Plough’s Peter Mommsen speaks with Eugene McCarraher about Christianity’s compromise with mammon – and the visionaries who have resisted it.
Peter Mommsen: We’re living in a moment when capitalism is again being questioned around the world, and yet still seems amazingly resilient in spite of its crises. What’s your view of the state of capitalism today? Are the threats to it serious?
Eugene McCarraher: I do think capitalism is seriously threatened, though that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s going to collapse next week or next month, or even in the next couple of decades. Clearly it’s now a very fragile system: over the past three decades it seems to have needed constant rebooting by government money. Whether that’s the tech collapse of 2000, the banking collapse in 2008, or the FTX crash just last year, the market seems to need more and more propping up.
So I do think that this is a very precarious system. I’d even say it’s in a state of terminal decline. But that’s going to look like languishing, rather than collapse, I think. There’s a German sociologist I quote near the end of The Enchantments of Mammon, Wolfgang Streeck, who talks about capitalism in our time as being a kind of zombie system. It’s almost dead, but thanks to all kinds of state support, the damn thing never quite dies.
So I think capitalism is probably going to continue for a while in this strange state where it’s materially all-powerful but politically and ideologically vulnerable in a way it never was during the halcyon days of neoliberalism.
Capitalism, as most people think of it, apart from just being a fact of life, is frequently presented as a neutral social technology to enable maximum human flourishing. Could you walk us through the reasons why you disagree with that claim?
First of all, I don’t think technology, social or otherwise, is ever neutral. And the reason I think this is that technology is made by human beings, and therefore technology always embodies some kind of human interest. So, just on the level of definition, I find the idea that technology is occupying some kind of Archimedean point of complete objectivity unpersuasive.
I guess the other thing – and something I take issue with in The Enchantments of Mammon – is the idea that capitalism has taken us out of poverty and misery and oppression and destitution. That’s one of the arguments often made for it: that it’s brought us this great material progress. And I think the story is more complicated than that.
I don’t deny that we are materially better off than we were in the Middle Ages. We are, by and large, healthier; we live longer; we are better educated. I don’t deny any of that. But I think a lot of the material progress that we’ve made is only distributed with any degree of equitability thanks to political movements. It was because we had things like labor unions and political parties that we were able to organize society in a more humane way. It’s not something that capitalism does naturally at all.
Fixating on material progress evidences a failure of moral imagination. The way we evaluate the economy is asking, “How much stuff did we produce last year?” We don’t ask whether any of the stuff that we produced actually contributed to human flourishing. We don’t distinguish things like fruit and vegetables from cigarettes and nuclear weapons. It’s all economic growth. There’s no kind of moral evaluation involved.
Not to mention that we’re talking about a system that requires infinite growth operating on a planet with finite resources. We’re only beginning to reckon with the environmental price that we’ve had to pay for that.
I think we know, as a society, that all of this is bad, and yet we don’t seem to be able to act any differently. I think a major reason for that is that we don’t know what we want. Even though capitalism isn’t ideologically invulnerable to the same degree that it was, we don’t have any conception of what an alternative way of life would be. So we default to the status quo.
I’d like to talk about this word enchantment, which is so key in your book. Capitalism, even by its critics, is usually thought of as fundamentally secular – as disenchanted. Karl Marx, for example, said, “Capitalism drowns the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” And Max Weber famously popularized the thesis that capitalist modernity is this process of disenchantment. You take issue with this view and argue that capitalism is no less enchanted than the worldviews it supplanted. What does it mean that capitalism is enchanted – and why does that matter?
I think capitalism is fundamentally enchanted because we treat it with this sacred awe and veneration. We tell ourselves, no, we don’t really revere the dollar, we don’t really consider it sacred – well, in practical terms, we do. The reason we do that is because, under capitalism, money actually does become an arbiter of what’s good – or even what’s real.
When I get business students in my college classes, I’ll say, “Look, you guys in standard economics, you have this notion called effective demand, right?” They’ll say, “Yes.” I say, “Effective demand says that if I’m thirsty, but I don’t have any money to pay for, say, a bottle of water, my thirst, as far as the market is concerned, does not exist. Am I right?” And they’ll say, “Yeah, that’s true. Your thirst has no effective demand.”
