The Enchantments of Mammon–and the Hope of Alternative Enchantments


Like an economic Fat Tuesday preceding the austerity of Lent, Black Friday and Cyber Monday have become a kind of last consumptive gasp preceding the arrival of Advent, a traditionally penitential period of self-limitation and expectation. Even this period of preparation and the Christmas season, which purportedly celebrates God’s entrance, in poverty, into the material world, has become merely another excuse for shopping; we spend money, consuming the products of the material world, in a desperate effort to make this season meaningful.

So the world has become disenchanted. The great beyond of faith and the unfathomable has been exiled and subordinated to the empire of reason, enlightenment, and material rationality. With the coming of capitalism and global empire, we can no longer be as we once were, we can no longer affirm with Gerard Manly Hopkins that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This appears to be especially true in 2019, where the political and economic systems that organize our lives have been found wanting and in need of revision or outright replacement.

Or so the story goes. But what if Max Weber’s pronouncement that capitalism has disenchanted the world was only half the story? What if the Protestant work ethic that Weber identified as the source of the supposedly inevitable capitalist domination wasn’t actually a central figure in this process? What if disenchantment never even occurred? What other story might make sense of what has happened to our communities, our nations, and our world?

These questions are partly taken up by Eugene McCarraher, an Associate Professor of History and Humanities at Villanova, in his massive book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. In it, his first gambit is to attenuate the claim originally made by Friedrich Schiller and co-opted by Weber that capitalism has disenchanted the world. Rather, McCarraher argues that capitalism, in fact, works very much like a religion in the contemporary world. He tells readers immediately in the prologue that rather than being the means of chasing God out of the world, as Christ chased the pagan deities out of the world on the morning of his nativity in Milton’s poem, capitalism broke “the shackles of immemorial customs”: it “offered the sale of commodities, not the dutiful worship of relics; the fulfillment of the self, not the subordination of the past; the romance of the present and the promise of the future, not a vale of tears and a hope beyond the grave” (p. 3). Capitalism, then, becomes a replacement for traditional religion and religious expression.

It should come as no surprise to many, especially readers of Front Porch Republic, that capitalism operates in the world like a religion. Indeed, the claim McCarraher makes in the book is something that people have recognized throughout the twentieth-century and the early twenty-first whether or not they have been able to articulate it. In light of Charles Taylor’s argument that the options for religious expression have expanded, it is clear that a devotion to economics, materialism, and capital can easily become one of those options. We only have to think of the various, recognizable, consumerist icons that have been created as a shorthand for meaning in the modern world: vis-à-vis McCarraher, “[t]he Nike swoosh, the Starbucks siren, and other trademarks are . . . totems of enchantment” (p. 3). Like the Golden Arches of McDonald’s, such totems contain behind their cool exterior entire systems of material objects that we are meant to value, products that we are meant to desire and obtain.

In case we are uncertain about religious capitalism’s near-total permeation of the modern world, McCarraher points to how many evangelical traditions refer to Christ as their CEO, how the business model of gain and reward have restructured the practice of protestant faith, and how the prosperity gospel has become attractive to people who wish to rationalize their pursuit of material wealth by linking it with their profession of the Christian faith. It is, McCarraher makes clear, the invasion of the church by the cult of Mammon. This, of course, is not just limited to the so-called “free market” capitalism that McCarraher places in his crosshairs but also to the socialist, communist, and mixed systems that maintain money as their base unit of analysis for human values and human relationships. Mammon’s resurgence and its invasion of the modern world is nearly total, opposed only by a few—both now and throughout history.

Beyond the emphasis on capitalism’s increasingly obvious function as a religion, McCarraher insists specifically that capitalism has become a sacramental religion. McCarraher details how this material culture operates to structure an entire economic, material magisterium in a world increasingly governed by markets and trade through “fetishized commodities and technologies—the material culture of production and consumption,” (p. 5). These commodities he calls “sacramentals,” those material objects that have been blessed in order to inspire devotion to God, increased piety, and respect for the Sacraments. This sacramental structure McCarraher creates out of his interpretation of material culture allows him to make one of the central arguments of his book:

[C]apitalism, I contend, has been a regime of enchantment, a repression, displacement, and renaming of our intrinsic and inveterate longing for divinity. There is more than mere metaphor in the way we refer to the “worship” or “idolatry” of money and possessions. . . . Capitalism represents what the theologian William Cavanaugh has called a ‘migration of the holy,’ a forced march of sanctity and devotion toward new, putatively secular objects of reverence. (p. 4)

What that enchantment, repression, displacement, and renaming looks like, McCarraher attempts to unpack in the remainder of his tome. He asks us to take seriously the worship of material goods and material gain—though the name Mammon does, by the end, become more of a metaphor for, a reduction of, the ideological apparatus that McCarraher details throughout the book rather than a serious name for a divine entity directly opposed to the God of the Christian faith. Yet he is right to insist along with Cavanaugh that economic ideology has forced us to reverence objects rather than the transcendent being of God himself. It is clear that there has indeed been a migration of the holy—our at least our recognition of it—towards the material, the produced, and the consumable. Capitalism becomes, in his view “a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world” (p. 5).

