Good things come to those who wait. For some of the respondents in this symposium they have been waiting for Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity since 2005 when McCarraher first published an article by the same title. For the rest of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us into an uneasy season of waiting—waiting for a vaccine, waiting for the ease of travel, waiting to embrace faraway loved ones, waiting to worship next to our fellow congregants again. A few weeks ago, as my partner walked through her empty church congregation, she saw a Lenten banner proclaiming, “How long, O God, how long?” She later said, “I feel like this has been one long season of Lent.” As I write this introduction, Advent is coming, but I am already too familiar with the depths of anticipating a new world. Many of us actively anticipate a new world free of the entrapments of neoliberal austerity politics and would-be strongmen who use the government’s military to violently suppress protesters proclaiming the value of Black life. As we anticipate liberation, McCarraher’s book can help us realize how deeply fallen our world is—how deeply misenchanted it is by the religion of capitalism and its pecuniary logic.
McCarraher offers a forgotten tradition of imaginary power to encourage our waiting. “The earth,” McCarraher writes, “is a sacramental place, mediating the power and presence of God, revelatory of the superabundant love of divinity” (11). Contrary to popular academic discourse today, our modern world is not disenchanted and religion has not retreated from the scene. Instead, we are living amidst one of the most successful religious transformations our world has ever seen: Capitalism did not disenchant the world, but misenchanted it. McCarraher’s intellectual history of this phenomenon is awe-inspiring in breadth: covering topics and eras like the Diggers, Puritanism, American democratic thinkers like Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Socialist, leftist, and labor movements, Fordism and corporate management literature. In page after page, McCarraher traces out exactly how Capitalism is the dominant religion today and where we might draw resources to imagine resistance.
Imagination is a crucial form of vision for McCarraher, for the tradition that he believes offers the strongest and best counter to the religion of capitalism is the Romantic tradition, or more precisely, as Nicholas Hayes-Mota rightly points out, left Romanticism. Left Romanticism fostered a sacramental imagination that is a “mode of realism, an insight into the nature of reality that was irreducible to, but not contradictory of, the knowledge provided by scientific investigation” (16). Only a sacramental imagination and its “theology of wonder” can offer an ontology and theology strong enough to defeat capitalism’s misenchantment (21).
The participants in this symposium consider the political, economic, theological, and cultural significance of McCarraher’s monumental and important work. McCarraher is a historian and so the book itself is admittedly slim on “good” theology as William Cavanaugh writes (it is certainly full of “bad” theology). Hayes-Mota freely admits that his own experience in the Occupy and New Economy Movements perhaps makes him one of the readers McCarraher had in mind when writing this book, but is not convinced that left Romanticism is a politically viable avenue to the kind of socialism McCarraher envisions. Tracy Fessenden calculates that Enchantments would take the better part of a work week to read through. It is a work of the academy, and largely for the academy, and so is a complicated work bearing the characteristics of its current formation. Yet, as McCarraher reminds us, the sacramental imagination of the left Romantic tradition may have something to offer its readers—perhaps books do still change reader’s lives and the brutality of capitalism has not deprived us of that fact. Fessenden’s response to Enchantments is especially powerful, in my mind, as her insights point out how even in as complete a work like this, new models of inspiration and imagination can be left out, as Fessenden lifts forgotten feminist figures in McCarraher’s own tradition. Philip Goodchild, who finds himself broadly in agreement with McCarraher, critically examines the frame of enchantment for analyzing capitalism. Ken Surin considers how McCarraher’s thesis might apply to forms of capitalism outside the Western world.
I began this introduction with a brief reflection on the season of waiting in which we find ourselves and I claimed that Enchantments can unveil the deep religious roots of capitalism’s misenchantment in our world. I will end this introduction on my own critical engagement with the work. McCarraher’s account—as thorough as it is—is largely silent on the tradition of Black radicalism and racial capitalism, that has long recognized, as Ida B. Wells wrote, “The White man’s dollar is his God.” McCarraher rightly recognizes how US American capitalism would not be what it is without the brutality of chattel slavery and that the religion of slaves carried its own incisive critique of white slaveholding capitalism: “As most renowned slave rebellions demonstrated, the enchanted world of antebellum African-Americans could reveal moral and metaphysical evil with incisive and terrifying vividness” (172). And later in reflecting on the theological significance of slave rebellions and the writings of Nat Turner, “The sacramental theology of the slaves—inhabitants of an enchanted world bereft of any secular, immanent frame—bore the keenest critique of the enchantment of Mammon before the Civil war” (175). But these lines aside, my question can be put forcefully as follows: Can one purport to give a complete history of the religion of Capitalism in our modern world without examining how that religion itself is racialized and deployed to the benefit of economic and political structures that presume to define what is normal—capitalist heteropatriarchal white supremacy?
A deeper engagement with the Black radical tradition would require, as Goodchild points out in his response, that we get a bit more precise of a handle on what we mean by “religion” itself and how it operates. McCarraher’s left Romanticism, as Hayes-Mota suggests, may be ill-equipped to effect the political change he seeks to lift up. The Occupy Movement and the Bernie Sanders campaign are provided as examples, but we should also remember that the Movement for Black Lives policy platform has one of the most radical economic platforms articulated in recent years.
McCarraher has given us a gift of high importance and the simplicity of his thesis does not diminish his brilliance: the world was never disenchanted but rather misenchanted by the religion of capitalism. The book needs to be read by all who study and consider the political, cultural, theological, and economic significance of capitalism in the modern Western world. He has inspired our imagination with visions of a world free of capitalism’s allure and filled with a Romantic sacramentalism. The hard work of building such a world lies to all of us, and we are better equipped for it by McCarraher’s labor.