The Return of Utopian Romanticism

Critics of market liberalism (or “neoliberalism”) vary significantly in the criticisms they develop. The best known criticisms today focus on economic consequences of market liberalism—economic inequality, stagnating incomes, or the like. Other critiques emphasize political or legal consequences such as privileged political or legal access accorded to capital owners, or “autonomy” accorded constitutional status in American law. Still others emphasize social consequences of market liberalism such as the erosion of community or a spiritual impoverishment that results from the markets’ “instrumental rationality.”

While often appearing together in everything-and-the-kitchen-sink criticisms of market liberalism (for example, in Milbank and Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue), these different types of arguments do not always depend on one another. Karl Marx, for example, sneered at policies that would raise worker wages without improving their “human status and dignity.” He dismissed these policies as nothing more than “better payment for the slave.”

One less known, but distinctive line of criticism reappearing on both the political left and the political right flows from Romanticism. These new Romantics focus mainly on the negative social implications of market liberalism. Their arguments go beyond the loss of community or solidarity and instead assert that market liberalism impoverishes the human soul, both spiritually and aesthetically.

In his new book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, Eugene McCarraher presents a fascinating, explicitly Romantic, highly tendentious, and historically wide-ranging indictment of the spiritual implications of capitalism. While McCarraher plants his flag in left-wing neo-Romanticism (or what I call “utopian Romanticism”), much of his discussion both describes and expresses elements with which today’s right-wing neo-Romantics (what I term “reactionary Romantics”) would agree. The central thrust of Romanticism, both originally and today, is a reaction to what it characterizes as the sterile utilitarianism or instrumentalism of modern society, especially in modern capitalist society.

To put the claim affirmatively, McCarraher characterizes Romanticism as the view that the world is “enchanted,” which is to say “sacramental.” The Romantic criticism of capitalism is that it distorts or effaces that which exalted and dignified human life in earlier times. Despite its Christian overtones, McCarraher uses “sacramental” as a synonym for “enchantment.” Thus, while his understanding of “sacramental” includes Christian sacramentalism, it focuses more on the free-floating spiritual heterodoxies of the Romantics including pantheism and an oxymoronic “naturalistic sacramentalism.”

At its narrowest, McCarraher’s sacramentalism reflects aspects of medieval Christendom’s identification of society with the mystical Body of Christ as formed by Church-administered sacraments.

The medieval moral economy was enveloped in a “sacramental worldview,” in Brad Gregory’s words, in which the material world and social life could reflect and convey divine grace and power. For serf, lord, merchant, and artisan as for pope, archbishop, and scholastic philosopher, all of life was sacramental, pervaded by the presence of the triune God.

Yet many, if not most, leaders in 19th century Romanticism rejected orthodox Christianity. McCarraher writes they did so because they could no longer accept Christianity as an intellectually credible belief system. In its place they substituted a commitment to an inchoate sense that something exists beyond the material world. Sometimes that “something” boiled down to an aesthetic sensibility, sometimes it boiled down to a broad form of pantheism. These Romantics instead located intellectual credibility in an oxymoron. McCarraher writes:

What [M.H.] Abrams dubs [the Romantics’] “natural supernaturalism” was something more than the last refuges of enchantment. If, as Bernard Reardon has argued, Romanticism names “the inexpungable feeling that the finite is not self-explanatory and self-justifying”—that there is always an infinite “beyond”—then natural supernaturalism was the heir to the Christian sacramental imagination. The visionary or rhapsodic quality of Romanticism was a sacramental consciousness, a capacity to see or sense divinity in the minutiae of finitude. In a poetic rather than a theological idiom, Romantic metaphysics often envisioned some reality that both transcended and pervaded the sensible world, some abiding mystery that left its alluring traces in the world of appearance.

