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The Enchantments of Mammon: Metaphysical Subtleties and Theological Niceties, Towards a Theological History of Capitalism

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

By Eugene McCarraher

This is a section from an essay by Eugene McCarraher. The essay, McCarraher, Eugene. “The Enchantments of Mammon: Notes Toward a Theological History of Capitalism.” Modern Theology 21, no. 3 (July 2005): 429-461, was one I read while researching for my thesis paper for my Religious Studies Minor at San Francisco State University for my Religious Studies 696 Directed Readings class. It was very intriguing and I’ve decided to take some of the best aspects of this essay, particularly the section titled “’Metaphysical Subtleties and Theological Niceties’”: Commodity Fetishism and the Marxist Tale of Disenchantment.” I plan to post my finished essay on this blog once I finish it, which will be in about two to three weeks.

The views and opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the creator of this blog and are the sole responsibility of the author. Essays expressing opinions similar to and counter to those of the creator of this blog are strictly for diversity and to start thoughtful and meaningful discussion.

Christians assert that we always live beyond our means, because there is no other way to live. (Here, they must contest both modern economics—capitalist or Marxist—which narrates the agonistic production of abundance, and a Bataillean “general economy” which celebrates plenty in nihilistic violence.) Creation is not just abundant, but sacramental as well. Affirming Augustine’s claim that “the invisible realities of God are apprehended through the material things of his creation”, Graham Ward articulates a “doctrine of divine participation in creation” whereby “the corporeal and the incorporeal do not comprise a dualism”. When read theologically, Ward asserts, the visible, material realm “manifests the watermark of its creator”. It would follow that a proper theological critique of Marxist metaphysics would not be that it is “too materialist” but rather that it is not materialist enough—that is, that it does not provide an adequate account of matter itself, of its sacramental and revelatory character. So if Marxist “demystification” of capitalism purports to uncover the material roots of ideology, a theological “demystification” would expose the perversely sacramental and ecclesial roots of injustice.

Writing the cultural history of capitalism provides an occasion for such an enterprise, affording an opportunity to write a new tale of accumulation and its discontents. In this tale, capitalism becomes a new form of sacrament, a repression, displacement, and renaming of the sacred, a mobilization of desires for redemption and transfiguration. The cash nexus and the fetishism of commodities pervert the performance of sacrament. The “scarcity of resources” and the “laws of the market” conceal the charity of providence. Economic thought and management theory impersonate creed and doxology. The corporation parodies the ecclesia, and the trinkets of the market ape the delights of the heavenly city. The enchantments of capitalism pervert our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world. A fat, greasy, hoarding slob in ancient Babylonian lore, Mammon appears, in capitalist modernity, in a counterfeit angelic raiment.
(pp. 432-433)

Yet the sociologist who claimed that he was “religiously unmusical” heard faint notes of enchantment in capitalist culture. Despite the wounds inflicted by disenchantment, the old deities had not simply hobbled off to die. Observing how “many old gods ascend from their graves” to become the laws of nature or the market, he called upon his fellow modern intellectuals to realize that “we live as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods and demons” (my italics)—“only we”, he concluded cryptically, “live in a different sense”. Some of Weber’s scholarly descendants locate that “different sense” in the self of modern consumer culture. The sociologist Colin Campbell, for instance, traces the descent of consumer consciousness from what he calls “the Other Protestant Ethic”, a concentration on ecstatic inner experience which marked both evangelical and liberal Protestant religious traditions. When separated from the Protestant churches, this Other Protestant Ethic morphed into a “romantic ethic” which, by affirming the primacy of emotion and sensibility, served as the “secular” prelude to consumer consciousness. Consumerism is the contemplative mysticism of commodity culture. The perpetually unsatisfied desire of consumerism is, in this view, the psychological residue of enchantment. If we look at the matter theologically, however, could we say that consumerism is the contemplative mysticism of commodity culture?
(p. 435)

The possibility that capitalist “rationality” bears vestiges of enchantment receives unlikely but auspicious support from none other than the Marxist tradition. As the Communist Manifesto makes very and proudly clear, Marx considered capitalism the most arduous and liberating of modernity’s disillusioning forces. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” The bourgeoisie “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor . . . in the icy water of egotistical calculation”—an image suggesting that capital is consecrated in a murderous baptismal rite of accumulation. Yet while Marx was more exhilarated than Weber by the death of God, he could not, in the end, affirm the secularity of capitalism or reject religion as a source of insight into the capitalist mode of production. If the capitalist is indeed “a sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up with his spells”, then Marx might turn out to be the bearer of an oddly sacramental critique of commodity civilization.