To show how this misenchantment works, McCarraher outlines the material magisterium, which gives us a clearer picture of what sacramental capitalism looks like. He calls economics the theology, philosophy, and cosmology of this religion. This claim makes sense if we consider how both Marxists and capitalists devote themselves to labor, material production, and economics as the essential organizing principles behind society and relationships between people; it also makes sense if we consider how, specifically, libertarians typically enslave themselves to vague notions of the “free market.” Spend any amount of time in conversation with any of these doctrinaire types (Marxist, capitalist, libertarian) and the words labor, production, the market, etc. begin to register as a kind of litany to reinforce belief in something that will brook no contradiction.

In addition to labeling economics as the theology of sacramental capitalism, McCarraher calls the moral and liturgical codes of the religion “management theory and business journalism;” he calls the clerisy (what he should call the clergy to stick with his otherwise tight analogy) the “corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins;” the iconography he identifies with “advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design;” the “beatific vision of eschatological destiny” becomes “the global imperium of capital with incessantly expanding production, trade, and consumption;” and finally, the gospel of this religion is “Mammonism, the attribution of ontological power to money and of existential sublimity to its possessors” (p. 5).

Though this catalogue can overwhelm with its potential for inquiry, it is easy to see the way in which McCarraher is right in categorizing the various aspects of business as pieces of a larger, intentionally religious, system. In order to get readers to grasp its significance, so they can recognize how this whole material magisterium permeates and structures the everyday life of the modern human, McCarraher takes readers through a wide-ranging history of religion and economics. He locates the origins of this misenchanted trajectory in 1492 and traces its permutations up through the 1970s.

The Origins of Mammon’s Enchantments

McCarraher opens his book proper with a consideration of Gerard Manly Hopkins and his “medieval” notion of a world charged with God’s grace. The world, at whose heart is God’s presence, resists its own desecration. Immediately after briefly discussing Hopkins’ religious, sacramental way of viewing the world, McCarraher turns to politics and insists on medieval Christianity as dreaming of a “barely repressed desire for communism” which he describes “as the political unconscious of medieval Christendom” (p. 26). Anachronism aside, reducing the developments of a thousand years of Christianity to a singular “medieval Christendom” with a singularly repressed desire for an unclear notion of communism seems like a stretch.

McCarraher is on firmer ground in discussing the insistence of medieval writers like William Langland that wealth should be held in common, as the book of Acts tells us about the apostles. Locating the “communalism” or desire for community under the headship of God within the Catholic theophany, McCarraher tells us that a great shift away from the desire for community occurs in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. According to him, the Reformation cleared “moral and metaphysical ground for a new ‘theological economy’” that led to a “gospel of work” evidenced in some of the more fundamentally Calvinist expressions of Protestant Christianity (p. 29-30). What this means for McCarraher is that Protestants in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, by and large, “believed that they encountered God in the midst of material creation—and wealth. . . . The Protestant ethic was a gospel of work, with riches as the new Eucharistic tokens of communion with divinity” (p. 37).

This encounter became, with the rise of the Puritans and their emphasis on production, a means to turn the wastes into part of the “regime of improvement” (p. 32). McCarraher argues that this shift towards thinking of land as something needing to be productive required the sanction of God, especially for the Protestants who had recently gained control of England under Cromwell after deposing Charles I. Thus, they developed a “sense of mercenary calling” that derived from what McCarraher calls “the Puritans’ cosmological architecture”: “the same God who ordained the world’s wonders and marvels made the market for pecuniary glory” (p. 33). Because of this alignment of labor with an attempt to bring about a godly commonwealth on earth, McCarraher goes so far as to call the Puritan notion of mercenary calling, “the first covenant theology of capitalism” (p. 33).

Detractors and skeptics, of course, abounded. McCarraher lists George Herbert, Francis Bacon, and John Milton as among those who worried that “the new empire of science and technology could conjure a host of counterfeit enchantments” that would work to serve Mammon instead of serving the glory of God (p. 36). We have only to remember Milton’s depiction of the fallen angels in hell in Book II of Paradise Lost. In their work to build the temple of Pandemonium from which Satan will reign, Mammon leads the charge to pillage and rape the natural resources of hell, tearing from the ground those things that will help them “improve” the waste to which they have fallen. So too is mankind tempted to desecrate creation through the Puritan gospel of work.

Romantic Anti-Capitalists

Moving quickly through the eighteenth-century into the nineteenth, McCarraher argues that the Arminian/Wesleyan turn away from the self-privation of Calvinist Puritanism towards an “affirmation of emotional experience” led eventually to the rise of Romanticism in Europe. As the burgeoning evangelical tradition began to recapture some of the medieval notions of wonder and marvel, there was a turn towards Christian sentimentalism. As McCarraher narrates it, this movement towards sentimentalism eventually led in the late eighteenth-century towards the rise of Romanticism as a response to the rapid industrialization of England and the United States.

