Capitalism as religion: on ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’

Time for a book review to mark the passage of my present lengthy blog cycle about my own little book into its later phases. And so, with the usual caveats about my entirely unsystematic and biased approach to the reviewing business, let us take a look at Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Harvard, 2019). At 799 pages, it makes the 692-page doorstopper from Graeber and Wengrow that I last reviewed seem almost flimsy by comparison. But I have read every page of McCarraher’s tome (well, almost – see below) to bring you its fruits, so take a seat and settle in. This, regrettably, is quite a long review, but on the upside it’ll take you way, way less time to read than the book itself (and if you read it carefully, you may just notice that I provide a useful hack).

1. Of sacramental capitalism

The pioneering sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) popularized the term ‘the disenchantment of the world’ to describe the rationalization, bureaucratization and commodification of society in the modern era, as against the enchanted or sacramental worldview of premodern times where people, organisms and other entities were imbued with otherworldly spiritual significance. The big idea that organizes McCarraher’s book is that Weber was wrong. The thought of modern times, and the capitalist economy that animates it, is itself in McCarraher’s words “a form of enchantment – perhaps better, a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world” (p.5). Enlightenment, capitalism and modernity, says McCarraher, didn’t replace religion. They are religion.

On this point, I fully agree with McCarraher, who does a fine job of substantiating it throughout his book in relation to any number of writers and thinkers. But while he does a good job substantiating it, it’s not the kind of thing that he or anyone else can ever really prove, and I daresay there will be readers more aligned with the Weberian view who will be left cold by McCarraher’s claims that our modern conceptions of capitalism and progress are just another waypoint on humanity’s search for spiritual redemption. There’s a kind of dualism here in contemporary culture with clear, unbridgeable water between the two positions. From my side of it, I’d say you either just get that our fondest notions of progress, instrumental control, technological mastery and capitalist needs satiation are basically forms of spiritual yearning, or … you don’t. Trying to argue it out with the other side is rarely illuminating and usually ends at best with blank incomprehension, and often with mere name-calling.

So I doubt McCarraher’s mammoth tome will have much success converting those who welcome capitalism as a disenchantment of sacramental premodern worldviews and a lynchpin of humanity’s modern betterment and progress. Even so, I don’t think his time was wasted. It’s useful to have a hefty, serious work of scholarship that endorses Romanticism, enchantment, love and communion as ideas to be proudly embraced, rescuing them from the derision of the true believers in the supposedly more hard-bitten notions of secular progress who in his pages unwittingly reveal their own sacramental longings. As McCarraher puts it:

 “the Romantic lineage of opposition to “disenchantment” and capitalism has proved to be more resilient and humane than Marxism, “progressivism”, or social democracy. Indeed, it is more urgently relevant to a world hurtling ever faster to barbarism and ecological calamity”

pp.16-17

Amen to that. I should say, though, that McCarraher’s pithiest and most stimulating thoughts about the sacramental nature of capitalism come in the Prologue (pp.1-21) to which most of the rest of the book relates almost as a (very long) footnote. Despite the longueurs, I do like the way he catches the religious timbre of so much writing about capitalism, technology and progress – as for example in an 1860 edition of Scientific American that wrote of recent improvements in haymaking technology “Are not our inventors absolutely ushering in the very dawn of the millennium?” (p.137). But maybe it wouldn’t have hurt to have had a bit less of this footnoting and a bit more of a clearly defined intellectual position around why in capitalist situations “our love spoils into a lust for power that mars the development of civilization” (p.12) and how, under capitalism, enchantment becomes misenchantment.

2. Of nostalgic modernism, the technological sublime and Smaje’s law

Still, sprinkled across the pages of his book like adamantine little jewels, McCarraher explores the implications of his prologue in a series of excellent, almost counterfactual propositions about where the Romantic lineage he refers to in the quotation above might have taken us, and perhaps still might, if only we could tame the disenchanted ideology of techno-progress.

For starters, he reclaims the very idea of ‘progress’ for the Romantic lineage along similar, but rather sharper, lines to my own attempts to escape the airless duality of technological progress versus backward-looking nostalgia. Romantics don’t want to respool history and ‘go back’, but we are able to see the negatives in the way modern societies have gone ‘forwards’, a lot of them connected with the capitalist abstraction and accumulation of money (p.14). So it’s not that we’re opposed to progress. Just the present dominant version of it.

