What sort of aristocracy of money remains?
By Mgr Henri Delassus | 31 August 2022
This is the fifth in a series of twelve articles, drawn from Mgr Delassus’s two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905), in which he examines the conditions for the restoration of Christian society and the return to social truth. The section of this work that is translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of all society and the disastrous effects of human tampering with this institution so manifestly wanted by God and nature.
The first part of this series, entitled “How states are formed”, appeared in the Digest in April 2022.
In our own day, sovereignty belongs to gold. This metal places all powers, not only of France but of the world, at the feet of the one who possesses it. No doubt it had a great power in the centuries which preceded the Revolution, but it had a rival in the aristocracy who, time and time again, had the right attitude towards it. Today, gold has passed almost to the state of divinity; it commands and is adored everywhere. The only thing that this new power has in common with those which came before it is the abuse to which all let themselves go.
The French aristocracy owed is grandeur to the same thing which made the grandeur of the ancient aristocracies: the commitment of the directing classes to the directed classes; the reverence of the directed classes for the directing classes; the union of efforts for the greatest good of all. For us, as for ancient civilisations, decadence was the natural result of the separation which occurred between the nobility and the people: each living on its own side, no longer loving one another, no longer helping one another, no longer knowing one another. The nobility had deserted the country to go and lose themselves in spending the money which the work of husbandmen had procured for them on pleasures and luxury in the court of kings. Alexis de Tocqueville asks:
“Can one remain attached and affectionate to people who, by the bonds of nature, are nothing to one and whom one never sees? It is above all in times of famine that one perceives that the bonds of patronage and trust, which once connected the rural landlord to the peasants, are slackened or broken. In these moments of crisis, the central government is terrified of its isolation and its weakness. It would like to see reborn for the occasion the individual influences that it has destroyed; it calls for help, but no one comes, and it is astonished to find dead the people whose lives it has itself taken.”
Some years before the Revolution, the nobility wanted to return to the people; it was too late. For a century already, each class had been drifting apart; each side enflamed with hatred and prejudice towards the rival class that it no longer knew and no longer understood. We know what came of it: society collapsed in ruins and in blood.
The Count of Chambord wanted to persuade what remained of the aristocracy to take back their providential role, as much as circumstances permitted, saying:
“I will not cease to recommend that all those who remain faithful to our cause live on their lands as much as possible and give the example of all possible improvements. This is the one and only way to destroy unjust prejudices and to give back to the landowner the influence, which belongs to him and which it would be useful — so useful — for him to obtain, in the administration and the direction of the country’s affairs.”
He congratulated those who had “conserved, with the faith of their fathers, the call to the hearth and the love of one’s native soil”. “Revolutionary seductions,” he said, “exercised above all their ravages among the populations deserted by their natural protectors. Brief appearances will never replace affectionate relations, disinterested service and effective counsel.” He was not heeded as much as he should have been.
The bourgeoisie had taken the place of nobility in society. Did it know, does it know, the duties that this role imposes on it?
Traditions of patronage on the one hand, of discipline on the other, created by old guilds, were still maintained in small industry for some time after the Revolution. Pierre Guillaume Frédéric le Play, we have already had the opportunity to remark, talks fondly about the workshops that he still saw, around 1830, on the model of those of former times:
“Before 1830, the Parisian workshops already contained traces of the subversive ideas and sentiments of hatred to which the revolutions prior had given birth. However, I was able to observe then some establishments and customs which remained superior to what, in thirty years, I found most perfect in the rest of Europe: the employer and his wife knowing every detail of the domestic life of their workers, and the latter concerning themselves with their common prosperity. Solidarity and harmony appeared in all the relations of the employer and the worker. In 1867, at a time when I had many channels of information at my disposal (as director of the Exposition universelle), I searched in vain in the old workshops, now enlarged and made rich, for some trace of these touching relations; I noticed, above all, the absence of affection and respect.”
