Has Capitalism Become Our Religion?

Has Capitalism Become Our Religion?

We talk with historian Eugene McCarraher about the myths and rituals of the market, the lost radicalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the rise of neoliberalism.


One would be hard-pressed to find a form of modern rationalism more extreme than capitalism. The laws of supply and demand and the commodification of goods like health and education strip away the mystery and sense of sacredness that were once a vital part of human life. Capitalism, Marx observed, tears asunder “all fixed, fast-frozen relations” and “drowns the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor…in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” It wrings out of human life every drop of awe and magic and leaves in their place a hardened world of material interests and accumulation. Or so the story goes. Eugene McCarraher’s new book, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, offers a different rendering of our modern age—one in which the mysteries and sacraments of religion were transferred to the way we perceive market forces and economic development. The new world that capitalism created, McCarraher argues, is characterized not by disenchantment but by a “migration of the holy” to the realm of production and consumption, profit and price, trade and economic tribulation. Capitalism, in other words, is the new religion, a system full of enchanted superstitions and unfounded beliefs and beholden to its own clerisy of economists and managers, its own iconography of advertising and public relations, and its own political theology—a view of history and politics that is premised on the inevitability of the capitalist system spreading across the world. McCarraher spoke with The Nation about capitalism’s past and present, the lost radicalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, and the rise of a new generation of socialists. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: What is the disenchanted view of capitalism that your book rejects? And why have we assumed this view of capitalism to be true for so long?

Eugene McCarraher: The “disenchantment of the world,” as Max Weber called it (he borrowed the phrase from Friedrich Schiller), is one of the basic assumptions of modern cultural and intellectual life. It marks the belief that a hallmark of modernity is the loss of belief in enchantment—those mysterious, immeasurable forces that rule over, pervade, and animate the universe. During the Middle Ages, Catholic Christianity exemplified this enchanted understanding of reality in its sacramental rituals and imagination. According to Weber, Calvinist theology and capitalist enterprise gradually demolished this enchanted sacramental perspective, reducing matter to an inert and inanimate substance. The capitalist quest for profit not only relaxed medieval strictures against avarice and usury; it mandated that material reality had to be stripped of all spiritual significance.

It’s a compelling story, one that unites Wall Street banksters, Silicon Valley tech bros, the socialists at Jacobin, and probably most readers of The Nation. It’s so compelling that it convinces even religious intellectuals: In his monumental A Secular Age (2007), the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor pretty much retold this conventional tale—even though there’s the twist of a possible re-enchantment at the end. And it certainly has a convincing superficial plausibility. Set aside the fact that religious belief has declined in the capitalist world over the last two centuries; one finds this to be the case in everyday life. Except perhaps for evangelical Protestants, businesspeople don’t say prayers at board meetings; they don’t consult soothsayers about the next quarter or base their investment decisions on horoscopes. Even if they believe in these things, none of it enters into their calculations.

DSJ: And so your book sets out to tell a different story?

EM: You can see the glimmerings of a very different story even among the most secular and “disenchanted” critics of capitalism. Weber thought that the old spirits of enchantment hadn’t simply hobbled off into oblivion; they’d morphed into the laws of the market. And as you can read in Marx’s 1844 manuscripts, the Grundrisse, and the chapter on commodity fetishism in Capital, he perceived the persistence of enchantment in the allegedly secular mechanics of capitalism. Marx saw that money had become a divinity, the creator and legitimator of moral reality in capitalist civilization. In Capital, commodity fetishism becomes the capitalist surrogate for Catholic sacramentality: Where sacrament directs divine grace through material objects or religious rituals, commodity fetishism conducts the power of money through a pecuniary alchemy of objects. So one way to read modern history is as a story of capitalist enchantment and a theology of money, as it were.

That history is the subject of my book. Its subtitle is derived from Walter Benjamin’s “Capitalism as Religion” (1921), one of the starkest and most succinct Marxist accounts of capitalist enchantment, and I want to examine how capitalism is a new, perverse form of enchantment, a misdirection of our desires for a sacramental way of being in the world. This perverse sacramentality is on display throughout capitalist civilization—in management theory, in industrial design, in advertising, in economics.

DSJ: Can you say more concerning your understanding of the nature of economics? In your book you state, “From its historically illiterate myth of barter to its shabby and degrading claims about human nature, economics is not just a dismal but a fundamentally fraudulent science as well.” What do you mean by “fraudulent science”?

EM: To be honest, I’m not sure that economics even is a science, however “dismal,” as Thomas Carlyle once dubbed it. Indeed, I think that John Ruskin was closer to the mark in Unto This Last (1862) when he compared what was then called “political economy” to “alchemy, astrology, [and] witchcraft.” As a Christian, I reject the two assumptions found in conventional economics: scarcity (to the contrary, God has created a world of abundance) and rational, self-seeking, utility-maximizing humanism (a competitive conception of human nature that I believe traduces our creation in the image and likeness of God). I think that one of the most important intellectual missions of our time is the construction of an economics with very different assumptions about the nature of humanity and the world.