The Sacramental Romantic

While it appears McCarraher personally holds to a Christianized, Catholic Romanticism, he enthusiastically proffers this broader Romanticism as the cure to what ails modern capitalist society. He leaves undiscussed whether most people might find belief in an oxymoronic “natural supernaturalism” even less intellectually credible than the Christian sacramentalism it ostensibly replaces.

Neo-Romanticism, whether of the left-wing or right-wing variety, draws on idealized images of relationships in premodern societies, most often of relationships in the Middle Ages. McCarraher explains:

Romantics redefined rather than rejected “realism” and “progress,” drawing on the premodern customs and traditions of peasants, artisans, and artists: craftmanship, mutual aid, and a conception of property that harkened back to the medieval practice of “the commons.” Whether they believed in some traditional form of religion or translated it into secular idioms of enchantment, such as “art” or “beauty” or “organism,” Romantic anticapitalists tended to favor direct workers’ control of production; the restoration of a human scale in technics and social relations; a sensitivity to the natural world that precluded its reduction to mere instrumental value, and an apotheosis of pleasure in making something referred to a poesis . . . an ideal of labor as a poetry of everyday life, and a form of human divinity.

Right-wing, or reactionary Romantics and left-wing, or utopian Romantics, share a similar commitment to this premodern ideal. Today’s reactionary Romantics often idealize aristocratic society and hope to restore some version of it. Utopian Romantics such as McCarraher are in a tougher spot. While they pine for what they see as the more human and humane relationships of premodern aristocratic societies (and earlier), they would perfect aristocratic-era society with fundamental commitments to social and economic equality and an idealized form of democracy. “Democracy” refers more to a commitment to deliberation in collective decision-making and to the principle of non-domination rather than to a system of majority rule. Nonetheless, the social vision of both utopian and reactionary Romantics is essentially premodern. McCarraher writes:

Romantics turned to precapitalist values and cultures for inspiration. Looking to the past for their sources of moral and political imagination—classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, peasant and artisanal communities—Romantic anticapitalists sought, if not to literally resurrect and reinstate the past, then to revive in some modern form the values they cherished from premodern societies.

As with the unremarked oxymoron inherent in the Romantics’ “natural supernaturalism” so too the question goes unremarked whether the ostensible social solidarity of pre-modern, largely hierarchical societies can be replicated if combined with modern commitments to equality and deliberative democracy. Tocqueville, for example, posits that it is equality and democracy, not capitalism, that lays at the root of the materialist spirit of the modern age.

Capitalism as Religious Rather than Secular

Utopian Romanticism develops a line of criticism against neo-liberalism distinct from standard left-wing criticisms. While McCarraher aims most of his ire at capitalism, he also assails the explicit materialism inherent in much of the standard left-wing criticisms of capitalism. These views share the allure of the false enchantment of capitalism and deny the inherent need of the human soul for enchantment or religion.

This points to McCarraher’s understanding of capitalism and religion, which he regards as the distinctive contribution of his book. Inherent in much of the left-wing criticism of neoliberal capitalism (and in right-wing criticisms as well) is the notion that capitalism fosters an “instrumental rationality” that is inherently secular and secularizing. This instrumental rationality is what “disenchants” the world in common left-wing criticisms of capitalism. McCarraher takes strong exception, inverting the hypothesis:

Far from being an agenda of “disenchantment,” capitalism, I contend, has been a regime of enchantment, a repression, displacement, and renaming of our intrinsic and inveterate longing for divinity. There is more than mere metaphor in the way we refer to the “worship” or “idolatry” of money and possessions.

[C]apitalism is a form of enchantment—perhaps better, a misenchangement, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world. Its theology, philosophy and cosmology have been otherwise known as “economics.” Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies . . . Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. . . . And its gospel has been that of “Mammonism,” the attribution of ontological power to money and of existential sublimity to its possessors.

McCarraher devotes the bulk of the book’s 679 pages of text (with an added 102 pages of endnotes) to a historical review of the religion of “Mammonism” in American history, from the Puritans up to the current day.

