The Spirit of Economy: Reacting to the Contemporary Bourgeois

Feast of St Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria

Dawson_Square.jpgIN HIS ESSAY “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind”, Christopher Dawson argued that, contrary to the prediction and hope of Marx, the Proletariat never truly revolted against the bourgeois, despite its increasing misery and growing hostility. Instead it was the bourgeois, said Dawson, representing not so much a body of men but rather a mindset, culture, and lifestyle, which rose up over time and has now spread to dominate the entire spirit of modern civilization. According to Dawson,

We are all more or less bourgeois and our civilization is bourgeois from top to bottom. Hence there can be no question of treating the bourgeois in the orthodox communist fashion as a gang of antisocial reptiles who can be exterminated summarily by the revolutionary proletariat; for in order to liquidate the bourgeoisie, modern society would have to liquidate itself.

Economic problems, in a modern sense, have to be remedied by economic answers, in a classical sense. An economy should not be viewed as simply a description of financial situations and arrangements. Our English word “economy” comes from the Greek words oikos (meaning “house) and nomos (meaning “law”). So quite literally, an economy is a household law, which not only dictates particular actions and relationships but which should truly give order to the overall functioning of the household from top to bottom. Our financial economy, then, is not defined exclusively by exchange of currency, goods, and services, but is truly the spirit by which those exchanges are governed. 

For this reason, regardless of nomenclature or even structural arrangement, economies which are governed by analogous spirits coalesce to the point they are indistinguishable except by name and, of course, by the way in which they are perceived, however far that perception may be from reality. Dawson and others recognized that the spirit which governs modern economy is typically greed, cowardice, denial of human dignity, and egotistical rejection of man’s proper place and role in the world.  At the heart of the Chesterton_at_Work.jpgDistributist movement was the recognition that it made no difference whether individuals or the state enjoyed ownership, so long as human dignity was ignored the results would be the same. Like Dawson, G. K. Chesterton clearly saw the class struggle of Marx repeated in Western economies, though arranged perhaps slightly differently and now going by a different name. “What I complain of, in the current defense of existing capitalism,” stated Chesterton, “is that it is a defense of keeping most men in wage dependence, that is, keeping most men without capital” (The Outline of Sanity). Chesterton finds it more accurate to call this economic arrangement proletarianism. While Capitalism and Communism are often held to be diametric opposites, we see that in truth not only the possibility of the gap to be bridged; it is apparent that there is in fact already a natural bridge between the two, that it has been walked before, and it continues to draw in unsuspecting travelers by its inevitable force. As Hilaire Belloc said over seventy years ago, “the only economic difference between a herd of subservient Russians and a mob of free Englishmen pouring into a factory of a morning, is that the latter are exploited for private profit, the former by the State in communal fashion” (The Restoration of Property).

This symmetry between Capitalism and Communism, where the Bourgeios and Proletariat have merely been replaced by modern corporations and employees, should serve both as a warning and as a prescription for change. The dehumanizing quality of modern wage slavery, though not popularly unmasked as such, is brought to light when juxtaposed with its more commonly recognized historical precedents. We are much too quick to exonerate ourselves from the guilt associated with the Bourgeios simply because we allow for the possibility of private property.  Private property, we say, is what defines the American Economy, patting ourselves on the back and enjoying our imaginary anti-communist protective wall. But is our economy truly conducive to private property? A careful look tells us no. As Luigi Ligutti pointed out, “Private ownership is not fulfilled and proletarianism is not removed by the mere ownership of goods for consumption. Private ownership means primarily the title, possession, control, and personal management of productive property” (Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom). In other words, just because we allow people the ability to own some things, they are not necessarily able to be owners in a full sense of the term.

So what is the problem with this current state of “capitalommunism”? In short, everything. Where widespread private property is non-existent, so is free will and self-determination. Where local, personal, land-based production has been driven out, the seeds of community will indeed have difficulty finding fertile soil in which to grow. Where natural beauty and simplicity has been eliminated in favor of mechanization and luxury, failure is on the horizon. Where private ownership and responsible stewardship have been discarded, so has an appreciation for all things truly human and truly divine. 

Like so many laudable movements, economic restoration will only occur after a concerted change in spirit or, perhaps more accurately, the infusion of spirit where there was none before.  Josef Pieper described the needed change in our economy as a 767958.jpg“deproletarianization”, and among the steps he suggested for the elimination of proletarianism he stated, most importantly, the overcoming of the inner impoverishment of the individual (Leisure: the Basis of Culture). Our economic downward spiral not only causes, but is itself perpetuated by, a moral degeneration among its constituents. An economy which adequately promotes human dignity can only exist among citizens who respect their own dignity and that of their common man. What is more, they must be willing to sacrifice in order to create a culture which is conducive to natural and normative behaviors. And it will truly be a sacrifice, considering our current state of affairs and customary modern lifestyle. 

Creating a new spirit of economy will require a willingness to take responsibility for our world. We will have to develop and sustain a purposeful preference for those things natural to those things unnatural; for the things which participate with the divine order for the good of man, rather than the things which participate with the corporate order for the good of profits. If we desire more equitable distribution and greater ability to flourish in our working vocations, we need not bother with trying to introduce new financial structures, policies, or theories. What we need is a greater spirit, a magna anima, which alone can bring us out of own personal worlds of greed, fear, and rivalry, to see the world of trust, communion, and generosity to which we have been called. “The true opposite to the bourgeois is not to be found in the communist,” said Dawson, “but in the religious man—the man of desire.” Our work should be seen as much more than simply a way to acquire money, though it will certainly include that. Men of desire are able to work with passion: passion for the beauty to be found in their work itself and in the fruit of honest labor, passion not for the accumulation of wealth but rather for the proper flow of good things, a constant giving and receiving. As John Senior said, “We must inscribe this first law of Christian economics on our hearts: the purpose of work is not profit but prayer” (The Restoration of Christian Culture). Our labor should truly improve us, and improve all those who receive its fruits. We must build an economy of men who desire to serve God and one another, not just themselves, and are pleased to receive the higher things which bear an imprint of the divine image, not our own idolatrous works; self-portraits of man in his awful isolation.


Dusty currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and two children.

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