The more I read The Enchantments of Mammon the more vividly it underlined an irony I remarked in my own book, that this present dominant version of technological progress is in fact stuck in the past, specifically in the increasingly dated ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment period and the succeeding intellectual culture of the 19th century. The very title of one leading treatise in progress ideology – Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now! – pretty much gives the game away. Despite the considerable insights of founding modernist figures from those periods – Mandeville, Smith, Kant, Marx, Montesquieu and many others – the projects they initiated have revealed their contradictions and are now exhausted. Yet we continue to reinvent them in the face of present problems as if they’re fresh insights without historical baggage.

When the bandwagon of ecomodernism started rolling in the early years of the 21st century, pronouncing the death of ‘traditional’ or ‘romantic’ environmentalism and trumpeting its melding of ecological consciousness with high technology, it successfully presented itself as a bold new vision while quietly filling new bottles with this same old wine. Although he doesn’t talk about ecomodernism as such, a nice feature of McCarraher’s book is that he captures the sense in which future-heralding techno-progress versus present-focused conviviality is not a new debate, its present form going at least as far back as the 19th century and probably much further. And it’s not really about technology, either. It’s more of a religious debate about how you prefer your sacraments – convivially among friends, family and known existing places, in the embrace of small shrines accreted with a weight of local meaning? Or portentously among the heavens, seeking a Promethean unity with the gods that gladly annihilates the solidity of the local and the presently existing?

The hangover that visits some who wake from the Promethean excess of the latter form of sacrament is called neurasthenia – what McCarraher describes as “a feeling of anomie, listlessness and boredom in the midst of unprecedented comfort and abundance” (p.328). It’s easy to dismiss this as a nice problem to have, a ‘First World’ problem. But it may prove a potentially disastrous whole world problem if its sufferers, those with great purchasing power, try to solve it through further cycles of bad consumption and bad politics. Although it’s common in modern culture to pay lip service to the banality of consumerism, we rarely look the downside of unprecedented wealth, comfort and energetic command fully in the eye.

McCarraher cites, for example, Timothy Walker’s ‘Defence of mechanical philosophy’, published in 1831, in which the human mind becomes “the powerful lord of matter” and “machines are to perform all the drudgery of man, while he is to look on in self-complacent ease” (p.137-8).  No doubt there’s much to be said for ‘ease’, at least some of the time, but ‘self-complacency’ doesn’t sound so great. Yet it’s an apt term for our contemporary fossil-fuelled civilization as it teeters on the brink of authoring its own collapse while congratulating itself for its neurasthenic achievements and scorning societies of the past.

How have we come to think that self-complacency is a good thing? How have we come to be so proud of what Alexander Langlands calls ‘the illiteracy of power’ in which we can see only the advantages of our automated alienation from the biosphere that sustains us, and none of the disadvantages? Rather than embracing new technologies for their assistance in meeting a priori human ends, we’ve ended up embracing new technologies simply in their own right – a kind of aestheticized “technological sublime” (p.135) so pathological that governments are now reduced to invoking as yet implausible, untried or uninvented technologies to bail us out of climate catastrophe in the next few decades.

What I find depressing is not so much the persistence of the technological sublime into the present but its ubiquity across the political spectrum, from the far right to the far left, where Marxists feature as “the lead-bottomed ballast of the status quo…the middle managers of a consumerist, technological civilization” (p.635). As McCarraher’s painstaking enquiry makes clear, you have to look hard to find progressive thinkers articulating alternative romantic, convivial, human-scale visions of society – and most of them, alas, are forced to waste a lot of their time explaining why they do not in fact wish to turn the clock back to a mythical golden age and why they’re not just misty-eyed conservatives. I’d add, though, that perhaps you don’t have to look quite as hard to find them as you might think from a reading of McCarraher’s book, a point to which I’ll return.

