By Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor. [This article is part of the Cyrano’s Virtual University Collection. This collection contains articles the editors over the years have felt to be foundational and insightful in expanding understanding of concepts and issues.]
[Poster found at ContainerLiving.]
(Rome-Paris) In an essay especially pertinent to contemporary American society, L’Exil d’Hélene, Albert Camus noted that “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.”
Read in the midst of the bedlam of the ongoing collapse of Capitalism falling to pieces around us, a bit more each day, Camus’ essay helped me pinpoint the idea for this concluding essay of Fundamental Definitions. For Mammon, the God of Excess, is the very personification of the capitalist god … or rather its demon.
[Picture courtesy Russian Voices.]
The natural subject for this fourth essay should be Capitalism itself. However, Capitalism is too vast to treat here while the devil-like image of Mammon is accessible. For the very basis of Western society is the personification of the illusion of the possibility of a life without limits. Many readers will have recognized the hubris of our economic-financial world in this year of 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.
Though in the Bible “Mammon” is not a demon but simply the Aramaic word meaning “wealth” or “property,” sometimes translated as “money,” in religious writings and in literature of the Middle Ages Mammon is personified as the demon of avarice and wealth. For some it is another name for the devil Beelzebub. As it was for medieval men, for modern men Mammon is the personification of the excessive love of wealth.
By extension then Mammon is the god of excess. Mammon demands that its worshippers strive toward excess, that they pass 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….
Laws of ancient Babylonia formalized the use of money as a medium of exchange to replace barter. Money has always been an abstraction in lieu of objects of real value. Never more than today has money been more a token. As precious metals became the token of money-wealth in ancient times, so also 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), lead inexorably to the power of emergent banks and financial institutions which could lend money in excess of their reserves held for their depositors. That is, without security. Without guarantees of the bank’s ability to pay its debts. That is precisely 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. Our society 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. A token, a symbol, the Golden Calf. As obviously dysfunctional, unjust, and destructive as our system is, many who opposed the recent $700 billion ‘bailout’ of the American financial markets still nod in agreement when bourgeois economists insist that while the ‘bailout’ was excessive, “something had to be done to restore investor confidence and get credit flowing again”.
For God’s sake, life lived just for money reduces our existence to null. We all want to live without economic worries. We all want to permit ourselves something extra from time to time. The problem is the worship, the adoration of Mammon on those high levels far beyond the limits.
Yet despite all, especially in the wreck of the financial world, money remains an abstraction, an invention of the human mind. Money remains the symbol of value, today enthroned on high in the world. Money is the God of war and peace, the power of powers, the one power superior to all other powers. Money is the adored Golden Calf. Thus it is the symbol of excess. The surpassing of natural limits. Man’s invention—an enthroned abstraction—controls and manipulates our lives.
As everyone recognizes 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, in the age of information few people realize how excessive the inequality has become under the reign of today’s super-Mammon. The world now counts 358 billionaires, whose net worth equals the combined net worth of the world’s 2.5 billion poorest people. And the trillionaires are being born. The capitalization of some banks exceeds the total national production of one hundred 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-devil 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 worshipers. We now have clear 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, has spawned economic injustice and is responsible for its merger into an unholy alliance with 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.
Does this idol worship really make sense? One should be wondering everywhere 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. 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.
We read such statistics, write them, others copy them and readers read them, but what does it all mean? The truth is that since such excesses are too much for the normal human mind to register and comprehend, we ignore them.
But if we dare to truly look and truly see, it becomes evident that the results of this rampant savage capitalism has not only killed America but has carried our entire world beyond the limits. As others have said over and over, 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
As the Christian bible states, a little jumbled as usual, abstruse, even over-simplified, it is on target in the great divide between Mammon on the 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 and rapaciousness 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.”
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, 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 from Washington that the House of Representatives voted down the first bailout bill a couple of years ago, accusing it of “Socialism”, struck Europe as an unimaginable surprise. It shouldn’t have. The impotence of the apparently all-powerful US president seemed like another stone on the tomb of America’s “invincible” neo-liberalism and solid-as-a-rock faith in the market. Some European observers interpreted the anti-bailout opposition as pure anarchy, an atmosphere of everyman for himself: congressmen worried only about their re-election if they saved Wall Street sharks, not about savings, pensions, jobs, or the credit system.
Europe was surprised at the mediocre provincialism, the egoism of the American political world face to face with the gravest of financial disasters. More cynical Europeans, old hands at the political game, saw through the Republican reluctance to vote for the bailout plan because its right wing supporters wanted nothing to do with “Socialism”. It was like burying Ronald Reagan again. They preferred to let the Democratic opposition vote in the bill, so that they could get the benefits of the bailout but not have to pay the political price. Europeans wonder if American democracy and its responsibility as the world leader is 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 complain that they, like Americans, must now pay for a failed and bankrupt U.S. presidency.
Such is the price of excess. Of exceeding moral limits.
The crisis has already provoked a historic turnaround in America (and in Europe, too)—a wave a re-nationalizations unseen since the Great Depression. It’s the return of the state-proprietor, however 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 fact is the dimension of the crisis in Europe has been underestimated and 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 eye of the storm. What happened in the USA should not hide the gravity of the parallel drama in Europe—stock markets in dramatic fall and banks failing, merging or nationalizing, such as the giant Belgian Fortis Bank, worth triple the GNP or GDP of Belgium, saved by the injection of capital from Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. The same kind of life jacket was thrown out to the German Hypo Real Estate. Even Iceland had to nationalize a bankrupt bank.
Size! Excess! Growth at all costs! Beyond the limits!
The Deutsche Bank is worth 80% of Germany’s GNP, Barclay’s is equal to 100% of England’s. Excess and size are the reasons Europe is more exposed and vulnerable than banks in America. The U.S. crisis forced financial authorities to recognize that certain financial giants are “too big to be allowed to fail”. Europe faces something worse: “institutions too big to be saved!” Excessive in respect to the sizes and capacities of the old nations-state. The multinational European Union at work.
The Italian journalist Federico Rampini notes 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 GNP. A murderous price for public finances but not impossible. The European Union could never equal that price unless it decides to tear up its stability pact and surrender all its principles of financial rigor. And above all the time to find agreement among all its member states so in contrast with the instantaneous tremors of the economy. Europe of many governments is unprepared to meet crises of this dimension that occur once in a century. While EU banks are of global dimensions 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. It took the then French President Sarkozy days, weeks, to organize a weekend meeting in Paris of the Premiers of Europe’s major countries and EU representatives and responsible officials of the European Central Bank, (which then only decided to decide!), while in America such meetings are arranged in a matter of hours.
Europe however has one major advantage over America: Nationalization, aka 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 first drive mad those they want to ruin. One could recognize elements of Greek tragedy in the negotiations between the two American “super heroes”, the then 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 messengers—Bush, McCain or Obama—before the cameras to recount their versions of this confrontation.
As such, our unlikely actors are begging for a bit less market and a bit more state.
It is truly evident that a new epoch is beginning. We hope new and adult leaders will return to the White House and other centers of power to help determine the contours of the new era.
Epilogue: After decades of living in the center of miracle-ridden Catholicism, 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 very atmosphere in which we live is also strange. Yet strange things 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 just made it up.
I was 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 was sitting in a booth over coffee looking blankly out of the window into early spring sun rays 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 like 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 is Cyrano’s Journal Online’s European Correspondent. A seasoned journalist and critic, his essays and reports have been published by scores of leading sites and print media around the world.