Do you, inhabitant of the marvelous and menacing late-modern world,
detect something missing – some kind of vitality, meaning,
connectedness, love, beauty, or wonder? If so, you’ve likely searched
for a story to explain it.
A popular narrative offers that something rather ugly happened on the
way to modernity. As the Middle Ages gave way to the upheavals of the
Reformation, the Enlightenment, and rising capitalism, a vanguard of
scientists, professors of reason, Protestants, and money men (for they
were almost always men), sought to break the shackles of the past. They
fashioned bold new ideas and ways of being, but in doing so crimped the
human spirit and frayed the ties that bind us to our neighbors, to
nature, and to our own hearts. Even the needful and cherished material
objects in our lives — the cooking pot, the plow, the spindle — lost
their sacred glow.
It’s a tale of disenchantment: a cultural coming-of-age in which the
protagonist wakes up from charmed sleep and, as the harsh light strikes
newly awakened senses, accepts that it is time to buckle down to
business, relying on self-discipline and a strong work ethic to see the
In this story, people take on secular attitudes and values. They turn
from community to competition. The sin of greed becomes the desirable
trait of “self-interest” and the habit of devotion gives way to the
quest for domination. Veneration morphs into venality. We ditch the old
totems and taboos and work like crazy, trying our best to be thrifty and
restrained so that we can accumulate wealth, now our chief focus. By
the time we arrive at the 21st century, the neoliberal regime and its
chosen institution, the global corporation, are bringing us dazzling
products that promise to meet our wants and needs. The system may be
rapacious and exploitive, true. We may often feel twinges of
unfulfillment and uncertainty, yes. But that’s the price we pay for the
goodies and convenience. The dispirited must suck it up, for, as Maggie
Thatcher famously insisted, there is no alternative.
But is disenchantment really the whole story? Did human beings flip a
switch and give up the psychic, moral, and spiritual longings that had
been with us for millennia? Did we no longer need connection to
something greater than our own bank accounts? Did we lose the feeling
for something sacred and enchanted in the universe?
Possibly not. Critics of the disenchantment narrative have long noticed
that if you look closely at western modernity, this ostensibly secular
and rational regime, you find it pretty much teeming with magical
thinking, supernatural forces, and promises of grace. Maybe the human
yearning for enchantment never went away; it just got redirected. God is
there, just pointing down other paths. As scholars like Max Weber have
noted, capitalism is a really a religion, complete with its own rites,
deities, and rituals. Money is the Great Spirit, the latest gadgets are
its sacred relics, and economists, business journalists, financiers,
technocrats, and managers make up the clergy. The central doctrine holds
that money will flow to perform miracles in our lives if we heed the
dictates of the market gods.
As the rap artist Run DMC once put it, money becomes salvation:
“Money is the key to end all your woes
Your ups and your downs, your highs and your lows
Won’t you tell me last time that love bought you clothes?
It’s like that, and that’s the way it is”
Under Mammon, we shall reach a state of blessedness in which all our
desires are realized: a heaven on earth. We become gods ourselves.
All throughout the modern era, poets, dissenting scholars, writers,
political radicals, and a motley assortment of ordinary apostates kept
insisting that we are under the deadly spell of a false religion. Eugene
McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism as the Religion of Modernity
is a magisterial account in this vein. The author sets out to explain
how we came to find ourselves devoted to the jealous god Mammon, and how
we might get free.
In distinction to some like-minded thinkers, McCarraher holds that capitalism is not a disenchantment, or even a reinchantment, but rather a misenchantment,
a “parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being
in the world.” He sees the condition peaking at beginning of the 21st
century, followed by calamitous years of economic crises, political and
social unrest, and now, as Ruskin scholar Jeffrey Spear and I have
described, a pandemic in which the neoliberal priests demand human sacrifice to the cult of Mammon.
Here we are, many of us alienated, anxious, sick, bored, and slogging
through with a suspicion that the dream of an iPhone in every pocket
leaves much to be desired, and haunted by a feeling that capitalism
didn’t make us gods, but turned us into monsters who treat each other
horribly. Rather than bringing us to a garden of economic delights, our
religion has befouled our home on Earth.
