A Clearing in the Marketplace
Essays Politics Toward a Just Political Economy

A Clearing in the Marketplace

William Lombardo
William Lombardo

Editor's Note: This is the concluding essay of our essay collection Toward a Just Political Economy which can be ordered here.

In “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber describes modernity as a process, as a gradual disenchantment of the world (Entzauberung der Welt). The term was borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, and wrapped up in its meaning were observations made by various theorists of the 19th century: Marx, Durkheim, Nietzsche, and others. The process it describes is one in which the instrumental rationality developed during the Enlightenment—and inscribed in politics, society, and nature as bureaucracy, the market, and the scientific method—evacuated religion from these spheres. Disenchantment thus describes the recession of religion from public life during the modern period. Weber was ambivalent about this development, but nonetheless viewed it as an ineradicable feature of modern life.

This description predominated for many years, and still colors how we think about ourselves as emerging from an unenlightened, superstitious, dogmatic past, into a world governed by science, evidence, and reason. Indeed, Michel Foucault reminds us the word Aufklarung—“Enlightenment”—is often used in the sense of an “exit” (Ausgang). The narrative of disenchantment has recently, however, become a question. For Charles Taylor, it is at best a poor description of modernity—where the options for religious belonging have multiplied, but the phenomenon has not disappeared—and, at worst, begs the question. To assume that the Scientific Revolution refuted earlier religious forms is to presuppose that science even can do so. Needless to say, Taylor thinks it cannot (or, at least, has not), and so “secularization” is no longer an evacuation of religion from the world, but a phenomenon in which religion’s social status is drastically changed to one where belief becomes seen as one legitimate choice among many others. Even if we are believers, we can easily imagine not being so. Even this imaginative possibility was closed off to pre-modern people. This change has not led to a recession of religion—though it perhaps leads to the waning of singular or organized religions—but rather leads to an explosion in the number and in the “varieties of religious experience,” to borrow William James’s term.

Eugene McCarraher denies both accounts of disenchantment. Even Taylor, he says, falls into the trap of assuming the world has been disenchanted. To be sure, Taylor uses the word in a much more restricted sense, meaning the disappearance of belief in magic, astrology, and the physical battlefield of spirits. But for McCarraher, this is emphatically not so. Perhaps the world was disenchanted along these lines—public religions waned, fewer people believed, and so on—but it did not remain so. Rather, it was re-enchanted along a new axis: the market. His massive recent contribution, The Enchantments of Mammon, is an attempt to prove this by sketching a careful genealogy of the American capitalist imagination.

Like Weber, McCarraher identifies the Reformation—and Calvinist strains of Protestantism especially—with the rise of capitalism. Yet this is the extent of the similarity. Weber saw the leveling of religious and lay vocations by Luther and the emphasis on thrift and hard work as outward signs of Election by Calvin only as prerequisites for capitalism’s eventual triumph. They imbued economic activity with a theretofore denied respectability, without which bourgeois capitalism could not have arisen. For Weber, capitalism appropriated and then discarded Protestant theology; but for McCarraher, it could not do without theology altogether.

McCarraher rejects that capitalism operates through disenchantment. It rather developed, and was originally suffused by, Protestant theology, especially as brought to North America from England and Holland. Eventually, capitalism departed from its theological grounding as it became self-justified, in hidden but nonetheless theological terms. This is the crux of McCarraher’s argument: that capitalism represents a relatively complete, if not always coherent, theological system, replete with its own metaphysics, clergy, theodicy, and eschatology. It is the final component especially that never quite escapes from the original Protestant vision (McCarraher calls it the Jeremiad) of a nation of mostly equal producers whose relationships are modeled off the small-town market. Even after the rise of Fordism and the eventual triumph of the neoliberal corporation, something like this Jeffersonian vision still animates the vision of the American summum bonum.

McCarraher’s drama is about how overwhelmingly suffocating that imagination is. We are confronted with repeated attempts to break out of the capitalist imagination, to reconceive the relationship between creator and creation, craftsman and craft, humanity and the natural world, and to explode the instrumentalized relationships that have captivated us. Yet they all fail, and we are invited to explore why. In part, they fail because the capitalist social imaginary suffuses much of how Americans have thought of social life since the country’s inception. If the American Founding was basically Lockean, then American politics and the market are easily grounded in the same place. Since at least the turn of the 20th century, however, the country’s dominant ethos can probably no longer be described as Lockean, especially after the transformations of the Progressive movement and Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is still, however, undeniably capitalist. If capitalism unmoored itself from Lockean liberalism, then in what is it grounded? McCarraher’s answer is that it is self-justifying. Its divine sanction is still implicit, perhaps, but is no longer required in order to stand on its own. In fact, unbeknownst to many, capitalism begins to make claims to properly religious matters. Goods to which Christianity laid privileged claims, like solidarity and a redemptive future, are re-justified in terms of capitalism, which restructures social bonds and changes the beatific vision into its own terms.

From whence comes capitalism’s power, then? McCarraher’s answer is resounding: it promises to satisfy the same needs as its more overtly religious ancestors. But to purport is not to accomplish. And throughout American history, capital has more often than not failed to provide a satisfactory horizon of meaning to many, a feature that has been exacerbated over the last century. There are a number of symptoms of these broken promises—inequality, union-busting violence, and a usurious, financialized economy—but all of these are seen by the high priests of capitalism (e.g., philosopher CEO’s, celebrity economists, managerial theorists) as bumps in the road to the accomplished Jeremiad, in which all will be self-sustaining producers. Perhaps this could once have been the case. But even a look at pre-industrial America seems to belie this notion. Not in the Northeast—and certainly not in the antebellum South—did a republic of equal producers materialize. Besides, the first communes, deliberate attempts to live outside the market, appeared well before the Civil War. Regardless, the increased sophistication and price of technology and the ensuing economies of scale that arose since the latter half of the 19th century has all but killed the dream of the small producers’ republic.