McCarraher’s mastery of a welter of both primary and secondary source materials is impressive. At the same time, I am ultimately unsure what the point is of amassing the literature. His hypothesis regarding the religious implications of “mammonism” in fact is very old and well known. And it continues to be heard in thousands of churches across the country on any given Sunday morning—even in the pulpits of the evangelicals and Calvinists that he harps on throughout the book. Furthermore, McCarraher’s presentation of the evidence is so tendentious and unbalanced that, early on, it loses the power to persuade. Better are discussions of these issues by authors both old and new.

Tocqueville, for example, cries over the world he sees being supplanted by the materialism and vacuousness of the democratic age. At the same time, he also sees why this new way of life may be attractive to ordinary people. More recently, in The Market Revolution in America historian John Lauritz Larson discusses the dire consequences of this eponymous revolution in antebellum America. Yet he also identifies what made this dramatic shift attractive to so many ordinary Americans. Aside from a brief, if amusing dodge in which McCarraher dismisses as a “red herring” the complaint that he overlooks “the real advances in human flourishing made possible by capitalism,” he ignores how any ordinary people might have believed that they could benefit from the transition from premodern society and economics to market liberalism.

Mammonism is Inherent in the Human Condition

McCarraher treats the religion of “mammonism” as a product of the rise of modern capitalism. There was a turn from the enchanted pre-modern era to the false enchantment of capitalism. For all the pages McCarraher spends on modern mammonism, he misses that the temptation is hardly unique to people in modern capitalist societies. For example, at least three times McCarraher quotes or alludes to the idea that covetousness or greed is “idolatry.” The quotations always reflect application to modern materialism. I have no doubt they apply. But what McCarraher never notes is the genesis of this concept thousands of years before the rise of modern capitalism.

The Apostle Paul, for example, warns his readers that a “covetous man . . . is an idolater” (Eph 5.5) and that “greed . . . amounts to idolatry” (Col 3.5). Similarly, there is Paul’s well-known admonition to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil” (1 Tim 6.10). So, too, both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke record Jesus’ oft-quoted lesson that “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” There are numerous similar admonitions in the Old Testament (Dt 8.16, 1 Chron 29.14, Ecc 5.10, etc.).

The problem this creates for McCarraher is not simply that his hypothesis has been well known for centuries. The problem is more pointed than that. The real challenge is that the religious or spiritual dimension of greed and covetousness were recognized by religious leaders as a central problem of the human condition for millennia prior to the rise of modern capitalism. The argument McCarraher makes compares modern capitalist systems awash in the worship of mammon and less materialistic, premodern times when the allure of mammon was less insistent. That these very old religious teachings treat the temptation as a central problem in the premodern era suggests this form of idolatry is not unique to capitalism. It therefore also suggests the possibility that this form of idolatry can be resisted and overcome by participants in modern capitalist systems in ways it had been resisted by participants in premodern economies.

While markets have existed for millennia, they were not usually as predominant as they are today. Premodern economies included significant non-market exchanges of goods and services. These non-market exchanges are generally grouped under the label of “gift economy” or “gift exchange.” Moderns are apt to misunderstand the description. Today we generally think that a true or real gift is unilateral. It is given with no expectation of a return. In contrast, in premodern societies, reciprocity was a central feature of almost all gifts. That is, gifts were given in order to obligate a return. (Think of the “gift” exchange between Amerigo Bonasera and the Godfather in the eponymous film’s opening scene.) This means that there was a central instrumental purpose in premodern gift exchange. They weren’t economies centrally based on selfless altruism. They could serve selfishness just as easily as market transactions. Hence “mammonism” is a central problem throughout human history, it is neither limited nor uniquely manifested in modern capitalism.