Marx framed his analysis of capitalism in religious terms throughout his career, suggesting that his use of religious language was far more than irony or sarcasm. In the “1844 manuscripts”, Marx reflected on “the divine power of money, its perverse capacity for moral and metaphysical transfiguration. Through its power to conjure an abstract equivalence among distinct and incomparable things, money remade the world in its own empty image and likeness, effecting “the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries”, procuring love for the unpleasant, education for the dull, travel for the indolent or parochial. “Thou visible God!” as he quoted Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Noting later, in the Grundrisse (1857), his massive preliminary study of capitalism, that money was first minted and stored in the temples of antiquity, Marx concluded that it was both “the god among commodities” and “the real community” of capitalist society—a new ontology of enchantment, perhaps? Indeed, Marx considered money “the immanent spirit of commodities”, a restless specter that lingered with material goods only for a while, awaiting release and re-investment in the circuit of accumulation. But Marx quickly defused the possibility of any theological criticism by interpreting both religion and money as epiphenomenal distortions, the effects of a more basic “social” existence misshapen by scarcity, injustice, and alienation. The “fetishistic” character of both religion and money would, Marx thought, be exposed—disenchanted—by historical development and revolutionary practice.

Yet later, in Capital, in one of the most renowned and difficult passages in his work—“the fetishism of commodities, and the secret thereof”—Marx underlined the formal similarities between commodity exchange and religious practice in such a way as to undermine his secular critique of capitalism. The commodity, he wrote, is “a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. These subtleties and niceties take “metaphysical” and “theological” guises, in his view, because modern industry obscures or eclipses the fact that commodities are made by human beings. Since, under conditions of large-scale production and exchange, we see no traces of labor in the things we buy, commodities seem to appear from nowhere, acquire agency, even interact with each other. Thus “the mutual relations of producers” assume the appearance of a “social relation between the products”, both of which are mediated by money. (Note how Marx, against the drift of much high-minded palaver about “consumerism”, locates the roots of commodity fetishism in the relations of production. Talking about consumerism has become a way of not talking about capitalism.) But because, under conditions of alienation, people invest material products with their deepest hopes and fears, they endow—enchant—commodities with hopes of gratification and justice that can really be fulfilled only by a revolutionary transformation of society. So far, so secular; yet Marx then declared that to resolve the enigma of fetishism we must take “recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. Just as “God” stands for the unrealized, projected, and distorted powers of humanity, so, too, do the fetishized products of alienated labor. And just as an enlightened humanity will see a piece of bread instead of a Eucharistic host—a sacramental analogy Marx used earlier in Capital—so a classless world of unestranged producers, recognizing their own creations in the wealth of industrial production, will see the full flourishing of their talents and capacities.

So while Marx the revolutionary pamphleteer heralds the rationalization of economic life as a powerful force for disenchantment, Marx the student of political economy sees commodity fetishism as a reservoir of enchantment…

Other Marxists have taken the analysis of commodity fetishism to an even higher theological level, explicitly linking the concept of reification to sacramentality and eschatology. Thanks to the universalization of the commodity form under late capitalism, reification—along with commodity fetishism, its specifically capitalist form—must, Fredric Jameson asserts, “come into their own [as] the dominant instruments of analysis and struggle”. As the process whereby the products of labor acquire a “phantom subjectivity”, in Georg Lukacs’ words, an abstract quality that disguises their human origin, reification is for Marxists both a necessary condition and the condition from which revolution will emancipate us. Possessing this dialectical character, art, religion, and commodities offer tantalizing glimpses of a utopian, unreified existence, a future heralded in a Marxism which prefigures “a lucid enchantment of the world”—to use Perry Anderson’s startling and cryptic

