Capitalism hasn’t disenchanted the world, a new book argues. Like a bad lover, it beguiles us into spiritual desolation—and only the most utopian politics will break its spell.
October 25, 2019
Oct 25, 2019
20 Min read time
Capitalism hasn’t disenchanted the world, a new book argues. Like a bad lover, it beguiles us into spiritual desolation—and only the most utopian politics will break its spell.
The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity
Harvard University Press, $39.95 (cloth)
In 1943 the psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his famous hierarchy of needs. The banal premise is that some needs are prior to others. We need food and shelter, for instance, before we can seek friendship and love. And only once we’ve attained those can we attain the summit of the pyramid: the Shangri-La of “self-actualization,” defined as doing what one “is fitted for” and becoming “more and more what one is.” This vision of human flourishing has become ubiquitous in the decades since Maslow’s paper. A regular feature of school curricula and self-help guides, it has filtered into our everyday understanding of the meaningful life: one in which a stable material and social infrastructure gives us the time and space to thrive as individuals.
“Capitalism,” McCarraher argues, “is a love story.” The problem isn’t that it lacks values, but that it values the wrong things.
What most people don’t know about Maslow is that he was also a celebrant of postwar capitalism. He worked as a managerial consultant and with an early digital manufacturing outfit in California. He had nothing to do with the hard-nosed economists that we associate with the rites of capital; even Ayn Rand thought he was too “primitive” to engage. Yet he shared with them a desire to study the excellent individual, or genius, and a desire to show readers that the responsibility for actualization lies, ultimately, within themselves. More than Rand, of course, Maslow was a self-described humanist, seeking ways to help us all survive and thrive. It is this softer approach that makes him an indispensable guide to the moral history of our times. He found a way to make capitalism adhere to our inner longings—to translate the austere dictates of the marketplace into the fuzzier language of the heart. He exposes, that is, the spiritual logic of late capitalism.
In his mammoth new study, The Enchantments of Mammon, the historian Eugene McCarraher makes the case that this is the logic that really matters. Analyzing capitalism from a moral and anthropological perspective—though one very different from Maslow’s—he presumes that human beings desire to lead meaningful lives, in concert with others. At the core of our being, he thinks, we do not aim to actualize the self but to actualize a world: a “beloved community” of nature, friends, and family, with worship and work as the grammar of those relations. Moreover, he thinks that the fundamentally secular approach to self and world that we find in Maslow is inconsistent with our true nature, and our true needs. We can live properly in the world only if we understand the world for what it is: not brute matter for our exploitation, but a God-drenched cosmos that is already suffused with meaning, if we know how to look for it.
While written from a Christian perspective, the book is not evangelizing, and it has something to teach us all. At its heart, it is a moral critique of capitalism. McCarraher wants us to see that we are living in a system that, in failing to answer our most human needs, is literally inhumane. But this is not a book that asks us to slow down, smell the roses, and so on. That kind of ethical injunction is as tired as it is futile—and it is also, McCarraher thinks, an intellectually bankrupt analysis of the modern condition, told by theorists such as the sociologist Max Weber and the philosopher Charles Taylor, but also in popular culture. Once upon a time, this story goes, we inhabited an enchanted universe, in which we understood our place in the cosmos. Life in the past may have been hard, but at least it made sense. The transition to modernity, though, came with a cost: our lives might be materially better, but they have been drained of meaning. We are, in a word, “disenchanted.” We are tasked, then, with crafting meaning for ourselves—whether by finding meaningful work, falling in love, or doing yoga.
Capitalism twists our God-given love for neighbor and world into a force of estrangement, and it transforms our God-given desire to work into forms of exploitation.
