By Gaither Stewart
(Rome-Paris) In an essay especially pertinent to contemporary American society, L’Exil d’Hélene, Albert Camus noted, “Greek thought always restrained itself behind the idea of limits. It never exceeded limits, neither the sacred, nor reason, because it denied nothing, neither the sacred, nor reason. It made allowance for everything, balancing shadow and light. Instead, our Europe, launched toward the conquest of totality, is the very daughter of excess (writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, I’m certain Camus would note here not only Europe but especially the America of our times.) …. In its folly it extends the eternal limits, and immediately obscure Erinys fall on it and tear it apart.”
Reading Camus’ essay in the midst of the bedlam of the ongoing collapse of Capitalism falling to pieces around us helped me pinpoint the idea for this concluding essay of the Definitions series: Definitions: The Proletariat; Definitions: The Intelligentsia; Definitions: The Bourgeoisie. Mammon is the God of Excess and the very personification of the capitalist god (or rather its demon), even though now a fallen god.
The natural subject for this essay is Capitalism itself, in fact, the underlying subject of the whole essay quartet. However, since Capitalism is too vast to treat here, the god-devil image of Mammon is more accessible. For the very basis of Western society is the personification of a Weltanschauung, a view of life, which is the illusion of the possibility of a life without limits. Many readers have recognized the hubris of our economic-financial world this 2008 as the direct result of our attempt to exceed universal limits. For the worship of Mammon, the Golden Calf, the love of wealth, marks our times.
In the Bible, “Mammon” is not a demon but simply the Aramaic word meaning “wealth” or “property.” Sometimes it is translated as “money.” In the Middle Ages, in religious writings, in the fiery sermons of the fanatical Dominican monk in Florence, Girolamo Savonarola, and in literature, Mammon is personified as the demon of avarice and wealth.
For modern men as for medieval men Mammon is the personification of the excessive love of money and wealth. By extension then Mammon is the god of excess. Mammon demands that its worshippers strive toward excess, that they exceed the eternal limits of the Greeks. America has obeyed the abominable god’s commandments.
Excess! Surplus. Extravagance. Intemperance. Exceptionalism. Outrageous expectations. Exaggerated presumptions. Too much. Too big. Too fast. Too much of everything. Too, too, too….
MEN INVENTED MONEY
Laws of ancient Babylonia formalized the use of money as a medium of exchange to replace barter. Money has always been an abstraction, a token, in lieu of real objects of real value. As precious metals became the symbol of money-wealth so did the worship of gold, the Golden Calf of the Babylonians. The worship of the rare soft metal, gold, whose qualities (not real value) were easily recognized, swept the civilized world.
In the long run, whatever the medium—gold and silver, coins, warehouse deposit receipts for real goods, paper currency and finally so-called fiat money (that is, money not backed by reserves of another commodity, inexorably lead to the power of emergent banks and financial institutions which lend money in excess of its reserves held for its depositors. That is, without guarantees of the bank’s ability to pay its debts. That is, the economic mayhem of today.
In the resulting atmosphere man’s natural inclinations toward avarice and greed for more and more money and the commodities money can buy has flourished—flaunted and displayed at all costs—and has exceeded all limits. For ages learned men have warned that money is the root of all evil. Our society in fact values property over life. We buy far more than we need or could ever use. We measure success in dollars and cents. We are driven by greed and selfishness. We worship money. We worship a token, a symbol, the Golden Calf. As obviously dysfunctional, unjust, and destructive as our system is, many of us who oppose the billion-dollar bailouts of financial markets still nod in agreement when capitalist economists insist that while the ‘bailout’ is excessive, ‘something has to be done to restore investor confidence and get credit flowing again.’
We all want to live without economic worries. We all want to permit ourselves something extra. The truth is we enjoy luxury. Money is a necessity. The problem is the worship, the adoration of Mammon far beyond the limits. For God’s sake, life lived just for money reduces our existence to null.
Yet, despite all, especially in the wreck of the capitalist world, money remains an abstraction, an invention of the human mind, the symbol of value, today enthroned on high in the world. We all know that money is the God of war and peace, the power of powers, the one power superior to all other powers. Thus it is the symbol of excess. The surpassing of natural limits. Man’s invention, an enthroned abstraction, controls and manipulates our lives.
Everyone knows we live in an unequal world. Half of the world’s population has nothing, a great majority struggles to make ends meet, while wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. Strangely, few people realize how excessive the inequality has become under the reign of today’s super-Mammon. See these published statistics: The world now counts 358 billionaires, whose net worth equals the combined net worth of the world’s 2.5 billion poorest people. The capitalization of some banks exceeds the total national production of 100 countries. This inequitable result is not unavoidable. The gap is not a natural human process.
This dramatic inequality is the will of and obedience to Mammon, the God of Excess.