Rejecting a “secular reason” which participates in a “reified logic of the here and now” and thereby inhibits genuine openness to the unknown, Bewes attempts to chart the analogy, even the homology, between commodity fetishism and sacramental practice. Five pages into Reification (2002)—whose cover features an old nun tending what appears to be a loom of some high-tech sort—Bewes asserts that the Incarnation is a “metaphor or even a synonym for reification: when Christ becomes man—‘historically’ or symbolically in the sacraments of the Holy Communion—the divine is translated into worldly terms”. In the Christian terms of Incarnation and Eucharist, “the moment of reification is pregnant with the moment of liberation from reification”; bread and wine become “physical tokens” of emancipation from the reified world. (Drawing on Flannery O’Connor’s conviction of the “intimacy of creation”, Bewes even suggests that what has been called transubstantiation be renamed intersubstantiation, a word which, in his view, better conveys the quality of a sacrament to reveal the always inherent intermixture of sacred and mundane.) Bewes can then restate, in continuity with classical Marxism, that the end of religion and the end of reification are the same moment. “The disappearance of religion is identical to the realization of its truth, to the manifestation of its objects of devotion, to the erasure of the semiotic disjunction between faith and parousia, an event which religion itself could not survive.”

Every atrium, dress shop, and voluptuous advertisement bore the longing for divinity. Department stores, Benjamin wrote, were “temples consecrated” to “the religious intoxication of cities”, the redemptive fantasies of communion and abundance perverted and mobilized by urban commercial culture. If, in Marxist terms, the dispelling of commodity fetishism is a disenchantment, for Benjamin the exposure of the fetish was a prelude to re-enchantment, a discovery of some vaguely utopian and perhaps divine promise inherent in material life.
(pp. 436-341)

“[C]ommodities seem to appear from nowhere, acquire agency, even interact with each other.” The Rev. Dollar’s (a “Prosperity” theologian who I am critiquing in my paper and who has a mega-church in Atlanta, GA) mistake is that he tells people God show’s his mercies and blessings on those through money and commodities. This is a mistake because Dollar does not seem to know where the commodity is from. Of money, Marx writes“the divine power of money, its perverse capacity for moral and metaphysical transfiguration. Through its power to conjure an abstract equivalence among distinct and incomparable things, money remade the world in its own empty image and likeness, effecting the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries.” Dollar worships the god of money, Mammon, without even knowing it, he turns his “flock” away from the true God (the “true God” in what they believe, that is, the Christian God, they are turning away from a God they profess to believe in) and towards the mystical and man-made elements of money, money and commodities which are endowed with the characteristics of a god, the worship of money and commodities is the worship of a false god. One understanding of the 1st commandment is that in ancient Israel gods were considered everywhere, there was a god for commerce, money, and materials, thus the 1st commandment was as much a critique of commodity fetishism and the worship of money and commodities as it was a critique of not worshiping Yhwh (cf. Miller, Patrick D. The God You Have: Politics and the First Commandment. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004., This is a great little book on further study for the 1st commandment and its present day abuses in American society).

…in Life Against Death, [Normon O.] Brown produced what is perhaps the most searching psychoanalytical critique of capitalism ever written, connecting the psychoanalysis of money to an exploration of religious concerns. Noting how the standard psychoanalytic appraisal of money was “anchored in the domain of the secular”, Brown concluded, after a survey of historical and anthropological literature, that money actually derived its power from “the magical, mystical, religious . . . the domain of the sacred”. Besides, he continued, the “flat antinomy” of sacred and secular was misleading in any case. “Secularization”, he asserted, “is only a metamorphosis of the sacred”—an observation made in the course of criticizing the “illusion that modern money is secular”. The secular, Brown contended, is “the negation of the sacred”—negation, that is, in Freud’s and Hegel’s terms, in which the act of negation is in fact an affirmation of its opposite. If the secular is indeed this affirmative negation of the sacred, then “the psychological realities of money”, Brown asserted, were “best grasped in terms of theology”. In Brown’s reading, neither capitalism nor secularism had disenchanted the world. In a chapter entitled “Filthy Lucre” that examined the scatological fixations of Martin Luther, Brown affirmed the reformer’s insight that, with capitalism, “power over this world has passed from God to God’s ape, the Devil”. Like Luther, Brown saw in money “the essence of the secular, and therefore of the demonic”. The “money complex”—what Marx, recall, had considered the animating spirit of commodity fetishism—is, in Brown’s words, “the heir to and substitute for the religious complex, an attempt to find God in things”. Capitalism, we might add, was a new form of enchantment.
(pp. 442-443)

