Politics as Wish: A review of The Enchantments of Mammon

The book’s conclusion suggests that Eugene McCarraher’s understanding of the world is now outdated, without his being aware of the fact.

Detail from The worship of Mammon" (c. 1909) by Evelyn De Morgan. (commons.wikimedia.org)

History is not fate but it is logical, even when the human actors do not themselves behave logically on occasion, or even much of the time. Intellectual historians, whose business is identifying and tracing the development and evolution of ideas, are always at professional risk of forgetting this fact.

In this particular example of the contemporary literary genre of politically engaged scholarship, Eugene McCarraher argues that after the early Christian sects—which had practiced a form of communism while they dwelt in communal economies—spread, grew, and were drawn into the broader society of the developing West, their commitment to the economic morality taught and practiced by the early Church became attenuated, until the increasing material worldliness of the later Middle Ages caused them to abandon the Church’s prescriptions against usury and accept the precepts and practice of capitalism in their place.

Though McCarraher does not note the point, early Christians were trying to “immanentize the eschaton” in its economic dimension, as secular revolutionaries were later to do; a project that grew steadily less practical and realizable in the circumstances of their growing numbers and geographical dispersion across the wider civilization. Since then, McCarraher argues, civilization in the West has followed a progressively anti-human course of development driven by materially greedy and power-hungry capitalists who went on to become industrial capitalists by applying scientific discoveries to create a mechanical system of production that mechanized the workers themselves, and degraded the natural world while accomplishing what Max Weber called its “disenchantment.”

Still, McCarraher believes that capitalist forces, though they have damaged nature almost beyond repair, have not expelled it from the sacred groves. Rather, they have cut down the ancient ones and established new ones in the glistening steel-and-concrete towers of London, New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. In support of his thesis, McCarraher has written what amounts on one level to a survey of the academic literature on the subject, while citing a wide array of primary texts as well. He is impressively well read, and writes well; but it is no good pretending that his 800-page book is not over-stuffed, overlong, and sometimes tedious.

The Enchantment of Mammon traces what Philip Jeffery, writing in First Things, calls a series of economic “dispensations” for which America is “a kind of holy land for these dispensations and their accompanying theologies.” The Puritans thought material gain a means of personal (that is, spiritual) improvement; the followers of the Second Great Awakening justified the “Market Revolution” in spiritual terms; evangelicals early in the 19th century imagined God rewarding material success and punishing failure. In the early stages of corporatism, enthusiasts claimed that corporations are bodies and their directors heroic figures. Boosters, businessmen, and scientific managers foresaw the arrival of a heavenly city, and Henry Ford described machinery as “the New Messiah, accomplishing in the world what man had failed to do by preaching, propaganda, or the written word.” In 1928 an article in Vanity Fair by Charles Sheeler, a painter and photographer, called Ford “an almost divine Master-Mind;” another acolyte of mystical industrialism saw America as “the supreme altar of the new God.”

World War II followed; and after 1945, neoliberalism. “A way of being,” McCarraher writes, “as well as a paradigm of what Sheldon Wolin has called ‘inverted totalitarianism’—the transformation of political democracy into a subsidiary of corporate capital—neoliberalism named the highest stage of pecuniary metaphysics, the meridian of capitalist enchantment. The liberal imagination found its crudest and most popular expression in Ayn Rand, who brought the roseate capitalist romanticism of Emerson to a tawdry conclusion.” But Emerson’s romanticism was not the only version of Romanticism in Europe and the United States in the 19th century; nor was it, in McCarraher’s view, the “right” one. That was the Romantic sacramentalism of the poets, the novelists, the composers, the architects, the Pre-Raphaelites, and John Ruskin:

…[T]he Romantic sacramental imagination has always borne revolutionary implications. Romanticism has represented an alternative modernity, a substantive critique of the Enlightenment’s collusion with bourgeois sensibility and moralism that nonetheless never ended in utter repudiation. It has always rejected capitalism’s ontology of pecuniary transubstantiation, its epistemology of technological dominion, and its morality of profit and productivity. Because Romanticism’s passionate vision sees the presence of divinity throughout the material universe—especially in human beings—Romanticism has entailed an understanding of nature, work, and technics very different from that of capitalist societies, whose misconception of the world is encapsulated in the secular superstition of ‘economics.’