Focusing most of his attention early in the book on England, especially with regard to the Romanticism that he advocates for throughout the book, McCarraher notes that one of the central concerns of the Romantics—both well known and more obscure—was to revive premodern values within modernity. These values included reinterpreting the Christian mythos, turning it into a kind of sacramental humanism advocated for by John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, and William Wordsworth. Seeing the past as a critical perspective on the present world became their approach to resisting the industrial capitalist imperatives that began to take hold of human value systems during this period of history. Though he does not mention Edmund Burke here, the use of the past as a way to see and evaluate the present does sound like a Burkean understanding of conservatism, one that does not reject progress but is certain to take care to understand what these changes would mean for human persons and human society.

Nevertheless, McCarraher holds up John Ruskin as a hero (if not idol) for the anti-capitalist ways of being in the world embodied by the Romantics and the Arts-and-Crafts-focused anarchic communities established in the nineteenth-century. Ruskin, and his fellow travelers, rejected a Marxist analysis of social problems and of the capitalist systems, seeing Marx and Marxism as fetishizing capital, mechanization, and materialism. It was for them, the implication seems to be, another form of Mammon-worship instead of an alternative system for living in a rightly enchanted world. Thus, for Ruskin, Marxism carried with it an enthusiasm for industrialization that defiled the human person and the human divinity; secularization became “a capitalist form of idolatry,” a “metamorphosis of the sacred, a perverse enchantment of the world” (p. 83).

The solution to this problem for Romantics and anarchists was something akin to what would become Distributism, a way of ordering society famously argued for by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc in the early twentieth-century. They would build communities like the Arts and Crafts movement, wherein each person recognizes that “[n]ecessity and freedom, labor and beauty, should be bound up together” (p. 95). They undertook “experiments in craft and husbandry” and built outposts of “the Simple life” as a means of altering the terms upon which people engaged with each other, as a way of reorienting the human perception towards what they saw as a properly enchanted world antithetical to the industrial, smoky gods of Mammon-worship (p. 100). Anarchists too sought to build this kind of society while also reconciling pre-industrial values with scientific advancements and individual freedom. Their emphases on guilds and the communal aspects of craft and trade reflected the thinking of Ruskin and Peter Kropotkin.

Mammon in America: 1870-1945

Of course, McCarraher argues, this Romantic thinking about progress and the past was altered and polluted as it crossed the Atlantic and took root in the United States. To McCarraher, this shift created a more significant misenchantment of the world in the form of industrially-inclined Manifest Destiny, a divinely given right to sprawl and conquer and bring “civilization” to the supposedly unsettled places of the vast American continent. What makes this misenchantment so insidious to McCarraher is that the welding of the marketplace to Romantic ideology made possible the emerging iconography of advertising: the commercialized sense of wonder that encouraged people to consume and to expand their material dominion of earth.

Beyond the economic aspects of this Mammon-worship (seen in the movement of production into the cities and away from farms, in the colonial imposition of railroads across the prairies to the West Coast), McCarraher turns attention to the rise of the evangelical tradition and the invention and growth of Mormonism in the United States. Specifically, McCarraher traces what Herman Melville called expansionist “fantasies of powerlust” through how Mormons and evangelicals “rewrote the covenant theology of business” (p. 109). What this looked like in actual practice was “the alignment of pecuniary reason with the amazing grace of Christian divinity and the self-made entrepreneur in cahoots with the mercenary arc of the universe” (p. 109). Essentially, McCarraher describes the alignment of what would become the prosperity gospel with the centralizing, industrial economic systems growing in the United States.

While he does spend some time discussing the evangelical consumption of industrial capitalist ideology, McCarraher focuses his discussion of nineteenth-century American industrial capitalism on demonstrating the symbolic quality of the Mormon faith in the forwarding of Mammon-worship in America. In this relatively young nation that lacked nobility and an established church, McCarraher suggests that the marketplace became “what passed for fraternity” between the masses of immigrants coming to the United States full of hope and the possibility for freedom and material wealth (p. 125). Acquisition became the pecuniary eschatology of the American experiment with a doctrine of wealth inextricably tied to capital:

Like its Puritan predecessor and its evangelical antagonist, the Mormon catechism of wealth was a triune covenant theology of capital: an ontology of divine immanence; a moral economy of “stewardship” in which riches are manna from heaven; and a tale of declension, renewal, and destiny that defined a chosen people’s exceptional character. (p. 145)

In McCarraher’s analysis, not only did the Mormon ontology resemble the connection between salvation and wealth forwarded by Puritans and the emerging evangelical movement in nineteenth-century America. It also represented a “bluntly and exuberantly” materialist means of seeing and engaging with the world (p. 145). They erased distinctions between matter and the divine; instead, their belief in the eternity of matter (not created by God) became part of their eschatology: that God, once man, achieved his “limitless glory and dominion” through labor, becoming “the prototype of the self-made man” (p. 145). This meant, for McCarraher, that the Mormon religion was exquisitely and essential American in that it emerged within a context where accumulation of material was prized as something akin to a virtue—and indeed accumulation, property, and trade took an increasingly central position in Mormon culture.