If capitalism works like a religion, then we can study and critique it as a religion, a form of enchantment, an ensemble of rituals, symbols, moral codes, and iconography. Yet it is on precisely this score that radical orthodoxy needs revision in order to realize its enormous promise as a reservoir of critical power. Because Milbank and his comrades define modern secularity as the creation of a space of untrammeled human will-to-power, they obscure or even miss the full significance of their own discernment of religious residue in capitalist theory and practice. Milbank, for instance, emphasizes the persistence of providential notions in classical conceptions of the market (the “invisible hand”) and notes the transvaluation of Christian virtue into the skinflint and specious probities of sobriety, punctuality, and self-restraint. D. Stephen Long—whose Divine Economy (2000) is a remarkable fusion of historical theology and intellectual history—rightly asserts that Adam Smith “articulated a metaphysical-moral vision for capitalist economics”, and examines how contemporary Christian intellectuals such as Michael Novak and Max Stackhouse have tried to align the verities of economics with those of theology. But neither Long nor Milbank appears to consider the perdurance of this perverse sacrality a reason to abandon or revise what Jeffrey Stout has called “the secularist theory of secularization” that structures their accounts of capitalism and political economy.
(p. 449)

The author goes on to state in footnote 42 about Michael Novak, a conservative theologian who writes on economy whom I’m also critiquing in my thesis paper:

Michael Novak’s theological economics, it must be noted, is the most forthright and outrageous of all these efforts. The corporation, he writes, is “the best secular analogue to the church”, indeed a “Suffering Servant” representing “a much despised incarnation of God’s presence in the world”.
(p. 460, n. 42)

…Even more provocatively, Cavanaugh argues that the modern nation-state is a “simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ” with “an alternative soteriology to that of the Church”. “It is not enough”, he contends in a highly suggestive but undeveloped passage, “to see what is called ‘secularization’ as the progressive stripping away of the sacred from some profane remainder”. Modern nationalism is “the substitution of one mythos of salvation for another”—“extra respublicam nulla salus”, as he wittily encapsulates it—and this nationalist mythos has succeeded “because it mimics its predecessor”. In other words, there is a sacrality inherent in secularity, and the state is, in short, a perverse form of religio. But if, as Cavanaugh notes, “the power of the state grew in concert with the rise of capitalism”, might not the history of the latter be a similar story of mythic mimicry and substitution? Might not capitalism appropriate “the capital of what it denies” and reinvest it in the liturgy of accumulation?

…A theological critique of “disenchantment” could then avoid the tiresome and flat-footed opposition of secular and sacred, and enable us to suggest that while moderns claim to disenchant and de-sacramentalize matter, they “fetishize” goods by shifting faith in divine power to the transformative properties of commodities. Likewise, the love of accumulation is a corrupted love of God, a private and spoiled Eucharistic banquet. And as the site of poesis deformed into productivity, the corporation is a grotesque of liturgical labor.

Guided by some of the ideas I have sketched, I have become convinced that American cultural history abounds with evidence that enchantment or sacramentality has persisted throughout the evolution of capitalism. Even before the advent of corporate capitalism in the late nineteenth-century, American economic culture had featured an ongoing tension between a Cartesian-Calvinist worldview that disenchanted material life and a more fluid, enchanted sensibility that bore Campbell’s “other Protestant ethic”…
(p. 450)

…Over the course of the twentieth-century, an array of writers in the reform, academic, and corporate intelligentsia—from Progressives to advertising moguls, from pragmatist philosophers at Harvard to business journalists at Fortune—attributed moral and sacral significance to the capitalist corporation and its commodity culture. Josiah Royce, for instance, considered the corporation a prefigurement of the “Beloved Community” he augured as the modern solution to The Problem of Christianity (1913). In War and Insurance (1914), Royce marveled at the corporation’s fusion of mortal material assets with an identity, legally conferred but nonetheless forceful, which constituted an immortal selfhood, an “essentially intangible soul”. Herbert Croly, one of the founders of the New Republic, identified Progressive Democracy (1914) with the “holy city”, built with the hands of corporate workers. Modern sanctity, he believed, depended on the “fund of virtue” or “spiritual heritage” invested by a modern clerisy of “learned or holy men”—especially the “democratic administrators” and “scientific managers” who possessed the discursive capital of social science.

