Thoughts on a commercial society

The late Christopher Dawson’s essay “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” is a compelling polemic. Most of us have no sense of what a non-commercial society might look like. There are vestiges here and there – faint echoes in places known to the world as cultural “backwaters” – but we can scarcely imagine a society that is not dominated by commercial or economic concerns. Having first defeated Christianity and then Marxism, the commercial ethic of the “bourgeois” is now ubiquitous and triumphant. Dawson argues sharply that Christianity and “bourgeois” values are utterly incompatible:

… it is obvious that the Christian ethos is essentially antibourgeois, since it is an ethos of love. This is particularly obvious in the case of St. Francis and the mediaeval mystics, who appropriated to their use the phraseology of mediaeval erotic poetry and used the antibourgeois concepts of the chivalrous class-consciousness, such as “adel,” “noble,” and “gentile,” in order to define the spiritual character of the true mystic.

But it is no less clear in the case of the Gospel itself. The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the “open” type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction. For what is the Pharisee but a spiritual bourgeois, a typically “closed” nature, a man who applies the principle of calculation and gain not to economics but to religion itself, a hoarder of merits, who reckons his accounts with heaven as though God was his banker? It is against this “closed,” self-sufficient moralist ethic that the fiercest denunciations of the Gospels are directed. Even the sinner who possesses a seed of generosity, a faculty of self-surrender, and an openess of spirit is nearer to the kingdom of heaven than the “righteous” Pharisee; for the soul that is closed to love is closed to grace.

In the same way the ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life and the economic virtues. It teaches men to live from day to day without taking thought for their material needs. “For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses.” It even condemns the prudent forethought of the rich man who plans for the future: “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee, and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?”

On the whole, I am not quite as negative as Dawson. I like merchants and shopkeepers. We should be glad to have more shopkeepers and fewer serfs. But let’s look at what happened historically. The triumph of the merchant meant, in the long run, the triumph of commercial values which, paradoxically, led to the end of the merchant. Why? Because the predominant ethic of the merchant class, or the bourgeois, was that of maximizing profits. Profits are maximized by creating large economies of scale and eliminating competition (i.e., other merchants). Thus, a commercial society is dominated by a few powerful corporations whose primary purpose is making money, putting thousands of merchants out of business, and employing thousands of would-be merchants for low wages.

The real sinister thing about a commercial society is that the bourgeois merchant’s ethic ends up invading everything else. Manufacturing, for instance, becomes chiefly a matter of producing things that will yield the highest price for the least economic input. Salesmanship becomes every bit as important as quality and craftsmanship, or even more so. They tell you in school nowadays that everyone must be a salesman. In job interviews one is expected to “sell himself” to the interviewer. Self-promotion is mandatory: to fail at self-promotion is to fail at life. Employees are hired, evaluated, and fired based on their contribution to the “bottom line”. Similarly, employees treat employers as nothing more than a means to an end: one is expected to “job hop”, to make lateral career moves, on the basis of maximizing income. The commercial ethic has also conquered the ideals of government. It’s not uncommon for politicians to say things like “government should be run like a business”.

If we replace monetary profit with the idea of personal gain or satisfaction, we can see how commercial values have invaded things like religion, family, and relationships of every kind. It is commonly said that a friendship, a marriage, or a religion is only worth maintaining if one “gets something out of it”. Marriage is reduced to a private contract based on mutual benefit, like any other commercial transaction. When the benefits cease, the marriage is over. Modern Christians attend worship not to give themselves to God in prayer, but to be entertained or stimulated, to have a fulfilling experience. Etc.

It is easy to see how persons who do not conform themselves to bourgeois values find themselves on the margins of a commercial society. If you’re not a natural self-promoter; if you’re not sufficiently motivated by money, utility, or pleasure; if you’re constitutionally incapable of placing economic efficiency over good work done well; if you value loyalty and commitment above personal gain; if you refuse to distort the truth for the sake of salesmanship; if you refuse to treat economic competitors as enemies to be crushed; if you are incapable of pretending that good is evil, and that evil is good, for the sake of professional relationships – you will always be perceived as an outsider. Even if you are seldom directly challenged, your associates will intuitively sense that something about you is very different and a little frightening.

We aren’t going to fundamentally change our commercial society anytime soon. Those on the margins will have to do their best to conform and withstand the temptations to compromise. But perhaps there can be progress at carving out a niche for the incorrigible. Resurrecting the old guild system, in some form that works within the larger economy, might be worth exploring. Intentional communities can lead to intentional economic structures. Certainly there is no reason why governments, schools, hospitals, and other non-commercial institutions could not, in some measure, reclaim their original purposes and put bourgeois values back in their place. Large companies with comfortable advantages that are “too big to fail” can afford to revisit their priorities.

One thing is certain: a commercial society is a dynamic society, but it’s the dynamism of a freight train, not a pendulum. Our society’s dynamism is always oriented towards two specific goals: 1) fomenting human desire and discontent; and 2) removing all obstacles to their economic “solutions”. If we can’t stop the freight train, maybe it’s time to build another track.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on a commercial society

  1. Jeff, your essay above reminded me of something else I read this past week. Here is the ending quote:

    “The farmer tells his neighbors of his discoveries and new processes that he invents to improve his cultivation. The industrialist and the merchant keep their speculations secret. We can thus say that the agriculture that disperses men about the countryside unites them without bringing them together, while the commerce that crowds them into cities brings them together without uniting them.:

    You can read the rest at



  2. Always enjoy your writings, Jeff. They force me to look up words and realize how poorly educated I am. I already knew that, of course, but it makes me desirous to provide a true education for my children, if possible. This essay makes me examine my own values and calculations. Blessed Easter!