If the spell is beginning to wear thin, McCarraher thinks we should be
thankful and prepare to repent and renew ourselves. But first, we need
to “tell a different story about our country and its unexceptional
sins.” His prophetically fired, thousand-page volume is that alternative
story — not only a detailed history of the movement from an enchanted
to a misenchanted world, but a condemnation of false prophets and an
imaginative conjuring of possibilities for a different way of existing.
This is big, heady stuff. And heartening stuff for the weary.
One Nation, Under Mammon
McCarraher begins with the advent of capitalism in the 17th century,
tracing the progress of a set of ideas and values through the smoke of
England’s factories and the new creed’s migration to America, where it
is duly anointed by Puritans, evangelicals, and Mormons, whose founder
Joseph Smith issues economic oracles. We travel on to America’s launch
as a nation, when the founders dedicate the new country to the ideals of
brotherhood and profit-seeking, a contradictory project embodied in
Thomas Jefferson, who promotes a republic of frugal, virtuous yeoman
while blowing — McCarraher doesn’t mention this point — ridiculous sums
pimping out his mansion.
The tale continues through the Gilded Age, when the corporation
acquires a soul in the form of “personhood” and capitalists seek to
fashion a “heavenly city of business” through mechanized production.
Here we find spirit and capital co-mingled, as titans of business like
Cornelius Vanderbilt attend séances where the dead provide stock tips
and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the son of a traveling snake oil salesman
known as “Devil Bill,” insists that “God gave me my money.”
We come along to the think tanks and college seminars of the mid-20th
century, where a rising order of magician-priests, the University of
Chicago-trained economists and wonks, seek to remake everything,
including the state, in the image of the market. They use their best
sleight-of-hand to protect Mammon from any interference from democracy
while making it all look quite spontaneous. Thus, the American Century
morphs into the “neoliberal Market Everlasting,” and Adam Smith’s
Invisible Hand becomes the Not-So-Invisible Fist, described by Thomas
Friedman, an exceptionally loyal neoliberal clergyman, in a 1999 New York Times magazine piece quoted by McCarraher:
For globalization to work, America can’t be afraid to
act like the almighty superpower that it is. The hidden hand of the
market will not work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish
without McDonnell-Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist
that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the
United States, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps…
The rest is more and more of us getting clobbered by that almighty fist.
McCarraher’s tale brings plenty of fascinating twists and turns.
America produces potent witnesses against Mammon — often met with stark
brutality — among Black Americans, whose initial position in the
atrocious slave economy gives them profound insight into the god’s lies
and ruses. There are also the failed romances of communal societies
where people try but can’t ultimately escape the burden of
misenchantment. And we find prescient writers, like Henry David Thoreau
and Herman Melville, who see the market clearly as a god of servitude.
But the Word that wins the day is that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s
cardboard answer to Nietzsche, who, in the guise of a “romanticism of
the future,” preaches “the enchanting mendacity of power” and pronounces
the cut-throat ways of capitalism as the undisputed way of the world, a
view captured in a chilling line from “The Young American”: “If one of
the flock wound himself, or so much as limp, the rest eat him up
This gobble-gobble gospel is enthusiastically embraced by business
writers, managers and libertarians like Ayn Rand, a priestess of Mammon
bent on “bringing to a graceless apogee the American divinization of
power that began with Emerson.” McCarraher offers an intriguing look at
how American business journalism partly arises as a religious
enterprise, with magazine publisher Freeman Hunt plugging a gospel of
entrepreneurial divinity and the worship of technology, herding the
flock towards a particular strain of misenchantment later called the
“technological sublime.” The promoters of scientific management, for
their part, offer a beatific vision for control freaks — a devotion to
timekeeping and standardized behavior that may have partly originated in
McCarraher illustrates how we start to break down on the road to
“progress.” We become split creatures who submit to calculation and
control in the external world, but inside indulge in hedonistic
daydreams first stoked by sentimental religion and popular novels, and
later, by consumer culture and the self-help industry. We’re all wrapped
up in our fantasies as Mammon’s economist-priests order the faithful to
suffer any conflict or scarcity for the promise of material happiness
that awaits. He points out that it was Adam Smith himself, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments,
who revealed the Great Lie fed to the congregation in a description of a
poor boy who, glimpsing the lifestyles of the rich and famous, becomes
“enchanted” and vows to work tirelessly to fulfill his desire for
luxuries – only to find out in the end that it has all been a trivial
pursuit. Pitiful, but how else do you keep him in line?
