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    PloughCast 62: Is Money Power?

    Money, Part 2

    By Eugene McCarraher and Peter Mommsen

    June 7, 2023
    • Jeremy Cowan

      This was quite an enjoyable listen. Just wondering if the communism portrayed in Acts is rightly viewed as exemplary instead of doctrinal given that other doctrines (e.g. doctrines of sacrifice and tithes) seem predicated on private property?

    About This Episode

    Eugene McCarraher and Peter Mommsen speak about why modern capitalism is anything but secular. They discuss Christianity’s compromise with mammon – and the visionaries who have resisted it.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Then they talk about the power of mammon, whether it’s enchanted, and the reason we venerate it.

    Recommended Reading


    Peter Mommsen: We’re living in this moment where capitalism is in question again around the world in all kinds of ways, and yet it still seems to have an amazing resilience. Capitalism seems in many ways as hegemonic as ever, still exercising this total domination over the way the world works. What’s your view of the state of capitalism today? Is it seriously threatened?

    Eugene McCarraher: I do think it is, 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 this is a very fragile system, which over the past twenty-five to thirty years seems to have needed constant rebooting by government money. Whether this is the tech collapse of 2000, whether it’s the banking and financial system collapse in 2008, whether it’s the FTX crash just last year, capitalism seems to need more and more propping up.

    There’s constant resort to government bailouts. Venture capitalists who talk about being great swashbuckling risk-takers are the very first people to go to President Biden, cap in hand: “Please save me.” So I do think that this is a very precarious system. It’s in a state of terminal decline. There’s a German sociologist who 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 it keeps going thanks to all kinds of government support. The damn thing just will not die. And he thinks that possibly for the next fifty, sixty years, this is the state we’re going to be in, where things just languish and drift.

    So I think the capitalism is probably going to continue for a while. It’s just not going to be very robust, and it’s going to be in this strange state where it’s all-powerful but not quite as hegemonic as it was say during the halcyon days of neoliberalism where there was, as Margaret Thatcher said, no alternative.

    It’s just not going to be very robust, and it’s going to be, as I said, in this strange state where it’s hegemonic but not quite as hegemonic as it was say during the halcyon days of neoliberalism in the nine, the 1990s and the 2000s.

    Peter Mommsen: Yes, exactly. When I went to college in the late nineties, it was definitely sort of this unquestioned fact of life, that this is the world you’re going to grow up and live your life and die. And yet, today it seems like capitalism is questioned on more and more sides. There was famously the Bernie Sanders run in this country in 2016. And there’s growing interest in different forms of post liberalism across the political spectrum.

    You have new magazines like Compact, which have a kind of right DNA, and yet are, rhetorically at least, quite critical of capitalism. In American politics figures on the right like Josh Hawley or J. D. Vance are willing to talk about capitalism as a thing that isn’t an unalloyed good. You write in one place in the book that capitalism is a love story, and it seems that – at least on the level of ideas – that love story might be in a bit of trouble today.

    Eugene McCarraher: Yeah, it’s a romance gone sour. Josh Hawley and J. D. Vance I think are as phony as $2 bills. I think these guys are just utter opportunists. They say that, “Oh, capitalism maybe isn’t an unalloyed good,” and yet they vote in a way that says otherwise. So I wouldn’t put too much faith in the Hawleys and the Vances of the world.

    I do read Compact Magazine – I think it’s a fascinating journal, this strange hybrid of left-leaning and culturally-conservative stances, and there’s an incredible array and mix of writers. And of course you’re going to get the post-liberalism that you see from people like Adrian Pabst and John Milbank, and arguably this is a lot of what you read in Plough. That kind of post-liberalism I’m really interested in.

    Peter Mommsen: Capitalism, as most people think of it today, apart from just sort of being a fact of life, is frequently presented as this kind of neutral social technology to enable maximum human flourishing. Could you walk us through the reasons why you disagree with that kind of claim?

    Eugene McCarraher: 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 much better off than we were in the seventeenth century. 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. There’s no natural or inevitable equity to the way that we distribute goods.

    I also think that there’s been a failure to distinguish in a lot of this material progress between what John Ruskin called wealth and what he called “Illth”, prosperity that’s humanly or morally or ecologically destructive. 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 was actually good for us. It’s one thing to say we produced a lot of fruit and vegetables and things that actually contribute to human flourishing. But we also produce things like cigarettes and – I guess this is a political view – nuclear reactors. There’s no kind of moral evaluation of what constitutes “material progress.”