  3. Jim, thanks for the quote and a link to the essay. Definitely some truth to it, although I suspect that today’s farmers – forced to specialize and compete with their neighbors for market share – may not always be so generous.


  4. Hello Janice! Thank you for the much-too-kind words, as always. Christopher Dawson put into words something I have always intuitively understood but have rarely seen articulated.

    I had a pretty miserable education myself so am living vicariously through my children. :-) It was nice to see your #1 daughter home from college last week. She seemed very happy. A blessed Eastertide to all of you!


  5. Hi Jeff. I completely agree that the trenchant commercialization of our society is an ever-growing illness. But I totally disagree with Dawson’s characterization, which just plain goes too far:

    In the same way the ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life and the economic virtues. It teaches men to live from day to day without taking thought for their material needs.

    In addition to the passages in which the Bible promotes taking a view of material good as very low in importance, there are also passages in which God demands that man take thought for future material needs, not merely day to day. In telling Moses to detail the day of rest, the Sabbath, God has the Israelites prepare “everything they need” for the Sabbath the day before, so that they don’t need to work on the Sabbath. That’s just one day ahead. But God also tells them to practice the jubilee year, in which they let the land lie fallow – requiring as a matter of course that they plan ahead and store up from the prior 6 years a surplus. And indeed this is precisely what God has Joseph do in Egypt: stores up grain for 7 years of bumper crops to prepare for 7 years of bad harvests. In telling the parable of the man who sets about to build a tower, Jesus describes how one will first determine whether he has what is necessary to finish the task. The parable of the rich man who tears down his barns to build bigger ones has Jesus down on the guy, but not for thinking ahead. Rather, Jesus says “this night your SOUL will be required of you”, after the man says “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ ” That is, it is the decision within his soul to relax, take his ease, and be merry with the surplus rather than to take thought for the general welfare.

    The illness of our current commercial society is not in “taking thought for tomorrow” but rather in taking thought only for ease and pleasure for tomorrow. And (just as you say), all of the attendant conditions – dog-eat-dog politics, crushing your economic competitors not only economically but socially as well, etc. Fortunately, in my experience the ordinary joe is not entirely at ease with that kind of total all-out economic warfare. I often find store clerks directing me to other stores when they cannot help me, and sometimes find employees giving me a break on something that they didn’t really need to. That happened just last week: I sought the advice of a financial professional, and after 15 minutes of discussion he found that I had been almost able to answer my question myself. He gave me the one additional tip that I needed, and then refused any payment at all. There are plenty of fine folk who refuse to give in to the crass commercialization of society, but they need our support desperately.


  6. Intelligent comments as always, Tony. I accept your critique of Dawson’s rather narrow take on the values of the Gospel. But let me offer this: the Gospel conveys a hierarchy of values. Dawson gives us the highest values, that represented chiefly by the monastic life but also by the laity who strive most intently to be Christ-like. That highest and best form of Christianity is, in a commercial society, completely excluded and in fact persecuted.


  7. I agree that the highest form of Christian life is that of the contemplative. But that model actually demands that some people pursue not the contemplative life but the productive life: monasteries that are wholly contemplative rely on the gifts of others. Even monasteries which are not wholly contemplative (like the ones who sell bread, Chartreuse, etc) normally rely on donations for a share of what they need. This is like the fact that the highest vocation is that of the religious life, but society as a whole requires that some people take on the vocation of marriage and raising children. And married folk cannot rely on donations for their material welfare. God’s economy of human life is one which has a place for many different roles, and not all are the highest. The society rightly ordered by love is a society with a free market in which people enter into exchanges of sale, gift, and service out of benevolence for each other first, and at the same time pursue material productivity for the good of themselves and their neighbors. In such a society, commerce will have its relegated place, constrained by other social goods.

    Until we have a name for such a society that is more distinctive than the name “commercial,” I will continue to refer to societies like ours as a damaged commercial society, not merely a “commercial” society, because it isn’t the mere fact of commerce being the problem, it is the commerce being disordered by excess. There is such a thing as rightly ordered commerce – it just doesn’t put commerce at the top and of the heap, just as there is such a thing as rightly ordered conjugal love, it just doesn’t put sex at the top of the heap of life – and we don’t name marital love by the excess, but by the norm even if the norm isn’t practiced all that well.


  8. It’s interesting to note how “bourgeois” many of St. Paul’s comments are. For example, Paul says that a man who does not work should not eat, and that people should labor with their hands in order to have to give to others who have need. He also says that a man is worse than an infidel if he does not financially take care of his own family (elderly widowed mothers are in the immediate context). He also says that a prospective ordinand should be examined to see whether he can “rule well his own household” and specifically counsels that such a man should be respectable, both in the sense that he can rule his own household and in the sense that he is “not given to wine” or to brawling. (Happy-go-lucky drunken Irishmen need not apply.) Paul repeatedly emphasizes *as an example to others* his own industry in working as a tent maker, to teach others to work and to have money to give. And so forth. In general I think it’s important to take the New Testament as a whole before we start talking about how un-bourgeois the Gospel is, as though all Christians are called to be something akin to beach combers or homeless people. The society envisaged and encouraged in the early church by the Apostles had a place for people in all stations of society, indeed depended on the industry of some to support the work of the missionaries, and was in general sober, hard-working, orderly, quiet, and, yes, rather bourgeois.


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