The reason for this is indicated in the following terms by Théophile Funck-Brentano in La politique:
“Those of the middle classes who came quickly into wealth and honours (if they had the resources to manage it) have not always, for all this, acquired what only tradition and education can develop: the qualities necessary for the exercise of their new social functions. Raised in privation, they have needs — insatiable like their ambition and their selfishness: gain more, go further! Those who depend on them, workers or employees, are only stepping stones to their fortune or victims of their ambition. Finally, as they have not received by education (we would almost say, by apprenticeship) the moral qualities proper to their elevated position, we see them less and less scrupulous about their choice of means; their morality changes along with their character until they are no longer of any use, except for their business instinct and spirit of intrigue. In the following generation, the evil is accentuated: parents cannot give their children an education that they themselves have not had; and, as a result of the wealth or of the position that their parents have acquired, the children seek nothing but the satisfaction of their tastes, of their pleasures. Characters degenerate, and often the third or fourth generation ends up in hospital or in the madhouse, while new families, coming in the same way, take their place.”
In all the corners of France, it would be easy to match names to each one of the traits in this tableau. It could hardly have been otherwise.
Wealth which is drawn from the land finds limits to its ambition there; wealth which originates from industry, from commerce, from banking, knows none; becoming a millionaire, one aspires to be a billionaire (and we know that this was achieved many times over); this is one’s entire goal — wealth — and, to achieve it, one exploits man as one exploits matter, instead of loving and serving him. Man is erased in the eyes of capitalism; he is now only a means at the disposal of those whose every faculty is turned toward the goal pursued: fortune.
The Revolution proclaimed equality for all. But, le Play observed, by theoretically rendering the worker the equal of the master, the master was dispensed of the moral obligation to assist and protect him.
It proclaimed liberty of work. The bourgeoisie, rich in experience, in resources and in capital, could decide whether to work or not as they pleased; but the worker remained tied to the necessity of daily labour. Throwing the privileges of the nobility on the scrapheap, the Revolution had also thrown out the privileges of the workers; that is to say, the regulations and customs of the guilds which protected them. The bourgeoisie, seeing no more hindrances to the cupidity so natural to man, treated the worker like a tool, out of which one gets all the use one can, with no more regard for health than for morality.
It did this without being impeded by economic conditions which would previously have been opposed to it.
To the absence of restraint is added the absence of scruples. The continuation of work and thrift over a number of generations transmits to each one of them the virtues which began the prosperity of the family in the first place. But these traditions are not formed in the family which, occupied with industry, commerce and banking, rapidly comes to prominence through strokes of luck. We see them therefore, as Théophile Funck-Brentano observes, generally speaking, and apart from a few exceptions that the power of Christianity can produce, not particularly just, nor particularly sensitive to honour, nor particularly inclined to the noble thoughts which inspire faith and Christian charity; and, as a result, they are more astute in their own affairs than they are devoted to the good. Aspiring to power, they became more and more devoted to the wellbeing, luxury and pleasures that money enabled them to procure for themselves.
In these conditions, good social relations are rather rare and weak (not to mention void) with those whose work has served to raise them up and continues to maintain them and make them grow.
They are void for another reason. Pushed by the desire to enrich themselves more and more, the great industrialists multiply their factories or build them to immense proportions. In this way, they attract greater and greater numbers of people. Contact between employers and workers becomes almost impossible: there are supervisors and foremen between them, and shareholders above them all: for these great businesses cannot work without great capital drawn from a number of purses. Can there be a question of patronage and, above all, of paternity on the part of those whose interests lie at the bottom of a safe, and who are not acquainted in any way with the workers whose labour makes their pieces of paper valuable?
Lately, for all these reasons, the opulent bourgeois has ended up living just as far from the people as did the gentleman of bygone times. The same fate (one could even say a worse fate) necessarily awaits him: for, in every era and among all peoples, the fall of the financial, industrial and commercial aristocracy has been accompanied by disorders more violent and bloody than any of those brought about by the supplanting of the feudal aristocracy by the landed gentry.
The feudal aristocracy, bedded in the deeply rooted sentiments of souls, was maintained for many centuries in Greece, Italy and France. Man bows without repugnance to that which he believes to be the law, or which his beliefs present to him as being far above him.
