Breaking Capitalism’s Spell


Review of The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, by Eugene McCarraher

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019  


What are the enchantments of Mammon? In this doorstop of a book (almost 800 pages) Eugene McCarraher has several suggestions: it is industrial capitalism, it is the preference for financialization over the real economy of production, it is the “worship of money,” it is “Fordism,” and it is “technological fetishism,” among other things. Mammon is perhaps familiar; drawn from the Gospels and personified by John Milton, he is the demon of materialism and love of material goods, specifically money, in competition with, and to the exclusion of, love of spiritual things.   

McCarraher updates an older Christian argument, put forth by thinkers like T.S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson (unmentioned here), who both asserted that people always have a religion, whether we know it or not. And if we do not worship the Christian God, the West will pick other substitutes, or have them picked for us. For Christian thinkers of the 1920s and 1930s, such alternatives were race science, fascism, or various flavors of socialism. Those are unfortunately still with us, but McCarraher describes another victor: modern capitalism. Capitalism is the religion of our time, indeed, it is our religion. We must believe in capitalism the way we used to believe in God. 

McCarraher positions his claim among the various disputants to Charles Taylor’s influential theory that we moderns live in a “disenchanted” world. We cannot understand the world of belief, really, because for Taylor we no longer live in such a world. Science, among other things, has destroyed the spell. But McCarraher, correctly, demurs from this thesis. His argument is that capitalism does not describe some objective order or scientific basis for society freed from the shackles of superstition and religion. Capitalism’s greatest trick, to paraphrase an old movie, was to convince people it was not a complete belief system, like any other religion or ideology. But in fact capitalism is just as “enchanted” as the premodern world was, or is imagined to be. For McCarraher 

capitalism has been…a religion of modernity, one that addresses the same hopes and anxieties formerly entrusted to traditional religion.  But this does not mean only that capitalism has been and continues to be ‘beguiling’ or ‘fetishized,’ and that rigorous analysis will expose the phantoms as the projections they really are. These enchantments draw their power, not simply from our capacity for delusion, but from our deepest and truest desires – desires that are consonant and tragically out of touch with the dearest freshness of the universe. The world can never be disenchanted, not because our emotional or political or cultural needs compel us to find enchantment—though they do—but because the world itself, as Hopkins realized, is charged with the grandeur of God. 

Instead, we have a capitalism that says the world is filled with enchantment and wonder, but expressed through profit on a corporate level and self-actualization through consumption on an individual level. As one corporate incantation making the rounds on social media put it, companies should strive to “turn customers into fanatics…and brands into religions.” Under capitalism, McCarraher writes that money “occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted,” and capitalism persuades us that only it can create ex nihilo, which we formerly thought of as only a divine attribute. And he follows on the argument that Adrian Vermeule has made in another context; capitalism has all the features and elements of a religion, we just fail to acknowledge them as such: “[capitalism’s] sacraments consist of fetishized commodities and technologies…Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers,” and its ultimate vision is one of “a heavenly city of business with incessantly expanding production trade, and consumption.” 

So movements like Fordism are not only economic processes, but represent as well a “moral economy,” which created what McCarraher, quoting Warren Susman, describes as “a special collective relationship in which all Americans might share, a new sense of common belief, ritual observance and common emotional sharing.” And McCarraher is very good at showing how the 1960s counterculture was bringing essentially the same message as the corporations that eventually coopted and further extended it. 

McCarraher says he has been working this book for over two decades, and it shows; he seems not to have left a good quote from his research out of the volume. Some of this is great fun, as the collection of radicals, social reformers, writers, and activists he collects (mostly) have interesting things to say. And the story he tells is not without interest, even if it is a bit disjointed. But the pile on of quote after quote, vignette upon vignette, as entertaining and informative as these are, does not ultimately further his argument, which seems to be:  (1) capitalism (variously defined) is bad; and (2) it has nevertheless become our religion. The first is simply asserted, on the assumption perhaps that his audience would agree with the premise and would want to jump right into the dissection. But leaving aside the arguments one could propose against his first proposition, even taking that as true, McCarraher’s second proposition also is contestable. 

McCarraher divides his story into seven parts, ranging in time from 1600 through 1975, with titles such as “The Mystical Body of Business” and “The Heavenly City of Fordism.” The first section, “The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things: Capitalist Enchantment in Europe, 1600-1914” covers the longest period, while the last, “One Vast and Ecumenical Holding Company: The Prehistory of Neoliberal Enchantment, 1945-1975,” covers a period only a tenth of the first. In between, McCarraher covers everything from the Puritans to Silicon Valley, Disney to Drucker, Mumford to McLuhan, management consulting to marketing and advertising, among much else.  