This necessitated that wherever they went (after, typically, being forced out of wherever they were) Mormons would fuse “mundane business with seraphic aspiration” (p. 147). What this became, as McCarraher sees it, is Manifest Destiny on a cosmic scale, an American exceptionalism that exceeded the monumental statements in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. It was the fulfillment of the “errand into the market,” a revision of Mather’s “errand into the wilderness.” Like Weber’s analysis of the Protestant emphasis on labor blessed by God, this errand became inseparably connected with the burgeoning marketplace. This was a task begun by the Puritans and their descendants in the early days of the American nation, whose end in the Mormon theophany was to recall the people to a lucrative practice of material acquisition in unknowingly in service of Mammon.

As the century progressed and ended, McCarraher tells us that a new dawn for idolatry emerged, epitomized by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and chronicled by Henry Adams in the chapter “The Dynamo and the Virgin” of The Education of Henry Adams. Adams, a Catholic, was deeply aware of what the industrial machine would come to represent in the twentieth-century. That it would displace the moral force of Christianity and replace love with power was obvious to Adams, who observed that Americans devoted themselves to corporate capitalism. According to McCarraher, this meant that “industrial technology was the modern liturgical system of corporate society” and that “the sorcery had overwhelmed the sorcerer” (p. 178). In other words, those who had invented the dynamo and other similar industrial advancements had not been able to foresee what these inventions would do to the modern human consciousness: namely, that “corporate science and technology had supplanted theology and philosophy” with the promise of plenitude represented by the idolatrous dynamo. According to McCarraher, the dynamo became “an occult mechanism, a graven image of capitalist modernity,” and one of the “successors to the Protestant regime” (p. 179).

This replacement of Christianity with the image and theophany of the Dynamo (an immanent manifestation of Mammon) would rule the twentieth-century until the second World War, as the age of Fordism came into its own from the explosion of progress in the industrial era in the United States. The corporation emerged as the new soul of capitalist enchantment, and as McCarraher would have it, “a religious surrogate for secular Progressives” and “a mechanization of communion” (p. 181). The corporation became a body, a community, in which those devoted to the enchantments of industrial Mammon could worship and work towards what McCarraher calls “a mass-produced redemption more certain than those promised in Christian eschatology” (p. 362). This devotion rankles McCarraher as it became “a surrogate regime of the sacred, an enchanted realm in which human inventions were the angels, principalities, and powers,” due in large part to the writings of Henry Ford. These writings are, for McCarraher, amateur theologizing that posited machinery as a newly birthed messiah to accomplish what the Christian messiah failed to do in the world.

A new God had been constructed by man, and under the name of Fordism, it encompassed the entirety of human social, political, and economic realms. Fordism, as McCarraher sees it, represented an “apparatus of enchantment” as well as “a mode of production and a state formation” (p. 364). All of this—standardization of products, centralization of technology and the workforce, mechanization and atomization of labor, and the manufacture of consumptive desire—all of this worked together to help create what McCarraher calls the “heavenly city of Fordism” (p. 365).

Additionally, none of this process would have been possible without the state formation of Fordism: the New Deal order, which ruled by crony-capitalist fiat. The New Deal politics functioned through centralization of government agencies, corporate capital, and organized labor—all working together to stimulate a political faith in both large central government and in consumption of material goods as the means to mitigate class conflict and generate economic stability. In turn, this instigated and allowed for the creation of what we now call the consumer culture, a collective organization around access to material abundance, a vision and a quest in which all Americans could share. In other words, there emerged a common faith grounded in “the corporate assertion of title to capitalist enchantment” (p. 364), a claim which grew through the first half of the twentieth-century and reached its fulfillment in the post-World War II global economy. Business had become the soul of America.

Virtuous Consumerism & The American Way

Motivated by a need to reinvigorate and refresh the broken spirit of the world after World War II, American businessmen strove to colonize nations like Britain and France through commodities, specifically a commodity fetishism represented no more clearly than through the Coca-Cola bottle. McCarraher cites Nancy Mitford’s novel The Blessing to demonstrate how the push for the exportation of American goods in the post-war era came to be a new kind of material, consumer sacramentalism: the Coca-Cola bottle was “’an outward sign of something inward and spiritual, I mean it as if each Coca-Cola bottle contained a djinn . . . ready to spring out of each bottle and cover the whole global universe with its great wide wings’” (p. 163).