Romanticism, McCarrarher thinks, was the road not taken but that may be taken yet, once “we” find the way back to it by a “realized eschatology: if you will, the future in the present tense. Living the new world in the wreckage of the old”—a truth he believes the most clearsighted and insightful theorists of the New Left understood.

That new world has always been present; history has not deprived us of an abiding and infinitely generous divinity. We can reenter paradise—even if only incompletely—for paradise has always been around and in us, eagerly awaiting our coming to our senses….

I agree with Mr. McCarraher that industrialism has been the most catastrophic development that ever occurred in human history. It is wholly anti-natural, hence profoundly anti-human—and inhuman. But I also find his exhortatory, mystical conclusion a prime example of what James Burnham (a fervent Trotskyite for the first half of his adult life) in his analysis of De Monarchia called “politics as wish.” Dante’s ultimate goal in writing his treatise was men’s attainment of Heaven: a goal Burnham noted is meaningless, “since Heaven exists, if at all, outside of space and time, and can therefore have no bearing on political action.”

The same objection goes for McCarraher’s aim to regain Paradise. Burnham observed that Dante’s lesser goals, such as the development of all men’s potentialities and of universal peace, while not inconceivable, “are altogether utopian and materially impossible.” Though McCarraher’s goals are not so utopian as Dante’s, the notion of halting the industrialist-capitalist world in its tracks and giving it another direction to travel in is nearly as preposterous. Burnham’s final objection to Dante’s arguments is that “from the point of view of actual political conditions in the actual world of space and time and history they are almost without exception completely irrelevant.” So with McCarraher’s arguments.

The Enchantments of Mammon is strictly a work of intellectual history, which explains its anti-historicism in implying that people, collectively or even individually, can recognize where they stand in history and what is actually happening to them and to the world at any given moment; where history is going; and what (if anything) can be done to alter its direction—and how. There is, also and always, the question of whether even the most educated, observant, and speculative people know what they are talking about when they attempt to confront such questions. Speaking of Henry Adams, McCarraher says that “Adams doubted that the popular movements of his time could bridge the chasm between power and love. In Adams’ view, the ‘new men’ would not arise from farmers’ alliances, labor unions, or radical parties….Love and power could not be fully reconciled in a ‘grotesque alliance’ of the people.” Intellectual fatuity can go no further. As the American humorist George Ade wrote at around the same time, “In uplifting, get underneath.”

A—or rather the—fundamental problem with Mammon is the author’s consistent employment of the term “enchantment” in a literal sense rather than a figurative or metaphorical one: an understandable practice since otherwise he wouldn’t have had a book at all, or at least not this book. When an Arapahoe Indian calls the grizzly bear “sacred,” he means exactly what he says. But when Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Economy is a high, human office, a sacrament, when its aim is grand,” it is hard to suppose he meant “sacrament” literally, or even that he had the slightest of what he was talking about. (Having not read Emerson since my school days, I’d forgotten what a bloviating old windbag he was, afflicted with a bad case of the divine afflatus as was indeed the whole of the self-important post-Christian clerisy of his day.)

I have quoted already a contributor to Vanity Fair, Charles Sheeler, who in the late 1920s called America “the supreme altar of the new God.” Again, it seems impossible that Sheeler could have intended his statement to be taken literally. Note, though, that he did distinguish “the new God” from the old One—but then, confusingly, put the “G” into the upper case, so who knows what deep theological truth he was trying to convey. Similarly, when Chesterton wrote in 1920 that American capitalism is a “religion,” his meaning was clearly that Americans view capitalism as if it were a religion, which is not the same thing. Sheeler himself, in a sober moment, called “our factories …substitutes for religious expression,” thus inviting his readers to descend from the religious heights to the merely poetical ones. Or at least to the commercial-poetic ones that the boosters, business hucksters, and advertisement copywriters of the day employed and that Sinclair Lewis’s pitch-perfect ear captured so exquisitely in Babbitt; though hucksterism of the same type and style goes back a long way in America, as Mark Twain’s books show.