The opening sections of the book have a distinctly reactionary feel, and would have been at home in Eliot’s Criterion or the Dawson-edited Dublin Review. The medieval period was a sacral political-economic unity, broken by the Reformation, which partly embodied and partly let loose the forces of avarice and consumption that would define capitalism. McCarraher offers a long paean to the unity of the medieval economy and its enchanted, theological character. He does note that “the innumerable transgressions against the sacramental order underscores the significance of [the medieval order’s] exalted character, as offenses against charity and justice could be identified as evils rather than as prices to be paid for abundance. The volcanic peasant uprisings…were triggered not by aspirations for market freedom or liberal democracy, but by violations of the medieval moral economy.” 

This is true, in its way, but could not a similar argument be made about the revolts by workers in capitalism? Indeed, McCarraher inverts this comparison just a few pages earlier, acknowledging the material advances of modernity, but noting that although capitalism is bad, there were some good oppositional movements within it, such as the labor movement. Many of these movements also opposed capitalist offenses in the name of charity and justice. So the argument seems to be that the medieval economy was largely good except for some terrible actions, and the capitalist economy was largely terrible, except for some terrible actions. This point sort of begs the question of which to prefer, especially when you consider McCarraher’s clear suggestion that he (and we) do not want to go back to the medieval period.  

So McCarraher’s burden is to show us what that new path might be that transcends capitalism without being reactionary or succumbing to nostalgia. But just as the enchantments of Mammon are varied and sometimes ill-defined, so too are the countercharms McCarraher wants to invoke to return us to...well, it is unclear what exactly. He does not want to go back, and the sketch of an alternative future is made through a close reading of the work of John Ruskin and others whom McCarraher calls the Romantics. But McCarraher does not really explain “how” capitalism became the religion of modernity. Even Protestantism, he says, merely was the end result of forces that had been gathering force for “centuries.” And what an alternative future might look like is hindered because, again, his definition of his adversary shifts over time. But definition here is important if one is to know the right charm to invoke. The burghers of the Forsyte saga, for example, would have looked with disdain on say, the contemporary bond trader, and the conflict between old and “new” money is a standard trope of Anglo-American literature. If all we are talking about is simply the love of money, well, that vice is as old as the Bible.   

There is a related problem, which concerns McCarraher’s second thesis. Many people believe capitalism is “compatible” with, say, their Catholicism, and would reject the idea that capitalism is in fact their religion. So how such people have been fooled into believing otherwise is important to McCarraher’s story, one that he does not really address. In serviceable Marxist materialist fashion perhaps the argument is: how capitalism became the religion of modernity is the story of increased deification of private property, the preference for profit rather than charity (or charity only if there’s profit), the advent of the “consumer” as the prototype rather than the citizen, and finally, people just have a false consciousness about what their religion is. But this too does not satisfy, and for the same reasons. It does not explain why these various forms of capitalism were so apparently compelling to people.  

Without taking away from McCarraher’s description of (some forms, in some parts of the world, at some times) capitalism’s depredations, tendency to exploitation, and ruinous attitudes toward the family and noneconomic social bonds, Enchantments of Mammon does not ultimately explain causally why capitalism, throughout this historical narrative, always remained on top. We hear in these pages of five centuries of alternative communities, from the seventeenth century Diggers through nineteenth century utopias through twentieth century experiments in multiracial, artisanal communities, all of which ended in failure due, as McCarraher says in passing, to their struggle “to practice artisanal, communalist forms of production in the midst of corporate industrial society.” That’s it? McCarraher’s analysis would have been enriched if he had discussed more particularly why, for example, the Arts and Crafts movement failed to catch on with the general population, or why the various utopian communities could not love and produce the way they wished. 

In the end, a book that relies on a call to Ruskin and William James (who both, McCarraher wryly notes, were able to write in part thanks to private incomes) is not a radical book. Another indication of how the book pulls back from its radical conclusions is that liberalism (as distinct from capitalism) is not dissected as completely as capitalism, but in some respects the two are inseparable, as McCarraher well knows from his excellent account of the counterculture. Capitalism creates a consumerist individual; liberalism tells us the individuals consumption choices are always valid, against tradition, religion, “patriarchy,” or whatever, based in an infinitely expansive series of rights that are enforced by some of the same mechanisms McCarraher condemns.   

More in keeping with the opening sections of the book would be a call to return to that Catholic sacramental vision, something only hinted at in the book’s closing pages with a call for a new St. Francis as a model of “revolutionary militancy.” McCarraher’s collection of heroes and communities, he carefully notes, often were nonreligious or ecumenical. Such a diverse group of potential heroes is not likely to get a capitalist out of bed to worry. But as anyone seeing the wreckage capitalism has wrought in the twenty-first century, they should have cause to worry.

In a sense, McCarraher pulls back from the true implications of his narrative. Protestantism destroyed the medieval unity (at least in the West; Eastern Christian approaches to these questions are not discussed); only then did capitalism thrive. The romantic revolutionaries for various reasons have not turned the tide. In other words, it took a faith to fight with a faith. And if capitalism is a religion, an equivalent faith is needed to join the battle. A unified theological-social political economy, with temporal and spiritual power joined to serve the common good:  now that is something strong enough to contend with Mammon.


Posted on 8 January 2020

GERALD J. RUSSELLO is editor of The University Bookman