Of Gods & Bosses Has Capitalism Become a Religion?

RELIGIOUS FEELING has always been a catalyst for both extreme resistance and extreme acquiescence to power. As Frederick Douglass wrote in his 1845 memoir, “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other…Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand-in-hand together.” Likewise, Paul’s instruction for a slave to obey his master was in the sermons of many antebellum pastors, white and black alike. Yet abolitionism was a Christian (specifically Calvinist) movement; God in their mind sorted the world into damned and saved, not master and slave. And when Nat Turner was asked at his trial if, having been caught (and surely to be executed) he regretted his slave revolt, he responded, “Was not Christ crucified?”

The same goes for other systems of power. Capitalism, imperialism, feudalism—their greatest defenders and fiercest enemies have believed they were following divine judgment. Peasants rebelled against their lords because Jesus taught them that all people were equal; lords murdered those peasants because God taught them through example just how ruthlessly subordination must be handled. Socialist Eugene Debs called Jesus the “master proletarian revolutionist.” Advertising executive Bruce Fairchild Barton called him “the founder of modern business.”

Nonbelievers shrug off this religious polarity, assuming the impulse to resist or acquiesce must just be deeper, more fundamental to a person’s character than their religious conviction; the invocation of religion is seen as rhetorical, psychological, or, in some incomprehensible way, both. Perhaps this is true for some (or even most). No thinking person, for example, seriously believes the Falwell family cares about saving souls. But Nat Turner didn’t invoke Christ to appeal to his master’s religiosity; he swung his hatchet with the same righteousness as his master swung his whip.

To say that Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (due for release in November by Harvard University Press) is about the interplay of religion and power would be like saying Das Kapital was about working conditions in Victorian England or that Moby Dick was about a whale-hunting expedition gone wrong. Such descriptions provide the context for those stories, but they don’t tell you anything about what those stories mean.

At one point McCarraher describes Enchantments of Mammon as “the history of capitalism in America.” More accurately it could be called “the story we’ve told ourselves about the history of capitalism in America,” but it’s even more than that. It’s a colossal attempt to rewrite intellectual history, arguing against the prevailing wisdom that the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution “de-enchanted” the world—material forces having replaced religious spirits as the world’s primary movers—and that nineteenth-century Romanticism was a failed effort by poets and skilled workers (artisans) to “re-enchant” it. This prevailing wisdom was best put by historian Peter Gay in his 1995 book, The Naked Heart:

Leading romantics saw it as their historic mission to re-enchant the world. They felt an urgent need to restore the sense of wonder and mystery that eighteenth-century deists, skeptics, and atheists…had attempted to erase with their bloodless scientism, impious insults, and shallow witticisms.

McCarraher says this is wrong: the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution didn’t disenchant the world but rather, in his words, “re-negotiated the terms of enchantment” to capitalism.

McCarraher doesn’t just aim to disprove the prevailing wisdom in this massive 800-page book; he tries to replace it with a truer and more humane story, in which he pits those who could be called the children of Prometheus against those who could be called the children of John Ruskin (the most prominent art and social critic of Victorian England).

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution didn’t disenchant the world but rather, in McCarraher’s words,“re-negotiated the terms of enchantment” to capitalism.

The children of Prometheus are politically diverse; they’re anyone who believes that mass production and technological progress will set humanity free, such as John D. Rockefeller, Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, and Eugene Debs. (Many of the left’s sacred cows—Marx, Debs, Engels, Lenin, Emma Goldman, F.D.R. etc.—are put on a convex stone for sacrifice in Enchantments of Mammon; some of them, I think, unjustly.) The children of Ruskin, on the other hand, are those who believe that bigness and progress aren’t leading us to freedom but rather to further enslavement. They instead call for a scaling down of things: small businesses and farms, environmental stewardship, more worker control, and judging labor by the kind of people, rather than the amount of things, it makes. McCarraher calls this outlook “sacramental Romanticism.” Its ideological lineage is the British socialist tradition of Ruskin, William Morris, and R.H. Tawney.

Enchantments of Mammon is one of the most impressive books I’ve ever read (which isn’t the same as saying one of the best). The depth and range of McCarraher’s scholarship are incredible. He seems to have read everything—from the journals of Jonathan Edwards to 1920s business books championing Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” to Robert Hughes’s writing on Andy Warhol—and to somehow have read it all carefully. He seems to have found every instance of religion being treated as a business (or as being good for business) and of business being treated as a religion.

