Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Enchantments of Mammon:
How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity

by eugene mccarraher
belknap, 816 pages, $39.95

Capitalism gets off easy these days. Its loud but underwhelming critics are stuck in the 1960s, repeating slogans that never quite amount to a compelling condemnation of the system. Proposing costly federal programs is all it takes to be considered an ­anti-­capitalist radical. Take, for instance, a recent op-ed in The Guardian titled “I co-founded Occupy Wall Street. Now I’m headed to ­Davos. Why?” Today’s left is just a flavor of neoliberalism, estranged from the working class and uninterested in its problems.

In a bid to reclaim the radicalism that the left has lost, Eugene McCarraher tells an entire alternate history of the modern West and synthesizes a long line of unorthodox critics of capitalism. Enchantments weaves a whole tradition out of a single insight: that capitalism is a religious phenomenon. For all the ambition of his project, McCarraher stops short of his account’s natural conclusion: that the left has taken the wrong path and had best turn back.

McCarraher takes aim at the idea that the world has become “disenchanted,” that the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and ­industrialism “evacuated sacredness from material objects and social relationships.” Against this view, he argues that the spiritual forces at work in the world never went away and that, in particular, “capitalism is a form of enchantment—perhaps better, a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a ­sacramental way of being in the world.”

If capitalism is a religious phenomenon, we shouldn’t expect it to develop like a scientific formula. McCarraher doesn’t tell the history of capitalism as a linear technological progress or a parabolic growth of wealth, but as a series of dispensations. It has operated differently in distinct periods, each bringing new priests (business leaders or other economic actors whose work is deemed invaluable for progress) and new theologies (explanations for the ­vicissitudes and inequalities of inscrutable market forces). Over the ­centuries, the logic of capitalism retains a mystical character, though it has come to rely less on an explicitly Christian theism.

McCarraher sees America as a kind of holy land for these dispensations and their accompanying theologies of the market. The colonial Puritans built a covenantal community alongside a “gospel of improvement,” which taught that material prosperity was a sign one was fulfilling a “calling” and practicing virtue. The Second Great Awakening supplied the “Market Revolution” of the 1820s and 1830s with a spiritual justification. Early-nineteenth-century evangelicals saw divine action as the invisible hand guiding the laws of supply and demand, doling out entrepreneurial success or failure.

But beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, the mystical benevolence driving economic growth was ascribed less often to God and more often to the market. The turning point was the rise of the modern corporation. As corporations emerged as the primary engines of economic life, their apologists identified them as persons with mystical bodies made up of employees and led by heroic businessmen. Arguments were had over whether corporations were “soulless” or “soulful.” Executives repurposed evangelical faith in divine guidance of the market to depict their enterprises as a “co-­partnership” with God. As one Brooklyn merchant put it, “the Lord is my Banker, my ­Insurer, my ­Deliverer, my Patron, and my Blessed Guardian of temporal things.”

After World War I came a “Fordist” dispensation that brought revolutions in mechanized production and advertising for new consumer goods. Business advocates and progressives foresaw a “heavenly city” maintained perfectly by a scientific managerial elite, in which magical machines would supply endless modern convenience. Henry Ford called machinery “the New Messiah” in 1928, “accomplishing in the world what man has failed to do by preaching, propaganda, or the written word.” The marketplace for consumer goods was to supply better versions of spiritual goods. Economics no longer needed to borrow divinity from God—it was itself enchanted.

McCarraher’s narrative approach allows him to avoid the difficult question of what exactly he means by “capitalism.” He tells a story rather than defining his terms. Capitalism as he describes it involves many things: Production and consumption of commodities, not to mention corporations and investment, have always been part of the equation, though each has been emphasized at different times. Its advocates consistently borrowed religious language to describe the system, ascribing personhood, even divinity, to market forces. Emerson declared “economy” “a high human office, a sacrament, when its aim is grand.” Roughly a century later, Leonard Read’s infamous essay “I, Pencil” described how industry turned raw material into a “complex combination of miracles” (that is, a commodity) greater than anything found in nature. Advertising, its practitioners insisted, was a matter of imbuing otherwise inanimate objects with souls and “personality.” Modern economics did not disenchant the world but assigned sacredness to new things.

