This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 2: The idealism of self-control that pays off

The bourgeois subject adapts himself to social circumstances, however full of rule and exploitation, murder and mayhem they may be. Since his interests are not denied in principle, since his materialism is served at least conditionally, he considers the world to be one big offer for himself: inasmuch as he adapts to this world and pursues his own interests in the framework of what is permitted, he enjoys nothing but liberties.

However, since submission to the regimen of what is allowed, i.e., conceded materialism, in no way guarantees success, the individual is presented with many a problem by his beloved freedom. With his experiences now good, now bad, he comes to a somewhat divided opinion about the rule that he wants to bow to for his own advantage. Depending on whether or not the pursuit of his interests works out well, he applies now the standpoint of success, now that of decency — and whenever he examines the personal prosperity of other people, bourgeois man sees one of the two criteria at his disposal either fulfilled or violated; while in certain cases decency and success actually go along with each other, both higher up and lower down in the social hierarchy. But, from the viewpoint that interests mustn't show themselves without the trappings of morality, success often enough appears to have been purchased at the expense of decency; while conversely, decency is seen to be the reason for many a setback, especially for oneself. The moralistic subject does not let his negative experiences lead him to either “whole-hearted” endorsement or to “destructive criticism” of the rule that concedes freedom to him. Rather, he maintains the standpoint of self-control that pays off; that is, his consciousness judges by a double standard. To the standard of material prosperity, he adds the standard of virtue; he reflects each in the other, considering materialism to be just as permissible as obedience is necessary.

2.1 Rule as the sum of good and bad opportunities

In going back and forth between his two standards, the bourgeois individual gets his peculiar position toward, and conception of, rule. It consists in no way in such rock-solid arguments as capital, labor and state power, but rather in an — economically and politically “organized” — sum of good and bad opportunities. All the constraints of the bourgeois world appear to him to be — permissible — paths to success. It is certainly true that by considering and handling objective relations as “opportunities” that one “grabs” or “lets slip” in case they are offered, he has long since backed away from the notion that there is a profusion of means at his disposal for achieving his purposes. But it is precisely by scrutinizing the circumstances of life for chances, i.e., through the logic of possibility, that he maintains his positive outlook on the world. The moral individual wants to prove himself in bourgeois society; he calculates his success while acknowledging its limits, and subjects the results of both his and other people's efforts to never-ending interpretation. In the process, he sees no antagonism as such; instead, he finds nothing but differences regarding individual skill in exploiting the chances that arise. On the one hand, every difference in individual prosperity confirms that “it can be done,” that opportunities are actually offered. On the other hand, just such a difference calls for moral scrutiny with the question of whether successful characters behave in the same manner as less reputable citizens. Or whether the latter have only reaped their just reward for poor conduct, and so on.

2.2 Calculation and disappointment, comparison and criticism

The resolve to submit out of self-interest leads, on the one hand, to a continual refutation of the calculating dialectic of decency and success. However, the efforts of such an individual are not apt to rattle it. For the bourgeois individual, everyone who has advanced further than he is evidence that some things work — while he can draw quite a bit of solace and confirmation from his superiority to those who have done less well. With his respectful, or even servile, dealings with those better off, as much as with the liberties he takes regarding his less successful “fellow men,” the bourgeois subject denies the objectivity of class society.

Due to the fact that his well-being is only partially realized, the decent citizen also starts criticizing the comparison by which, in his opinion, individuals distinguish themselves. To this end, he now separates, now crosses the two miserable standards at his disposal: “Not every rich man is decent” can signify both a reproach and a recognition of cleverness; while dopes draw the compliment, “He's a good fellow.” This compliment presents its cynical side when used to congratulate the downtrodden on their morality — along with this, one finds contempt for pushy people. The incompatibility of the two standards becomes apparent in the thousand variations of all possible and unsuitable differences. So the moral individual has a bit to do to maintain the illusion inherent in his principle: if he holds that the objective limits to his achievements no longer exist because he has declared them to be a matter of how they are dealt with subjectively, i.e., because he has subjectivized them, then he hopes to be able to clear them away in practice. And he doesn’t find it hard to use not only his mind but also his morality in a calculating way — so as to be a materialist all the same, along with his obedience.