Mammon is at the root of the ‘bourgeois project’ the modern West has been entirely taken up with for nearly 500 years, and wants to spread to and impose upon the rest of the globe.
‘Bourgeois’ is a French term, and originally meant a person of the mercantile or shop-keeping class; often it was associated with middle-class life and mores as distinct from working-class life and mores. In the ancient world the bourgeois would have been the traders, and in the modern world they became those who had founded, and were running, industrial concerns. The dictionary adds ‘common-place and unintellectual’ to the definition; thoughtlessly going along with convention is implied.
Nicholas Berdyaev pitches his analysis of the ‘bourgeois way of life’ at a basic level, to expose its roots. He claims that the ‘bourgeois mentality’ is not simply an economic, sociological, or even psychological, phenomenon. Nor is it simply an ethical problem. It is a spiritual problem, because it is in fact a state of the spirit; the bourgeois is a person of a particular spiritlessness, a lack of soul, an absence of heart, resulting in a peculiarly restricted consciousness.
The remedy: “Spirit alone can defeat the bourgeois condition; no material means will succeed. It is not a material or economic phenomenon – industrial development as such is not bourgeois. ..the bourgeois structure of a society is merely the expression of a bourgeois spirit, of a false direction of the will. It is a wrong conception of life..”
Berdyaev claims that this spiritual tendency — which is a kind of spiritual illness — has always been with humanity. It already existed in the ancient world. What has changed is that recently the bourgeois tendency has taken over all of human life, pushing more qualitative and more noble social and cultural aims and practices aside: “This middle class mentality ripened and enslaved human society and culture.”
Before the recent shift to predominance the bourgeois spirit was held in check: “Its concupiscence is no longer restricted.. as it was in past epochs, it is no longer kept in bounds by the sacred symbolism of a nobler traditional culture..”
A veritable host of angry voices were raised against the growing bourgeois ascendancy in the 19th century. “But even when the triumph of mediocrity was complete a few deep thinkers denounced it with uncompromising power: Carlyle, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Bloy, Dostoyevsky, Leontiev.. all foresaw the triumph of the bourgeois spirit over a truly great culture, on the ruins of which it would establish its own hideous kingdom. With prophetic force and fire these men denounced the spiritual sources and foundations of middle class existence and, repelled by its ugliness, thirsting for a nobler culture, a different life, looked back to the past..” Leontiev: “Is it not dreadful and humiliating to think that.. apostles preached, martyrs suffered, poets sang, artists painted, knights shone.. – only that some French, German, Russian bourgeois garbed in unsightly and absurd clothes should enjoy life.. on the ruins of all this vanquished splendour?”
The triumph of the bourgeois spirit means “history has failed” — there is no such thing as “historical progress.” The present is not an improvement on the past. Human culture is degenerating qualitatively due to the rise of the bourgeois spirit: “The will to power, to wellbeing, to wealth, triumphs over the will to holiness and to genius. ..Spirituality is on the wane, [in] a time of bourgeois ascendancy. The knight and the monk, the philosopher and the poet, have been superseded by a new type– the greedy bourgeois conqueror, organizer, and trader… In the new machine-made industrial-capitalist civilization of Europe and America, the spiritual culture.. based on a sacred symbolism and sacred tradition, is being irrevocably annihilated.”
Berdyaev concludes: “But antiquity knew only a tendency toward the bourgeois spirit; it never saw its final triumph. It was left to our European culture to accomplish its victory and give the world’s destinies into the hands of the bourgeois. The.. will to [a] life [given over to banality], to power [and] domination, have brought about this triumph; but our civilisation cannot endure..”
The bourgeois is only focused on the expedient, the functional, the useful. The world must not be experienced as a poem if he is to use it for his utilitarian ends; thus it must be just a machine, so he can be the master who gains control over it by his uni-dimensional and narrow ‘intelligence.’ In Heidegger’s terms, his mind is calculative, but lacks the capacity for contemplation. His concern is with correctness, he has no interest in truth.
