The Church of Money-Grubbing Toil

The Enchantment of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity; by Eugene McCarraher; Belknap Press; 816 pp., $39.95


When the German thinker Max Weber visited the United States in 1904, he was intrigued by the marked tendency of Americans to think about economic activity against a backdrop of religious morality. He tells of an encounter with a salesman of iron letters for tombstones, who related his understanding of the importance of religious faith in economic life in plain terms: “[I]f I saw a farmer or a businessman not belonging to any church at all, I wouldn’t trust him with fifty cents. Why pay me, if he doesn’t believe in anything?”

The American examples seemed all the more exotic and worthy of investigation to Weber given his conviction that disenchantment—the gradual but inevitable disappearance of religious mystery—was “the fate of our times,” with capitalist economic activity and the material prosperity accompanying it as one of the main drivers of disenchantment.

Eugene McCarraher enters, here, into the same rich topical area, and he even explicitly announces his intention to challenge Weber on disenchantment. In American history, he claims, we see voluminous evidence of a widespread veneration of capitalism that constitutes a species of religion, or rather a pervasive, influential “perversion” of religion, in which material wealth has become God and a strong work ethic is the ritual way toward the sacred.

The heft of this more than 800-page book notwithstanding, McCarraher’s case is not particularly strong. Puritanism is perhaps the strongest example he gives of a religious worldview that put capitalist economic activity into an important place in its conception of salvation. 

McCarraher misrepresents the Puritan perspective on this topic, however. Somehow, the tortured, existentially uncertain aspect of Puritan psychology is overlooked entirely in his account. Puritanism’s Calvinist theological base held that the elect or damned status of every soul was predestined and could not be altered by earthly conduct. But the crushing anxiety this produced was too much to bear for all but the rarest of human individuals, thrown as they were into radical inner loneliness, unprotected by any church hierarchy or ritual, where the most profound matter in life and afterlife had been settled before birth.

Calvinism, therefore, invented a means for making this anxiety over one’s eternal fate more manageable. An “inner-worldly asceticism” gave the Puritan some comfort, Weber wrote. The Puritan could convince himself of his place among those chosen to enter Heaven through systematic dedication to labor that glorified God, by contributing to the order of the world that God made. Though certain proof of one’s status was unavailable, one could nonetheless assuage the intolerable tension of total ignorance of one’s fate by acting in a way consonant with the actions of the elect. In a desperate situation, one settles for what one can get.

The accounts of Puritan founders, including the most powerful and prosperous, on their death beds, tortured by the agony of not knowing their posthumous fate, demonstrate the limited efficacy of such measures. David Stannard’s The Puritan Way of Death (1977) is brimming with vivid examples. For the Puritan, the best, though still not foolproof, way of knowing one was saved was through the very anxiety provoked by uncertainty about one’s fate. Conversely, the most powerful evidence someone was doomed to damnation was his conviction that he was not. A predicament, to say the least.

Whatever one thinks of it, this could hardly be more distant from McCarraher’s depiction of so-called Puritan capitalism as “a form of enchantment.” Material profit was but a desperate attempt to produce evidence of a fervently desired thing entirely beyond their control. The Puritan believed in total human depravity, and capitalist economic productivity did not redeem it, though it potentially made the terror of death bearable.

McCarraher asserts a Puritan “friendship with Mammon,” but the evidence mustered for this thesis consists essentially of the Puritan idea that God had sent them to the New World to occupy its territory and make it conform to the divine plan for worldly order. If brutal treatment of indigenous people and occupation of their land is sufficient proof of a religion of capitalism, then the charge must also be leveled at the native groups who did the same to their fellow natives in their internecine squabbles.

The book passes over the essential fact of the Puritan’s incandescent conviction that the apocalypse was at hand, and the way this infused every aspect of their thinking and worldly actions. What enchanted status can money possibly have when you believe in your bones that the world will soon end, and Christ’s reign begin? It has now become de rigueur on the academic left to see the displacement of indigenous peoples as this country’s original sin, but to reduce the Puritan religious worldview to its insufficient adherence to the contemporary “woke” attitude on multiculturalism is hardly a convincing argument.

