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.