Image: British Library

What stands out even more than McCarraher’s massive scholarship, though, are his succinct, unforgettable epigrams and negative superlatives, among them: “Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism,” “Locke vindicated the divine right of capital,” “‘Human relations…[are] a surrogate for industrial democracy,” Taylorism is a “beatific vision for control freaks,” and “If [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau had asserted that the general will could force us to be free, [F.A.] Hayek demonstrated that the capitalist market freed us to be forced.”

Like all thorough storytellers, McCarraher starts his story of American capitalism before the beginning. Instead of Puritan New England we start in feudal Europe. McCarraher doesn’t idealize feudalism or Catholic rule, but he does find in feudal Europe a moral unity absent in modern capitalism. In feudalism there were no separate spheres of social life called “economics,” “politics,” or “law.” Therefore, unlike today where matters seem to us wholly economic (say, the legal maximum rate of interest), and as a result we feel we must argue for or against them in strictly economic terms (“Is a legal maximum rate of interest good or bad for the economy?”), they could argue more freely about such things on ethical and humanitarian grounds without feeling obligated to also say such-and-such law or policy would also be good for gross domestic product and next quarter’s job numbers.

Somewhat conversely, Catholicism separated work from sacrament. Work was needed to sustain life, but sacrament (rituals, festivals, and holy days—i.e. days off from work) was needed to care for the soul. Protestantism, however, didn’t recognize this distinction. For Protestants, work was sacrament. Christians were serving God in everything they did. (As Calvin Coolidge said while lieutenant governor of Massachusetts,“the man who builds a factory builds a temple…the man who works there worships there.”) So a separate allotted time for sacrament was unnecessary, even blasphemous. “Ironically,” McCarraher writes, “the rejection of works as means of salvation entailed a gospel of work; however worldly or secular these callings appeared, work inherited the sacral efficacy formerly ascribed to Catholic ritual.”

Eventually not just work but anything that made money became holy (and the more money something made the holier it was).

Eventually not just work but anything that made money became holy (and the more money something made the holier it was). The Greeks, Jews, Muslims, and early Christians had all regarded interest (making money off money) as wicked. Aristotle called it “most unnatural” and “the most hated sort of…wealth-getting” because it takes money from its “natural use” as an “instrument of exchange.” Deuteronomy and Exodus forbid it; as does the Koran. The thirteenth-century monk Caesarius of Heisterbach wrote that “every other sin has its periods of remission” but not interest, which “though its master be asleep, it never sleeps, but always grows and climbs.”

But in Europe, interest rates halved almost simultaneously with the Reformation. Some attribute this to Protestant states being less willing to forgive debts and more willing to use state resources to punish non-paying debtors, which meant creditors could lower their interest rates because they didn’t feel like they had to make up for as many loans not likely to be paid in full. Whether that is true or not, as interest rates lowered so did support for laws on interest. Money was always its own thing but now it was free. McCarraher is careful not to say Protestantism caused capitalism, but he does say it “clear[ed] [the] moral and metaphysical ground” for it.

From what McCarraher calls “the Protestant theology of ‘improvement’” comes not only the Prosperity Gospel—where God wants you to succeed, to succeed is godly, and Christianity is a practical guide to success (in 1957 business executive Howard E. Kershner called the Bible “the greatest book on business ever written”)—but also our deification of “capitalism” and “the market.” Protestantism baptizes capitalism. McCarraher quotes a Methodist magazine from 1863 that called “Political economy…an offspring of the Christian religion.” In a similar vein, Jerry Falwell in his 1980 book Listen, America! wrote:

The free-enterprise system is clearly outlined…in the Bible. Ow­nership of property is biblical. Competition in business is biblical. Ambitious and successful business management is clearly outlined as a part of God’s plan for His people.

Karl Marx is credited with the notion that capitalism demystifies the world. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” he wrote of religion and culture under capitalism in The Communist Manifesto. Capitalism does profane all that is blessed, but it also blesses all that is profane. If it demystifies the world, it mystifies itself. And religious figures like Falwell lend a helping hand. In a later book, Wisdom for Living, Falwell wrote that “God is in favor of freedom, property, ownership, competition, diligence, work, and acquisition.” Christian anti-Communist Isabel Paterson, in her magnum opus The God of the Machine, concurred: “Private property, money, freedom, engineering, and industry are all one system.” These are mystifications of capitalism. As if all these things are related or dependent. As if freedom can’t exist without stockholders or hard work without employer-employee hierarchy. The very abstraction called “capitalism” is a mystification intended to obfuscate. Most people who defend capitalism really defend markets; which you can of course have without bosses, derivatives, private-equity takeovers, or boards of directors (or one’s elected by shareholders instead of employees anyway).