Significantly, Christianity, religion, and “enchantment” as they are treated in this book are strictly of a Protestant nature, once the author has got as far as the Reformation. That is a rather large hole in his thesis, one might think. Also, it would be interesting to learn what Catholic industrial capitalists and their apologists—if any—had to say on the subject. Had McCarraher included them, Mammon might be something wider than a critique of another Protestant heresy. Protestants have always put nearly everything into religious terms, and they still do. That is part of what makes them Protestants as well as obsessive virtue-signalers, victims of an acute moral self-consciousness who imagine non-Protestants are as absorbed in observing their behavior as they observe each other’s (and the Catholics’). The fact explains why so much of what McCarraher views as genuine religious thought and religiosity is no more than the ethics and ethicism of the United States in the 21st century.

Similarly, perhaps, a few pages at the beginning of this book describing the nature and history of the classical economy would have added valuable perspective to The Enchantments of Mammon. M.I. Finley, in The Ancient Economy, describes an economic system that, being based on the acquisition and holding of private property, was free but not capitalist; that operated successfully for centuries—and then collapsed from its inability to generate new and sufficient wealth to support itself. While Finley’s argument might, of course, be employed by capitalists to justify their claim that capitalism is indispensable to human wealth and material welfare, many economic and political systems have been devised by human beings at various points in their history and all of them have “failed” (or are failing) in the end, as future ones are guaranteed to do as well.

The book’s conclusion suggests that Eugene McCarraher’s understanding of the world is now outdated, without his being aware of the fact. The one thing worse than industrial capitalism is the post-modern digital technocracy that it produced and that is now incestuously joined with it, like a Greek goddess with her offspring. Capitalism in itself has lost its magic for the last generation or two of greedy Prometheans, who look beyond the ideal globalist system (i.e., the one that creates the most wealth for its owners and enslaves the most people to serve them ) to a transhuman world, where every human being is the ghost in the machine, or the machine in the ghost. (I imagine it will be hard to tell the difference between them, if there really is one, when it happens.)

Whichever it turns out to be, how a ghost—or a machine-ghost, or a ghost-machine—could enjoy the life of material affluence delivered by technocratic-industrial capitalism is hard to imagine, though power is another matter. Transhumanism would be the ultimate disenchantment, in any case.

The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity
By Eugene McCarraher
Belknap/Harvard, Cambridge MA, 2020
Hardcover, 799 pages


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About Chilton Williamson, Jr. 9 Articles
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is the author of several works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and “pure” nonfiction, including After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy and Jerusalem, Jerusalem! A Novel. He has also written hundreds of essays, critical reviews, and short stories for publications including Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Harper’s, The New Republic, National Review, Commonweal, The New Leader, The American Spectator, among others. You can visit him online at www.chiltonwilliamson.com.

3 Comments

  1. No doubt Capitalism, sometime refered to as societies with free markets and property rights, has created an abundance of mammon. Capitalism also with its free markets and property rights has brought a number of exceptionally poor countries out of poverty or significantly reduced those with a lack of mammon. Those countries that didn’t adopt open markets and property rights and adopted good ole communinism/socialism and no property rights have an abundance of poverty or little mammon. Now to be sure the abundance of mammon has pushed or maybe drawn people out of churches and the worship of God. Because who needs God when, you got an abundance of mammon. However, I don’t see and an abundance of worshop of God in communist or socialist countries either. In those countries the god is the government. So at least in the capitalist countries one has the choice to worshop God or mammon. Do I spend my time praying, going to church in Sundays, thanking God for the gifts, etc., or only just enjoying life, going after mammom and ignoring or even mocking God. In capitalist countries we have a choice, those who are wise are like those that build a house on a rock. In Communist or Socialist countries one is more or forced to worship God while in the basement while rest of country builds a house on sand and not worshopping God.

