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The Enchantments of Mammon, by Eugene McCarraher

08 May 2020

Donald Sassoon is not fully persuaded that capitalism is a religion

CAPITALISM could be described as a rational system for irrational people. The system provides for production and consumption according to a set of market “laws”. Unfortunately, people do not follow these laws, but their own (irrational) values. Eugene McCarraher, however, cleverly argues that capitalism, too, has values. The problem is that they are the wrong ones.

He accepts, of course, that under capitalism there has been progress. We have stuff that we did not have before: cars, central heating, and, more recently, computers and iPads, and even Facebook “friends”. Many argue that in this world of consumption we have lost our soul. But McCarraher explains that capitalism has its own “enchantment” (a word that he uses a little too often), but it is “the enchantment of Mammon”.

To analyse this magic, the author provides us with a beguiling 800-page tour de force in which not only well-known theorists (Marx, Weber, etc.) are analysed, but a host of less well-known figures: poets, artists, sociologists, theologians, advertisers, business gurus (the religious term is appropriate), philosophers, and entrepreneurs — many rescued from the “condescension of posterity”, to use E. P. Thompson’s famous expression.

This sweeping history starts from a time (early capitalism) when the system was dominated by iron-willed entrepreneurs, resembling Thomas Jefferson’s idealised yeoman republic of small, patriarchal producers devoted to church and family, and concludes with the one that we are familiar with: the empire of large corporations.

Throughout this period, the ideologues of capitalism want us to feel good about shopping and spending. They are like priests in the temple of Consumption and try to attribute to the stuff that they sell and the system of production which accompanies it some of the magic and values of the old pre-industrial society. The Enchantments of Mammon takes issue with those who have claimed that modern society — that is to say, the society created by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and industrial capitalism — “evicted” the Spiritual, the Enchantment. The author claims, with considerable evidence, that capitalism, too, is a form of worship, that it is a religion of modernity, and that it “addresses the same hopes and anxieties formerly entrusted to traditional religion”.

Going through McCarraher’s scintillating book, I was reminded of the famous 1971 Coca-Cola advert depicting a crowd of smiling young people from diverse backgrounds intoning “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” as if it were some kind of church choir holding Coca-Cola instead of holy water. Or the advert for Hovis made by Ridley Scott (before becoming the celebrated director of Gladiator, Alien, and Thelma and Louise), in which a boy pushes a bike laden with loaves of bread up the old cobbled street of a northern town to the tune of Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony. The advert harks back to a bucolic past when bread was what we think of as real bread, not the stuff made by the FT-listed Hovis-McDougall Company.

However enjoyable the book, obviously the fruit of much labour, it has its limitation. It is almost exclusively about the United States. Europe is there only as Britain, and only as the precondition for American capitalist development. Moreover, the enchantment that he deals with is mainly a Protestant one. There is hardly a mention of the Catholic view of capitalism. Pope Leo XIII’s important Rerum Novarum gets only a mention. Japan (and Buddha, Shinto etc.) is quite absent as is Islam. There is more on the Mormons, who transformed their obsession with gold into an American religion, than on Calvin.

Besides, I am not sure that the case for capitalism as a religion is made. What we face is a religious defence of capitalism. Such defence is necessary when one thinks that so much of literature depicts capitalists (and the pursuit of money) in pejorative terms.

To those mentioned by McCarraher, we could add the numerous men of wealth vilified in 19th-century novels from the Baron Nucingen (an obvious allusion to Rothschild) in Balzac’s La Maison Nucingen (1838), to Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), Augustus Melmotte in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), Aristide Saccard in Zola’s L’Argent (1890), and John Gabriel Borkman in Ibsen’s eponymous play (1896).

Thomas Carlyle, in his “The Signs of the Times”, lamented that “The truth is men have lost their belief in the Invisible. . . This is not a Religious age. Only the material, the immediately practical, not the divine and spiritual, is important to us.”

Worshipping money is, after all, a metaphor. No one really worships money in the way some worship Jesus or Allah. Many like to spend it or to accumulate it, and, if they feel a little guilty or if they want to feel good, they will give to charity, thus “buying” their place in heaven.

Donald Sassoon is Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History at Queen Mary University of London.


The Enchantments of Mammon: How capitalism became the religion of modernity
Eugene McCarraher
Harvard University Press £31.95
Church Times Bookshop £28.80

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