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Christopher Dawson's Economic Blindness

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This essay is reprinted from a Jan. 2012 symposium sponsored by Crisis magazine on Christopher Dawson’s highly influential essay “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind,” with contributions by Gerald Russello, Jeffrey Tucker, and Rev. John Peter Pham.

It gives me no pleasure addressing Christopher Dawson’s views  on economics. I learned much from Dawson in my formative years, reading The Sundering of Christendom and The Crisis of Western Education back in high school, and many of his other books in later years. His synthesis of Catholic and Western history is so persuasive, and his reflections on so many topic wise, that I’m tempted to let the argument drop, and let Mr. Russello’s pious essay cover the nakedness of Noah. But I honestly can’t. If all that Dawson had said in his long, impassioned screed was that untrammeled financial speculation can wreck a society, and that greed is a deadly sin, I could happily nod and move on. Yes, there are blind spots in the bourgeois spirit that can metastasize into cancers, and fragile natural virtues which will fail if unaugmented by Grace. Wilhelm Röpke and before him Adam Smith recognized these weaknesses, and looked for means of remedy in religion, tradition, “moral sentiment,” and other forces which steady the wild ride of a market economy. Men are fallen, and when they are free they will sin. God knew that when He made us.

But that is to quibble on details. Dawson deals in essentials. When he errs, he is radically wrong. Hence his essay “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” — which I have more than once thrown across the room, thus damaging my laptop — is not so much inaccurate as absolutely null and utterly void.

Dawson warns that the  bourgeois spirit is a vampire which must be staked straight through its heart, and he summons as alternatives other spirits he finds more wholesome. Here he is not simply mistaken but deeply perverse, and merits the full force of outrage Jeffrey Tucker expressed in his counterblast. Let me offer choice quotations from Dawson’s essay, bits of broken glass that make him so dangerous to swallow. Dawson claims:

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.

This statement muddles two starkly different issues: The quantitative attitude of the Pharisees toward accumulating religious merits, and the ordinary good sense required in managing any earthly enterprise — from a bakery to a family. No, we are not to see God as a business partner, to whom we pay His “share” while retaining the rest for ourselves. Nor again is He a customer whom we wish to charge what the market will bear. In dealing with almighty God, that attitude (which emerged again in the Christian world with the sale of indulgences) is presumptively absurd. This is true for a simple reason: We are each in a state of infinite debt to God, if only for the fact of our creation and our ongoing existence, which depends from moment to moment upon His sovereign will. We are further indebted to Him for the still greater gift of Redemption, the actual graces we need from day to day, and the grace of final perseverance we pray will see us into heaven.

Not a single one of these things is true in our business relationships, assuming that we are not slaves of either a private master or a totalitarian state—to name just the two most time-tested alternatives to the market economy. We are to cast ourselves at the feet of the throne of Mercy, not presuming to tote up our paltry good deeds against our many sins. Does this mean we should act the same way toward our employers, or toward the State? Does humility before almighty God demand we cultivate servility toward men? Was pre-modern Russia, where the “little father,” the Tsar, owned every stick of furniture in each of his subject’s homes, the model of a true Christian society?  Is ours a creed designed to make for cringing slaves, forelock-tugging serfs, and masters who preen and strut with the borrowed authority of God? To that we bourgeois reply: “Don’t tread on me.”

Here is another example, albeit a less absurd one, of Dawson carelessly conflating heaven and earth:

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?”

News flash: Christians are not called to husband and steward their resources wisely, to plan for their retirements or their children’s education—nor even, it would seem, for their nutrition. (The Catholic economist Amintore Fanfani actually asserted precisely this in his too-widely read treatise Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism, wherein he praised fathers for disinheriting their children and leaving them destitute.) If this were true, it would make nonsense of Pope Leo XIII’s ferocious defense in Rerum Novarum of the sanctity of property rights—which on Dawson’s reading become the occasion of mortal sin. Indeed, Dawson dances perilously close to the heresy of the Spiritual Franciscans, who sought to impose on all clergy and finally on all laity the evangelical counsel of Poverty. They ought to have been consistent and preached universal celibacy, which solves all social problems in 70 short years.