Now, you and I both know that I’m still thirsty even if I can’t afford to quench it. But in the eyes of the market, my thirst is nonexistent. And, as I point out to my students, that economic fact is also a moral statement, an ontological assertion. The market is an ontology, a way of deciding not only what is right and wrong, but what is real and what is unreal. And that’s exactly the kind of power we used to attribute to God.
In the past, humans generally believed that the metaphysical structure of the world was determined by God. In a capitalist society, money plays that role: without money, you, or at least your needs as a human being, don’t exist. Right at the heart of disenchantment, we find this clearly theological dynamic. And this was noticed by none other than Karl Marx.
Marx was of two minds about disenchantment because he did say, as you quoted him from The Communist Manifesto, that capitalism is this secularizing, disenchanting force that reduces everything to calculation. He’s also the guy who, in the very first volume of Das Kapital, introduces what he calls “commodity fetishism” by describing the fungible products of capitalism, what he calls “commodities,” as “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”
He explains that in the capitalist marketplace, the value of something is determined in pecuniary terms, not whether it’s useful or not, not whether it’s morally or humanly good or not. It’s all about what it can fetch in the marketplace. In other words, in capitalism, according to Marx, there’s this process – “fetishization” – where we attribute all kinds of powers to money that it only really has because of us and the way that we act.
I think capitalism is historically unique in this regard, but lots of ancient societies were very suspicious of the power of money. Across so many cultures, not just in the Near East where it was given the name Mammon, money is deified, and not in a good way. Mammon is the spirit of acquisition, the spirit of ruthlessness. It’s a bad god.
There’s a quote I love from the theologian Jacques Ellul on this. He writes: “Money is a power. This term should be understood, not in its vague meaning of force, but in the specific sense in which it is used in the New Testament. Power is something that acts by itself, is capable of moving other things, is autonomous or claims to be, is a law unto itself, and presents itself as an active agent.”
Yeah. I think the really important part of that Ellul quote is about money presenting itself as being an active agent, an autonomous power. One thing that I think the Marxist tradition is very strong on – and something I think Christians especially should pay attention to – is the idea that the power of money is our own power that we have somehow deified as something external to us.
Speaking of money as a power, of course, brings us to the New Testament. There’s a saying of Jesus that is familiar to all of us: “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24). So what is mammon, and how does using this term change how we think about capitalism?
Well, mammon in the New Testament is a god, or at least a spirit – a demon. It’s a demon who encourages greed, stupidity, endless dissatisfaction, all for the purposes of endless acquisition. The reason I think it’s important to talk about mammon as a spiritual force, and the reason I think that’s important for our understanding of capitalism, is that we usually understand capitalism strictly as a political economy.
Whether we’re Marxists or liberals or conservatives we usually think about it in terms of a certain configuration of markets, and property, and the state. Yet it seems to me that capitalism is also, I think, a kind of moral imagination, and a certain form of spiritual formation. That’s what I’m getting at when I use the term “mammon”: that capitalism remains “enchanted,” it retains this spiritual, moral dimension. We don’t usually think of capitalism as a spiritual force, of course, but I think that’s what it is.
And I think recognizing that helps us to see what the system really is, beneath the surface. So in my book I argue that we should start understanding advertising as a form of iconography, for example: images that visibly disclose an invisible reality. I think that this is actually one of the best ways to try to explain what’s going on in advertising, because you’re not just selling goods with advertising, you’re inviting viewers to enter a whole moral universe.
Which is exactly what the stained glass windows of saints in Chartres Cathedral are doing. The rose window and the highway billboard both have a set of values embedded within them: a certain conception of what’s right and what’s wrong. And those values are a kind of spiritual formation, directing your soul toward a particular end, a particular eschatology.
In Chartres, that eschatological vision is heaven, the kingdom of God, the beloved community, whatever you want to call it. Within advertising’s symbolic universe, under capitalism, your spiritual formation has the particular end of accumulation, how to make the most money possible. Heaven is a fat bank account.
Throughout Christian history believers have responded to Jesus’ warning about mammon in different ways. Acts 2 and 4 paints a picture of the first believers holding all things in common, sharing according to their ability, receiving according to their need. What is the importance of that voluntary communism and what distinctions should we make between it and the political communism of the twentieth century?
What this depiction demonstrates is that the early Christians were communists with a small c. I cannot reiterate that enough.
For centuries Christians have found all kinds of laughable exegetical strategies to try to make the text not say what it clearly does say: that the early church held their goods in common, and that they distributed those goods according to need. Especially during the Cold War, there was an obsession with trying to make this text say something entirely different from what it actually says.