The landed gentry lasted less long, because it was less solid. It was nonetheless very solid, since it too rested on a common belief. These great properties had been in the possession of families for a long time; they constituted their heritage, carried their name and seemed inherent to the families themselves. From generation to generation, the workers saw the domain in which they lived transmitted from father to son. Before it became conceivable to strip them of it, it was necessary to forget one’s duty to them.
The aristocracy of money did not have such a long duration among ancient peoples. The rapid growth of fortunes acquired by industry, commerce and speculation commanded no more respect from peoples than did the instability of such fortunes; and still less the impure source from which many of them were drawn. Finally, the inequality of conditions that they created within the same class unleashed greed and cupidity.
Generally speaking, the bourgeoisie did little to ease conditions. They did not seek to approach the lower class, to know their needs and hopes. Far from seeking to relieve suffering, to eliminate vice, to suppress poverty, to be united with the indigent, they fled all contact with them.
Assuredly, a certain number of employers have of late lent their ear to the voice of humanity and religion, and made great sacrifices to improve the physical conditions and morale of their workers. There are even shareholders who have their interests at heart, and take these matters into their own hands before assemblies. But, as always, these are only exceptions.
The present situation is this: multitudes crowd around the factories, coming from everywhere, uprooted from the countryside where they were born, torn away from all the influences of family, neighbourhood and parish. All the links which kept them in good standing — family honour, self-respect before one’s acquaintances the action of religion in its instructions and sacraments — all of this is broken and soon replaced by other influences: the cabaret which corrupts the heart, the newspaper which corrupts the mind, the trade union which shackles the will. Thus, workers very easily and very promptly fall prey to ambitious men who flatter their worst instincts: writers who spread the most false ideas, comrades who combat and overthrow all sane traditions. Brains are invaded by the blind dominion of words — progress, equality, liberty, democracy — wielding the invincible weapon of universal suffrage.
All of this is not without consequence in profound demoralisation; and the demoralisation does not delay in producing its fruit: poverty. Appetite devours each day’s wages; the more wages increase, the more they feed appetite and the greater the misery becomes.
Misery beats down on the masses who, lawless and vagrant, are no longer restrained by anything, and are ready to do anything to procure the pleasures with which they see their masters satiate themselves. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
“Only by taking great pains do the higher classes ever come to perceive clearly what has happened in the soul of the people. When the poor and the rich no longer have any mutual interests, grievances or business, the darkness which hides the mind of one from the mind of the other becomes impenetrable, and two men are able to live side by side eternally without ever perceiving one another. It is curious to see in what a strange security all those were living who occupied the higher levels of the social structure at the very moment that the Revolution began; and to hear them ingeniously hold forth amongst themselves on the virtues, on the meekness of the people when 1793 was just around the corner.”
Today, it is not so easy to deceive oneself. For clarity, one need only open the tabloids and the books of those who are the only doctors heeded by the people. They persuade that the condition of workers in our society is worse than that of the slaves of antiquity. They go further: “Property is theft,” wrote Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; “Capital,” wrote Karl Marx, “is only dead work, which, like a vampire, keeps itself alive only by sucking the blood of living work. And the more it sucks, the more joyous its life is.” Again, he wrote:
“In the measure that the number of potentates of labour is reduced by the competition which takes place between them, so do miseries, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation increase, but so too does the resistance of the working class — always growing and becoming more and more disciplined, organised, united by the same mechanism of capitalist production. Centralisation and socialisation of work get to a point when they can no longer stay in their capitalist exterior; this exterior is smashed to smithereens. The last hour of property has struck: the expropriators will be expropriated of everything they have.”
And of what does this expropriation consist? Marc Stirmer answered, “If someone stands in the way of our march, like a rock in our path, we will break through.”
