A World We Do Not Want
Capitalism is a love story that will break your heart
James Chappel reviews Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, characterizing our relationship with capitalism as a bad romance [emphasis mine]:
At its heart, it is a moral critique of capitalism. McCarraher wants us to see that we are living in a system that, in failing to answer our most human needs, is literally inhumane. But this is not a book that asks us to slow down, smell the roses, and so on. That kind of ethical injunction is as tired as it is futile-and it is also, McCarraher thinks, an intellectually bankrupt analysis of the modern condition, told by theorists such as the sociologist Max Weber and the philosopher Charles Taylor, but also in popular culture. Once upon a time, this story goes, we inhabited an enchanted universe, in which we understood our place in the cosmos. Life in the past may have been hard, but at least it made sense. The transition to modernity, though, came with a cost: our lives might be materially better, but they have been drained of meaning. We are, in a word, “disenchanted.” We are tasked, then, with crafting meaning for ourselves-whether by finding meaningful work, falling in love, or doing yoga.
Capitalism twists our God-given love for neighbor and world into a force of estrangement, and it transforms our God-given desire to work into forms of exploitation.
McCarraher contends that this whole story is disastrously misguided; it keeps us from seeing how capitalism functions, and why it continues to exert so much appeal. Disenchantment, he argues, never happened. Our world is still soaked with meaning, just as it was in the Middle Ages. We are not abandoned to a universe of moral relativism and nihilism, because capitalism and its prophets have offered an astonishingly stable set of alternatives. “Capitalism,” McCarraher insists, “is a love story.” What he means is that the market translates the poetry of our desire into the prose of institutions and exchange. (And isn’t this the structure of any love story, or at least those ending in marriage?) Our world, in other words, is just as “enchanted” as the one of our medieval forebears: the human frame is such that it could not survive otherwise. Capitalism offers us community, faith, ritual, nature worship, and everything else that we imagine in the enchanted worldview of the past.
The trouble is that it is black magic. It twists our God-given love for neighbor and world into a force of estrangement, and it transforms our God-given desire to work into forms of exploitation. The problem with capitalism isn’t that it lacks values, but that it values the wrong things. If McCarraher is right, the salvation we seek will not come through technological breakthroughs or even the creation of new political coalitions. The first order of business, he thinks, is to learn how to love again, and to love better.
And the love story?
Capitalism is a love story, then-but the kind that, whether you notice or not, will break your heart. These forms of enchantment lead to misery, and to McCarraher they are alien to the true needs of the human soul. “Consumer culture,” as he puts it, “is a counterfeit beatific vision.” Like the bad lover it is, it will twist the inherent nobility of our sentiments in directions we never desired. However good we might feel about individual consumption decisions, and however much “magic” they might bring our way, in the aggregate they are creating the dismal and collapsing world that we call home. Disney the dreamweaver was also, once the animators’ union took to the picket lines in 1941, Disney the strikebreaker.
Some other fragments:
The only way to rekindle the virtue of craft and intimate community is to assault capitalism at its root, in league with anarchists and aesthetic radicals.
Capitalism has created a world that we do not want. Despite our ideological divides over how to attain them, our desires are, for the most part, simple and widely shared. We want meaningful work, restorative leisure, and a loving circle of family and friends; we want others to have those things, too, and we want a world that can sustain this very human kind of life.
In the whirl of events, we can lose sight of our most basic desires, and how widely they are shared. An affirmation of “what unites us” or “what is human in us” often leads to bland centrism. It shouldn’t. We are living through what McCarraher calls “the twilight of a senescent empire.” And as the shadows lengthen, status quo politics cannot even promise the maintenance of the contemporary order: they will hasten the doom of the species. And this, it seems to me, is the true novelty of our moment. To meet our most banal and human needs, only the most extraordinary and utopian politics will do.
Chappel has done us a great service in this review since few will brave reading the 900-page work. And Chappel’s recapitulation of McCarraher’s arguments in soaring prose has its own romantic charms. But the deeper story can be reduced to one line:
Capitalism has created a world that we do not want.
Originally published at https://stoweboyd.com.