And the reason why there was that obsession is because it demonstrates that communism is the political unconscious of Christianity, right? Small-c communism – it’s not as though the early Christians had some kind of program for changing society. So that’s one distinction.
One of the other really key differences between the two communisms is that Marxism, in a sense, shares a worldview with capitalism. Capitalists are always talking about growth, technological innovation, the constant production of material abundance. And it’s very clear when you read Das Kapital that Marx has the same basic worldview. Marx views technological development and material abundance as goods in themselves, regardless of any other end. That’s not what the early Christians thought at all. So that to me is, I think, the defining difference between the two forms of communism.
Even long after the Book of Acts, Christians remain pretty nervous about money. So it’s striking how big a role Christianity ended up playing in the rise of capitalism. How did Christianity come to make peace with mammon?
I think it’s part of a much longer story of compromise. The peace that was struck with mammon was, in a sense, modeled on the peace struck with Caesar in what’s sometimes called the Constantinian Bargain. The Constantinian Bargain was that if you swear your allegiance to the structures of imperial Rome, we’ll leave you guys – you guys being the Christian church – alone. We’ll tolerate you guys, we’ll let you guys preach, we’ll let you perform your liturgies.
As soon as you make that kind of bargain with Caesar and, if we want to use another god, with Mars, the god of the military and of war, there’s a sense in which peace with mammon is inevitable. If you’re coming to some kind of understanding with the powers that be I think it’s part of the deal.
Yet there is this counter-tradition within church history – a stream of people throughout who did not go along with this, who were critics of compromise, who harked back to those original “communist seeds” of Christianity and tried to bring them to life.
Yeah, the name I give to this counter-tradition is capital-R Romanticism. It includes Christians across the theological spectrum, from the mainstream down to the heterodox, like William Blake. And it includes non-Christians, both religious and non-religious, like John Ruskin, who retain a kind of post-Christian worldview.
Basically, I think Romantics are the heirs to the medieval sacramental imagination. That imagination said: God is everywhere, God suffuses the natural world, the material world. And that worldview was sacramental in that it perceives the divine as a constitutive part of the architecture of the world. You can see this in Blake’s famous line about seeing the heavens in a wildflower, or Wordsworth writing about his sense of the sublime suffusing all things.
Some people see Romanticism as a discrete literary and artistic movement, starting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and ending with World War I at the very latest. I think Romanticism is actually a distinctive feature of modernity itself, from the English Civil War, Gerrard Winstanley, and the Diggers right up to the 1970s with figures like Kenneth Rexroth, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and to the present day with figures like Pope Francis – who I think in many ways belongs in that Romantic lineage.
And as you can guess from that list, the Romantics are, for me, a very big tent. But the tent isn’t so big that the label itself is meaningless. They share some general characteristics. So many of the Romantic figures in my book see labor as properly artisanal rather than mechanical, the act of labor itself as a kind of poetry in action. Often they’re in favor of direct workers’ control over production; a recurring theme is that they believe technology should be on a more human scale. Many are anarchists or political radicals. Even when they accept some version of private property rights, they also see property as always in some sense communal. And because they don’t see nature solely in terms of how useful it can be to human beings, they’re often far more ecologically sensitive than their peers.
How do you hope people persuaded that there is an alternative to capitalism will live their lives differently? One of your book’s conclusions is that there is a need to begin from “a realized eschatology,” a way of “living the new world in the wreckage of the old.” What would that look like in practice?
This is the question that I always try to avoid because it’s where I go from being a historian, writing about the past, to some kind of prophet making predictions about our political future. I think in many ways the fundamental practice is to be a good Christian. Being loving and charitable and merciful in one’s own life. As for the exact political shakeout of that practice, I’m not entirely clear myself on what that is. I think it means supporting a revitalized labor movement, because if we’re going to get a handle on things like AI or the ecological crisis, then we have to be rooted in workplace struggles over the design and the deployment of technology.
What I think also needs to be done is that we’ve got to have activism within the churches: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, the whole American church establishment. We all are guilty. We’ve all chosen Mammon over God. We’ve allowed ourselves to be spiritually formed by capitalism, shaped by the logic of the markets. But we’re also all capable of realizing a different eschatology, living for a different end, seeking the kingdom of God. We need to learn how to be Christians.
This interview from March 20, 2023, has been edited for clarity and length.