Marx emphasizes the link between greed and acquisitiveness when he treats the capitalist as driven by greed:

This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. (1967, p. 153).
For Marx, the capitalist's goal is neither consumption nor use, but ownership. And the end of ownership is to facilitate the further and expanded acquisition of wealth, especially capital, that can also be owned.

Marx treats acquisitiveness as an expression of greed, the key point being the absence in both cases of any intent to make use of objects for the end of gaining satisfaction. In using objects, we establish a relationship with them, and therefore have a concern to maintain them, which is to say maintain their usefulness for us. Use, then, is a relationship that preserves the separateness of the object while maintaining a relationship with it. By contrast, greed attacks the separateness of the object. Thus, we can greedily consume something, but we cannot greedily use it.

To understand the relationship between greed and acquisitiveness, we need to understand the relationship between incorporation and ownership. Here, I will consider ownership a higher level expression of incorporation. The distinction between the more elementary and more complex or advanced forms of incorporation hinges on how we conceive the entity into which objects are incorporated. The more primitive form, sometimes equated with greed, takes incorporation into the body as its goal. If we equate self with body, then incorporation means physically consuming, most vividly (though not exclusively) eating.

The primitive equation of body with self gives us a useful starting point for thinking about greed, but it is only a starting point. With maturation of cognitive and emotional capacities, the self becomes less and less a physical entity, more and more an aspect of mental life. It follows that the boundaries of the self are defined less and less in physical terms (physical boundaries of the body), more and more in the language of mental life. This development alters the meaning of incorporation so far as it alters the nature of the entity into which objects are incorporated.

At the more advanced levels of human experience, the boundaries of the self are the boundaries not of the body but of the person. At this level, rather than primarily incorporating objects into our bodies, we incorporate them into our persons. This incorporation into the person is what we mean by ownership. Ownership may or may not be driven by greed, depending on whether acquisition is an end in itself or an aspect of the use of things to satisfy need. While ownership takes objects into the domain of the person, it need not destroy them. Thus, in ownership, we have the possibility of an incorporation that does not destroy the object, but maintains it. This possibility allows Marx to consider the capitalist to be driven by greed even though the capitalist is concerned to preserve his or her capital.

The essential element in determining whether ownership is driven by greed is the presence or absence of limits. The absence of limits signals the presence of greed. How does this limitlessness arise? To answer this question, we need to know something more about the psychic purpose served when acquisition is driven by greed.

As a practical matter, greed can attach itself to anything judged to be of, and therefore to contain, value. Thus, the "longing or greed for good things can relate to any and every imaginable kind of good--material possessions, bodily or mental gifts, advantages and privileges…" (Riviere 1964, p. 27). Yet, greed is only for things deemed of value, and it is the value, not the thing, to which the greed is attached. This means that the object of greed is not the various things to which it is ostensibly attached, but something else. Psychically, those apparently varied things to which our greed attaches itself "all ultimately signify one thing. They stand as proofs to us if we get them, that we are ourselves good, and so are worthy of love, or respect and honor, in return" (Riviere 1964, p. 27).

Finite ownership leaves things of value for others, and thus respects their worth as persons; acquisitiveness does not. The alternative to greed is the recognition of the value of other selves. Greed fosters an attack on others that takes varied forms explored by the early political economists including acquisitiveness, competition, and exploitation. The attack on others expresses the destructive aspect of the incorporation we speak of as greed. Destruction imposes loss, and it is its varied involvement with loss that reveals the different meanings of self-interest and the differing possible relationships it bears to greed.

Greed and Loss

In Russell Bank's novel The Sweet Hereafter, one of the main characters, Mitchell Stephens, makes his living convincing accident victims to file negligence suits in an effort to gain substantial monetary awards. He describes his motivation in the following words.

People immediately assume we're greedy, that it's money we're after … But the truth is, the good ones, we'd make the same moves for a single shekel as for a ten-million-dollar settlement. Because it's anger that drives us and delivers us. (p. 90)
The primacy of anger follows, for Stephens, because in the end there is nothing that can be done about loss. It cannot be made right; it cannot be avenged; it cannot be replaced by money; and you cannot get around it.
I'm under no delusion--I know that in the end a million dollar settlement makes no real difference to them…. (p. 98)
For Mitchell Stephens, there are only two possible responses to loss: rage and defeat: "… unless they're enraged and acting on it, they're useless, unconscious; they're dead themselves and don't even know it" (p. 100). In Stephens's mind, the first response corresponds to life, the second to death. There is, then, only one response consistent with retrieving a sense of aliveness. To rage is to live, to give up rage is to accept defeat and die. Those who combine greed with rage only seem "muddled in their motives" (p. 120).