The misenchantment McCarraher describes is so pervasive that it even
infects dissenters, like unions that downsize their ambition from power
to just a little redistribution; beatniks and hippies whose bohemian
visions are swallowed up into consumer culture and corporate
consciousness; or environmentalists who accommodate capitalist
expansion. The Occupy Movement provides powerful anticapitalist
testimony, but it looks like a lot of the “99 percent” want to “take
back” the American Dream, not awaken from it. With the exception of the
rising number of socialists (many of them young people), a huge chunk of
the population buys into the concept of progress based on unlimited
economic growth and technological development, all of it driven by
expanding material wants and expectations for godlike control of life.
We are left with domineering captains of industry who pose as the
stewards of humanity, like Jeff Bezos, who would like very much to
rocket us all off to a technoparadise in space, where we can live
happily ever after in temperature-regulated oscillating tubes.
McCarraher asks, is progress really progress if it looks like that?
But wait, you say. Doesn’t western modernity deliver some good things?
We have a safety net in our old age. We have certain protections from
exploitation a medieval peasant couldn’t expect. In most place other
than the United States, we have access to universal health care. Yes, we
do, acknowledges McCarraher. But these benefits have been brought to us
by people who fought against the misenchantment, like unions, welfare
states, and radical movements.
Fair enough. But what is the alternative?
The Visionary Commonwealth
McCarraher doesn’t offer an easy way out, warning that our depleted
imaginations prevent us from seeing much of anything but a life of
indentured servitude to capital.
Do we turn to poetry? The ecstasy of the body? Radical politics?
Revolution? Spirituality? Zen sutras? Voluntary poverty? Artisanal
anarchism? Do we commune with nature?
Well, maybe as long as there’s a spark of what McCarraher calls
“sacramental vision,” perhaps it really doesn’t matter. In order to be
alert and resist Mammon’s spell, we basically need something that posits
the life of the spirit against the death culture of the market. As
writer and monk Thomas Merton put it, we also need to know that the
score, to grok the fact that the claims of the world are fraudulent. We
need to commit ourselves to living by new values infused with affection,
reverence, and spiritual adventure.
McCarraher finds the most invigorating opposition to capitalist
misenchantment in the Romantic tradition. He draws sustenance from the
writing of 19th century critic John Ruskin, who pronounced economics a
pseudoscience and declaimed against the “Goddess of Getting on,” urging
people to give up the urge to dominate and control. Though some
Romantics were undoubtedly reactionary, as the author concedes, their
focus on morality, the dignity of human beings, and the search for
meaningful purpose is traceable in the work of dissenters ranging from
Leo Tolstoy to Marx and Engels to Martin Luther King, Jr.. It shows up
in the Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism of Vida Dutton Scudder, the
gift-economy writing of Mary Austin, and the Personalist opposition of
Dorothy Day, who rooted her challenge to industrial capitalism in
Christian humanism. It appears, too, in Lewis Mumford’s opposition to
death culture and the authoritarian trends in technology, and in New
Left writers like Norman O. Brown, who focused on the sensuous textures
and possibilities of the world. In all of these can be detected Ruskin’s
dictum that “there is no wealth but life.”
McCarraher finds the visions of Romanticism to more resilient and
humane than those of Marxism, and more nuanced and accurate in their
assessment of human nature. He believes they provide a “language for the
human magnificence we witness in the wake of devastation … a language
that expresses our longings both for a sense of the world’s magnitude
and for fleshly access to transcendence.” He contends that “our best
hope for an imaginative and political antithesis to capitalist
enchantment resides in the lineage of Romantic, sacramental radicalism.”