With the advent of corporatization in the 1890s, financialization in the 1910s, and mass advertising in the 1920s, capitalism was even more mystified (and, in the case of advertising, more mystical).

Corporatization granted corporations the legal rights of personhood, and people started talking about corporations as if they were things in the world making and executing decisions. Rather than say “The board of directors of so-and-so company closed a factory” we started saying “So-and-so company closed a factory.” The people actually making these decisions disappeared behind a legal mist of corporate personhood.

With financialization—where ownership was abstracted even further, from deeds to financial assets like stocks and bonds—it became more difficult to tell who was in charge, owners or executives, and whose goals a business was supposed to be pursuing (employee goals obviously not being an option). The hardware store owner who stocked his shelves every day and the owner of corporate stock whose only interaction with the business was a quarterly dividend check both “owned” property.

There’s a hypothesis that the golden age of capitalism (roughly 1945 to 1975) happened because executives essentially had total control of economic decision-making without input or pressure from owners and investors. “For three decades,” McCarraher writes, “the effective disenfranchisement of the stockholders allowed management both to maintain the armistice with organized labor and to plan confidently for expansion and technological innovation.”

Throughout this period there was a lot of praise for “technocracy.” The class war between capital and labor, it was thought, could end not in total victory for one side over the other but by a negotiated truce facilitated by engineers and managers. The owner could get his dividends so long as he didn’t try pressuring business with threats of taking his money elsewhere; the worker could have his union so long as the union promised to earn its keep by training workers rather than making demands on their behalf. This was supposed to go on indefinitely as the next evolutionary stage of capitalism. Marxist intellectual turned National Review editor James Burnham famously called it a “managerial revolution.” But it ended under the Carter and Reagan administrations. Owners and investors were no longer satisfied with their guaranteed six percent; not when there were possible returns in Asia or South America of twenty, thirty, or forty percent.

Mass advertising’s role in the mystification of capitalism was to take control of our fantasies. So much so that even when we thought we were resisting or rebelling against the status quo we were actually just surrendering to it. “Romantic opposition to capitalist squalor,” McCarraher writes, “was transmuted into bourgeois bohemianism.” And he makes a very compelling case that sixties counterculture was actually heralded by fifties corporate culture of personality tests, sensitivity training, and human resources. HR gave workers a voice without giving them a say. McCarraher quotes contemporary authors who saw counter-culturalism not as a revolution but as a new way of marketing: Theodore Roszak, in his popular The Making of a Counterculture, said the ethic of Timothy 
Leary (“Turn on, tune in, drop out”) was identical to the ethic of DuPont; and Lewis Mumford, in The Pentagon of Power, wrote that Woodstock “mirrored and even grossly magnified the worst features of the system that many young rebels profess to reject, if not to destroy.” To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, the bars of the cage were packaged and sold as the door out, and by the 2000s historian James Livingston could approvingly write that advertising was “the last utopian idiom of our time.”

Most work throughout human history has been “alienated”—that is, those doing the work have not had a say in what’s done with its produce nor have they reaped most of its profits. Alienated work is not caused by capitalism but by hierarchies of power. The patrician, feudal lord, slaveowner, executive, oligarch, capitalist, and commissar all say these hierarchies are necessary for things to get done. And under their respective systems they might be right: get rid of the slaveowner and the plantation might have gone to the crows; get rid of the commissars and Soviet Russia might have collapsed (in fact, that’s pretty much what happened in the nineties). But that’s an indictment of the system rather than a commendation of its overseers.

Still, isn’t there progress under capitalism? Aren’t things always improving? Medicine advancing, movies getting better? Yes, McCarraher answers, but what matters is the kind of progress: for what ends as well as with what means. “I am not one of these churlish reactionary radicals,” he writes, “who see nothing in capitalist modernity but one long, unrelieved nightmare of greed, brutality, and desiccating rationalization.”

