Last week, I read Eugene McCarraher’s wave-making The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. It was absolutely beautiful, and powerfully convicting read. I read it mostly to stay in the theological know, but I found so many of the ideas I’ve encountered in other books touched upon in McCarraher’s vast survey. And so many of the personal questions of discernment I have wrestled with as an adult are addressed in his work. To wit: what does it mean to be an artist, when the common wisdom of one’s social class is that one should have a “career”? It is difficult or perhaps impossible to be an artist on LinkedIn, but that is a different post.
My two complaints with the books were that first, it was too short. Don’t get me wrong, the tome is large enough to be a murder weapon. But, despite its massive size and McCarraher’s dazzling expansiveness, one is left realizing how much one still doesn’t know. He paints a breathtakingly comprehensive portrait, and I felt as though I was only seeing a small piece of the picture.
All 678 pages moved at a breakneck speed. Condensing twenty years of research into six hundred pages and change of text is a Herculean editorial act, and can only be achieved with pacing wound as tightly as a screw. The book is a luminous summary of his work, and it’s perhaps the closest we can get to following him on his journey, but I certainly was left hungering for even more.
But my most substantive complaint of the book is this: at the end of the book, as we’ve reviewed the litanies of mammon’s heresies and our stubborn sins against God by again and again making mammon our religion and idol, McCarraher fails to find a convincing path forward. In search of possible cures for our cultural madness, McCarraher gestures to the Romantics—Ruskin and Morris.
It’s a weak and unsatisfying tonic.
In the conclusion, however, McCarraher also gestures—serendipitously—to the work of Rebecca Solnit, feminist author, whose political vision of the world looks more like the Magnificat than most political theories or theologies I’ve read.
Reading Rebecca Solnit’s, whose critiques of power are inexhaustible, I sometimes find my inner skeptic rebelling against her populist exhalation of human nature. She believes very much in the goodness of the human being, and that, if our societies were based much more on this belief than on fear, power, or hatred of the human, what a different world we would have. She believes this so strongly, it puts my naive cynicism to shame.
McCarraher namechecks her work at the end of the book, continues on to call for a return to something more like the Romantic arts and crafts movements.
How is it, I wondered, that this man can chart the failures of every white male savior to which American heresy and soil have given birth, and still bypass Solnit’s vision of the feminist society to cling to a failed nineteenth-century movement conceived by privileged British men?
If we must look to the horizon for a role model and guide—perhaps the saint we await will not be “another and different” Francis, but a Clare.
McCarraher ever-so-briefly touches on the unholy union between capitalism and racism, but he rarely discusses the fraught dependency of American masculinity on American capitalism. Capitalism and sexism are deeply in bed with one another. Once the production of goods moves outside the realm of the household, the wife is reduced to the Victorian useless woman or the 1950’s housewife in heels. The less communitarian and the more industrialized society became, the greater became women’s struggle to find a meaningful place in it. Much of the feminist movement has been—it’s true!—a struggle by women to have simply and equal share in the empty show of nineteenth and twentieth-century American dystopia. But, the feminist movement has also been powered by women who have provided some of the strongest excoriations of Mammon’s stranglehold on our country.
McCarraher’s strongest prescriptions for cultural conversion are found not in Ruskin, but in the writing and in the voices of women—of women who see how dehumanizing capital is towards the human person, women who call for a depiction of the human person as more than simply a consumer or one whose body or labor is consumed, for women who ask us to see our own power and use it not to control or dominate or coerce others, but to build a community, to build life and love.
It is, famously, a woman who calls for the mighty to be dethroned and for the lowly to be lifted up. America’s greatest prophet was a woman in New York who saw the long loneliness caused by a schizophrenic society madly immolating its citizens in the cult of Mammon, and dedicated herself to the solution: love. And it is a woman with a finely tuned eye for injustice and whose absolute confidence in the human spirit whose work provides the author with the best conceptual model of what political life on the other side of mammon could possibly look like.
Indubitably, we yearn for a new saint to lead by example. But Solnit would remind us to be skeptical of the hero narrative. We cannot await one singular heroic saint, rather, we yearn for collective sanctification. What the world groans for is for each of us to discover the calling we have to live our lives in holy poverty, radical love for our neighbors, and in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable.
We look, in fact, for a Mary—a figure whose heroism has never relied on her singular achievements of her own personality, a figure whose elevation and exaltation has never redounded to her own particularity, but has always prophesied the glory offered to each and every human, a testament to the radical, abundant love that moves the stars, that enters her human womb, that is born to save not one or two men, but the entirety of human existence. Mary bears into the world a love whose generosity breaks the calculations of human society. Her vocation is not self-effacing, but ecclesial, dismantling all our miserly conceptions of the self. Mary’s cult is the antidote to mammon’s death cult. She is the woman whose graced response to the inbreaking of God in her life continually bears fruit in the generosity of community—in visitation, in public witness, and in Church.
If scarcity is the credo for worshippers of mammon, Mary’s Magnificat is the counter-constitution that frees the Marian society from manufactured fears of lack and proclaims a superabundant God whose creation is saturated in divine profligacy. The heart of the world is not war of all against all, might asserting its right, or survival of the fittest or the harshest, but a triune chorus of assent—an ever-giving love that sees all that is and has been made and sings to each member of it: “Yes.”