This perspective on life contrasts sharply with the one that sees in greed "an aspect of the desire to live." For Mitchell Stephens, greed just gets in the way of rage, and only when acting on rage do we feel alive. So greed gets in the way of feeling alive. To understand this better, we need to bear in mind that for Stephens everything of value has already been lost. As the survivor of a broken marriage, father of a "whacked-out, drug-addicted daughter," love offers him no meaningful bond; desire simply renews the trauma of loss. Those feelings, then, that are involved with desire and connection lead to despair, and only the feelings (anger and especially rage) that block desire allow life to go on. Feeling rage then is the only tolerable way to feel anything. And, since feeling something is better than feeling nothing, fuelling rage means fuelling life.

The underlying premise for all of this is that mourning and reparation are not possible. The main agenda is not mourning but coping with anger and guilt. It is an agenda centered on the self-hatred associated with the guilt provoked by loss. The problem of loss is experienced as one of responsibility and blame. Thus, in the words of one of the parents of a child killed in the bus accident, which is the central event in the novel: "… I had to blame myself alone, and because as Lydia [his wife] had said, I could not blame myself alone, I blamed love" (p. 53). Love is to blame not for the loss of the child, but for the pain that results from that loss. To escape the pain means to escape love. Then, all that remains is despair or rage.

If our guilt is powerful enough, and the pain it causes us for our loss therefore also powerful enough, then we must find someone else to blame so they may be made to carry our guilt. Consider in this connection the following exchange between Mitchell Stephens and a parent of one of the victims of the bus accident:

"That's why I'm here Mrs. Otto. To give your anger a voice, to be a weapon for you."

"Against whom?"

"Against whoever caused that bus to go off the road into the sand pit."

"I see. You think someone, a person, caused the accident."

"There is no such thing as an accident." (p. 118)
As a practical matter, this may not be true, but psychically it has great significance. Psychically, for those consumed by guilt, there are no accidents; there is always agency; there must be someone to blame. Since there must be blame, if we are to go on with life after loss, we must externalize the blame otherwise directed at ourselves.

We can see now how self-interest can be attached to three different impulses--desire, greed, and anger--with the meaning and end of self-interest varying radically depending on the impulse to which it gets attached. The angry person is absorbed in the task of protecting the self from the feelings associated with loss by repressing both greed and desire. The greedy person seeks to protect against loss by securing everything that has worth for the self and thus securing the self's worth against the greed of others. The person driven by desire risks loss by seeking an attachment of the self to its objects that secures both self and object. Loss can stimulate greed or anger depending on the extent to which loss makes desire a threat to the self. Greed still retains desire as an aspect, though in a problematic and self-negating form. Anger seeks to put desire out of commission.

To replace the lost relationship with money involves, in the language introduced above, a shift from desire to greed. Although he himself does not approve of it, the lawyer promotes this shift. An important theme links money to greed. To insist that the accident results from negligence links the accident to greed:
…anytime I hear about a case like that school bus disaster up there, I turn into a heat-seeking missile, homing in on a target that I know in my bones is going to turn out to be some bungling corrupt state agency or some multinational corporation that's cost-accounted the difference between a ten-cent bolt and a million dollar out-of-court settlement and has decided to sacrifice a few lives for the difference. (p. 91)
Greed is both the reason for and the response to loss. Death is caused by the refusal to part with money, and those who have lost a relationship are encouraged by the lawyer to replace it with money. Loss then is measured in monetary units. This is not surprising if we recall that money measures and represents the value of all things that can be owned and exchanged. Since money acts as the measure and store of value, and the monetary unit is the unit of value, this encourages the idea that what is of value is the money and not what it can be used to acquire. Once we think of things on the basis of their monetary value rather than their use, there is no limit to the amount we need. This shift from use and consumption to ownership for its own sake is characteristic of the movement from desire to greed.

The object of greed is to possess everything of value so that the uncertain goodness and worth of the greedy person can be established.

My power is as great as the power of money. The properties of money are my--(its owner's)--properties and faculties. I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful women. Consequently I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness, its power of repulsion, is annulled by money. … I am a wicked, dishonest man without conscience or intellect, but money is honored and so also is its possessor. Money is the highest good, and so its possessor is good. (Marx 1977, p. 109)
To replace a lost relationship with money is to insist on a kind of exchangeability as represented in the monetary value of the dead that must be calculated if liability is to be established and (imposed) loss made good (paid for). The implied reduction of persons to things means that mourning is unnecessary not because the loss is made good (though that is the ostensible goal), but because the object lost has been devalued precisely by being given a monetary value. The attempt to compensate in money for the loss affirms, indeed reenacts, the loss. Here, money, which is everything of value, represents the loss of all that is of value.