In a bravura section (roughly pp.58-107) McCarraher offers a brilliant critique of Marxism which he shows, for all its strengths, has bequeathed a bad legacy of non-ecumenical scorn for alternative, non-Marxist – particularly romantic – traditions on the left, and an ill-conceived vaunting of the working class and other categories of oppressed people as the only authentic agents of political change. I plan to write separately about this elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it here except to say that McCarraher’s critique pivots towards the kind of progressive populist politics I explore briefly in my own book, and which seems to me the most promising route out of humanity’s present predicaments. And I will write more about that in a moment.

For now, I’ll simply say that against the naïve techno-communism of the Leigh Phillips ‘just wait until the working class get the keys to the nuclear power station’ variety, there is no particular sub-group of humanity imbued with some kind of redemptive political authenticity that will save our ass, and nor are there any redemptive technologies like nuclear power that will save our ass either, even if some technologies (probably not nuclear power) will definitely have a role to play in a convivial future.

But a livable future for humanity will have to involve less accumulated power and capital more evenly distributed. That means less material wealth and less command over material resources for the richest portion of humanity than we’re currently accustomed to – although not necessarily less wealth in all the other dimensions of human experience that matter more. But let’s speak plainly – the global rich, which probably includes most people likely to be reading this article, will be materially poorer.

Although McCarraher doesn’t make a central theme of this in his book, nor, to his credit, does he shy away from it. And he usefully excavates various marginalized strands of thought that might inform it, like the Christian socialism of Vida Dutton Scudder and Bouck White, with Scudder’s commitment to “the Franciscan way of poverty, a path of dispossession rooted in a confident, premodern ontology of love” (p.259) and White’s critique of “the modern dread and horror of poverty” (p.294).

I must stress that what I’m talking about isn’t the kind of grinding, malnourished, violent life of poverty that Prometheans often think they’re striving to abolish, while we Romantics tend to see on the contrary as largely a consequence of modern Prometheanism. Instead, I mean a life where the flow of energy and cheap consumer commodities is slower than we’re accustomed to in the Global North and where more of our time must be devoted to furnishing our livelihoods.

On this point, McCarraher provides some useful grist in the dreary poverty wars that rage endlessly between the Promethean and Romantic visions. I’ve lost count of the times somebody championing some favoured example of capitalist high technology as a boon to the poor has angrily denounced the moral repugnance of my position for its connivance with global poverty. Often enough I’ve shot the charge right back. This is what I propose to call Smaje’s law, a variant of its more famous cousin Godwin’s Law: the longer that Promethean techno-modernists and convivial Romantics engage each other online, the more likely it is that someone will profess self-righteous anger at the others’ moral complicity with poverty.

I don’t think it’s a good look for wealthy westerners to invoke the global poor as bargaining chips in their political arguments with each other, so these days I try to avoid falling into the dread grip of Smaje’s law. Albeit a side theme of McCarraher’s book, he provides some useful leverage within its pages for avoiding the dismal oversimplifications involved. And for that I thank him.

3. Plymouth Rock or Jamestown?

I hope I’ve conveyed some of the great strengths of McCarraher’s book. I now want to mention some weaknesses, which I trust won’t detract from an appreciation of the whole.

I’ll begin with a minor one. McCarraher writes beautifully, but at a level of highfaluting intellectual abstraction likely to leave many a general reader cold. There are a lot of sentences like this:

“Indebted to Emerson and Nietzsche and their mythos of the unfettered spirit, Goldman and other cultural radicals draped a bourgeois ontology of power in the exotic raiment of bohemia”

p.308

This is fine by me, having served a lengthy sentence in academia’s ivory prison, but I suspect it will limit his readership – which is unfortunate, because I think he has important things to say. Actually, people have said much the same about my own writing, so at least the next time that happens I can say “if you think I’m bad, try reading Eugene McCarraher!”

A more serious stylistic problem is that while McCarraher doesn’t exactly hide his political colours, he treats most of his case material (which, almost exclusively, comprises what highly educated and literate people such as himself have written about the society they’re living in) to a kind of mannered disdain, which left me wondering how he proposes to transcend a misenchanted capitalism. The writer he most reminds me of, and who McCarraher himself invokes quite often as both muse and counterpoint, is Christopher Lasch. Lasch also had a good line in disdain, which he directed voluminously towards the political left, the political right, and most points in between, but in my opinion usually with a clearer underlying politics that holds the attention better. So I must admit I skimmed a few pages in the middle of McCarraher’s book. There’s only so much self-congratulatory bloviation from obscure 1920s New York admen that anybody needs to experience in their lifetime.

