Monday, November 2, 2009


I remember vividly the day I discovered that the God of this world is not Jehovah, still less the Christian God of Love. It's Mammon.

It was over a quarter of a century ago, in downtown Sao Paolo. Not my most favorite city. Maybe a higher percentage of grey to green than in any other major metropolis. It's not usually cold there, but one month a few years later when it got quite chilly, the homeless were dying of hypothermia at around five a night. Not that anyone gave a shit. It's that kind of town.

Late one afternoon I had wandered into the heart of the business district. I was on a big avenue. I forget which. Maybe it was Avenida dos Bandeirantes. The Bandeirantes, literal meaning "banner followers", were gangs of Portuguese who went hunting for slaves. That would have been appropriate.

All along each side of the avenue were the Brazilian headquarters of all the great multinational corporations. Massive towers, forty, fifty, sixty floors. Out of curiosity, I went into one. Inside was a vast atrium, reaching up to a height of maybe eight or ten floors. At the back, a bank of bronze-doored elevators. In the middle, an immense statue, Atlas holding up the globe or something of the kind. And that was it. The rest was vacant space.

At first I was puzzled. Why such a waste of space? They could have put tiers of offices in there. They were businesses, weren't they? Business are supposed to be streamlined, functionally efficient. I mean it's a dog-eat-dog jungle out there. Isn't it? Where the weak and wasteful go to the wall. That's free-market capitalism--isn't it? They surely can't have been fooling us all this time. I mean, leave aside the cost of construction, just think how much it must cost to maintain them at an even temperature summer and winter.

I looked inside the next one. The same, or very similar. As were almost all of the towers along that avenue. Sometimes there was no statue. Sometimes there was a humongous chandelier. Sometimes the elevators were off to the side, or there was a big concierge desk. In some the atrium was higher than in others. But in almost all of them there was this same reckless use or abuse of space. Why?

Then I realized. These places were not offices--they were temples. They were using space just like cathedrals once did, to invoke awe, awe of a deity who could afford to be so wasteful, who could inspire his followers to undertake such massive, functionally useless undertakings. Well, we're not building cathedrals any more. Haven't been for quite a while. Except for poor old Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, still struggling to be born, 126 years and counting, the very last of these religious dinosaurs. That have been replaced, world-wide, by Temples of Mammon, god of lucre, greed and material things.

Our Four Horsemen, mounted on their rusty Rosinantes, are, just like the Knight of the Woeful Countenance himself, tilting at ghosts of their own imagination. There are no longer supernatural giants threatening the freedom of "free-thinkers"; there are only the material mills of commerce grinding people into profit. Of course, lip-service is still paid to the Old Gods. Large majorities in the U.S. (and somewhat smaller ones in the rest of the industrial west) still describe themselves as Christian, and doubtless believe, quite sincerely, that this still means something. Actually it means about as much as does modern China calling itself communist.

The parallel between China and America is indeed stunning. Here you used to have two countries with what were supposed to be diametrically opposed religions. We followed the religion of Jesus, China followed the religion of Marx (whose St. Paul was Mao-Zedong). Now we've both of us sold out to Mammon. But neither of us will admit it. Mammon is the God Whose Name May Not Be Spoken. It is too holy. He can only be worshipped under an alias. Doesn't matter what that alias is. Just as long as your heart is in the right place. That is, into material things.

Now we’ll go back and finish describing the bind into which the dramatic changes of the last two centuries threw the majority of human kind who didn’t benefit from those changes.