For the bourgeois, making money, the doing of ‘business’, is the religious ‘absolute’ of existence. The middle class, as the leaders of the move toward bourgeois ascendancy, have created a world governed by “this money bereft of spirit.” But ‘money bereft of spirit’ now governs all social classes, and is indeed entirely dominant. Nothing else matters in Western cultures, and in many other cultures round the globe following the Western example. Human relationships, as well as cultural pursuits, to say nothing of spiritual motivation and activity, are all sacrificed on the altar of money. Money is allowed to distort and finally destroy these vital aspects of our humanity; if retained, they are secondary. Money is primary, and pervasive.
The bourgeois attends artistic events, or even religious events, just as entertainment, momentary reprieve, or an added jewel to their crown of status, ‘after a hard day’s work.’ But nothing artistic or religious, indeed nothing simply human to do with the bonds of affection now known to be essential for building our earliest humanity, must be allowed to interfere with business. Even the Mafia is fully signed up to the bourgeois religion, for when they kill people they explain it with, ‘it is just business.’ Corporations can behave in ways destructive of nature, and destructive of humanity, because ‘it is just business.’ Socialism nowadays is ‘safe for business.’
Indeed, Berdyaev claims that even Marxism in Russia rapidly became just as bourgeois in spirit as the regime it replaced: “The new bourgeois expels the old. It is the perennial comedy of history. The new man who has entered on to the scene begins by pretending that he repudiates all middle-class values and ways, that his kingdom will not be a middle class one. He is a.. revolutionary. But soon, very soon, the everlasting bourgeois features — the same in all times and with all peoples — reappear.”
Basil Wrugh pointed out long ago that Russian Communism was simply ‘state capitalism.’ America has ‘state capitalism’ as well as ‘private capitalism’; but ‘corporate capitalism’ has prevailed over all, so that old labels like ‘conservative vs. liberal’ hardly mean anything anymore. Now we have bourgeois religion, bourgeois art, bourgeois socialism, bourgeois capitalism; it is all safe for business, it is all just business. Corporations are the pinnacle of the bourgeois spirit, its flowering, and thus their high rise buildings are the temples of the religion that believes ‘money is god’, and it all should be made ‘safe for business’, because everything in existence ‘is just business.’
Berdyaev is in no doubt that the bourgeois spirit infected the religions of the past, though it could never dominate them quite so thoroughly as it does today. In the ancient world the priestly caste was the first to ‘sell out’ to the bourgeois spirit. This is why Christ took a whip to the money changers in the Jewish Temple. The mark of a culture of quality, of nobility, is that it keeps the bourgeois spirit in check, giving it only very low esteem; by this criterion, only Shamanic cultures of the primordial beginning of mankind were high in quality, high in nobility. So-called civilized cultures, East and West, began the process of submission to the bourgeois spirit that has finally produced the pre-eminence it has in our time.
Thus both in the past and in the present “bourgeois idolaters” are to be found in every religion. Berdyaev claims that the “pious bourgeois” is archetypically exemplified in the Scribes and Pharisees, whom Christ repeatedly denounced with unrestrained fury. It is to the pious bourgeois Christ is referring when he says, “tax collectors and prostitutes shall go into the kingdom of God before you”; and: “woe to you.. because you love the best seats in the synagogue and salutations in the market place”; and: “you outwardly appear to men just, but inwardly are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
Mammon always works through ‘respectability.’
Mammon only succeeds in promoting its cause by putting a respectable outer mask on what is in fact a despicable inner motive. From the priestly caste in ancient religion who were the first bourgeois, through the fat burghers of Holland and Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the ambitious ‘new men’ who came onto the western prairie of America and raised cattle where once buffalo had roamed in order to get rich quick in the 19th century, down to the bland but lethal crooks running the biggest corporations in the 20th and 21st centuries, the bourgeois has always been the “whited sepulcher” of Christ’s indignation, presentable and clean on the outside, but rotten and dirty inside.