Excessive detail aside, McCarraher does provide a rich account of the history of US capitalism, particularly in the crucial late 19th century change from an individualist-proprietorial model to a corporate, managerial and statist one. I liked his mordant analysis of the “double truth” by which the former model is still used as a veil of legitimacy for the latter:

“one truth for the neoliberal intelligentsia and their sponsors – the fabrication of markets and property relations by corporate capital and the state – and another for the credulous mob – the natural and therefore inviolable status of capitalist markets and property”

p.594

But, apart from a brief nod in the early chapters to thinkers in 19th century England, McCarraher’s history of capitalism is almost exclusively a history of capitalism in the USA. Given that even this takes him nearly 800 pages, perhaps we should be grateful that he didn’t opt for a global approach. But the lack of wider material does compromise his analysis. In particular, he takes the rather sectarian view that the worm in the bud of the US economy arrived with the Pilgrim Fathers and the contradictions of their ‘covenant theology of capitalism’. He outlines convincingly enough these Puritan contradictions, but a wider view of the emergence of capitalism as a world system encompassing not only such Catholic powers and players as Spain, Portugal, France, the city states of Italy and the merchants of Antwerp but also non-Christian protagonists beyond Europe and the Americas might have usefully complicated his vision.

Even within North America, a glance at the irreligious freebooters of Jamestown – who preceded the Puritans of Plymouth Rock by some years as colonial English founders on the continent – might have called into question McCarraher’s instinct to locate the origins of capitalism in the contradictions of lofty Protestant theology. And, whatever the origins, a feature of capitalism is its viral tendency to force replication of its basic structure with local variation across global geography, religion and culture. It may be true, as McCarraher – quoting pioneering American economist Thorstein Veblen – states, that the US farming yeomen of diverse origins of the 19th and 20th centuries were “cultivators of the main chance as well as of the fertile soil” (p.268), but this surely wasn’t fundamentally because of their religion.

4. Plain folks and the stuff they buy

If there’s not going to be a simple revolutionary redemption from capitalism orchestrated by ordinary working people of the kind that Marxists project, then what alternatives are there for getting off the hook on which the capitalist global economy undeniably suspends us? I’m not sure there’s any really plausible answer to that, but if there is I think it will involve complex, flawed, non-revolutionary transformations of capitalism orchestrated from place to place by broad alliances of different people, including but not limited to ordinary working ones.

In the later parts of his book, McCarraher takes us on an informative sightseeing trip that hints at who some of these people might be and what their alliances might look like. Frustratingly, though, he presents them rather hurriedly, almost as exotica in the manner that a well-informed but world-weary tour guide might (that mannered disdain again!) before ushering us back to our comfortable modernist hotel with a faint aura of disillusionment. This leaves little sense of how the living, breathing people we’ve met could help generate the political traction necessary to improve our world. So here I’m going to try sneaking out of the hotel, revisiting some of the people McCarraher has introduced us to, and giving them a bit more leeway to tell a different story.

One of McCarraher’s targets is ‘plain folks ideology’, which he defines in terms of “white supremacy, patriarchal dominance, small government, antipathy towards cultural and economic elites, and the Protestant work ethic” (p.583). It strikes me that this ideology is quite US-specific, although it has resonances – perhaps, for various reasons, growing ones – elsewhere, not least here in Europe. I’ll accept these traits as at least one core ideology of ordinary working people and do my best to work through it towards something more promising.

I’ve written elsewhere about patriarchal dominance, and briefly above about the Protestant work ethic so I’ll restrict myself to a few remarks about the other three items on the plain folks list. Recently in the US and other countries of the Global North there seems to have been a resurgence of bald, far-right white supremacism and ethno-nationalism, but more moderate identification of ordinary working-class white and majority ethnic people ‘upwards’ with majority elites against minorities is probably still of greater political importance.