The language Mitford uses indicates the way at least some saw the global advance of a particular kind of post-war consumer capitalism—a replacement for the hole left by the evacuation of religion from the world, a loss only truly made possible by the devastation of two world-wars occurring within twenty years of each other. In McCarraher’s analysis, this advance made clear that the assertion of money’s authority, represented by the explosion of exported goods throughout the world, exposed “the delusion of democratic promise” and “the suppression of all cultural and political limits” on money’s ability to rule the hearts and souls of the world (p. 508). The result, as McCarraher sees it, was a kind of cultural unification, an establishment of cultural touchstones grounded in the cosmology of a consumer-centric global order. It was the reduction of difference and the promulgation of sameness found in the well-known campaign to make Coke available everywhere on the globe (and the kind of colonization of place that R. M. Stangler has written about at FPR). In McCarraher’s words, “God and Mammon have finally merged into the largest monopoly ever contemplated,” the single, vast “ecumenical holding company” that takes up the final section of his book, a corporate commonwealth that became a kind of system of systems (p. 509).

This corporate commonwealth began to annex every corner of society—from the proponents of Keynesian economics and the welfare state to the countercultural Romantics and opponents of conformity—forming what McCarraher calls the “empire of corporate iconography” (p. 512). Utopic in its sensibility, this corporate community created a vision of the earth as one where scarcity was eliminated and class conflict mitigated by the orgiastic drive to acquire, to accumulate, and to consume. We can see some of the fears about this vision in much of the science fiction published throughout the latter twentieth-century, especially in the dystopias of Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (and Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel), where the corporate symbol is often the only source of illumination in a dark, crowded, decaying world.

McCarraher calls this the “techno-managerial sublime”: the terror and fascination and awe at a world transformed by the sacramental metaphysics of the market (p. 514). Symbolically through the institutions of the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization, consumer capitalism was expanded to the far corners of the globe throughout the rest of the twentieth-century; it became more clearly and fully an empire whose obelisks are the skyscrapers that draw the eye in the financial and trade centers of the world’s largest cities. “[T]he Marxism of the ruling classes,” had almost totally transformed the world into a global business (p. 663).

So, what are we to do with a world in which “capital [is] more thoroughly entrenched than ever” and in which “capitalism remains for most Americans the horizon of moral and political responsibility” (p. 669)? While throughout the book McCarraher has argued for the destruction of the left-right, economically-founded metaphysical systems of our contemporary socio-political scene, he is short on coming up with solutions that don’t realign themselves on a left-right spectrum. He proposes what he calls a left-Romanticism, something that melds the trust in scientific progress with the anti-capitalist radicalism of the nineteenth-century Romantics like Ruskin. At times, it sounds more like an attempted rehabilitation of utopian communism that doesn’t admit this to itself. Yet, for McCarraher, any solution to the religion of Mammon necessitates a reintegration of wonder into the human approach to the world—in a word, a return to Hopkins’ claim that the world is charged with grandeur of God.

While this desire is appealing, McCarraher doesn’t provide any concrete steps that we can take to make this happen—and perhaps that lies outside the scope of his book, despite its length and certainty about the history of religion and capitalism. He is right to say that the ontological systems of Romanticism and the sacramental vision of the world represented by Catholic and Anglican theophany hold at their center a “superabundant love . . . as the architect of creation” (p. 675). But he suggests that the means to embody this love within the new metaphysics is a “revolutionary militancy” that inhabits the wreckage of the old world (p. 678). How militancy can be the means to love is left unclear and puts me in mind of Wendell Berry’s argument in “Discipline and Hope”: the most virtuous ends can be irredeemably corrupted by evil means.

Lewis Mumford

Additionally lacking from McCarraher’s long book is any thorough, meaningful discussion of systems like Distributism or conservative anarchism, even though he does mention G. K. Chesterton twice in the book and gives a single sentence to Distributism alongside “guild socialism” and “sacramental socialism,” albeit locked within their own early-twentieth-century historical context. A clearer connection between these ideas (including more recent discussions of attempts to “rehabilitate” Distributism) and his solution of left-romanticism would have strengthened the epilogue of his book.

However, despite what feels like a major oversight, he does provide readers with a thorough example of a localist or bioregionalist alternative to the industrial capitalist machine. He presents readers with a discussion of Lewis Mumford’s hopes for a biotechnic society that worked against the “mechanization [that] had taken command of the human imagination” (p. 482). For Mumford, this society would be organized around the “well-cultivated region,” which McCarraher describes as “[a] place of material and spiritual grace” that would function as “the geographical matrix of romantic humanism and organic enchantment” (p. 482). It seems, if we do follow after McCarraher’s insistence on Romanticism as the way forward, that the most effective means of building this new society is to work towards decentralism and degrowth, restoring proper scale to human economies and human communities, especially if we bind this kind of work to bioregionalism to build sustainable, scalable communities.