    And that’s not to mention the ecological cost of all this, right? We’re talking about a system that requires infinite growth operating on a planet with finite resources. And we’re only beginning, I think, to reckon with the environmental price that we’ve had to pay for that. So the story is a heck of a lot more complicated, I think, than the one you might hear from the Steven Pinkers of the world about how wonderful this whole thing has been.

    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 that a lot of the reason for that is that we don’t know what we want. We sort of know that capitalism’s going to destroy us, right? But on the other hand, we don’t have an alternative, and if you don’t have an alternative, you are by default going to just keep acting the same way. I think that’s part of the reason why, even though neoliberalism is no longer hegemonic to the same degree that it was, we don’t seem to have any conception of what an alternative way of life would be, so we default for the status quo.

    Peter Mommsen: I’d like to talk a little bit about this word enchantment, which is so key in your book. The idea of capitalism of Mammon as an enchantment, as a magical power that’s perhaps got a bit of a spiritual agency of its own. Capitalism, even by its critics, is usually thought of as secular, as this disenchanted, worldly thing. Marx famously 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?

    Eugene McCarraher: I think most fundamentally capitalism is 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, yeah, 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.

    One way I like to illustrate this is, when I get business students in my classes in Villanova, 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 non-existent. Which is, I explain to my students, is a moral and 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 a divine being. In a capitalist society, money plays that role. And if you don’t have the money, you, or at least your needs as a human being, don’t exist.

    And none other than Karl Marx noticed this. Marx was in 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, describes what he calls “commodity fetishism.”

    And he introduces the commodity by saying it’s “a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” And then what he does in the rest of that passage is explain how it is that in the capitalist marketplace, the value of something is determined in pecuniary terms, not whether it’s useful or not. It’s all about what it can fetch in the marketplace.

    In other words there’s this process of fetishisation in capitalism 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 the capitalism is historically unique in this regard. Ancient societies were always very suspicious of the power of money which is one of the reasons why, across the world, money was considered a God, not just in the Near East where it was given the name Mammon. Across so many cultures money is deified, and not necessarily in a good way, right? The spirit of acquisition and of ruthlessness is usually associated with it. It’s a bad god.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s a quote I love from the theologian Jacques Ellul that illustrates 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.”

    Eugene McCarraher: Yeah. I think the really important part of that quote is, it presents itself as being an active agent, that it seems to be an autonomous power. One thing that I think the Marxist tradition is very strong on – and something that 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.

    And I think we’re doing the same thing right now with technology. We’re attributing technology this independent agency in our lives. But, like I said elsewhere: “Technology is made by us, which means that when we’re talking about the power of technology, we should properly be talking about the power of some people over others.”

    Peter Mommsen: 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 man can serve two masters. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” That’s in Matthew 6:24. So what is mammon, and how does using this term change how we think about capitalism?

    Eugene McCarraher: Well, mammon in the New Testament is a god, or at least a spirit – a demon. It’s a demon who encourages acquisitiveness, stupidity, ruthlessness, endless dissatisfaction, all for the purposes of endless acquisition The reason I think it’s important to talk about it as a spirit, and the reason I think that’s important for our understanding of capitalism, is that we usually understand capitalism strictly as a political economy.

    We think about it as a certain configuration of markets, and property, and the different roles for the state, and so on. Conservatives, liberals, Marxists, whoever: this is the way we usually talk about capitalism. 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”

    Again, we don’t usually think of capitalism as a kind of moral, spiritual force, but I think that’s what it is. I think we should start understanding advertising as a form of iconography, for example: images that disclose a greater reality than our own. 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 selling a way of life. You’re selling a way of thinking about the way people should live. You’re selling an image of the good life.

    I don’t think there’s really much of a difference between that and, say, the stained glass windows of saints in Chartres Cathedral showing you should be like a saint. Both are forms of, as I said, moral imagination. Embedded in both sets of images is a certain conception of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s proper, what’s improper, and that’s a kind of spiritual formation, directing your soul toward a particular end. In Chartres, it’s heaven, it’s the kingdom of God, it’s the beloved community, whatever you want to call it. Within advertising’s symbolic universe, under capitalism, your spiritual formation has the particular end of a hefty bank account.

    There are different ways you can put that, like, say, “How do I provide for my family” – capitalism is always able to appropriate family values to its ideological repertoire – but that final end is always fundamentally about accumulation, how to make the most money possible, for yourself or for your company.