This identification is heavily manipulated by elites and the politicians representing them like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, but I’ll avoid the ‘false consciousness’ argument that working people don’t know what’s good for them and support such ideologies against their own best interests. In fact, I’d argue the plain folks’ antipathy to elites is more partial than McCarraher implies, involving a claim to be a part of the elite which, like many such claims, involves denying the existence of its own privilege. Hence, there’s a tendency within ‘plain folks’ thinking to dismiss as liberal wokeism an awareness of the historical advantage accruing even to ordinary working-class people of white or majority ethnicity in the Global North arising from colonial power and its modern versions, which becomes an elitism of its own.

McCarraher himself sometimes succumbs to a version of this – as, for example, when he writes “the New Deal state attempted to temper class conflict, stabilize the business cycle, and promote economic growth, relying primarily on the stimulation of consumption through fiscal policy and military spending” (p.364). It’s as if spending on the US military was merely an economic stimulus package. But really you need to ask what the military was doing, and why.

Anyway, a big question for the future is whether these basically elite narratives of race and nation will continue to temper class conflict by drawing majority working-class people into their ambit, or whether more genuinely populist rebellion against the elites might occur. There’s a strong case for thinking the former is likely, but I’d argue McCarraher gives too little credence to the possibilities for the latter.

As with race, so with class, and the curious appeal of popular conservatism. It’s easy to see why people in the richest strata of society, especially in the Global North, are drawn to conservative, pro-capitalist politics, even if the conjunction of conservatism and capitalism needs some unpicking, because there’s nothing in the least bit ‘conservative’ about capitalism. But it’s not so easy to see the appeal to ordinary working-class people, other than as a crumbs-from-the-table subsidiary elitism of the kind I’ve just described. McCarraher addresses this implicitly in an illuminating passage that I’ll quote at length, where he discusses the mid-20th century conservative agrarian localism of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk:

“Weaver and Kirk might have been expected to call for the abolition of corporate capitalism and the revival of family proprietorship. Yet however nostalgic they may have been for the dung-scented air of agrarian integrity, they, along with most other “conservatives”, made a separate peace with corporate business. On this score, they demonstrated the veracity of Corey Robin’s analysis of “the reactionary mind”: that conservatism has been, at bottom, less a concern for the preservation of tradition than “an animus against the agency of the subordinate classes,” a determination that society remain “a federation of private dominions,” especially in the workplace and the family”

p.588

There’s quite a lot going on in this passage, and it bears fruitfully on some contemporary political puzzles. I think there remains in the USA, although less than in most other wealthy countries, a taste for ‘big government’ among ordinary, working-class voters who appreciate that only big governments have the power to take on private corporate interests to the benefit of ordinary people. But it’s tempered simultaneously by an understandable scepticism towards big government, partly through the realization that private corporate interests also rely heavily on the power of big government and ultimately command more of its loyalty, and partly through the alienating experience of bureaucratic welfare capitalism, along with a historical sense that bureaucratic welfare socialism is just as bad, or worse.

This leads to some curious political alignments. On the one hand, there are big government neo-Bolshevik left-wingers like Leigh Phillips and his ‘People’s Republic of Walmart’ shtick. You can barely drive a cigarette paper between his position and big government ‘conservative’ neoliberalism, and if you can it’s a paper inscribed with a belief in the redemptive power of the working class and the benevolence of the bureaucratic state that’s naïve even by Marxist standards. On the other hand, you get small government proponents running the gamut from dissimulating neoliberals playing the ‘double truth’ game I mentioned above, to communitarian and populist conservatives, anarchists and civic republican progressive populists like me.

I think big government leftists are backing the wrong horse because of the impossible political contradictions and biophysical conundrums faced by national and global governance. There’s scope for engaging the subtler thinkers among them who don’t immediately dismiss any kind of small government thinking as irredeemably conservative and beyond the pale, but regrettably such thinkers are scarcer on the left than you might expect.

So perhaps it’s more important for we small government romantic progressives to reach out to the conservative communitarians and populists, with whom we share a commitment to McCarraher’s “federation of private dominions” in the workplace, the family and elsewhere. But we also have a commitment to the “agency of the subordinate classes” (among others) and to principles of fairness and justice determined by inclusive political deliberation rather than assumed to exist in the nature of things.