While McCarraher does present a thoughtful and thoroughly researched account of capitalism’s supplanting of traditional sacramental religion—as well as the attendant ideologies that retain capital and economic thinking as the base unit of analysis—it does seem that more could be said about ways to move forward, ways that many Porchers seem to already be thinking about. As a reminder to attend to the world and to resist the mechanisms of Mammon’s dominion—accumulation, consumption, acquisition—the book should help focus our attention on those things that matter more than material goods: people, family, community, faith, and the natural world. If nothing else, The Enchantments of Mammon serves as a large stepping-stone in the path towards rethinking our social and moral economies. How we can move forward, what practical means we can use to re-enchant the world properly, will largely remain to those who will read and respond to McCarraher. And maybe a good place for us to start is remembering that the incarnation of Christ stands as the paradigmatic act of enchantment meant to bring about the redemption of the material world and the souls that inhabit it.


  1. Wow. There’s a lot here. Thank you for the review and discussion.
    I have to say that my main response to reading it was to think that what’s being discussed isn’t “capitalism” but “materialism”. Once the “modern” (westen) world started to decide that this present world is all that matters, then how to organize the economy became the preeminent question, and for that part of the discussion (which is all highly intertwined here and in most discussions) “capitalism” is a stand-in for “the market”, or variations of the term like “the free market” or “the unfettered free market”, etc. It’s unfortunate and obscuring that we use the same terms for political/philosophical and economic debates that really should be viewed as independent questions.
    Your conclusion is of course spot on, and again, thank you for writing.

    • Brian, thanks for your comment. You raise one of my major concerns with a lot of critics of “capitalism” in the 21st-century. It does seem like what many criticize isn’t capitalism per se but materialism as you point out. I might devilishly suggest that even socialism and some brands of Marxism are just collectivist forms of capitalism (and also religions!) themselves. But that’s perhaps a different debate

      What McCarraher is certainly interested in is the wide-ranging effects of that materialism as it was organized and implemented on a global scale. For him, American was at the core of that expansion and implementation. It’s my understanding that he uses capitalism to refer to the entire ideological apparatus—the economic, political, social, and idolatrous organization of the nation and the people of the nation. I do agree that, while we probably need a term to describe the whole thing, capitalism just doesn’t cut it. Your substitutions work for me, as I read McCarraher, especially because they’re more descriptive and lean into McCarraher’s critique of accumulation and materialist theologies organized around accumulation/economics/capital.

      I think where I see the issue is in definition of terms. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the rhetorical concept of stasis—where arguments are analyzed to see why there’s no resolution—but there are essential four succeeding levels of argument: conjecture/cause, definition, quality, and policy. Where debates like the one McCarraher steps into fall apart is at definition, as you point out in your penultimate sentence. We need to know whether or not we’re using terms like capitalism as philosophical or economic terms—and almost no one takes the time to delineate these. I think McCarraher slips between them quite often. Capitalism as sacramental religion is certainly philosophical mixed with economic—and I think that that’s the point. Economics has supplanted philosophy and religion as the prime mover of the world. And not just economics but explicitly materialist economics—that Wordsworth’s “getting and spending” isn’t for the greater glory of anything other than the “getting and spending.”

      As I noted in the review, the problem with McCarraher’s “solution” and analysis is that he doesn’t do enough work to explain why “left Romanticism” 1) doesn’t preserve capital as is base unit of analysis and 2) doesn’t see human relationships as economic at their foundation. Yes, wonder is all well and good and we should approach the world with humility and wonder at its mysteries (I do believe Hopkins was right), but if there’s not a transcendent being at the back of that wonder, I…wonder…how we can keep society from falling back into another disguised form of Mammon-worship. The promise of democratic socialism for example, while it may sound like a brilliant alternative to free market capitalism, is still capitalism—the accumulation, the acquisition, the “perks” of material wealth just happen to be provided by a centralized authority paid for by you and I and everyone else.

      You should read this interview that The Nation did with McCarraher; Jeff Bilbro sent it to me awhile back: It clarified a lot for me about McCarraher’s interests and ideological commitments. He calls himself a Christian, and I refuse to challenge that, though it is interesting that even though traditional Catholicism sounds like a perfect antidote to the intemperate accumulative imperatives of industrial capitalism (sorry for the jargon vomit), he doesn’t suggest a religious solution but one imbricated along a metaphysical system he supposedly wants to eradicate. He also sounds like he has a lot of affinity for communism—or a least an idealized version of it—but, as I said, doesn’t seem to consider 1) the real-world effects of communism or 2) alternative, decentralized, localist-oriented ways of organizing community that might do more to help solve the problem of materialism and “the free market,” which, thankfully, as I think both of us know, has never really been free.

      Anyway, I slightly apologize for the length of this comment, but thank you for your thoughtful response. FPR honestly seems like the prime candidate for some of these conversations to fruitfully emerge.

