The Enchantments of Mammon
By Eugene McCarraher
Elknap Harvard, £31.95
Eugene McCarraher detests capitalism. Yet, to his immense credit, and to the great benefit of his book, he keeps polemic and manifesto-making largely at bay until the epilogue of a 700-page exploration subtitled “How capitalism became the religion of modernity”. Then, while twice approvingly quoting Pope Francis, he describes capitalism as “the hell of property, rank and dominion”: something unjust, degrading and ecologically toxic. He also raises his banner in the name of “Romantic, sacramental radicalism” and an American “apostasy from Mammon”. Even further on, lurking in the acknowledgments, comes McCarraher’s admission that one of his most ardent hopes for his book is that it may help to rescue his daughters’ generation and their descendants from “the beguiling tyranny of Mammon”.
For most of The Enchantments of Mammon, though, the mood of disgust hovers relatively lightly over the pages, and does not interfere with McCarraher’s attempt to build a monumental, scholarly but also readable survey of how the champions of capitalism, their acolytes and foot soldiers – over and over, and with conspicuous success – reframed traditional religious longings and beloved communities as goals that could be achieved through the pursuit of profit.
I could stop now and fill the rest of this review with statements, heroically retrieved by McCarraher from three centuries of writings from or about American capitalism, that demonstrate his thesis and which would cause your hair to stand on end. Lovers of capitalism, haters, the undecided: all will be fascinated.
But just as interesting is what McCarraher, an associate professor at the Catholic Villanova University in Pennsylvania, takes as his point of departure. He seems to have identified the break-up and enclosure of the common lands, those tokens and guarantors of the medieval moral economy (however bedraggled and corrupted they may have sometimes been in reality), as the original source of the infection, the ur-moment, the tasting of the apple after which there was no going back. Additionally, with the Reformation, work began to inherit the sacral efficacy formerly ascribed to ritual. The shackles were broken and what would grow into full-blown capitalism could now begin to lengthen its stride, to set its own course, and to find its way across the Atlantic.
From the Puritan settlers onward, McCarraher follows every leap and bound made by the American experiment in “Christian friendship with unrighteous mammon”. He deals with those who drove the experiment; those who tried to disrupt it; and those who tried to disrupt, but then gave up. The original “populist” movement of 1890s America, for example, could not prevent the ideal of the family farm giving way to “every farm a factory”. McCarraher’s accounts of the rise of phenomena such as managerialism and the advertising industry are riveting.
He marshals an enormous parade of geniuses, cranks, visionaries and charlatans. Henry Adams exerts a melancholy pull. Ayn Rand scorches her way across one of the later chapters. Some figures – John Ruskin, particularly, and, in a different way, Gerald Manley Hopkins – emerge as tutelary spirits. From the Catholic tradition, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton also lay claim to significant space in McCarraher’s accounts of the resistance to Mammon.
Alongside the big names are those who are perhaps less well-known. One such is James Agee, author of Let us Now Praise Famous Men, which documented the lives of impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression. Agee was firmly left-wing, but kept a principled distance from the American Left itself, believing there were “dimensions and correlations of cure” for economic injustice which were neither being used nor “scarcely considered or suspected”. One such unsuspected cure, Agee thought, was “the fear and joy of God”.
Or there was Gerald Winstanley, spokesman for the Diggers, who occupied a piece of common land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, tearing down fences and other enclosures: “His materialism was sacramental, his politics were religious, and his communism was redemptive”. In the end, though, Winstanley was to return to the mercantile milieu against which he had originally rebelled.
The dust jacket has Eugene McCarraher looking a bit like The Dude, Jeff Bridges’ engaging slacker hippie from The Big Lebowski, but as if he had been given – ironically enough – a makeover for the cover of Vanity Fair. However, there is nothing cosmetic about McCarraher’s achievement: this is as enthralling a work of intellectual history as you could hope to read.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.