The perceptive have been announcing this catastrophe for a long time. One need only remember the words of Le Play, Blanc de Saint-Bonne, Donoso-Corès and others whom we have already cited. But, aside from the perceptive, how many others seem struck by this same blindness of which Pierre Leroux spoke:
“There are men who are truly blind, who see nothing either by thought or feeling, who only see with the eyes of their body. If you ask them, ‘Did Babylon or Palmyra exist and were they destroyed?’ they will answer you, ‘Yes,’ because they can show you the material ruins, the remains of buildings sunk in the sands of the desert … but if you tell them that today’s society is destroyed, they do not understand, but laugh at you, because they see on all sides cultivated fields, houses and cities filled with men. What can one say to these blind people but that which Jesus said to their like: Oculos habentes non videtis?
Providence, however, does not skimp on warnings. Alexandre Dumas fils said:
“When a society does not see or does not want to see what it must to, this providence indicates it to him, first by small symptomatic and easily-remediable accidents. Then, in cases of persistent indifference or blindness, it renews its indications by periodic phenomena, which become more and more frequent and more and more prominent, until there occurs some catastrophe of such clear demonstration that it leaves no doubt as to the will of the aforementioned providence. It is then that the shortsighted society is astonished, terrified and cries doom and injustice.”
It is hardly possible that we will not see again the horrible scenes which desolated Greece at its end. Already, we have the first symptoms of them in strikes, which multiply, extend themselves, and pave the way for the universal strike to which the whole working world is disposed and organising itself.
But every strike increases misery and every great misery stirs up hatred. Into what abyss will the general strike cast society? And into what state will it put hearts and minds? The Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine did not blindly prophecy when he said:
“The day is not far off when the whole bourgeois comedy in France will end terribly in an epilogue entitled, ‘the reign of the communists’. Then, in Paris, scenes will take place which will make those of the old Revolution seem like the serene dreams of a summer night.”
This will be the ruin, not only of the bourgeoisie, but of the country and the whole of society.
Why? Because the law of human societies will have ceased to be observed. Suspend the law of attraction and the world will fall into horrifying chaos, the stars will collide and smash one against the other. Suspend the law of harmony between classes in the social sphere and they too will devour each other.
Nothing can save our society from irremediable ruin, except the reestablishment of this harmony which Leo XIII has shown to be the necessary salvation, and to which too few leaders are devoted. Outside of this, all other means are insufficient. Wilhelm Emmanuel Von Ketteler, Bishop of Mainz said:
“This one wants to heal us by a better distribution of taxes, another by different categories of saving funds, a third by the organisation of work, and a fourth by emigration; such a one by free trade and another by protectionism, another still by the freedom of trade guilds or by the division of the soil and of wealth, and yet another by the exact opposite; and others even by the proclamation of the Republic which will take away all misery and realise a paradise on earth. These means certainly have more or less value, and some of them could be effective; but for healing our social wounds, they are only a drop of water in the ocean. The interior reform of our hearts; that is what will save us. The two powerful illnesses of our heart are, on the one hand, the insatiable thirst to enjoy and to possess; and on the other, selfishness which has killed in us the love of neighbour. This illness has reached the rich and the poor alike. What can a new distribution of tax or saving funds do against that … while such sentiments live in our heart?”
This series will continue next month, on the subject: “Salvation is in the return to social peace”.
- Translator’s note: The Luxembourgian-French sociologist and father of the historian Frantz Funck-Brentano.
- Nowhere does the lie of liberty better betray itself than in the economic order. Its mirage vanishes like a dream from the moment that the fight for life brings isolated individuals into contact. The worker finds before him an employer who offers him a determined salary. Is it permissible for the worker to refuse his salary? No; the needs of existence, a family to support perhaps, oblige him to accept the conditions offered to him.
The employer is no better off. In most cases, he could ask for no better than to suitably remunerate his employees and his workers; but he cannot, because he is the prisoner of limitless competition. And even if he resorts to all sorts of expedients for escaping the effects of this competition, he is nevertheless less constrained to submit to its implacable law which makes it materially impossible to give his collaborators a remuneration proportionate to the needs of their existence.
Thus, it is neither independence nor liberty that the individualist state engenders; it is servitude, it is dependence: dependence of the worker on the employer, dependence of the employer on being competitive, dependence of all on economic conditions.
- Translator’s note: “Having eyes, see you not?” (Mark 8:18; cf. Ez 12:2)