  2. “…systems that maintain money as their base unit of analysis for human values and human relationships”

    “…a host of counterfeit enchantments that would work to serve Mammon instead of serving the glory of God”

    “… the industrial capitalist imperatives that began to take hold of human value systems”

    “… advertising: the commercialized sense of wonder…”

    How is it that inanimate “systems” and “enchantments” are able to value things, and even actively work as servants of some particular deity? What exactly are these unnamed “capitalist imperatives?” How is it that one man can “commercialize” my sense of wonder?Perhaps the problem is not the system, but the people within the system; not the enchantments, but those who are enchanted; not the imperatives, but those who feel impelled; not the materialist advertiser, but the materialist consumer. Capitalism does not force upon anyone the worship of Mammon. Capitalism is about meat and potatoes — nothing about it suggests that meat and potatoes is all there is.

    The moral responsibility for Mammon-worship lies squarely upon the individuals and communities who have turned away from the one true God, and sacrificed upon a false altar. The “heavenly city of Fordism” is a good concept — because, you see, I live in Pittsburgh. But if I wanted, I could pick up and move somewhere else. I am not obliged to live in any city — especially not the heavenly city of Fordism.

    A final note — “America” is an abstraction, and as such it has no “soul.” If “business had become the soul of America,” then that’s only because it had become the soul of each American.

    To clamor about the need for an entirely new world-order that sets virtue free, is nothing but a convenient excuse for the perpetual exercise of vice.

    • Nick, thanks for your reply here. You’re right to point out that more emphasis on people within a larger system would have helped McCarraher’s book and argument. From a position that isn’t purely social-constructivist, it’s clear that people are the ones who perpetuate, impose, employ, and actualize larger “institutional” systems like capitalism. Brian in the first comment above makes a few good points about terminology that might be helpful to you.

      However, if approach things from McCarraher’s perspective (and I think it’s fairly easy to assume that his ideological commitments probably tend towards the social-constructivist and the New Historicist) it’s clear that inanimate systems can motivate behavior and that a deity (if we take Mammon as a real being as many pre-enlightenment/pre-materialist people did) can use ideologies, systems, and enchantments as those motivators that bring people to their knees in worship. It’s about the alignment and direction of desire—systems can be used as tools to focus desire onto certain things and not others; think about how fake news stories are used to distract from real concerns, that our desires are directed towards outrage about manipulation of the media such that important things are glossed over or missed entirely.

      McCarraher would, I think, rebut your claim that capitalism is about “meat and potatoes” by saying that, well, it isn’t because you can say that about every single economic/materialist ideology that has ever come into existence. I.e., it’s not about the ends (meat and potatoes) but about the means (capitalism/socialism/communism/etc.) that McCarraher writes. Because capitalism emphasizes unbridled industry, innovation, growth, and uses capital/economics as the means to understand human relationships, it’s inherently materialist. Couple that with the Enlightenment and the death of God, it’s very easy to understand how the vast majority of adherents to the materialist systems that began to move the world (see Henry Adams) began to believe that material is all there is.

      However, McCarraher isn’t arguing that necessarily; he picks up where George Steiner and Charles Taylor left off: capitalism became one choice of religions among many and because it holds sway on almost every choice we make and every ideology that keeps economics as its main metaphysics and ontology capitalism became the prime mover behind all the other religious choices that we make. Think about Joel Osteen for example; there’s a theology that is inherently materialist while also affirming an afterlife. Like Mormonism, the prosperity gospel puts as much emphasis on materialism as it does on a transcendent God. Which is to say that this ins’t an either/or choice for McCarraher: it’s both the system and the people, the enchanted and the enchantments. You don’t have consumers without advertisers in a capitalist system. This is the Heavenly City of Fordism: it’s a metaphor used to represent an ideology that has a hold everywhere you go. It doesn’t matter if you lie in New York or Botswana, the cult of Mammon has sway wherever economics, accumulation, and the unbridled drive for consumption are made central to the functioning of society.

      I.e., McCarraher wants us to see the need for a total reorganization of society motivated firstly by a sense of wonder at the natural world that makes us pause (see this article for a good analysis of how that looked in Milton: before engaging in productivity. This is why I pointed to bioregionalism and several articles at FPR as potential ways to continue the conversation. I’d also recommend Giorgos Kallis for more on why we need limits (which is, ultimately, what I think McCarraher wants even though it does seem like he has a hard time communicating that).

      I think what I’m getting at is that 1) you should read the book and draw your conclusions from a full encounter with McCarraher. My words can only cover so much and can only do so much to try to give readers an unmediated look at McCarraher. Though I aimed for objectivity throughout most of the review, what I’ve written has still been filtered through how I read and understood the book. So, seriously, read the book; as frustrating as it is, it’s a worthwhile endeavor and might address more fully some of these concerns you’ve raised here.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. P.S.