Our challenge is to convince small government populist conservatives and communitarians that the federation of private dominions they favour has more in common with our vision of private autonomy and public good than with the vision of private property held by the corporate sector and the minority wealthy elite, which lacks commitment to genuine, popular private ownership and distributed sovereignty. Building such a populist alliance is a daunting challenge, but it may be more politically effective than trying to engage the traditional big government and class-determinist left to make its well-intentioned but shopworn political convictions fit for present times. Anyway, I haven’t yet given up on the idea that progressive populists could form a powerful alliance with certain kinds of smalltown conservatives and communitarians. Indeed, the time for it seems riper now than at any point in the recent past (I acknowledge, by the way, that the simple duality of ‘big’ vs ‘small’ government I’m using here needs unpicking. More on that another time, I hope, along with some further thoughts on progressive/conservative alliance).

One reason the time is ripe is because while 19th and 20th century populists could be forgiven for thinking that there was little possibility of reviving family proprietorship in the face of corporate state and capitalist power, it’s easier to entertain its revival today. This is my argument in A Small Farm Future,and it’s the creed of a small but growing band of neo-peasants and neo-homesteaders whose political allegiances cut across traditional lines.

I wish McCarraher could have lent some of his weight to that movement, but for all his endorsement of romantic alternatives to techno-capitalism and its techno-communist twin, he just can’t quite escape the urge to disdain them, as with his “dung-scented air of agrarian integrity” remark. This urge gets the better of him in his analysis of US agrarian populism around the turn of the 20th century, whose proponents emerge from his pages as mere smalltown capitalists with nothing to teach the anticapitalists of today: “populism was an alternative model of capitalism, it was never an alternative to capitalism….it has never imagined a fundamental revision of property relations in America” (p.265).

There’s some truth to this, but it’s a charge that any number of jobbing Marxists could have laid, and indeed many have. For someone who’s just taken so much trouble to criticize the progressive, world-redeeming pretensions of Marxism, it’s strange that McCarraher relapses into the same easy critique of populist reformism without probing more deeply at the movement’s radical possibilities. For my part, I’d argue that elements of US populism and contemporaneous movements like distributism did imagine a ‘fundamental revision of property relations’ – a more realistic one than Marx’s – in advocating for the fair distribution of land and in opposing the anti-democratic, corporate accumulation of property.

McCarraher himself mentions how “the lords of finance capital realized with horror” that the populist C.W. Macune’s sub-treasury plan “would place the nation’s monetary policy under…greater democratic supervision…and break the hold of big-city merchants and commercial banks on American farmers” (p.262). Which sounds to me like it could be quite a fundamental revision of property relations. Elsewhere, he gives a sympathetic account of John Ruskin’s non-Marxist communism of “private, nonaccumulative, convivial property” (p.88). Agrarian integrity; sub-treasuries; self-possession; distributed, convivial, nonaccumulative property. It’s as if McCarraher has painstakingly tracked down all the pieces of a jigsaw scattered to the corners of the room by angry modernist techno-progressives and placed them carefully back on the table, only to lose his nerve at the moment of final assembly. The time for a small state, civic republican, progressive agrarian populism – an anti-Mammonism, an anti-Leviathan – is now. McCarraher ably prepares the ground for it in his book. I hope he’ll someday come and join us on it.

I feel like I’ve already criticized McCarraher more than he perhaps deserves, but I just want to flag one final area of weakness. Early in the book, and rightly in my opinion, he castigates critics of consumerism for their “tiresome and largely ineffectual moralism” (p.14). But he never really finds an alternative vantage point from which to analyze consumerism – all that stuff that the plain folks love to buy. So in the end he wavers between joining the moralists – “Consumer culture is a counterfeit beatific vision, a realm of coruscating misenchantment, a corporate atlas for a parodic sacramental way of being in the world” (p.227) – or throwing up his hands in despair: “It would seem that most of “the 99 percent” want to “take back” the American Dream, not awaken from and definitively repudiate it; no depth or magnitude of failure seems capable of occasioning a fundamental reckoning with the futility of the original covenant” (p.670).

If he’d followed through a little more on his own idea that capitalism is a form of religion, and also with the sociology of Max Weber that he invokes at the start of his book, I think he might have come to a more rounded and less despairing view. Perhaps a view – I hate to say it – closer to the one I outline in Chapter 16 of my own book, where I argue that just as new religious movements are forever arising from the foundations of the old creeds to craft a workable orientation to new times, so there are ways of changing the contemporary religion of capitalist consumerism into new forms of practice and new kinds of engagement with the sacred and the worldly.