Corporate intellectuals closer to the daily activities of business shared these enchanted and expansive hopes. Eager to counter charges that corporate business was a soulless and avaricious leviathan, members of the business community increasingly argued that corporate labor, when properly managed, bore a religious import. J. George Frederick, managing editor of Printer’s Ink (then the advertising industry’s leading trade magazine) called upon corporate leaders to spread “the ideality of the human spirit” throughout “our vast mechanism of production”. Bruce Barton, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) advertising man of the twentieth-century, came even closer to articulating an ecclesial, liturgical conception of the corporation. In his best-selling The Man Nobody Knows (1925), Barton (son of a Congregationalist minister) asserted that Jesus “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world”. Easily derided as a mite of kitsch, Barton’s remark should be noted for its implicit identification of the church with the corporation. Moreover, Barton explicitly anointed corporate work in language which, if placed in a very different political and discursive context, would have merited the applause of Weil or Gill. “All work is worship; all useful service prayer”, are the words with which he concluded his book. “Whoever works wholeheartedly at any worthy calling is a co-worker with the Almighty in the great enterprise which He has initiated.” Yet if Barton the liberal Protestant still retained some sense that the church and the corporation were indeed distinct communities, other corporate ideologues presaged a form of corporate cultural hegemony less tightly bound to Christian religiosity. Declaring in Business the Civilizer (1928) that Americans were already living in a “business millennium”, the advertising executive Earnest Elmo Calkins argued that corporate business was both the most auspicious modern venue for romantic adventure—“our Field of the Cloth of Gold”, he rhapsodized, where men could earn “the glory [once] given to the crusader, the solider, the courtier, the explorer, the martyr”—and the site of moral and sacral authority. “That eternal job of administering this planet must be turned over to the business man”, Calkins wrote. “The work that religion and government have failed in must be done by business.”
(pp. 452-453)

…As any student of contemporary business culture knows, and as any casual observer of ubiquitous advertising can see, our corporate-manufactured symbolic universe is bathed in the luminosity of the sublime. In this respect (as in many others) they resemble and arguably merge with figures in what has come to be called “New Age” religious culture. Indeed, writers as diverse as Slavoj Zizek and Paul Heelas have noted the harmonic convergence of New Age “spirituality” with the accumulative and cultural dynamics of global capitalism, a fusion that releases an abundance of spiritual treasure for investment in corporate hegemony. As Naomi Klein observed in No Logo (1999), “the corporate world has always had a deep New Age streak”, with branding as the most advanced form of “corporate transcendence”. (Might brands be best considered in Durkheimian fashion as the latest version of totems, objects that bear the spirit of a clan?)
(p. 454)

While the silicon chip plays a eucharistic role in Gilder’s cyber-theology, the greatest irony of Gilder’s digitalized enchantment lies in its ultimately gnostic repudiation of matter itself. Wealth becomes curiously immaterial in Gilder’s world, wherein the “metaphysical capital of ideas” constitutes “the true substance of economic growth”. Gilder’s incessant references to “mind”,
“idea”, and “consciousness” disclose the growing immateriality of life in late capitalism, a development celebrated by none other than Michael Novak when he announces that in democratic capitalism “materialism” is “more and more left behind”. The investment of hope in money and commodities—in the sacraments and graces of capitalism—fuels a gnostic rage to accumulate and to disembody in pursuit of what Marx rightly called “the immanent spirit of commodities”.

While I doubt that the “distributism” of G. K. Chesterton possesses much in the way of useful analysis or practical politics, his “meditation in Broadway”, penned in the wake of his visit to the United States shortly after World War I, still speaks to our ambivalent delight in the enchanted capitalist paradise…

Yet because he embraced and refused to despise this beguiling mortal splendor, Chesterton ended his meditation with “a rather dark sympathy with those many-coloured solar systems turning so dizzily, far up in the divine vacuum of the night”. Just as Chesterton knew that the ads in the
skies were the tokens of a counterfeit paradise, we must see, in the history of capitalism, a celestial aspiration, and in the hunger for riches, a sacramental longing. Even in the fretful dreamlands of late capitalism, the world remains, as Gerard Manley Hopkins knew, charged with the grandeur of God, even as “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”. Any renewal of political hope must rest in the sacraments of the triune God, in what Hopkins, the poet of sacrament, called “the dearest freshness deep down things”.
(p. 455-456)

One Comment
  1. Roy F. Moore permalink
    Monday, November 27, 2006 12:43 am

    Dear Mr. Stevens,

    This is Roy F. Moore, one of the contributors to the news and opinion weblog “The Distributist Review”.

    I must respectfully disagree with your view that Chesterton’s Distributist analysis is not “effective”. We who hold to and promote Distributism believe that what he, Belloc and their legitimate successors criticized is still on the money.

    I invite you and those interested to visit our weblog at:

    Thank you for your time.

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