    Peter Mommsen: Throughout Christian history, after Jesus, there’s a lingering hostility to money, to capitalism, that remains just barely below the surface. Acts 2 and 4 paint a picture of the first believers holding all things in common, sharing, contributing according to their ability and receiving according to their need. What is the importance of that, the early church’s approach to the economy, and what distinctions should be made between that kind of voluntary communism and the political communism of the twentieth century?

    Eugene McCarraher: I almost think the depiction of the earliest Christian community in the Book of Acts should be stenciled on the forehead of every Christian. Because what it demonstrates is that the early Christians were communists with a small c. I cannot reiterate that enough. My friend David Bentley Hart has been insisting on this, at least for the last five or six years, and even in his translation of the New Testament, he goes out of his way to make this point. 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. You didn’t have that kind of thing in the ancient world. I think that’s one of the things that makes the communism of the early Christians different from the communism which Marx envisions, because Marx’s communism emerges from a completely different world.

    One of the really key differences between the two communisms is that Marxism is in a way very much in line with capitalism. Capitalists are always talking about growth, and technological innovation, and how the object of capitalist enterprise is constant, constant production of material abundance. And it’s very clear when you read through the volumes of Das Kapital that Marx thinks that too. He thinks that communism is going to let her rip in terms of technological progress, material development, and so on. It’s a very modern vision in the sense that technological development, material abundance are seen as goods in themselves, regardless of any other end, or any other human objective. That to me is, I think, the defining difference between the two forms of communism.

    Peter Mommsen: Moving forward through church history, that “repressed political unconscious,” as you call it, remained part of Christian teaching. Thomas Aquinas, who remains the basis of Catholic social teaching today, spoke of the universal destination of goods. Has anything been lost if we talk about the universal destination of goods rather than of communism?

    Eugene McCarraher: I think it registers just how far we’ve come from the original vision, right? Aquinas doesn’t at all believe in common ownership. The notion of the universal destination of goods is one that is very much compatible with incredible inequalities of wealth. I think that this is one of the problems, in fact, with a lot of Catholic social teaching, which is that they’re trying to reconcile two fundamentally different things. They’re trying to reconcile a modern idea of private property with an ancient idea about distributing all goods equitably. You can’t do both of these things at once.

    And you can see that contradiction in Aquinas. Aquinas is not going to ask the kings and the feudal lords of his time to surrender their castles and their fiefdoms. He’s not going to go there. But he also has the Book of Acts in front of him. What’s a scholastic to do? So he talks about the universal destination of goods, and how we should all try and help the poor. But he doesn’t say abolish poverty. That would require something much more radical and much more threatening to the powers that be, of the thirteenth century or, for that matter, of the twenty-first.

    Peter Mommsen: Given that Jesus was so clearly hostile to mammon, and given St. James speaks so strongly about what awaits the wealthy, Christians, are, from the apostolic fathers all the way through to Aquinas, pretty nervous about money. So it’s striking how big a role Christianity ended up playing in the rise of capitalism. How did that happen? Could you sketch out how the apparent peace between Christianity and moneymaking came about?

    Eugene McCarraher: I think it’s part of a much longer story. 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. And that bargain was that, basically, 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. And even though I teach at an Augustinian university, I think the villain of this piece is Saint Augustine.

    He’s the guy who basically signs the peace treaty with the powers that be. And 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.

    Specifically in terms of the rise of capitalism, I think that Weber was right when he said that there was something crucial about the Protestant Reformation. It’s a story I tell at length in the book, but one of the effects of the Reformation, particularly in its Calvinist dimension, is a certain de-sacramentalising of the natural world and of the world in general. I think that leaves a kind of moral or ontological vacuum money then rushes in to fill. That’s one of the big reasons why the Protestant Reformation remains central to understanding the rise of capitalism, in my view.

    Now, when you get into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries you’re talking about Evangelical Protestantism. Chris Layman once called Evangelicalism the “Money Cult”, and, as I argue later in the book, I think you can’t understand Evangelical Protestantism, (or for that matter Mormonism), without considering their deep ties to the way capitalism developed in America during the nineteenth century.

    Now, I don’t want to let Catholics off the hook here. I think in many ways, Catholics, especially after the Second World War, once they start getting educated, entering the middle class, living in the suburbs, start joining in the party too. Let’s all make money! And you’ve got theologians or philosophers like Michael Novak and Fr Richard John Neuhaus basically baptizing this embrace of American capitalism. So I’m not going to let my fellow Catholics off the hook. Everybody’s guilty here. Or just about everybody.