It is on technology that McCarraher’s critique of labor under capitalism centers. McCarraher is at pains to distinguish himself from Marx in this regard, who he believes fetishizes the very technology he ought to abjure. Marxist determinism cannot but view technological development as providential, a necessary condition for the dissolution of capitalist labor as such. And while there is undoubtedly a close relationship between Marx’s account of alienation and technology, the former arises more from the deconstruction of the production process and the division of labor. But for Marx, technology will undergo a transvaluation and be redeemed after the Revolution.

This is Marx’s fatal misstep by which McCarraher renounces the Marxist escape from capitalism. To be sure, capitalism sustains itself through religious ornamentation and the promise of material redemption—but these are the gilding on a rotten system, not the core of its rottenness. The core is its distortion of labor, one of our most human features, and, in a sacramental world, something we share with the Creator: a mimicry of creation ex nihilo. For McCarraher, modern, industrial technology is a deepening of this rot. It further alienates the productive forces of society from an ideal of production that is genuinely human. If Marx recognizes man as an animal laborans, with creation and exchange at the center of his communal life, then he betrays man’s laboring nature by ceding productive power to technology. Marx is, in fact, still enthralled to the productive imperatives of capitalism. There were no utopian possibilities before industrial capitalism, for Marx, because the material possibilities did not exist. Only industrial capitalism could generate the material foundations for an eventual reconciliatory society and for the overcoming of alienation. It is for this that McCarraher convicts him: Marx cannot escape the capitalist imagination.

Which brings us back to imagination. McCarraher’s account raises the question of what capitalism is—that is, it suggests an ontology of capitalism. We can imagine some different answers, all of which capture a characteristic: a particular arrangement of the forces of production, an ethic, &c. But grounding these is the notion that capitalism is a story which sustains both the ensuing structure of productive factors and the personal ethic that arises from and otherwise reinforces it.

And like all stories, we can tell better or worse ones—ones that enable us more fully to clarify and pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful, and ones that hinder that pursuit, obfuscating the good and perverting the truth. It should be clear that McCarraher thinks capitalism tells a story that falls squarely in the latter category, and that Christianity rightly understood can tell a better one. But The Enchantments of Mammon is not primarily an effort to make the case for a new economic arrangement. It rather clears space to do so.

What McCarraher is able to do is simultaneously to denaturalize capitalism while explaining its residual force. It is a contingent phenomenon, not the resting point of humans in a state of nature. McCarraher shows that the system of free and equal exchange is sustained by a lie: that is, by the promise of a quasi-religious redemption and, oftentimes, by the outright hostilities of its adherents. But we should be clear about what this means for capitalism. To denaturalize is not to refute. What it is, rather, is a way of exploding the imaginary constructed with capitalism at its core. It is a way of belying the notion that our regnant social conditions are all that is possible, or of breaking down the imaginative barriers to rethinking political-economic arrangements. What it does, in other words, is to clear space for asking what comes next.

In a way the collection at hand attempts to make good on the space McCarraher clears, assisted by a reality that seems no longer to sustain the notion that the prevailing arrangement works for many or most people. This volume explores—but does not exhaust—the range of imaginative alternatives to whatever we might call this period of political economy: neoliberalism, late capitalism, &c. And many of these alternatives hinge, sometimes implicitly, on the question of what form enchantment will take moving forward. Here, too, McCarraher has a compelling vision: a recapturing of a sacramental imagination that envisions labor as a gift-giving activity grounded in a love for others. The vision is explicitly utopian and requires a conscious cultivation: McCarraher uses the image of rescuing stranded sailors and bringing them to intentional communities. But it is clear what the enchantment of the future looks like for McCarraher. Changing the axis of enchantment once again is an integral activity, in the sense that it engages all forms of life. It is necessary but insufficient merely to rearrange factors of production. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of how doing so would even be possible in the absence of a new form of enchantment. Can we even imagine a genuine gift economy using capitalist categories? Or must we rather change the language with which we talk about production and consumption, poverty and wealth? This volume likewise tries to expand the language which deals with political economy.

Economics, the economy, is only half of this volume’s subject. The other, meanwhile, is politics. To imagine new economic arrangements is almost invariably to raise the question of how political structures, and communal life generally, might change in turn. For example, can we sustain institutions that are more or less liberal in tandem with economic arrangements that are no longer recognizably capitalist? Perhaps. Yet, the point is not so much to answer that question in the affirmative or the negative as to emphasize the radicality of thinking outside the system. Creation and exchange are so integral to human community—either its foundation or its end, depending on whom you ask—that once you begin to tug at relations of production, everything else is liable to unravel, or at least to look very different. “Everything else” includes political arrangements, to be sure—but McCarraher strongly suggests that a key feature of philosophical modernism is likewise inseparable from capitalist production.

If we have a hard time imagining how some other arrangement would work, that is a testament to the residual power of the capitalist imagination McCarraher details. It is akin to imagining ourselves in a radically different time and place; the image starts to get hazy. But that we are able to exercise our imaginations in this way in the first place—that McCarraher was able to get behind the story sustaining the capitalist arrangement—is a sign that the market holds us less and less in thrall. These are, however, only reflections. The future is open-ended, and this volume represents the seizing of an opportunity, the identifying of and gazing through a clearing. If we have any desire to make good on that opportunity, we might first think about telling ourselves a better story about what we owe each other.

Featured image: Market Scene on the Village Square painting (c.1579) by Gillis Mostaert via Wikimedia Commons.

William Lombardo is the Managing Editor of Athwart. He is an alumnus of Duke University and is a policy researcher in Washington, D.C.