The lawyer insists that loss is caused by intent (there are no accidents); he links intent to greed (lives are lost because corporations calculate it will cost them less than taking preventive measures), turns loss into rage, and directs rage against those whose greed causes loss. On another level, however, we can reconstruct this causal sequence as a projective phenomenon centering on greed and the guilt resulting from it.

If we treat the phenomenon just summarized as the outcome of projection, we will have to assume that the greed attributed (however accurately or inaccurately) to the "corporation" is the lawyer's own greed. This means that the loss is caused not by the other's (corporation's) greed but by the lawyer's greed. Though this may seem inconsistent with the lawyer's insistence that he is driven not by greed but by rage, the very force with which he disavows greed should suggest to us that more is going on under the surface. We can organize the more that is going on under the surface into the following elements or moments.

First, the lawyer needs the greedy corporations to contain his own (projected) greed. He must further maintain a relationship with the greedy corporations to sustain the projection of greed onto them. While, as he later tells us, he could organize his practice to avoid dealing with corporate greed and the loss it causes, he does not do so, presumably because he needs the relationship as an outlet for rage and as a device for disowning greed.

Second, if the corporation is a container for the lawyer's greed, then the guilt, whose attribution to the corporation is the lawyer's main objective, must also be the lawyer's own (projected) guilt. Then, the same considerations just advanced about projected greed must also apply to this guilt. Projection that disowns the greed that causes loss also disowns the guilt for the loss caused. We must, therefore, consider that psychically the loss is caused by the lawyer's greed and the guilt is his own.

Third, the more strongly we deny our greed and guilt the clearer is the arrow pointing toward us for both. We are guilty, then, for the consequences of our greed, and it is this guilt and these consequences that we fear. Considering the nature of greed, the consequence of greed must be the depletion and impoverishment of the original source of what is good, since it is the good that our greed drives us to take away, appropriate, and consume. Greed therefore destroys the source of what is good, which is also the object the connection with which we most desire and value.

Fourth, since greed is linked to desire so also does the guilt linked to greed become linked to desire. This means that to avoid our guilt for aggression against the object we desire, we must disown our desire, as the lawyer clearly has done. In its place he puts rage against the object made to contain his own greed and guilt.

We experience our greed as an attempt to take what is good from the object and establish ourselves as our own source of the good. So far as we remain, however, connected to the object, or so far as a connection remains part of what we hope for, the expression of greed toward the object threatens not only the object but also ourselves. Thus, the lawyer experiences his greed not in himself, but in the corporations whose bottom-line accounting (allegedly) causes the tragic loss of life for which he would have them pay. That this is, indeed, projection is clear from the insistence that there are no accidents, which expresses the need to see greed as the cause of the accident even where no evidence supports that conclusion.

Projection reduces the threat that our own greed poses to us, which is to say the threat it poses to our relationship with what we imagine to be the source of what is good in us. But, projection does more than this. It also depletes us of our own greed, which, as we have seen, is also a form or expression of the "impulse to live." Thus, projection takes from us a vital element of our subjective experience of what it means to be alive, to desire, even to desire beyond all reasonable limits. For all his rage, then, the lawyer does not seem to us really alive because he has given up desire and with it the possibility of a connection to the good.

Self-interest as an Expression of desire

A question remains about the self-interest linked not to greed but to desire. We do not need to presume that the distinction is in practice clearly drawn, that we can find somewhere a self-interest without an admixture of greed, or that we can (or should) design institutions that assure the separation of greed from human motivation. Rather, we can undertake to consider how greed can develop into a desire for others and for things that is not primarily destructive, and we can consider how that desire might be capable of a meaningful measure of satisfaction.

The problem self-interest poses when it is attached to greed has a negative solution in repression and the projection of greed and self-interest onto others. The key to resolving the problem of self-interest in a positive way is to retrieve the disavowed feelings so that they may be integrated into the self. This means that the individual must be capable of containing his or her own self-interest, including the expression of greed in self-interest, which is to say including those aspects and expressions of self-interest that have destructive aims. When those aspects of self-interest are acknowledged as expressions of the whole person, then so must responsibility for their consequences, including their destructive consequences, be acknowledged. It follows that the capacity for guilt plays a large part in the development of self-interest into a positive expression of desire.

