The Enchantments of Mammon Thoughts, Part II
From a humanitarian point of view the best government is that which we find in an insane asylum…Their aim is to make the inmates of the asylum as comfortable as possible, regardless of their respective moral deserts — Thurman Arnold
The lesson for the ‘new class’ was clear: since the masses can’t handle too much reality, keep them spellbound with empty incantations. — E of M, p. 382
Previously, I wrote out my overall thoughts of The Enchantments of Mammon, including my chief critique of the book, which was mostly critical of the conclusion. Besides my quibbles with both his ending and his blind spots, McCarraher’s opus is a vital crash course in the many spells that Mammon has cast upon susceptible Americans and the many empty shows by which it has converted the masses to its cult.
McCarraher is unflinchingly clear on the unholy marriage of America and Mammon at the very outset. American project has contained in its heart the seeds of Mammon from the very first: from institutionalizing slavery, to the monetizing of the frontier, from the Disney-fication of the American folk imagination to the myth of El Dorado that has consistently dogged Europeans arriving on American shores—that this land is an exploitable resource, with plentiful riches waiting in the open for those with enough pluck and aggression to quash all compunction and plunder them, wresting them from the natives who are naive, resourceful, and ultimately unworthy to own such treasure. The “freedom” that Americans have so prized has all too often been reduced to license for untrammeled greed.
One of the most galvanizing lines of thought that McCarraher uncovers is capitalism’s dependence upon elite consensus that the “nether classes” are incapable of self-rule. Elite abhorrence of actual democracy is the driving force behind much of American capitalist development. Capitalism, for all its thrall over the “middle class” who are tantalized by the mass opiate of “upward mobility” has a diminished and diminishing view of the human person and spirit.
Concurring with Arnold’s conclusion that the best form of government treats its subjects as invalids in need of care, H.L. Mencken writes on the transferrable of power to the realm of business.
“The average American banker or businessman, whatever his demerits otherwise, is at least more competent professionally than the average American statesman, musician, painter, author, Labour leaders, scholar, theologian or politician. Think of the best American poet of our time, or the best soldier or the best violoncellist, and then ask yourself if his rank among his fellows in the world is seriously to be compared with that of the late J. Pierpont Morgan among financial manipulator, or that of John D. Rockefeller among traders. The capitalists, in fact, run the country, as they run all democracies.”
The awe and admiration that surrounds the sacramental activities of priests has been transferred to the investing speculations of the merchant or trader. Financial rather than spiritual wisdom is worthy of respect. Mencken continues: “As the old aristocracies decline, the plutocracy is bound to inherit their hegemony, and to have the support of the nether mob.” The nether mob are necessary to provide the labor and material that keep the machinations of the elite running, but, as they are not possessed of the special talent of making money that the businessman wields, they are necessarily disenfranchised.
During my reading, it occurred to me that democracy absolutely depends upon twin pillars to survive: education and hope.
Education is vital for democracy to function. Without informed citizens, capable of using their intellects, hearts, and wills to their fullest extent, governement of the people by the people is a failure to launch. What is important here is not so much the level of education reached but the quality of the education.
It is not necessary to read the entire Western canon to learn to think critically, to analyze arguments, to create new possibilities of thought. What is most vital about education, I would argue, is that the student is introduced into the conversation of the human experience.
Academia is our formalization of the conversation between experience, thought, and speech that begun, I suppose, when Eve sprang from Adam’s rib and said hello. At its best, education introduces students to the conversation that began before our cities were born. Education inducts students into the stream of thought and speech that has built the human experience and equips them to join the conversation. Education is a humanizing activity because it connects us to the full extent of our humanity. As communal creatures, we are created for conversation, we are created for communication and community. As spiritual creatures, made both in time and in eternity, we yearn both to dialogue across time and within it.
Education connects students to their history. A country whose citizens are divorced from their history cannot understand their place in the story of the past and how their actions and decisions find their place in it. If we are divorced from our place in the long, long memory of history, we cannot make sense of what we see and of how we ought to act. Our actions become more clear the more we see them in dialogue with what has come before. A democracy of citizens divorced from their history is a democracy that begins to crumble. The more shortsighted our gaze, the more we stumble over the same stones.
This is not rocket science. If we forget our mistakes of yesterday, we know that we will repeat the same mistakes today. You may tell yourself that you will not eat ten cookies, but if you leave the cookies out of the table and forget that you ate ten cookies yesterday because you were sitting at the table where they were displayed, and you have done so for the past three days, you will repeat the same action today. Only an examination of the past will open up a new possibility for the future.
This brings me necessarily to my second point: that democracy is built upon hope. Christian theologians often take umbrage with the concept of political hope. Yes, Christian hope is based on a wider horizon than secular politics, this dove’s-eye view of eschatology often saves Christian political theology from being duped by cheap political utopias. But Christian hope does not preclude hope for oneself in the here and now.
Living with oneself—just as much as living with others—is an act of hope. Each morning, I pull myself out of bed and offer the day to the Lord who offers me much more latitude than I myself do. And promise that God that today I will do the good I know I ought to and not the ill I know I ought not. Yesterday, I may have snapped impatiently at my sister, I may have grown irritated or annoyed, I may have listened only half-heartedly to a friend sharing his troubles. Today, I wake up, believing that I can instead speak with charity, live with joy, and love with generosity. This is a radical act of hope. It is the hope that love can conquer my ego. It is a wild and perhaps naive hope (the ego, she is always with you), but it is, as I understand, the project of Christian conversion and the fundamental aim of Christian hope. Each day, I am met with a God of love who casts out all darkness, who says to me only “Yes.” And as I grow in union with that God, I understand that I am supposed to live my life more fully in Christ, meaning that Christ lives. in me.
If I am to have this hope for myself—if I am commanded to live in the hope that I can become the good that I know I can be, that I am to become the love that is patient, kind, and generous that I know made me—then I do not know why I cannot have this same hope for my community? If I seek to grow more and more in the image of the Trinity, why should my community not also? Cannot this hope for conversion be extended to the human community?
C.S. Lewis claims that a fundamental danger of the democratic imagination is the fear of greatness, that the democratic society becomes simply a chorus of miserly imaginations screeching: you’re no better than I. In a society of scarcity and competition, Lewis believes excellence becomes a threat—a flamboyant claim to resources. This fear, I think, remains more Hobbsian than Christian.
A true danger to democracy is the belief that I am fundamentally better than you. That I, through my gender, race, power, or intelligence am fundamentally better equipped to lead than you. The belief that all people, no matter their level of property, wealth, intelligence, or power are allowed to have their say in what the community can and should be is a fairly radical and naive belief. In fact, most political theorists have spent their time developing other forms of possible governments and systems of sovereignty. It seems hard and foolish to believe that the earth belongs to the meek.
The problem of popular democracy is that, like Christianity, it has not been found unworthy of trial, but too difficult to try. It’s true, as the Mencken implies, most democracies have functioned by shutting out a portion of their population. “All are equal, but some are more equal than others” has been an all-but official motto of governments. Authoritarianism is always sneaking through the back door of leadership. Government of all people, by some people.
Democracy, like education, might be an uncalculating act of hope. It is an investment in the belief that each person has a right to her inheritance in the human conversation and carving out her place in the human experience.
Democratic hope is expressed through investment in public education. Democracy commits itself to its own future through the development and improvement of each individual, through the growth of the youth to the mature person who—along with her classmates—is its rightful ruler.