Capitalism as Religion (Review Essay)Historians in the News
tags: economics, capitalism
One of the few things that socialists and capitalists largely agree on is that the development of capitalism was part of a larger shift in the social and intellectual worlds of Europe, and that this enormous shift was characterized by an increased reliance on human reason and a decrease in religious superstition. This is what the sociologist Max Weber called the “disenchantment” of the world: we no longer view the world as pervaded with divinity or magic, because industrialization and the development of capitalism have stripped these enchantments away. Socialists and capitalists will both, then, be equally surprised to learn from Eugene McCarraher that this story is wildly incorrect, and that we have never lived in a disenchanted world. Rather, the enchantment that supposedly characterized the Middle Ages has persisted uninterrupted into modernity, but has taken different forms, and our capitalist world is alive with tutelary spirits, sacramental rites, and visions of eternal beatitude.
McCarraher, a professor of history at Villanova University, makes this argument in a brick of a book entitled The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. The text itself takes up nearly 700 pages, with a further 106 pages of endnotes, and the pages themselves (though printed in a readable typeface) are dense with information and narrative. It’s the product of nearly twenty years of work, epitomizing the ethos of craftsmanship preached by William Morris, John Ruskin, Dorothy Day, and other figures of Romantic resistance to whom McCarraher introduces his readers. With this architectural attention to structure and prose style, McCarraher’s massive book is no chore at all but a genuine delight to read.
Along with his intellectual-historical argument, McCarraher aims to introduce his readers to another way of looking at social and economic history, one that goes beyond bare material relationships and incorporates the spiritual dimension of our experience. This is not a religious view in the sense of being tied to the dogma of any particular religion, but it’s rooted in McCarraher’s own Roman Catholic background, and the most consistent term that he uses for it is “sacramental.” In Catholic theology, the sacraments are the visible means through which humanity participates in divinity: the words and actions that both signify and dispense God’s grace to the faithful. When a sick person is anointed with oil and particular prayers are said over them, the anointing and the prayers signify God’s grace but also, according to Catholic doctrine, actually make it present. McCarraher’s argument seeks to expose the sacramental logic of capitalism—the ways in which capitalism sets up its own gods and ordains rites for the dispensation of capitalist grace (that is, money). He argues that:
…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. Its animating spirit is money. Its theology, philosophy, and cosmology have been otherwise known as “economics.” Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies—the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design. Its beatific vision of eschatological destiny is the global imperium of capital, a heavenly city of business with incessantly expanding production, trade, and consumption. And its gospel has been that of “Mammonism,” the attribution of ontological power to money and of existential sublimity to its possessors.
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