    Peter Mommsen: As Christians we have to say that everyone is guilty to some degree, but there is this counter tradition, this stream of people throughout church history who did not go along with this, who were critics of capitalism, who harked back to those original “communist seeds” of Christianity and tried to bring them to life. Could you describe what I’m calling this counter tradition? What were some common threads in that movement? And are there particular individuals from amongst those critics you think are worth rediscovering?

    Eugene McCarraher: Yeah, the name I give to this counter tradition is capital-R Romanticism. It includes Christians, though many are not. Or they’re Christians but heterodox in their belief. Basically, I think Romantics are the heirs to the medieval sacramental imagination. The medieval sacramental imagination said: God is everywhere, God suffuses the material natural world. It’s sacramental not just in the sense of the discrete seven sacraments, but in the conviction that the divine is a constitutive part of the architecture of the world.

    And so Romantics are in a sense post-Christian because when you’ve got romantic writers like Blake and Wordsworth, it’s not quite clear whether they’re Christians or post-Christians or simply very heterodox Christians, but they still believe in a divine presence that pervades the world. You can see this in Blake’s famous line about seeing the heavens in a wildflower, or in Wordsworth’s writing where he talks about his sense of the sublime suffusing all things.

    My view is that Romanticism is not just a discrete literary and artistic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, I think it’s actually a very distinctive feature of modern culture in general, all the way up to up to the 1960s and ’70s with figures like Kenneth Rexroth, Thomas Merton, Theodore Roszak or Dorothy Day, to name just a few. What distinguished participants in this Romantic tradition is their sense of a sacral significance in the material world around them. I think that makes them much more ecologically sensitive than their peers: they don’t see nature solely in terms of how useful it can be to human beings. Many Romantic look to pre-capitalist cultures for alternative value systems. Some of them do become reactionaries and want a literal return to the Middle Ages, but most of them don’t go down that path.

    Many of the Romantic figures in my book are anarchists, arts and crafts writers or practitioners. Often they’re in favor of direct worker’s control over production: they see labor as properly artisanal rather than rather than mechanical, the act of labor itself as a kind of poetry in action, the poetry of everyday life. This is why they tend to favor artisans and craftsmen, and why they often believe technology should be more human scale. And they also see property as, in some sense, communal. Even when they’re talking about private property, it’s a concept always hedged with all kinds of restrictions and requirements. And you can see this in a figure like John Ruskin when he is talking about what communism means for him. I think that, in many ways, Pope Francis belongs in this Romantic lineage. Laudato si’ is often characterized as an encyclical on the environment, but I think it’s actually on all of society. He talks about what he calls a social mortgage on property, which is a way of saying that property is never just private, right? The Romantics are a very big tent. I don’t think it’s so big that the label is meaningless, but I think these are the sorts of general characteristics these thinkers share.

    Peter Mommsen: We’re going to talk about three of the figures you write about in The Enchantments of Mammon. The first Gerrard Winstanley seems like someone who should be much better known than he currently is. Who is he, when did he live and what relevance do his insights have for us today?

    Eugene McCarraher: Well, Gerrard Winstanley was an English guy in the 1640s. He’s a member of a group that was called the Diggers during the English Revolution, in the mid-seventeenth century. These were a group of about twenty or thirty people who, one nice day in April 1649, decided they were going to go to someplace called Saint George’s Hill outside of London, and occupy a piece of common land there. So, a long time before 2011, these are the first occupiers. And the Diggers just said, “Look, nobody’s using this land. We’re poor farmers. We need food, so we’re just going to go and do it. We’re just going to do it.”

    And that lasted until August of that year, when the owner of the land was able to get a legal injunction against them and had them kicked off the land. But what’s significant is that after that, Winstanley begins to write these pamphlets, basically religious and political tracts in which he articulates a kind of sacramental communism. I mean, he starts off one of these pamphlets by saying, “The great Creator Reason made the earth a common treasury.” There you go. God made the earth to be owned by all, to be worked by all. And what the Diggers are trying to do is, as they see it, to reinstate that prelapsarian conception of the way things ought to be.