The expression of guilt in reparation expresses this link of the self to desire rather than greed and hate. In this way, guilt enters as an "element into the emotion of love" (Klein 1964, p. 65). Generosity then enters not as an attack on the self motivated by intolerable guilt (the ethic of sharing and the ideal of the good society), but as an expression of concern for the self:

In the depths of the mind, the urge to make people happy is linked up with a strong feeling of responsibility and concern for them, which manifests itself in genuine sympathy with other people and in the ability to understand them, as they are and as they feel. (Klein 1964, p. 66)
Here, generosity does not stand opposed to self-interest, but becomes a direct expression of it. This generosity means concern for the other's self. It insists that the self can be a locus and source of what is good both when it is in us, and when it is in the other. To the degree that the projected greed and aggression can be retrieved, self-interest can become the expression of desire for the other, and for the things that can bring satisfaction of the self's need to be, and to be connected to, what is good.

The early Protestant sects so vividly described by Weber (1992) and Tawney (1962) sought to mobilize greed against desire. The mobilization of greed against desire opened the door to the spirit of accumulation that is arguably definitive of a capitalistic economic system, especially in its early stages of development. Weber links the capitalist spirit to the "worldly asceticism" rooted in the Protestant Ethic. This asceticism "turned with all its force against one thing: the spontaneous enjoyment of life and all it had to offer" (1992, p. 166). The goal was to "subject man to the supremacy of a purposeful will" expressed through the individual's "performance of duty in a calling" (pp. 119, 163).

All of this supported the most intense devotion to wealth accumulation, but not for the end of satisfaction in consumption. What appears on the surface as self-seeking and the pursuit of satisfaction of the self, at a deeper level expresses the most severe self-deprivation.
When the limitation of consumption is combined with this release of acquisitive activity, the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save. The restraints which were imposed on the consumption of wealth naturally served to increase it by making possible the productive investment of capital. (Weber, 1992, p. 172)
If accumulation of wealth is the goal and saving the means, any use of wealth for individual satisfaction must be the enemy of wealth. Thus, capitalist economic organization expresses the mobilization of greed against desire, and therefore the negation rather than the realization of self-interest.

When dominated by acquisitiveness, self-interest expresses greed and is held hostage to the primitive neediness that has no limit in the neediness of others. Desire is suppressed, and the door is open to the limitless growth of wealth experienced especially in Western economies over the past two hundred years. The self-interest that develops on the basis of greed rather than desire recognizes no boundaries or limits in others, in nature, or in satisfaction.

At stake, then, in the relationship between greed and self-interest is the fundamental nature of the relationship between self and other, subject and object. When we consider social institutions organized around self-interest, it is vital, therefore, that we consider which self-interest those institutions serve: the self-interest attached to greed or the self-interest that includes the element of regard for self-boundaries and the separateness of other selves.

The key indicator of which self-interest is sustained by social institutions is the attitude those institutions have toward loss. Institutions organized to impose loss, or to facilitate the circulation of loss, assure that greed will be a primary component of self-interest. This is clearly the case for the institutions of capitalism as Marx, Weber, and Tawney describe them. Thus, unfettered competition over goods, especially those goods necessary to livelihood, assures that fear of loss will act as a primary motivator, and therefore that greed will make its presence known. The term "free market" refers to this situation where threat of loss is built into economic life. It is not surprising then to find that, where free market policy dominates, forms of greed play a large role, and self-interest adopts a predatory quality. This is not because the free market causes greed to dominate, but because the free market expresses, reinforces, even insists upon, the predominance of greed and the commitment of institutions to maintaining that predominance.

One response to this situation is institutional change that would eliminate greed by eliminating self-interest, for example by eliminating markets or by enforcing a stringent norm of equality. Institutions that repress self-interest also repress greed. But in so doing they attack the self and the original vitality it represents. As a result, they participate in the same imposition of loss associated with the institutions they would replace, and thereby assure that the repressed self-interest must be of the predatory type we associate with the dominance of greed.

Only institutions that limit rather than assure loss can offer the opportunity for self-interest to develop on a different basis, one not wholly dominated by greed. Such institutions would allow and encourage the expression of self-interest, including the greed that must to one degree or another attach to self-interest. They would, however, limit the danger self-interest poses, and thus limit the pressure for self-interest to adopt a predatory quality. We can, then, consider social institutions organized around the goals of limiting danger to the self and facilitating the expression of self-interest as most likely to assure that self-interest will develop on a basis other than greed.


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