Eugene McCarraher gives talk on “Capitalism as Religion”

On Oct. 5, St. Olaf’s Institute for Freedom and Community (IFC) invited Professor of Humanities and History at Villanova University, Eugene McCarraher, to give a digital talk on his new book, entitled “Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity.” The event was streamed live and archived. It is still available to watch on the IFC’s website. 

The first half of the event had Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community and Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Edmund Santurri, ask McCarraher questions pertaining to the fundamental argument of his 816-page behemoth of a book. McCarraher argues that capitalism has not ‘disenchanted’ the world — a position originating with early 20th-century sociologist Max Weber — but instead it has ‘misenchanted’ it. Rather than depriving the world of its — inherent, for McCarraher — sacredness, capitalism perverts it. 

McCarraher’s book is first and foremost a history of capitalism. McCarraher traces the philosophical justifications of capitalism throughout history in Europe and the U.S., and illustrates that there was never a hard break between religion and capitalism. In fact, he argues that capitalism has itself become a religious institution. Positing a revision of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, McCarraher describes capital as the ‘ontological marrow’ of the religion of capitalism. The ‘invisible hand’ of the market fulfills the role of Gods and spirits to describe why our society functions as it does. The moral edifice surrounding capitalism provides its worshippers with an ethical system, as well, displacing radical love and kindness with profit and marginal efficiency. Sometimes this misenchantment was done in hand with Christianity, and sometimes it was in opposition. 

“Enchantments of Mammon” also traces the history of what McCarraher considers the most insightful critics of capitalism — the romantics. McCarraher argues that the only way out of capitalist misenchantment is to have a romantic reevaluation of the world, again grasping the beautiful and sacred. He expresses deep respect for artisanship and small-scale economics, believing artisanal labor to be more edifying, fulfilling, sustainable, and useful than the mass-scale production of the present day. It may be unsurprising that he is presently writing a book on automation. 

In the second half of the event, Santurri focused on audience questions, drawing out McCarraher’s fundamental radicality. When asked whether or not there was anything McCarraher found admirable about capitalism, the answer, with all of its complexities and academic qualifications, ended up as a strong not really. “[Increases in human wellbeing under capitalism] have usually been not so much the benefit of capitalism, but of struggles against capitalism,” McCarraher said.

Despite McCarraher’s grim outlook on capitalism and its, in his view, complete economic and cultural dominance, there are some strands of hope. Alasdair MacIntyre — a famous moral philosopher and academic communitarian — suggested in his most significant work, “After Virtue”, that we need to retreat into small communities to hold on through the impending dark ages. MacIntyre suggested that we are in need of a new Saint Benedict, a new figurehead to lead us into intentional, monastic communities. McCarraher expressed his disagreement with MacIntyre during the event, suggesting instead we ought to hope for, and perhaps expect, a new Saint Francis, to go out into the world and spread the good news, in this case, of romantic socialism.


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