    And Winstanley thinks about the world in a clearly sacramental way, I think: he calls creation “the clothing of God.” He thinks that private property is an evil, what he calls civil propriety – what we would call private property. For Winstanley, that’s a result of the Fall. And now Christ has reversed the effects of the fall, he reasons, we should therefore return to that blissful state of communal property. I think Winstanley is the first Romantic. Marxists have tried to appropriate him as being a kind of proto-Marxist, and I just don’t see that at all.

    Peter Mommsen: If we go forward into the Romantic era proper, almost two centuries, to the essayist Thomas Carlyle. He was writing just as the industrial revolution was picking up steam. What can this observer of nineteenth-century capitalism tell us about the world we’re living in now?

    Eugene McCarraher: I think Carlyle is a very cautionary tale about someone who gets some things very right and other things very badly wrong. He does talk about the Gospel of Mammonism. He also talks about the difference, at least the way I understand it, between what he calls wonder and what he calls enchantment, he actually uses this term.

    Carlyle’s concept of wonder is I think is a kind of sacramental imagination. When he talks about the wonder of creation, the wonder of the world, how amazing it is that anything exists at all, that’s a sacramental sensibility at work. And enchantment is a perversion of that sense of wonder in his view, related to the Gospel of Mammonism, where everything is evaluated in pecuniary terms.

    Carlyle is also very interested in the concept of heroism: there’s a book of his called Heroes and Hero Worship, which I think is very significant to his thought in general. Heroes and heroism is to him a way of understanding wonder. Heroes are people who exhibit wonder at the world and exude this wonder and act in accordance with this wonder.

    But the problem with the way he understands heroism is that only a few people are capable of this, right? Carlyle is in many ways a profoundly elitist and anti-democratic thinker, precisely because of this. He talks about mobocracy and about ordinary people’s “amenability to beer and balderdash.” This is exactly the kind of thing you hear from a certain kind of conservative, that most people really are just rabble. They’ll never understand anything. They need to be led. They need to be told what to do. They’re not smart enough to figure things out. And this is why, in Carlyle’s view, in the end you can’t have democracy.

    So I think Carlyle ends up being an advocate of what he calls the Gospel of Work and of what he calls captains of industry, a new, virtuous aristocracy of industrialists. He doesn’t believe in the Gospel of Mammonism, but he’s very much a believer in the Gospel of Work. And in a sense, despite his famous “deconversion” from Christianity, he never stopped being a puritan.

    In this sense he’s a contrast to his contemporary John Ruskin, who I also write about in The Enchantments of Mammon. Ruskin himself was certainly no big-d democrat. But he was in his way, a much more small-d democratic thinker than Carlyle was, because Ruskin is always talking about the creativity and the talent of ordinary people, artisans and farmers and other small fry. As opposed to Carlye’s heroes. Even though Ruskin considered himself a Tory, he also called himself a communist. So part of what I try to do in the book is explain how this guy could be a Tory and yet also be a communist at the same time.

    Peter Mommsen: A third thinker I’d like to talk about is Eberhard Arnold, the founding editor of Plough, who wrote an essay in 1924 called “The Fight Against Mammon”, very much inspired by the romantic movement. It appeared around seven years after the Bolshevik Revolution and was an attempt, I think, to recover this early Christian communism for the twentieth century. Could you reflect a little bit on that essay and what it means?

    Eugene McCarraher: First of all, I think Arnold is clearly trying to understand the Bolshevik Revolution, and the various socialist and anarchist movements of his time. He even says at one point, “Look, we’re in a lot of fundamental agreement with these people. They’re not wrong about a lot of what they’re saying about the injustice and indignity of capitalism.” Where Arnold differs from these movements is that he thinks violent revolution is not just not going to cut it. If we really see other people as our brothers and sisters, we shouldn’t be shedding their blood.

    The other thing I really appreciated about Arnold’s essay was what he says about the role churches play in perpetuating capitalism. And they’ll play that role even when they’re preaching scriptures on Sunday telling people, “Mammon is a evil God.” The problem of the churches is that they’re trying to serve two masters.

    Peter Mommsen: So for these figures the standard objection would be: “Well, they’re just romantics. They’re idealistic, they’re not effectual.” Marx made this critique of non-Marxist communists like Proudhon. Their ideas might be attractive, but they’re doomed to end up like Occupy Wall Street: they got a lot of press, but the dream of anarchist utopia didn’t get very far in the real world.