Here Dawson takes Our Lord’s warning against taking spiritual comfort in worldly accumulation — against thinking, like Job’s comforters, that earthly wealth implies beatitude — and turns it into a literalistic demand that we all live like animals, with no more thought for the morrow than monkeys or mayflies. Only a handful even of religious orders have adopted such an attitude and refused to raise funds or keep financial reserves, relying on whatever wealth was thrown over the transom. (The Theatines were one of these rare orders. Perhaps the Conventual Franciscans and the Jesuits were too infected with the bourgeois spirit.) But Dawson demands this Providentialism of fathers of large families. He would no doubt have approved of my drunken grandfather, who fathered 11 children, only 5 of whom lived past age 5. Old Whatshisname lived quite untouched by the bourgeois taint.

As a noble alternative to the squalor of the suburbs, Dawson holds up “the Baroque culture of Spain… an uneconomic culture which spent its capital lavishly, recklessly and splendidly”. How, I might ask, was that capital acquired? In Spain’s case, massive shipments of gold and silver were taken by force in unjust wars of conquest—which conquistadors covered over with a fig-leaf in the following splendid way: The soldiers would order their chaplain to present the New World pagans they met with a copy of the Gospels, then demand (in Castilian, of course) that the pagans do reverence to it and submit to the King of Spain. When the puzzled Indians refused, perhaps even smote the Gospels to the ground, the Spaniards would attack and enslave them—then cart their gold home to Spain, to use it “lavishly, recklessly and splendidly.” Of course, the massive importation of currency—which men of that era mistook for wealth—accomplished nothing in the long run except to inflate the prices in Spain and ruin the bourgeois who were still left behind after the unjust expulsion of the Jews. This economic vandalism guaranteed the dominance of viciously anti-Catholic, slave-trading England. Catholic France was more friendly to business, so Dawson duly condemns it.

Dawson clearly follows the Classical, pagan preference for soldiers and noblemen, who make their living employing force against their fellow men, over businessmen who traffic in voluntary exchange. While soldiers sometimes fight justly, nobles can rule fairly, and businessmen can engage in evil trades (like slavery), surely it’s deeply perverse to prefer force to persuasion, serfdom to salesmanship, and conquest to commerce. The Church sees war as evil in itself, allowing it only in narrowly circumscribed cases, setting standards that very few wars waged even by Catholic monarchs ever fully met. Conversely, she sees ordinary business and commerce as the means by which most men earn their bread by the sweat of their brows—though she marks off certain methods of business which are evil. But sins of business are the exception, not the rule. For a war to be good, it must climb through the eye of a needle. So why should we as Christians prefer soldiers to salesmen, militaristic empires to bourgeois republics? Because the former are more romantic, and leave in their wake such poignant ruins?

There is something profoundly seductive, almost literally intoxicating, about the Quixotic picture Dawson paints, which many on the Right adopt without reflection—often spurred (let’s be candid) by envy or sloth. Ezra Pound is prime example of a great mind who (like Dawson) despised “the money power.” Like Dawson, he wanted “social credit” to displace the market economy. He went on to warn in potent verse against the evils of “Usura.” Pound did so, only eight years after Dawson’s 1936 essay, in radio broadcasts on behalf of Mussolini’s “totalitarian” state. Pound was a more consistent thinker than Dawson, it seems. He saw the true enemies of the bourgeois spirit, and joined them. He knew that the only way to stop men (those not called to apostolic poverty, anyway) from seeking the betterment of their families through business was to enslave them or redirect their energies into war. Happily, the bourgeois armies of “shopkeeper” nations like the United States and Great Britain put an end to that experiment. No Catholic, no rational man, should wish to see it repeated.

John Zmirak is author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, and of the upcoming The Race to Save Our Century (with Jason Jones). His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.

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