    For me the choice is easy, I’ll take capitalism, even if I have too much mammon. Although there is too much mammon, it can be given away, but also I am allowed to go to church, pray and read Catholic web sites.

  2. We read that: “The Enchantments of Mammon [. . . ] explains its anti-historicism in implying that people, collectively or even individually, can recognize where they stand in history and what is actually happening to them and to the world at any given moment; where history is going; and what (if anything) can be done to alter its direction—and how.”

    Pope St. John Paul II, neither a robber-baron Promethean nor a McCarraher Romantic, said this and more in fewer words: “Man receives from God his essential dignity and with it the capacity to transcend every social order so as to move toward truth and goodness” (Centesimus Annus, 1991, n. 38).

    Asked if [industrial] “capitalism” should simply step in for the fallen Soviet Union, he said:

    “The answer is obviously complex. IF by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, THEN the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy,’ ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy.’
    “BUT IF by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework [!] which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, THEN the reply is certainly negative (CA, n. 44, CAPS added).

    Now, if only Laudato Si can fine-tune the lame idol (?) of a “true world POLITICAL authority” with a “strong JURIDICAL framework,” we might have a more principled institutional context (governance rather than a super-government) for an “integral ecology” which is consistently grounded (so to speak) in the transcendent—-less of Amazonia’s enchanted Pachamama and more of JPII’s spiritual and intergenerational “essential dignity”.

  3. “until the increasing material worldliness of the later Middle Ages caused them to abandon the Church’s prescriptions against usury and accept the precepts and practice of capitalism in their place.”

    I believe that interest, in itself, is not against the natural law or morality. According to Holy Scripture, the Israelites were permitted to loan money at interest to foreigners. The main reason behind interest free loans (and additionally mandatory lending) seems to have been that the loans were generally “loans of consumption.” People were very poor, so they needed the assistance of those who could give it.

    “I agree with Mr. McCarraher that industrialism has been the most catastrophic development that ever occurred in human history. It is wholly anti-natural, hence profoundly anti-human—and inhuman.”

    This is probably not true. I don’t see how it is anti-natural. I suppose if one were a hippie or a Luddite, then a person could agree that it is anti-natural. They wouldn’t be correct. Industrialism takes advantage of specialization and/or mechanization. Granted that there is always a question of quality and dishonesty when someone else makes your wants/necessities, but the leisure gained has enabled scientific pursuits which help solve problems.

    There are inhuman aspects of the current economic system, but they are caused by unjust laws (e.g. at-will employment).

    “Had McCarraher included them, Mammon might be something wider than a critique of another Protestant heresy. Protestants have always put nearly everything into religious terms, and they still do. That is part of what makes them Protestants as well as obsessive virtue-signalers, victims of an acute moral self-consciousness who imagine non-Protestants are as absorbed in observing their behavior as they observe each other’s (and the Catholics’).”

    An interesting observation. It seems true. If so, that could explain a number of manifestations such as the worship of material success (and the corresponding “criminalization of poverty” and “deification of the wealthy”) and vegetarianism or other dietary “orthodoxies.” Needless to say Protestants are generally much against alcoholic beverages.

    “Capitalism in itself has lost its magic for the last generation or two of greedy Prometheans, who look beyond the ideal globalist system (i.e., the one that creates the most wealth for its owners and enslaves the most people to serve them)…”

    I am not certain that I grasp this sentence entirely. At least not the part concerning transhumanism. Otherwise it seems fairly true (especially concerning slavery of the masses). I am curious over your use of the word Promethean. Perhaps you are referring to the deification of the wealthy who in turn seek to be seen as more than human?

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