The Tragic Tradeoff Between Enchantment and Material Prosperity

McCarraher displays little desire to contemplate sympathetically why some quite ordinary people might prefer aspects of market systems relative to premodern society and economics. Balance would actually make his argument stronger, not weaker. For example, in Volume II of Democracy in America, Tocqueville discusses why he predicts more covetousness in democratic societies like the U.S. than there was/are in aristocratic societies. The reason is the absence of class stratification, so poor people think it is possible to become rich, and rich people fear becoming poor.

While democratic peoples will not generally have the resources to engage in the “sumptuous depravity” that exist among the aristocracy, there are nonetheless dire spiritual implications for the more modest democratic indulgences.

It is not a question of building vast palaces, of conquering or fooling nature, of exhausting the universe in order to better satisfy the passions of one man; it is a question of adding some land to one’s fields, of planting an orchard, of averting trouble and satisfying the slightest needs without effort and almost without cost. These objects are small, but the soul clings to them: it thinks about them every day and from very close up, they end up obscuring the rest of the world from it, and they sometimes come to be placed between it and God.

Beyond offering an alternative causal hypothesis than McCarraher does—equality and democracy for Tocqueville as opposed to capitalism for McCarraher—Tocqueville identifies a tragic tradeoff between incommensurables. With the new era comes spiritual impoverishment. At the same time, both the costs and the benefits remain incommensurable. Tocqueville laments that in modern democracies:

Souls are not energetic, but mores are mild and laws humane. If there are few great acts of self-sacrifice or very elevated, very brilliant, and very pure virtues, habits are well-ordered, violence is rare, cruelty almost unknown. . . There are few pleasures that are very refined and few that are very crude. . . . Almost all the extremes are becoming attenuated and losing their edge; almost all the points of prominence are being effaced in order to make room for something average, which is at once less high and less low, less brilliant and less obscure than what has been seen in the world.

I scan my eyes over this numberless mass composed of similar beings, where nothing rises to a higher level or sinks to a lower one. The spectacle of this universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to long for the society that no longer exists.

Tocqueville is torn. While his heart may commend the virtues of aristocratic society, his head goes with modernity, despite its materialism.

More significant is the challenge Tocqueville’s causal explanation presents to left-wing Romanticism. While utopian Romantics idealize pre-modern societies, they are not uncritical of these societies. They would perfect pre-modern societies with added commitments to democracy and equality. Yet for Tocqueville, it is democracy and equality that generate the materialism and impoverished relationships that McCarraher laments—ironically, the very things that left Romantics seek to foster.

More recently, in The Market Revolution in America, Larson rehearses a generally negative story of markets upending traditional, static society in the U.S. While Larson does not minimize negative consequences of the changes wrought by the market revolution on traditional life in the U.S., he does acknowledge benefits as well. From a greater quantity of goods at lower prices to the fact that some ordinary people wanted to take advantage of the new freedoms and to escape traditional life. As in Tocqueville, for Larson the goods inherent in each world are incommensurable.

These gains for ordinary people are not simply “red herrings” as McCarraher dismisses them. McCarraher’s “sacramental imagination” seemingly does not extend to imagine the real desires, even basic material ones, that people might see fulfilled in a market economy relative to premodern economies. That “man does not live by bread alone” does not mean that “man does not live by bread at all.”

More could be said about many other claims and arguments in McCarraher’s lengthy book: About the impracticality of his “small-is-beautiful” vision for economic production in a world of over seven billion souls, of his insistent belief that economic scarcity is a fiction of modern economic analysis rather than a constraint imposed by a Fallen world, and about his overly-optimistic anthropology that all-but denies the Fall. But this review is itself already overly long.

The temptation for advocates, particularly in today’s overheated political hothouse, is never to concede weakness. Thus, market liberalism must be good all the way down if we think it is good at all; and market liberalism must be bad all the way down if we judge it bad at all. McCarraher succumbs to the temptation, and as a result writes a much less interesting or useful text than he could have if he brought even a modicum of sympathetic understanding of the experience of many ordinary Americans to his task.