Mammon’s religion created neo-liberalism and the globalized free market economy and its excessive economic and social distortions so idealized by the god-demon’s worshippers. That system is now on trial. We have ready evidence that globalized free trade does not advance economic and social justice. On the contrary, in a short time it has carried mankind to the precipice of universal ruin.
That excess, that concept of a world without limits, the belief that growth can continue forever, has spawned economic injustice. That excess is responsible for its merger into an unholy alliance with socio-political oppression on a transnational scale.
Mammon up there on his throne must be roaring in laughter and rubbing his demonic hands in self-satisfaction. Mammon-Beelzebub has victory within his grasp.
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Does this idol worship really make sense? Everyone should be wondering about that. While the top 200 gigantic industrial corporations control 25% of the world’s production, they employ only 0.35 % of the world’s population. Something stinks here! Moreover, not counting the rotten financial institutions, the top 300 transnational companies own 25% of the world’s production assets. And now this: the combined assets of the world’s 50 largest commercial banks and diversified financial companies (only 50!) amount to 60% of an estimated $20 trillion global productive capital. That’s capitalism at its most excessive extension, far, far beyond the limits.
What do such statistics mean? The truth is such excesses are too much for the human mind to register and comprehend. Therefore we ignore them. Yet those figures register what happens in the real economy. They tell us that deregulation has been the final systemic flaw.
Clearly rampant savage capitalism has not only killed America but has carried our entire world beyond the limits. As others have warned repeatedly, economic growth cannot be eternal. Nor is it even desirable. There is a limit. There is a limit to everything. Growth cannot exceed those limits.
VIEWS OF MAMMON
Jesus casting out the money changers…
As the Christian bible states, jumbled, abstruse, over-simplified, it is on target in the great divide between Mammon on one hand, and Man on the other: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (The Gospel according to St. Matthew 6:24)
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Mammon appears as a wolf-like demon of wealth, wolves being associated with greed in the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas described metaphorically the sin of avarice as “Mammon carried up from hell by a wolf, coming to inflame the human heart with greed.”
“Woe to the rich,” Savonarola preached in rich Florence until they hung and burned him. “Rethink you well, O ye rich, for affliction shall smite you.”
In Paradise Lost Milton wrote of a fallen angel who values earthly treasure over all other things:
Mammon led them on–
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heaven; for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific. By him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their mother Earth
For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Opened into the hill a spacious wound,
And digged out ribs of gold…
Paradise Lost, Book i, 678-690
In the comic book Spawn about which I read online Mammon is depicted as a handsome gentleman, suave and sophisticated at the head of an army of demons. This demon is often seen making attractive deals with humans for their souls and is thought to be quite persuasive.
EUROPE ON THE SAME MISERABLE SHIP
The news that the US Congress voted down the first bailout bill labeling it “Socialism” struck Europe as an unimaginable surprise. The impotence of the US president seemed like another stone on the tomb of America’s rock faith in the market. Some European observers interpreted the anti-bailout opposition as an atmosphere of everyman for himself: deputies worried only about their re-election if they save Wall Street sharks.
Europe was surprised at the mediocre provincialism, the egoism of the American political world face to face with the gravest of financial disasters. Cynical Europeans saw through the Republican reluctance to vote for the bailout plan. Though its rightwing supporters wanted nothing to do with “Socialism,” they let the Democratic opposition vote in the bill so they could get the benefits of the bailout but not have to pay the political price.
No wonder Europeans wonder about American democracy. Is its responsibility as the world leader not too serious a matter to be left in the hands of an America morally and politically destroyed by eight years of lies about everything, from the wars to torture to the “solid” economy? Europeans note that they, like Americans, must now pay for a failed and bankrupt US presidency.
Such is the price of excess. Of exceeding the limits.
The crisis has provoked a historic turn-around—the wave of re-nationalizations unseen in America since the Great Depression. It’s the return of the state-proprietor. Not because of an ideological change of heart but out of necessity. Some reactions to the emergency have been similar in America and Europe. But not all. Those differences between the two are great. And often not in capitalist Europe’s favor. European banks are slower and even more reticent than American banks to reveal the black holes in their balance sheets caused by trash instruments of credit.
The dimension of the crisis in Europe was masked. Europe has not been simply grazed by America’s crisis. European workers-savers are just as exposed as Americans, a fact covered up by bankers in London’s City and Paris’ La Défense and in Frankfurt’s skyscrapers. Now Europe is in the hurricane. And wage earners must pay for it. As usual. What happened in the USA should not hide the gravity of the parallel drama in Europe—stock markets crashing and banks failing, merging or nationalizing, such as the giant Belgian Fortis Bank, worth triple the GDP of Belgium, saved by the injection of capital from Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg. The same kind of life jacket was thrown out to the German Hypo Real Estate. Even rich Iceland had to nationalize a bankrupt bank and borrow money from Russia to survive.
Size! Excess! Growth at all costs! Beyond the limits!