It’s pretty clear that his is not a secular romanticism. The author is
inspired by the poetry Gerard Manley Hopkins, the calls to fellowship of
Pope Francis, and Christians who have preserved the reverence for the
natural word, the ideal of communion, and an understanding of
exploitation as an offense against human divinity. He is partial to the
idea is that we don’t need to go seeking paradise; we already live in
one — a world stamped by the grandeur of God and, as Hopkins put it, the
“dearest freshness deep down things.” Recognition of this wondrous
vitality around us can help us to live a more fearless, vibrant life,
confident of our real worth apart from the calculus of capitalism and
reassured by the bounty and goodness of the world.
Well…certainly it is inspiring when Pope Francis calls the earth a
shared inheritance to be enjoyed by all. But frankly, this makes it all
the more galling that in his version of God’s universe, women still rank
as inferior beings, unfit to control their own bodies or speak directly
to the Creator. The problem is that when people get to talking about
nature as bearing the watermark of its creator, that being inevitably
turns out to be male, and we find ourselves ensorcelled by a
misenchantment as deadly as Mammon’s creed, the cult of patriarchy,
which gets noticeably little attention in McCarraher’s thousand-page
book. In fact, the two misenchantments have traditionally reinforced
each other: capitalism’s co-option of sacredness, for example, tends to
cast women as the ever-generous and bountiful handmaidens of Mammon.
Pope Francis may chastise us that our call to “universal communion” is
corrupted by a lack of trust in God, but if you are female, you could
perhaps be forgiven for not trusting God. Theology has degraded women
more than any other influence, and to this day, the world’s religions
still conform to economist Heidi Hartmann’s definition of patriarchy
as “relations between men, which have a material base, and which,
though hierarchical, establish or create interdependence and solidarity
among men that enable them to dominate women.”
The ideal of brotherhood often pretends to universalism, but in
practice draws from the narrow experiences of powerful men. Too often,
it’s just an ideal of bros.
There’s also the issue that reading messages of love and abundance in
nature assumes a benevolent, anthropomorphic Creator. But it’s hard to
square that with Stephen Jay Gould’s observation that there are many
things on Earth that are shocking to our human moral sensibilities, such
as the ichneumon fly, which lays eggs on the host’s body and paralyzes
it so it can’t move as it’s slowly eaten alive. You just can’t get all
Gerard-Manley-Hopkins on the ichneumon fly, I’m sorry to say. It is for
this reason that feminist ecologists like Valerie Plumwood have
cautioned us to see ourselves as part of nature but also to be
respectful about nature’s otherness, and to avoid reading our own moral
lessons from it. After all, many a theologian has looked to nature for
moral inspiration and drawn terrible lessons, such as the lesser status
of anyone who is not a straight white male.
Finally, there are dangerous strains of sacramental enchantment, as the
global rise of Pentecostalism and strains of the far right illustrate.
Not every Romantic visionary is amenable to the idea of the sort of
commonwealth McCarraher would like to see. The author is clear that he
doesn’t want a return to pre-modern technology or social relations, and
undoubtedly he wants an evolved approach to God. But unfortunately, God
is still hopelessly behind the times. Couldn’t we just ditch the word
Still, with all that said, McCarraher’s book is a highly rewarding and
powerful expression of the longing for a more hospitable way of living
and a potent call to orient ourselves towards our capacities as caring,
creative, and convivial beings, rather than the nasty horde of hustlers
Mammon insists that we are.
As Americans move toward a new administration looking to be fully
aligned with the misenchantments of money and technology – witness the
list of Silicon Valley tycoons
set to help steer his ship of state – McCarraher’s book is a welcome
wake-up call and a reminder that while we didn’t compose the narrative
we live inside, we do have choices about the ending.
So thank you, Professor McCarraher, for helping us to think outside the temple.