5. All the way down

Still, McCarraher does a good line in well-judged despair. Badly-judged despair is ten a penny in cultural criticism and achieves very little, but high-quality despair kept well restrained of the kind McCarraher so often achieves in his book can move mountains. Returning to Vida Dutton Scudder, I liked, for example his appraisal of her Franciscan ability “to endure and draw renewal, even joy, from the experience of defeat” which against “the promethean delusion of total dominion over nature and history…sets the diminutive realism of finitude, weakness, and humility” (p.359).

I think we badly need that ability to draw renewal from defeat right now, and to embrace a ‘diminutive realism’ that refuses the illusory promise that capitalism can become a bigger, better version of itself lurking within any number of techno-progressive and eco-socialist manifestos for the future. We need that ability because of what McCarraher calls the militaristic and disciplined aggression of capitalism (p.484), which is hard to defeat with conviviality and localism. It’s more easily defeated with other forms of disciplined aggression of the kind that Marxist movements historically developed. But such a defeat merely replicates the problem.

However, it does seem to me that all these aggressive, big government statist political doctrines sometimes become the authors of their own destruction, creating local spaces for forms of sacramental renewal that are deeper and more satisfying than the misenchantments of modernity can ever be. The onus is to keep the faith through the seemingly endless round of defeats and try to build out from those spaces when they arise.

In the meantime, it’s good to have books like McCarraher’s to help us on the journey. And it’s good to have a serious academic voice that in contrast to the bromides of a Steven Pinker is alive to the depth and enormity of the task. Asking himself how deep the reconstruction of the project of Enlightenment has to go, McCarraher’s answer is an emphatically italicized “all the way down” (p.675).

I think he’s right.

63 thoughts on “Capitalism as religion: on ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’

  1. I have just started “The Dawn of Everything” so I think I’ll pass on McCarraher for now, but since I’m sure you’ve done justice to his thesis, I think I can comment about something that seems to be lacking there. Where is the analysis of real possibility?

    Thermodynamics and resource depletion are bigger players in the realm of the possible than aesthetic or moral arguments about capitalism and its alternatives. Mass death and, by our contemporary standards, extreme poverty is our inevitable future. Our choice is basically limited to whether that poverty is grinding or convivial, a subject you tackle every day, but which seems to be missing from McCarraher. Am I wrong?

    • Mass death and, by our contemporary standards, extreme poverty is our inevitable future.

      Extreme poverty by our contemporary standards in the wealthier addresses of the planet. You’ve said this much yourself at other times here (in different ways) by observing that those in the Global South who are accustomed to living close to the vest will have a head start adapting when the time comes. And I agree with this to some degree… those with no appreciation for self sufficiency are going to have a pretty rough ride on the way down.

      For me, however, the salient question about where our future choices will be tested comes down to how soon (and how fast) any reckoning occurs.

      On the matter of mass death…. on that front you may have a point, but I imagine the mass death might be more at our own hands due to fighting over resources more than an absolute scarcity of the same.

      If there might be a silver lining to the pandemic we’ve recently experienced it could be the realization of how fragile our supply chains are. Memories of suffering in all sectors, regardless of wealth (perhaps augmented in areas of excess wealth) will remain for some time among those of us to survive. If we ignore these lessons the blame for future difficulties can’t go anywhere else.

      • I agree with all your points. I did mean those of us in the affluent North when I used the word “our”.

        The speed with which our affluence and population overshoot is resolved has an important bearing on preparation for decline/collapse. Nothing much is being done collectively in the rich world yet (maybe not ever), but individual families may still have time to prepare for a future of agrarian peasantry, presuming “our own hands” don’t precipitate a nuclear war or some other such disaster.

        There will be plenty of remnants left of our modern civilization to remind post-modern survivors of this anomalous time. Those remnants may even last long past the time when future generations have forgotten how they were created or what they mean. Concrete freeways in dry climates might last for thousands of years. People living that far into the future might think they are footpaths of the gods.