The Puritans were complex, even contradictory. They were mystics and pragmatists, individualists of a profoundly collectivist bent, each believer required to find his own way to a common truth that bound him to God and community, working assiduously to accumulate wealth he was spiritually inspired to avoid displaying, and terrified almost beyond belief of demons and of his own encounter with death. But they were certainly not crude and satiated worshippers of capitalism as the answer to the mortal dilemma of man.

Once we get beyond the Puritans, the examples given of capitalism cultists are with some frequency explicitly irreligious. Significant molding is necessary to get them into the shape required by McCarraher’s thesis. When virtually everyone is celebrating the religion of capitalism—even those who could not be clearer about their disdain for religious thinking— we might well wonder if anyone really is. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, key architects of contemporary irreligious-right libertarianism, are also enchanted by Mammon. So is Ayn Rand, in all her ferocious and outspoken atheism.

In the book’s epilogue, McCarraher gives us a pantheon of his own anti-capitalist saints in a paean to “an imaginative and political antithesis to capitalist enchantment.” This pantheon “resides in the lineage of Romantic, sacramental radicalism.” From the Levelers of the English Civil War to Dorothy Day and the New Left of the 1960s—especially countercultural gurus such as Norman O. Brown—all the way to the radical anti-work anarchists of the Occupy movement, McCarraher writes that there is a vigorous countertradition that can show us that “we already live in paradise” and it “is both abundant and holy.” 

If we will only “extend a friendly hand to one another” then will “love’s radiant, unarmed, and penniless dominion” roll over the American landscape. Whatever hard work that might still need to be done can be managed by the “artists, poets, and artisans” of this utopian community. In sum: Work is no fun and even detrimental to the state of our souls. If we will just reject it in the right mystical spirit, happiness and plenty await us.

One hardly knows what to do with such stuff. Conveniently, nearly all of the book’s many pages are taken up describing the religious capitalists and so no space is left for defending this fantastically fatuous worldview.

A conservative reader will also note that McCarraher briefly mentions a few important thinkers on the right, and he reserves for them his most venomous prose. The Southern Agrarians along with Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver are contemptuously dismissed as hateful advocates of a “Herrenvolk social order.” That they shared his critical attitude to modern, industrial capitalism is passed over entirely by the author. Early modern European conservatism was at least as suspicious of the unmoderated capitalist society as were the leftist Romantics. The typical conservative critique of capitalism has wanted to properly confine it, not to dismantle it. Conservatives want to ensure that the culture operates according to moral principles not reducible to those of the market, while recognizing that capitalism is more suited to human nature and more effective for the goal of broader prosperity than state socialism. Denunciations of the excesses of capital are appropriate. Calls to replace it that consist entirely of neo-hippie clichés and economically ignorant, mystic literary musings are another thing altogether.

After announcing his opposition to Weber in the book’s opening pages, McCarraher must eventually engage him. But he does so only in a fleeting way, and there is no doubt that Weber’s thesis is closer to the truth. The capitalist spirit as Weber described it is nearly dead—very few today labor in a calling. The capitalism of our time is disenchanted and thoroughly materialist. Those of us still laboring, in Weber’s analysis, inhabit an iron cage devoid of any meaning beyond pure accumulation for its own sake.

Many have escaped the iron cage of labor altogether. Young radicals align with utopian socialist and communist politics in increasing numbers, rejecting the very notion of hard work contributing to a meaningful life. McCarraher’s book was published too early for commentary on the present Black Lives Matter protests and riots, but it is hard to imagine that our author would not see them as part of a Romantic opposition to the “money-grubbing toil” of the capitalist spirit.

With all its contradictions and difficulties, the Puritan ascetic “labor in a calling,” impossible though it may be to regain now, was infinitely more serious and spiritually defensible than the self-evidently mindless, narcissistic, and sociopathic attacks on the products of labor and those who produce them currently being undertaken by the anarchist mobs running the America’s streets.

Alexander Riley

Alexander Riley is a professor of sociology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

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I don't think McCarraher understands religion or religious people at all. The Puritans came out of the Reformation. A better understanding of their thinking can be read about here. https://thecrosssectionrmb.blogspot.com/2020/10/how-should-we-then-live-chapter-4.html https://thecrosssectionrmb.blogspot.com/2020/11/how-should-we-then-live-chapter-5.html