    Eugene McCarraher: I’d have two responses to that criticism. One is that when you look at Romantics like Ruskin or William Morris, a slightly later figure, these figures were key in the ideological and political formation of what would become the British Labor party. If anybody thinks that the formation of the British Labor Party was not important, I have to wonder how they evaluate history and its significance. So many leaders and rank and file members of the Labor Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries said that it was reading Ruskin and Morris that made them into socialists. In other words, these were two Romantics who inspired mass political activism and, indirectly, real social change.

    My second response is by pointing to John Muir, another Romantic I talk about in my book. Without John Muir and his writing I cannot conceive how you would have a modern environmental or ecological movement. And as far as Occupy is concerned, I don’t think Occupy has been completely without impact. I think we mentioned Bernie Sanders earlier in our conversation, and I don’t think Bernie’s campaigns would’ve been conceivable if we hadn’t had the Occupy Wall Street movement beforehand. Now, did they overthrow capitalism? No. But the Democratic Party for all its problems and for all its shortcomings is certainly not just lock stock and barrel under neoliberalism anymore like it was under the Clintons and Obama. And I think a lot of that has to do with the energy and imagination of Occupy Wall Street.

    Peter Mommsen: Which takes us up to the present day. And maybe let’s, as we conclude our conversation, let’s think about where we are right now in 2023.The sheen is off neoliberalism, but capitalism still has one product that people are excited about: artificial intelligence. AI is being talked about as a technology that’s going to upend how we live, how our economies function. Some people think it’s going to transform our world for the better, others worry it’s going to lead to catastrophe. Can we apply this insight about enchantment to artificial intelligence? How should we understand the spiritual forces in technological systems and how they relate to this story about capitalism that we’ve been talking about?

    Eugene McCarraher: In the interests of shameless self-promotion, I’m writing a short book right now on automation, kind of a historical/philosophical/theological illumination of the whole thing. I think a lot of the claims that are being made about automation and AI are overhyped. We’re nowhere close to the kind of inflection point Ray Kurzweil calls “the singularity” when AI really takes everything over. But even though I doubt it’s going to happen, I think that the very ideas are significant because of what they say about the role technology plays in our society. Even the fears that AI will destroy us are a form of fetishism, I think. Once again, we are attributing agency to something that doesn’t have it. If humans destroy ourselves, it’s going to be all our own fault. We’re the ones who make this stuff, and so we can remake it or unmake it, or not make it in the first place. AI can only have what is programmed into it by human beings. I think we need to understand that point and underline it, bold it, italicize it. AI is only what we make it. And so therefore, I think that focusing so much on the technology is a way of not focusing on the human system, the human relationships in which this technology arises

    As far as the The Enchantments of Mammon are concerned, all of these AI companies are capitalists. So this technology and its uses are going to be informed by precisely the same rage to accumulate, the same acquisitive spirit, that you’ve seen in previous forms of capitalism. It’s the same old, same old, the same story we’ve been hearing since the seventeenth century. Capitalism is going to make your life better. Well, the only way that capitalism has made anybody’s life better is not just because we had nicer and more productive gadgets. It was because we had things like labor unions and political parties that were able to organize society in a more humane and generous way. It’s not something that capitalism does naturally at all.

    Peter Mommsen: So last question. You didn’t write this book just so people would go to the library and start reading Winstanley and Carlyle and Eberhard Arnold, but presumably you hoped to inspire some kind of action in the world. What do you hope that people persuaded that there is an alternative to capitalism will do to live their lives differently? One of the lines from your book, is that “A new radicalism must begin from this faith in the fundamental joy of being. A realized eschatology, if you will: the future in the present tense. Living the new world in the wreckage of the old.” And where Alasdair MacIntyre hopes a new Saint Benedict might appear, you think what we need today is a new Saint Francis instead. Could you unpack that a bit?

    Eugene McCarraher: This is the question that I always try to avoid because this it’s where I go from being a mere historian to becoming some kind of prognosticator about our political future. I think in many ways the fundamental practice is to try to be a good Christian. Being loving and charitable and merciful and developing this in one’s own life. What’s the political shakeout of that? Honestly, 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, if we’re going to get a handle on the ecological devastation the system is wreaking, 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. So much of that clerical establishment is bought and paid for. These guys wouldn’t know a prophetic voice if it yelled at them for decades. They’ve signed onto the system and they’re not going to do anything to destabilize it at all. And so, as usual, lay people will have to teach these guys how to be Christians.

    Contributed By EugeneMcarraher Eugene McCarraher

    Eugene McCarraher is professor of humanities and history at Villanova University.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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