McCarraher contends that this whole story is disastrously misguided; it keeps us from seeing how capitalism functions, and why it continues to exert so much appeal. Disenchantment, he argues, never happened. Our world is still soaked with meaning, just as it was in the Middle Ages. We are not abandoned to a universe of moral relativism and nihilism, because capitalism and its prophets have offered an astonishingly stable set of alternatives. “Capitalism,” McCarraher insists, “is a love story.” What he means is that the market translates the poetry of our desire into the prose of institutions and exchange. (And isn’t this the structure of any love story, or at least those ending in marriage?) Our world, in other words, is just as “enchanted” as the one of our medieval forebears: the human frame is such that it could not survive otherwise. Capitalism offers us community, faith, ritual, nature worship, and everything else that we imagine in the enchanted worldview of the past.
The trouble is that it is black magic. It twists our God-given love for neighbor and world into a force of estrangement, and it transforms our God-given desire to work into forms of exploitation. The problem with capitalism isn’t that it lacks values, but that it values the wrong things. If McCarraher is right, the salvation we seek will not come through technological breakthroughs or even the creation of new political coalitions. The first order of business, he thinks, is to learn how to love again, and to love better.
• • •
It is telling that The Enchantments of Mammon is not written solely in the argumentative mood. It often comes closer to scripture than scholarship, despite the fact that it is heavily footnoted and rooted in a wide range of up-to-date research from multiple disciplines. The sheer mass of the work is astonishing, all the more impressive for being written in unflaggingly rapturous prose. It will not be to everyone’s taste, but McCarraher has done his best to write as though modern scholarship might speak in the voice of the King James Bible.
This style reveals an integral element of his project. It isn’t just that he is a good writer, although he clearly is. It is that he swam against the tide of an academy that incentivizes the serviceable and workaday over the baroque and the wonderful. Where most heed the injunction to publish or perish, McCarraher took two decades to finish this work, pouring his heart and soul into a highly idiosyncratic research project. The book itself thus exemplifies the sort of solicitousness he calls for: a return to principles of artisanship and craft, removed from the dictates of the marketplace. He is no fool, holy or otherwise; he knows his work rests upon a phalanx of capitalist institutions, from the university to the publishing house. And yet some prophets can escape from that particular lion’s den.
Contrary to Max Weber, our capitalist world remains enchanted. The trouble is that it is black magic.
This is nevertheless a work of history, and though it does not do so straightforwardly, it makes an argument about the past. It resists summary, probably by design: there are twenty-nine roughly chronological chapters divided into seven parts, each of which is stuffed to the gills with brilliant readings and unexplored historical byways. It may be better to think of the work as three books in one, instead of a single, sprawling 900-page treatise—three volumes woven together, covering roughly 1700 to the present, and each one illuminating one aspect of our predicament.
Book One might be called “Capitalist Enchantment.” In these sections, McCarraher labors to show that capitalism provides “a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world.” He is not the first to argue that capitalism follows a religious structure in its desire to invest ordinary objects—commodities, money—with mystical qualities. Nor is he the first, by far, to point out the importance of this idea for Marx, who develops it into the idea of “commodity fetishism.” What is new is the sheer weight and breadth of the historical research that he enlists. In hundreds of pages scattered across the volume, McCarraher shows how theologians, economists, and eventually advertising executives sought to “enchant” the dismal workings of capitalism and empire. Since the Puritans, he thinks, American culture has been suffused with the logic that “wealth was God’s benediction on the righteous, a reward from the Almighty to the archangels of improvement.” The prosperity gospel has long been with us, and McCarraher shows us a coven of gilded age prophets of accumulation. To take just one of the most surprising examples: the first monthly business magazine in the United States, Hunt’s Merchant Magazine, was founded by a man named Freeman Hunt who was utterly convinced that business prosperity was the grammar of God’s love.
For much of the twentieth century, the corporation replaced the godly entrepreneur as the locus of capitalist enchantment. There is, after all, something magical about the corporation: a legal person, but also, as its name implies, a community. McCarraher is well versed in the literature of corporate and business history, but his main point is more cultural. The gilding work of advertising and human relations were central to the hegemony of the corporate form, he contends. Even Frederick Taylor, that much-maligned prophet of mechanized human labor, was committed to a beloved community, a workplace in which “each man possesses his own individuality” and yet could “work harmoniously with many other men.” This union turns out to be ubiquitous, and McCarraher delights in unearthing forgotten business gurus who reached to scripture in their attempts to defend the corporate order.