There has been progress under capitalism, just as there was progress under slavery and Communism. In less than fifty years, Russia went from a country that was mostly illiterate to sending satellites into space. That progress doesn’t justify Soviet communism. Our capacity under capitalism to produce things (and the desire for things) has been fantastic; and it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at “material abundance” when that material is ugly figurines or wasteful plastic bottles but less so when it’s an abundance of food and medicine for billions of people (although capitalism fails at properly distributing them). But an economic system is not just production and distribution; it’s also a labor system. And employer-employee relations underlie many of the failures of capitalism. Neither McCarraher 
nor I agree with “libertarian economist” Ludwig von Mises when he wrote, “No religious or ethical tenet can justify a policy that aims at the substitution of a social system under which output per unit of input is lower for a system in which it is higher.” But a labor system should be judged by the amount of freedom and opportunity for flourishing it offers people, not just its ability to produce things.

Here is where the children of Ruskin fundamentally disagree with the children of Prometheus.

Although the children of Prometheus range across the political matrix, from Randian objectivism to Marxian socialism, they all assume that capital accumulation and technological progress will be how we escape “the realm of necessity” into “the realm of freedom.” More automation and algorithms, bigger and bigger farms, factories, and businesses, will save us from hunger, scarcity, and dreary work. The children of Ruskin, on the other hand, say that automation has never freed the worker. Despite all our labor-saving machines, we still work just as many hours as our medieval ancestors. Now most work is just stripped of any dignity it had; most of us today are just onlookers of machines and algorithms. We have no more “free time” than before; and the very fact we call time away from work “free time” (implicitly understanding that while at work we’re not free) suggests something wrong with the kind of work we do. Economic bigness makes us feel even more estranged: we don’t understand the point of our job (or if it even has a point). Economic bigness also estranges us as consumers: no matter how much of a fuss you might throw to customer service, you’re never going to talk to anyone who is even remotely responsible for your problem. Economic bigness and capitalist hierarchy dilute accountability.

For the children of Ruskin, the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom must be one and the same. Workers must be given control over the places they work and those places must be scaled down. For McCarraher, economic bigness (or as he calls it “corporate consolidation”) is “fundamentally at odds both with workers’ control and with pleasurable endeavor.”

You don’t have to agree that McCarraher’s 
“sacramental Romanticism” is the way forward in order to enjoy reading and getting intellectual nourishment from Enchantments of Mammon. I myself find parts of it a bit silly. For example, in the prologue McCarraher writes, “We will not be saved by our money, our weapons, or our technological virtuosity; we might be rescued by the joyful and unprofitable pursuits of love, beauty, and contemplation.” I don’t know if this sentence really means anything, but if it does, it means something either weirdly redundant or patently false. If we are to be saved from barbarism or climate apocalypse it’ll be with money and technology, not good vibes.

Nor do you have to completely buy into Enchantments of Mammon’s central thesis: that capitalism is our religion nowadays. There’s something to that idea, but 
McCarraher never says exactly what he means by “religion,” so a lot of the evidence he accumulates to prove his thesis is just businessmen and other defenders of capitalism applying religious metaphors to business.. The metaphors we use can say something about us—but not always. McCarraher himself applies religious metaphor to capitalism throughout the book; sometimes not always gracefully.

Still, if you think of religion as what someone worships (what they’re in awe of, what they put their faith for the future in, and what they use as a practical guide for everyday existence), then very few people treat their religion religiously; they believe in the magical power of money way more than they believe in the miracle power of God. Marx called money real magic, able to “transform all…incapacities in their contrary.” The Prosperity 
Gospel mentality tacitly assumes this, co-opting the magic of money for the absence of miracles from God.

I don’t think it’s possible or desirable to do any serious economic downscaling. A massive business like Amazon makes everyone’s lives better. And it isn’t the bigness of Amazon that makes working there miserable, it’s its hierarchy. A form of hierarchy it shares with almost all businesses big and small today. And some work will always be miserable and/or tedious. Which is okay. The very act of giving decision-making power to those doing the work will at least make it more pleasurable than it was before.

Enchantments of Mammon is a must-read for anyone serious about the mesmerizing power capitalism. It also introduces readers to dozens of other books (many of which I’d never heard of) that, based on McCarraher’s analysis, are must-reads as well.

You can get yourself into quite a lot of intellectual confusion if you lose track of the fact that capitalism is a labor system. And labor systems are not bestowed on us from on high. Nor should they be judged solely by the progress of their productive capacities. Communism wasn’t evil because it was inefficient; nor was that why slavery, feudalism, or child labor were. The evil was that they separated humanity into ruler and ruled. That is a separation still with us, but thanks to growing self-awareness and to books like Enchantments of Mammon, the debate on hierarchy is expanding beyond those who think it an absolute good and those who think it a necessary evil.