    A practical question that leaves aside whether this account is accurate or not… because at the very least, it’s only one of many stories we could be telling about the trajectory of civilization since 1492:

    Do you think that it’s inspiring, or crippling, to raise a generation to believe that we’ve inherited a legacy of 500 years of descent further and further into the depths Sodom and Gomorrah? Not only that, but the culprits responsible for this descent are (in this account) not specific people, or decisions, or features of our institutions, which would seem like manageable problems to solve. Instead, it has all happened at the hands of shadowy, vague, amorphous ideologies and systems that somehow move the masses and make the world.

    I’m 22, so I am a member of the generation about which I speak. I am not suggesting that the youth has no choice but to despair over our present position when they hear stories like this — I certainly choose not to. But many of my peers are quite convinced of their own hopelessness, and I would suggest that this account offers them nothing in the way of hope.

    I think that this is not the type of story that needs to be told today.

    • If I may be somewhat but respectfully blunt, I don’t necessarily believe that question you’ve posed here is especially useful within the context of a discussion of McCarraher’s book. As a historian, McCarraher attempts to take a look at all the available historical evidence and draw conclusions from that evidence—which he then of course narrativizes in order to make his point. I didn’t get the sense from reading that his “story” is anything other than neutrally represented and communicated. It felt neither inspiring nor crippling but rather contemplative. He asks us to think of possibility, he asks us to think about how industrial capitalism/materialism has perhaps irreparably changed our perception of the world and our sense of its teleology.

      As much as he talks about Christianity, his approach isn’t explicitly Christian but rather historical, so the metaphors of “descent into Sodom and Gomorrah” don’t really effectively apply here. And he doesn’t categorize industrial capital’s progress and replacement of traditional religion as a descent; that’s an interpretive gesture that I think you’re making our of your own metaphysics. Instead, McCarraher tells us quite clearly that it isn’t some shadowy ideology that has led us to the place where we are now—but rather industrial capitalism, which has its own quite clearly chronicled history, as well as descriptions of how it operated. In fact, the most persuasive part of his book is that Mammon has effectively hijacked and wormed his way into all of our institutions, metaphysical systems, ideologies, and ontologies, as well as our minds and desires and value systems.

      If anything, reading McCarraher’s book ought to get readers to contemplate alternatives, ways to reorganize the world and our lives within the world so as to have hope. For McCarraher it starts with a rehabilitation of Ruskin’s Romanticism and a Lewis Mumford-style means of establishing social norms and whatnot.

      Like I said above, definitely read the book. It’s a worthwhile enterprise.

  4. I’m almost afraid to read this book for fear I might be all consumed with its premise which, I gather from Mr. Nichols’ words, is an articulation of many of my thoughts that I struggle to utter. Without having read the work I can already see the battle lines being drawn and assumption making happening just by sheer mention of this title. However, I suspect that the percentage of “average” Americans who do not fall into the academic bucket will be somewhat small and those who may reference the text, will be seen doing so esoterically.
    I’m looking forward to spending 2020 in digesting this work. Thank you for your insights into the book, Mr. Nichols.

  5. Thanks for the great review: lots to digest here. It will be interesting to read this book in tandem with Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone and Piketty’s forthcoming book. And I think Mr. Medaille has a book on distributism coming out too, no?

    Interestingly enought, I just finished Milanovic’s Global Inequality and was struck by the similarity of some of his analysis to that of the distributists/agrarians.

    • Thanks for your reply! I’ll have to look into Milanovoc. Currently, I’m pursuing some of these notions about limits and distribution by looking into Giorgos Kallis and revisiting Wendell Berry and Thomas Storck. FPR is definitely a good place for these kinds of conversations to grow.

  6. John, this is a fabulous review and made me go out and get the book. I feel like the author’s left/Romanticism is closest to my own politics–highly critical of capitalism but also of the economic growth orientation and lack of attachment to place of much progressive thinking, especially the banal modern utopianism of high tech. It explains a lot about the origins of my own theme in my film and book, AFFLUENZA. My only disagreement is probably with his wrapping the New Deal up in this thesis. In part it was, but much of it was not. It was an effort to counter the environmental devastation wrought by commercial agriculture and restore sustainable family farms, it was about reducing the workweek, and preserving nature, and its WPA programs–the theater, writers’, artists’, photography and music projects were about enhancing the local culture of many small communities. Yes, it also had its consumerist side and the disaster of big dams, but it’s unfair to see it as a consumerist project. Likewise, while Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to some extent was a boost to consumerism, Johnson didn’t see it that way, and in fact, his Great Society speech of 1964 can be seen as a condemnation of consumer values in defense of quality of life. Likewise, also, the Progressive era, which proceeded Roaring 20s consumerism, had a strong focus on the defense of nature and on “bread and roses,” an acknowledgment that materialism had important limits. I have written at length on each of these subjects. All of this seems to be forgotten by modern so-called “conservatives” and “progressives”–the conservatives don’t want to conserve anything but privilege and the progressives are stuck in worship of endless economic growth.

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version