As a child my grandfather took me to parties where business people, and their lackeys the politicians, celebrated ‘worldly success’ together. The fake bonhomie could have been cut with a knife, and of course, the shallow affability and shallow relating left them all famished ‘underneath’, and so drink and drugs were a natural attempt to fill up the aching void. Addiction is the shadow of the bourgeois spirit, not simply because bourgeois living is so given to devouring, using, consuming, but because this acquisitiveness is what prevents all real human contact, all real human nourishment, all real intimacy and truth between people.
Thus, the bourgeois mentality is always thirsting, always hungry, for something missing which it has denied to itself, and does not know how to find. We consume more and more but this does not fill us, it leaves us more and more empty; thus we resort to yet more frenetic consumption. It is a vicious circle.
The bourgeois mind insists ‘there can be no spiritual world, there can only be the material world.’ This is not a proposition that can be proved, by philosophical argument or by experimental science, yet the bourgeois mentality proceeds as if it were simply obvious, as if what is merely an assumption were a fact, and this is why the bourgeois is a signed up member of the club of naive realism, British empiricism, positivist scientism. What Berdyaev calls “the idolatry of science”, and indeed what both Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky saw already in the 19th century as the increasing abstraction of the Western mind away from life as really lived, is a manoeuvre to allow the bourgeois relationship to the world to continue undisturbed.
A phenomenologically grounded ‘concreteness’ of awareness and thinking is needed to do justice to reality, and break free from the unholy trinity constituted by  the abstract mind,  the technology of control, and  the glut of endless consumption. The abstract mind is unrealistic; technological control is futile; endless consumption is unsatisfying: we want more and more because it fills us less and less.
“The bourgeois does not always appear to us under the guise of a materialist enthralled by the earthly joys of life… There is a superior type that.. aspires to be the benefactor of mankind, to ensure its happiness, to organize the world for it.”
All that modern conservatism ‘conserves’ is the bourgeois spirit as it flowers in capitalism; all that modern socialism ‘reforms’ is the fairness of access to capitalism so as to defend and preserve [‘save’] the bourgeois project from revolutionary overthrow.
The despair so widespread in the Western liberal democracies arises from the feeling that democracy has failed, because of being hijacked by capitalism. What we have now is not democracy, but to borrow from Aristotle, “business oligarchy.”
Perhaps the most telling point Berdyaev makes is that the “bourgeois consciousness of life is in opposition to the tragic consciousness of life.” Tragedy reveals we are not in control, that we cannot be fulfilled by acquiring and possessing, by getting and having; tragedy reveals we are not magnificent because we have proved how powerful we are by achieving worldly ambition. Tragedy is what prevents us from clinging to the shallows, and forces us to confront the profound.
The bourgeois may enjoy his glut, and pat himself on the back for earning it through hard work and think this makes him a grand fellow, but he ends up as a nihilist. The nothingness beneath his empty state of being and his weakness of action, like a numinous beast stalking its prey, comes for him.
He knows he will not get away.
The ‘worldly happiness provided by worldly satisfaction’ actually has no meaning and no purpose.
The tree of worldly knowledge is a life whose rising sap has nowhere to go, and nothing to do. It rises and falls, and then does that again, and again, and again, and in the end we are all bored beyond enduring and emptiness claims our interior landscape. It is not just that our spirit goes inert; we fall into that aching void, that hollow emptiness, which is so pervasive everywhere, but at its most acute in America. That emptiness, that hollowness, eats away at our vital quick, our wellspring, our flame; after all the gluttony and lust of power is satiated, there is Nothing, and it is to Nothing we are going. Any madness, any explosion, any soap opera drama however violent and stupid, is preferable to that Nothingness.
The ultimate predator is Mammon.
His wrong relation to the material world is also the Nemesis for that world. He will leave us paralyzed, disabled, unable to care about doing anything to save the material world. What is ‘used’ is finally ‘used up’ and ‘thrown away.’ Nothing is left. Except the Nothing.
Mammon is The Nothing.