The Deutsche Bank is worth 80% of Germany’s GDP, Barclay’s is equal to 100% of England’s. Excess and size are the reasons Europe is no less exposed and vulnerable than the US. The US crisis forced European financial authorities to recognize that some financial giants are “too big to be allowed to fail.” Europe faces something even worse: “institutions too big to be saved!” Excessive in respect to the sizes and capacities of the old nations-states. The results of the multinational European Union at work.
The Italian journalist, Federico Rampini noted the inadequacy of Europe’s political and institutional means to confront the storm. The American bailout has a price tag of one trillion, i.e. 7% of the US GDP. A murderous price for US public finances but not impossible. To equal that price the European Union had to ignore its stability pact and surrender principles of financial rigor. Compromises are necessary to confront the tremors of the capitalist economy. EU banks are of global dimensions but there is no single responsible authority. The European Central Bank does not have the Fed’s institutional powers, there is no European Treasury, and such vigilance as exists is divided among national states.
Europe however has one major advantage over America: Nationalization, i.e. Socialism, is not overly alarming to Europe. The social state still has its admirers and is an acceptable and salonfähig crutch.
In Greek tragedy the gods drive mad those they want to ruin. One recognizes elements of Greek tragedy in the negotiations between the two American “super heroes”, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson with his martial air and the President of the American Central Bank, the Fed, professorial Ben Bernanke, and the American Congress: the conflict, the rhetorical confrontation between Paulson-Bernanke and hesitant and furious senators, the supplication of super-Paulson kneeling before House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, imploring her to allocate 700 billion dollars to re-float the financial Titanic, and the indispensable recitative of the messenger—Bush, McCain or Obama—before the cameras to recount their versions of this anthological confrontation.
As such, the unlikely actors are begging for a bit less market and a bit more state.
The crunch has carried us back in time. We have seen images of multitudes of hungry people on the streets of the Western world as after the Great Depression of the 1930s. We ask why the crisis? Why low salaries of wage earners and half-billion dollar bonuses for executives? Why?
It’s the money.
It’s the excess.
It’s the ignorance of limits.
Taxpayer money is always available to save banks. To save the globalized markets for the paper economy. Blackmail of the poor taxpayers is always a bailout. The irony is that the same people who caused the meltdown are those called to resolve it. Are they saving it or profiting from it? We believe they are benefiting. For money, anything goes today as in super wealthy medieval Florence. Or, as some cynical Europeans wonder, are the presses of the Mint simply printing new money?
Does that mean that a new epoch is beginning? A non-capitalist era? Are we already in the new era? One wonders. Even retrograde Pope Benedict XVI recently stated, “Money is nothing.” Super secret Opus Dei calls for a reform of our lifestyle.
For the Catholic Church this is an ethical question. Though inequalities are related to ethics, I believe the growth of inequalities is a social question. The confirmation of the failures of un-reformable capitalism.
Epilogue: After decades of living ten kilometers from the Vatican with its popes and saints, superstitions and exorcisms and visions and epiphanies, in a world in which faith is the whole point, I still find it strange that the atmosphere in which we live is strange. Yet, strange things do happen in our lives. Like the following miraculous scene I have described so often that today I do not know if it really happened, if I dreamed it, or if I made it up.
I was once driving through Decatur, part of Atlanta, Georgia, on my way to interview the French-Russian writer Vladimir Volkov who was teaching at Agnes Scott College. I stopped at a café (at this point, I suspect, real reality ends) and I was sitting in a booth over coffee looking blankly out the window into early spring sunrays when Saint Paul walked in. I recognized him. He sat down with me. He talked about his blindness in the Okefenoke swamps and something about King David before saying apropos of nothing that the good life of Americans had convinced them that all is well between them and God. I sat up straight, immediately receptive. Such thoughts were already running through my head. They believe they’re the chosen people because their material life is so good, Saint Paul said, because they are blessed while others starve. In the meantime, he said, God is offering his blessings to others, so that Americans will wake up. A nation that has received God’s grace can’t just go on sinning as it likes. It has special rules. It can’t behave as it does, he insisted. Americans are deluded thinking they’re a special people. They preach to others while they don’t know what they’re doing themselves. They say stealing is bad and then sack entire continents, including their own. They say killing is wrong and they annihilate entire peoples and imprison their own. They say war is wrong and they have made war for a century. They’re proud because they know God’s law, yet much of the world hates them. America is rich at the expense of others.
The holy man dressed in white hesitated, looked at me closely as if to determine if I was receptive and then said that God would bless those who came to him. But God can change His mind, he said. He can bless or cut off as He pleases. He can bless America today and someone else tomorrow. Saint Paul then mentioned an old prophecy of Hosea that God would desert the chosen people and love other people who no one has loved before. No one is good, he said, no one in the world is innocent.
Based in Rome, Gaither Stewart, well known for his dispatches and essays from Europe, is Cyrano’s Journal’s Senior Editor & Special European Correspondent. Gaither is currently focused on the troubling re-emergence of fascist parties and movements in the old continent.
Also see: Saving its ass to wreak even worse havoc