From the dawn of British indus­trialism in the late eighteenth century, a line of critics has attacked capitalism for its religious pretensions. Drawing on Catholic and Romantic sources, they defended the sacredness of the human person, which they felt the enchantments of mammon tended to cheapen if not violate. Among them were critics of industrialism John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, and poets William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In ­America, similarly spiritual criticism came from slaves, anarchists, and populists, from public intellectuals like James Agee and Lewis Mumford, and from activists like Vida ­Scudder and Dorothy Day. Across these ­sources, McCarraher identifies an enduring humanism concerned with the effect that capital-driven industrial technology has on human beings.

These critics shared, in McCar­raher’s words, a “sacramental imagination.” Their view of modernity took into account a Romantic sense of the beyond, what Bernard ­Reardon referred to as “the inexpungable feeling that the finite is not self-explanatory and self-justifying.” The sacramental imagination sees the earth as “a ­sacramental place, mediating the presence and power of God, revelatory of the superabundant love of divinity.” Rather than repositories of exploitable—and ultimately discardable—resources, the world and humanity are potential vessels of the glory of God. Romantics imagined a society based on nurture and wonder rather than competition and ­acquisition.

But this tradition has a flaw. It’s unclear at times how Romantic sacramentalism differs from consumeristic hedonism, especially when it’s ­untethered from specific theological commitments. If everything in the world is good, and man has no duty but to enjoy what he finds, a consumer marketplace might easily present itself as a vehicle for “sacred” enjoyment of the world.

This ambiguity led the enchanted Romantic tradition to a tragic end. McCarraher’s final capitalist ­dispensation—postwar neoliberalism—­­co-opted the Romantic tradition for its own purposes. Mid-century counterculture, he argues, was at least in part a product of American business. Beginning in the 1940s, corporate gurus aimed to harmonize employees’ psychic needs for “autonomy” and “individuality” with organizational directives by adapting management practices to Maslow-style pop-psychological humanism. By the time Beats and hippies arrived on the scene, the business world was ready to repackage and market their supposed radicalism. The result was “the final incorporation of Romanticism, the annexation of the modern sacramental consciousness into the empire of corporate iconography”—the birth of “woke capital,” if you will.

So where do critics of capitalism go from here? McCarraher differentiates Romantic critics from more conventional Marxists. ­Materialist, disenchanted Marxists accept the development of industrial technology as genuine progress, preparing the world for eventual revolution and utopia. Romantics see industrial mass production as inherently deformative of the human spirit, twisting our view of ourselves and the world. This difference keeps Romantics perceptive to ecological problems and insistent that utopian ends don’t justify dehumanizing means.

The best of the Romantic critics in the book are those who were ­unafraid of coming off as reactionary. None wanted simply to “turn back the clock,” but they also didn’t think everything modernity rejected should remain buried. They freed themselves to question whether the blessings of liberty and progress were really blessings or just shabby replacements for genuine human goods. Take, for instance, one critic who successfully stood apart from “the final incorporation of Romanticism.” Unlike his contemporary Herbert Marcuse, Lewis Mumford doubted that technological and economic progress was on the verge of abolishing material scarcity and enabling the limitless triumph of erotic desire. He anticipated that automated technological systems would come to govern ever more fundamentally human activities—even ­thinking—because of the centuries-old ­Baconian goal of mastering nature through mechanism. He wanted to reclaim the pre-modern sense of the sacred. The left, ignoring Mumford, followed ­Marcuse into sexual ­revolution and blind faith in ­technocracy.

Today’s critics of capitalism are gelded by their fear of appearing reactionary. Even McCarraher, who draws heavily on Ruskin and ­Carlyle, finds it necessary to apologize for their commitment to “reaction” and “hierarchy.” But if the left is to regain the glory McCarraher sees in its past, it will have to admit it took a wrong turn and that it cannot sustainably criticize our throwaway culture for damaging the environment while praising it for damaging families. Pope Francis—whom McCarraher cites as a contemporary example of the Romantic tradition—has made this point. American leftists dare not. Anywhere criticism of capitalism might tread on the toes of sexual liberation, our radicals dare not step. But that may be the only path back to interesting criticism of capitalism at a time when something as fundamental as sex is seen in terms of commodity and ­consumption.

Philip Jeffery is an associate editor at the Washington Free Beacon.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.