We all know that capitalism strives to make us feel good about consumption. McCarraher’s move is to say that this is not so much a mere feature or façade of the system as the foundation. As much as we might not like to admit it, he argues, capitalism does provide something like that: it does, in other words, succeed in making us feel, when our critical guard is down, that the marketplace is providing us the tools we need to craft a meaningful and humane life. Advertising firms strive to show us that their products provide access not only to a good experience, but to a good world. Think, for instance, of the bucolic fantasies that adorn our egg cartons, or the utopian labor regimes extolled on our cans of craft beer. Rather than sites of exploitation and conflict, management and HR ask us to experience them as ersatz families, complete with birthday celebrations and pep talks. Not even our leisure time is free from the machinations of capitalist enchantment. Walt Disney, a crucial figure for McCarraher, created an entertainment empire around the idea that the “magic” has not been drained from our world at all, but is (still) all around us.
Like the bad lover it is, consumer culture twists the inherent nobility of our sentiments in directions we never desired.
Capitalism is a love story, then—but the kind that, whether you notice or not, will break your heart. These forms of enchantment lead to misery, and to McCarraher they are alien to the true needs of the human soul. “Consumer culture,” as he puts it, “is a counterfeit beatific vision.” Like the bad lover it is, it will twist the inherent nobility of our sentiments in directions we never desired. However good we might feel about individual consumption decisions, and however much “magic” they might bring our way, in the aggregate they are creating the dismal and collapsing world that we call home. Disney the dreamweaver was also, once the animators’ union took to the picket lines in 1941, Disney the strikebreaker.
• • •
The other two volumes threaded through Enchantments detail the two divergent paths that have been taken to critique capitalist enchantment.
The second might be called “Misguided Critics of Capitalist Enchantment.” Here McCarraher shows that, for centuries, mainstream attempts to critique capitalism have ended up playing into its hands. He attacks some sacred cows in these pages, including some of the most prestigious forms of social critique on the U.S. left today: the Marxist tradition of political economy, the populist vision of rural insurgency, and the transcendentalist line of moral and aesthetic critique. Even these critics of capitalist enchantment, McCarraher laments, accept the basic capitalist gambit: use technology and massive organizations to exploit nature in the name of progress. Marx was infatuated with the possibilities of technology, and yearned for, in the words of Adorno and Horkheimer, “a gigantic joint-stock company for the exploitation of nature.” Those sympathetic to that critique often look to the transcendentalist sages of New England for an alternative. McCarraher thinks this a blind alley. Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his telling, were celebrants of expansionist capitalism. Henry David Thoreau’s ethic of individual withdrawal appears different, but really is not. The ethic of individual withdrawal, by discounting the possibility of collective effort, serves to legitimate the system left behind.
Many of us feel that we have been able to find the beloved community we seek, without realizing that we have wandered right back into the trap.
These traditions are dangerous, McCarraher thinks, because they have fooled so many of us into thinking that we are operating at cross-purposes to capitalist hegemony. In other words: many of us feel that we have been able to find, or at least theorize, the beloved community we seek, without realizing that we have wandered right back into the trap. Here he essentially reprises the familiar argument about “the conquest of cool”: counterculture is in fact mainstream culture, and every desire to “be authentic” and “be different” is a dollar in the pocket of Amazon.
Up to this point, there is not a great deal that is novel in McCarraher’s account, aside from its synoptic perspective. While many would certainly dispute his critique of Marx or the transcendentalists, it is no surprise that capitalism uses and perverts our desire for authenticity and community. It is with the third, and shortest, volume that he reveals what is closest to his own heart, and not coincidentally it is here that the most originality and wonder is to be found.