DSJ: How does this conception of economics relate to your understanding of what neoliberalism is?

EM: With its ideal of converting everything into a market, neoliberalism represents the zenith—or rather the nadir—of capitalist enchantment. As I argue in the book, in neoliberalism you have a thoroughly marketized conception of the human person—“the entrepreneurial self,” in Philip Mirowski’s words.

You can see the cosmology of neoliberal enchantment most clearly in the work of Friedrich Hayek, one of the most duplicitous figures in modern intellectual history. And you can see its literary apotheosis in Ayn Rand, who really and firmly believed that money is the measure of all things. For Hayek, the market is a kind of Logos, whose decrees are created and registered in the numerical glossary of money. In Hayek’s view, we must bow and genuflect to its inscrutable wisdom—Quinn Slobodian was right to characterize this view as a “negative theology.” For her part, Rand asserted that capitalism was religious in character. “A new faith is needed,” she once insisted, “a definite, positive set of new values and a new interpretation of life.”

DSJ: Let’s switch gears a bit. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, there has been considerable scholarly interest in political economy, and specifically the history of political economy, as a way of explaining growing inequality. The most notable book here would be Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century. Given your argument, would you say the return to political economy is only telling us half the story about the causes of the economic crisis and growing inequality?

EM: Yes, it’s only telling part of the story—but I’ll add the immediate caveat that the study of political economy remains indispensable. There’s a tendency among religious critics of capitalism to focus their ire on consumerism, which becomes nothing more than a moral failing for which frugality becomes the healing virtue. Well, not to get into it here, but I think that thrift is a pseudo-virtue at best and that, as a host of historians could tell you, consumerism is not really about gratifying people’s needs and desires so much as it’s about increasing the volume of profit and production. Capitalism needs people to be dissatisfied. So nattering on about consumerism is a way of not getting serious about capitalism. Besides, a lot of anti-consumerist invective strikes me as little more than tiresome moralism, and it also underwrites an equally boring objection to materialism. I wish that people were, in fact, more materialistic in the sense that they should cultivate and exhibit more appreciation for the joys of the material world.

DSJ: When we think about populism today, the typical explanations for it are either economic or political in nature. If there was a better system of wealth distribution or a better system of political representation, populist strongmen like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsanaro, so the argument goes, would not be nearly so appealing. Would you say that your book sees the rise of right-wing populists as constituting a kind of spiritual or moral crisis? Many of the figures you deal with, such as Lewis Mumford, Jackson Lears, and Russell Davenport, saw the economization of human life in these terms.

EM: I certainly agree that a far more equitable distribution of wealth would go a long way toward making figures such as Trump much less attractive. But I want to make two observations here. One is that I don’t like the way the word “populism” is being used these days. To people like Yascha Mounk, “populism” is the bray of the rabble against their neoliberal betters. What they’re really railing against is how the technocratic and managerial elites have profited handsomely from “disruption,” “innovation,” etc. We have to remember that, as Michael Kazin could remind us, there have been right and left versions of populism, and that populism hasn’t always been bound up with racism and xenophobia.

I’d also like to say that, while we should certainly have a more just distribution of wealth, we should ask ourselves what we mean by “wealth” in the first place. One of the many problems in conventional economic thinking is that “wealth” is simply the sum total of all the goods and services we produce every year—the gross domestic product. It’s a purely quantitative concept. There’s no concern for whether or not those good and services are good for us, or the conditions in which they were produced, or the ecological impact of the production technology or the modes of consumption. (The concept of externalities is just a way to avoid the problem.) Ruskin makes a distinction between wealth and what he calls “illth.” The distinction is qualitative: Wealth and illth are relationships between a good and the character of the person. As much as we need Piketty’s kind of political economy, we need to transform it in a way that makes moral discussion central and not ancillary to the discipline. Again, economics itself is in need of a major intellectual overhaul—this one ethical as well as ontological.

All of which is to say that I think the moral and spiritual crisis is real and that it’s far deeper than we often realize. I agree with David Graeber: We may well be approaching the end of the capitalist epoch, but we’re not at all sure that what’s coming after will be any better. We may be living in the sort of dreary liminal period that Wolfgang Streeck describes—an ongoing apocalypse in which capitalism is languishing, but since there’s apparently no coherent opposition, it manages to lurch onward from one crisis to the next without finally collapsing. We really do need a “new civilizational paradigm,” in Naomi Klein’s words, one in which the world—and especially the human beings who reside in it and are a part of it—isn’t seen as nothing more than columns of integers on a balance sheet. This is why I argue in the book that the tradition of Romantic anti-capitalism contains one of the most humane and generous treasuries of possibilities.

DSJ: This brings us to the question of what you seem to be offering as a solution—a left Romanticism. Can you explain what you mean by this and how it relates to the other major theme of your book, namely what you describe as the need for a sacramental worldview?