McCarraher believes that there exists a neglected strand of thought and action that apprehends capitalism properly, and offers us a properly radical escape route. We might call this “The Romantic Critique of Capitalism.” The word “Romanticism” is used and abused to no end, and he includes many figures under its umbrella that would have objected to the term. He does not provide a capsule definition, but his meaning is clear: a “Romantic” is one who recognizes the innate human need for enchantment and beloved community, and also recognizes that capitalism provides a perverse form of it.
McCarraher is not simply combing through history for cranky religious nostalgia. Many of his “romantics” did not identify as such, and many were not religious. The romantic critique begins as far back as Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, who raised their voices against the earliest enclosures of the commons, and in favor of the primitive communism that they saw as God’s hope for us. In the nineteenth century, this sensibility animated figures such as Robert Southey and William Blake, who mobilized poetry in an attempt to conjure the sorts of enchantment they believed were blinking away. In the early twentieth century, McCarraher looks to figures such as John Muir, William James, and the Anglo-Catholic mystic and socialist Vida Dutton Scudder. Closer to our own day, he thrills at the work of Dorothy Day, Guy Debord, Herbert Marcuse, and Norman O. Brown.
McCarraher offers a deep, religious critique of modern society, but he utterly rejects nostalgia. The Christian vision, after all, is primarily about the future.
If he has one hero, it is probably Lewis Mumford (1895–1990), the polymath best known for his writings on architecture and the city. For McCarraher he represents “a romantic critic of capitalism” who affirmed “modern technics” while also denouncing “the religion of productivity.” An urban son himself, Mumford was horrified by the inhumanity of the contemporary cityscape, and sought ways to reintegrate city and country, and industry and craftsmanship, in the name of human scales and human values. This required, above all, the effort to regain mastery over technology, finding ways to use its awesome power in ways that answer our truest needs. He recognized too, as McCarraher does, that the power of capitalism was emotional: industry, in Mumford’s view, was a “new religion, and it gave to the world a new Messiah: the Machine.” While he was not religiously doctrinaire, Mumford saw that the revitalization of our social order will require the creation of new mythologies. Only that would help us to “restore our own faith for living, and to lay the foundations of a world in which life . . . will once more be sacred.”
Most of these figures would be located on the left, today, and McCarraher is at pains to reassure us that he is not one of those reactionary religious types who are gathering such press in recent years (such as Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen, to name the two most famous). He shares with them a deep, religious critique of modern society, but he utterly rejects their nostalgia. He is clear that there is no way but forward, and that the old medieval spells cannot simply be cast again. He tries to salvage the good, utopian energies of the counterculture, and even of its concern for sexual liberation. He celebrates Occupy Wall Street, too, aligning himself squarely with the anarchist wing of the Romantic tradition over its royalist counterpart. McCarraher does believe that the human soul has a stable and divinely ordained set of needs, but he reminds us that this need not entail conservative politics. One might believe, as he seems to, that no present or past regime has adequately met those needs—that the society built for man does not lie in our squalid past, but in the future that lies on the far side of capitalism’s collapse. The Christian vision, after all, is primarily about the future.
• • •
The Enchantments of Mammon is a landmark in American cultural and intellectual history, synthesizing vast swathes of writing and experience into a singular vision. It is a monument to the author’s time, and to his talents. What, though, are we to make of his vision—particularly those of us who are unconvinced by the (unargued) theological assumptions at the core of his project?
There is a great deal about the book that one could criticize, if one were feeling uncharitable. This is very much a traditional intellectual history, almost entirely peopled by white men, and there are limits to what such an approach can tell us. Surprisingly, for a book that asks us to adopt non-Marxist forms of capital critique, neither race nor gender is discussed in any serious way (despite including some African American and female authors). McCarraher is well aware that many of the romantic critics of capitalism became racist, misogynist, or both. While he does not shy away from this fact, and properly condemns that tendency, he does not seek to explain it, either.
The only way to rekindle the virtue of craft and intimate community is to assault capitalism at its root, in league with anarchists and aesthetic radicals.
The issue is not just a matter of inclusion: it is theoretical. There is a short section on slave religion that depicts it as a valuable form of Romanticism, rather than as a call to rethink the whole tradition through the lens of race. This isn't enough. His whole point is that we ought to return, in a new way, to the sacramental understanding of the world that reigned before it was usurped by capitalism. But engaging with race and gender more systematically would have led him to some very obvious questions. Is that sacramental understanding compatible with religious diversity? And what do we do with the fact that the sacral world of the past was so devastating to women and to minorities (including Jews, who were often cast themselves as representatives of Mammon)? How do we imagine a return to a less individualist, and more sacral, public culture, without uprooting the individual rights that are such unvarnished goods of the modern project? These are the crucial questions, intellectually—and yet, because they have never been solved and because McCarraher operates mainly in the historical register, they are not ones that he addresses directly. Any religious left worth the name must place race and gender at the center of its analysis.
And yet the book cannot be dismissed so simply, and there is a great deal to like about it, too, apart from its craft. There is something refreshing about its call for a studiously moral critique of capitalism. I say moral, here, because this is certainly not an economic critique in the Marxist vein: McCarraher is certain that capitalism will not run aground on its own contradictions, and is perfectly capable of limping along until the world burns to cinders.
We live in a historical moment that, for all of its dangers, crackles with possibility. New worlds are in the offing. And even if most of them seem dystopian, the vertigo of our era is causing us to ask, anew, the very basic question about what kind of world we want. The Enchantments of Mammon asks this question, and seeks to revive a longstanding answer to it. What McCarraher wants is a world of community, magic, craftsmanship, and enchantment. These are old-fashioned words, to be sure, and not ones that will thrill every reader. If you are not predisposed toward that kind of nostalgia, this book will not convince you. It does not even try.
The point, instead, is to get readers who already share some of McCarraher’s values to see what other ones might follow. This is an important task: many people do thrill to that list of keywords, and many of them believe that this commits them to a kind of reactionary, religious separatism. Not in the slightest, McCarraher says. The only way to rekindle the virtue of craft and intimate community is to assault capitalism at its root, in league with anarchists and aesthetic radicals.
Whatever the exact contours of the argument, this style of reasoning is especially urgent in our times. The hour of pedagogy has passed, and the path forward will not involve “converting” people to Marxism, or socialism, as worldviews. The surer path is to recognize that many people are already committed to deeply anti-capitalist and revolutionary values—even if they don’t quite realize it, or recognize those implications.
To meet our most banal and human needs, only the most extraordinary and utopian politics will do.
In this regard the book shares something with Martin Hägglund’s recent book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, which does for an atheist reader what McCarraher attempts to do for the religious one. If you truly reject God, Hägglund says, here is what you ought to believe, and here are the steps that connect properly understood atheism to democratic socialism. Neither Hägglund nor McCarraher makes a serious effort to convert those outside the orbit of their presumed readership: no believer would be persuaded by Hägglund to abandon faith in God, just as no skeptic would be persuaded by McCarraher to fall to her knees in prayer.
Indeed, though a temperamental and ideological chasm separates the secular Hägglund from the religious McCarraher, they have a surprising amount in common. Both are fundamentally moral thinkers whose critique of capitalism is, in the end, disarmingly obvious: capitalism has created a world that we do not want. Despite our ideological divides over how to attain them, our desires are, for the most part, simple and widely shared. We want meaningful work, restorative leisure, and a loving circle of family and friends; we want others to have those things, too, and we want a world that can sustain this very human kind of life.
Books like these remind us just how far our social structures are from providing these basic, simple things, even as it excels at providing us with complex, baffling things that we do not want at all. In the whirl of events, we can lose sight of our most basic desires, and how widely they are shared. An affirmation of “what unites us” or “what is human in us” often leads to bland centrism. It shouldn’t. We are living through what McCarraher calls “the twilight of a senescent empire.” And as the shadows lengthen, status quo politics cannot even promise the maintenance of the contemporary order: they will hasten the doom of the species. And this, it seems to me, is the true novelty of our moment. To meet our most banal and human needs, only the most extraordinary and utopian politics will do.
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October 25, 2019
20 Min read time