EM: We usually think of Romanticism as a literary and artistic movement that flourished from the late 18th into the mid-19th century. I follow Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre in seeing Romanticism as an element of modern culture, one that extends into the present day, whose representatives invoked premodern, precapitalist values and institutions against the hegemony of pecuniary and instrumental rationality. Unlike Marx, who beckoned to what he called the poetry of the future, Romantics invoke the poetry of the past—classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, peasant and artisanal communities. While some Romantics really did want to return to the past, most did not; they wanted to preserve what they thought of value in premodern societies and recast them in modern form. For this reason, many Romantics affirm the scientific and democratic legacies of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and they occupy positions all across the spectrum of the left, from William Morris (who unashamedly referred to Ruskin as “my teacher”) all the way through to Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown.

At the same time, while certainly not all Romantics were religious (Percy Shelley and Morris, to cite two), Romanticism has often been a brand of religious sensibility, the heir to and the modern form of the sacramental imagination of medieval Christianity. Some of the most renowned passages of Romantic poetry, for instance, point to a reality that transcends and suffuses the visible world: Blake’s “Heaven in a Wild Flower,” Wordsworth’s “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused.” “Imagination” was the name the Romantics gave to this modern sacramental sensibility, and they meant by it not “fantasy” but rather a capacity for vision, the ability to “see” what’s really all around us. That’s what “visionary” properly means, and it fulfilled rather than canceled out rationality.

DSJ: Can you spell out what then would be the actual politics of left Romanticism? And which figures embody this?

EM: Left Romanticism has taken a number of political forms. One is a socialist/social democratic iteration, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ruskin’s preface to Unto This Last is an early sketch of what became the welfare state, and many early Labour Party members, as well as many of the rank and file of the trade union movement, avowed that much of their attraction to socialism stemmed from reading inexpensive copies of Unto This Last. In the Anglophone world, figures such as R.H. Tawney (in his guild socialist phase, at least) and Social Gospelers such as George Herron and Vida Dutton Scudder were also followers of Ruskin and William Morris.

Left Romanticism also took form in the many Arts and Crafts communities that emerged in Britain and the United States around the same time, and it also appeared among anarchists. One of the abiding concerns of left Romantics has been the recovery of artisanal skill and aesthetic prowess from their destruction by mechanization (now called automation). There was also among left Romantics a challenge to conventional understandings of progress. Both capitalists and many of their left antagonists have often shared a Promethean concept of “progress” as endless economic growth. Left Romantics favor more qualitative standards of growth, smaller-scale and more ecologically sensible technics, and direct workers’ control. So the divide isn’t, as Christopher Lasch had it a generation ago, between “progress and its critics”; rather, it’s a conflict between two concepts of progress.

DSJ: It seems to me that the Green New Deal might be a great example of a left Romanticism. Would you agree?

EM: Much of the Green New Deal certainly dovetails with left Romantic concerns about economic justice and ecological sensitivity. That said, I would join in—though less acerbically—with left criticisms of the Green New Deal that it doesn’t go far enough to confront the capitalist imperatives that drive unlimited growth and ecological despoliation. Also, a more ambitious Green New Deal would reflect the distinction between wealth and illth that I mentioned earlier. I’m really concerned, for instance, about the enthusiasm many on the left are displaying for automation, even for “fully automated luxury communism.” I’m fearful that left technophiliacs are outsourcing their political imaginations to Silicon Valley; the thinking seems to be that Elon Musk and others will achieve all the technological breakthroughs, and socialism will be all about taking the technology away from them.

DSJ: Let me transition a bit here to a different subject. Is there a case to be made for Christian socialism today, given the growing interest in socialism among a younger generation and the need to win over voters who are religious? Put differently, given your critical thinking on secularism, what do you think of the secular socialism of Bernie Sanders?

EM: The problem with Christian socialism is that it has meant all sorts of things over the last century and a half, from tepid, reformist paternalism to the guild socialism of Anglican radicals to little more than Christians signing on to the agendas of the extant socialist or social democratic parties. Besides, many younger people will, for various reasons, be uncomfortable with Christian socialism, given that “Christian” now has so many unsavory historical and contemporary associations—persecution, imperialism, obscurantism, evangelical homophobia. And so I’m not sure that “Christian socialism” is a useful term—I don’t endorse it in my book—and that’s why I prefer the more capacious and messier “left Romanticism.”

The critique I would make of Sanders’s “socialism” is left Romantic: that it’s not socialism and that it falls short of a new civilizational paradigm in which human beings and the rest of nature aren’t reduced to the terms of instrumental rationality. I’m not the first person to point out that what Sanders supports is a “green” social democracy—a large and generous welfare state and more tightly regulated capitalism, with greater attention paid than ever to ecological concerns. I certainly don’t oppose any of that, which is why I’m a Sanders supporter. But as I argued previously, we have to address the more fundamental property relations of capitalism if we’re really going to achieve justice and save the planet from further damage.

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