  2. Does all this esoteric discussions connect / have impact on the real world ? People can only write these books in a world of surpluses, without the surpluses / money to pay for their living they would be in a field with a hoe providing their sustenance instead of living in some one else to provide their needs .
    As for capitalism and or its alternatives you only have to go back to 1991, the Soviet union collapsed because the oil price was so low they could not afford to import grain to feed its population , thirty years later the world in in upheaval because Russia and Ukraine fight ( the world’s largest grains producers )have stoped exports , communism versus capitalism in the real world , not some isolated ivory tower echo chamber .

  3. Nice review Chris. And not that I need another 800 page book on the ‘to read’ shelf, but you’ve got me interested.

    So off to the library, right? Well this might interest: for comparison, the central Ohio library system (for a population north of 1.2 million) there is exactly one copy of your SFF. Not too exciting, but it is out in circulation right now. And I seriously doubt mine is the only personal copy in the area. Now to EM’s effort – no copy in the same system. I had to go to inter-library loan to find one. This ILL is for the whole state of Ohio (nearly 12 million at last count). There are 3 copies available in this tenfold larger system and none were checked out (until a few minutes ago).

    Now, however, based on a stellar review from a cottage somewhere in the Mendip Hills this state’s librarians will likely need to put in an order for more. [particularly if all your readership here run out and reserve a copy… 🙂 ]

  4. Yes, thanks again Chris for a very informative review.

    Unlike your reviews of ‘Dawn of Everything’ and ‘Sand Talk’, this review isn’t causing me to rush out and get my local library to buy a copy. (I didn’t need to tell them about ‘Dawn of Everything’).

    Seems to me that the first order of business in asserting the religion of capitalism is to agree on a definition fro ‘religion’.
    Good luck with that, not that I’m disagreeing with the premise.

    Making a sacrament (whatever that is) out of an abstraction of the living world, maybe.

    As for your question ”…what alternatives are there for getting off the hook on which the capitalist global economy undeniably suspends us..?”

    I’m thinking along the same lines as Diogenese10. Just wait until the money is worthless. Those abstractions becoming ever more abstract will eventually lose all contact with the real world, and a decent meal ends up costing something other than money.

    “…the dung-scented air of agrarian integrity…” Yeah, I’m not inviting that guy over to help pick cherries.

    Anecdata:

    We went to a May Day party a few days ago and I ate lots of delicious potluck food and chatted with some friends.
    With one friend we were talking about electric cars. It took me 20 minutes to finally get him to agree that putting 100 watts of human pedal power (because that’s all you’ll get) into a generator to charge a battery and drive a motor was less efficient than just getting out and pushing.
    My friend has a college degree.
    Never mind understanding capitalism, people can’t even do basic math.

    With another group of friends we were talking about that amazing story in ‘Dawn of Everything’ where the leaders of the Iriquois Confederation went to Europe and saw first-hand how the Europeans did government on their home ground.
    It didn’t take long for this to devolve into a commentary on the contemporary political partisan divide here in the US. One friend actually said “But those people aren’t capable of critical thinking.”

    Maybe not, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing how “…progressive populists could form a powerful alliance with certain kinds of smalltown conservatives and communitarians” around here any time soon.

    It’s too long a story to tell here, but it is well documented that the Pilgrims did not come to North America for religious freedom, they came here to get rich. Naturally, they reneged on their contractual obligation to send gold back to England to repay their sponsors. Maybe theirs wasn’t full capitalism yet, but it was surely headed that direction.

    A ‘fundamental revision of property relations’ – yes, we have ample choices from what was observed by the Europeans when they came here…

    I fear that I’m not managing to keep up a level of “…high-quality despair…”

    Thanks.

    • A sacrament, in my tradition’s understanding, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, instituted by Christ, etc.

      In my more simplistic moods, I do lose patience and conclude that crapitalism, at least as we have it today, is basically just idolatry. I don’t need a book (or, not a modern one) to tell me that people have become badly confused between seeking earthly power and worship of the divine. But then, perhaps my outlook is more ‘enchanted’ than some.

      (Insert rant here about the mischaracterisation of religious faith as being all kinds of magical thinking, incompatible with a scientific understanding of reality; for me it is nothing of the sort. My faith is about meaning and relationship and forgiveness and grace and hope and love; and none of that requires me to ignore the best scientific knowledge we have access to.)

  5. I’m not even through the first paragraph and it is no surprise that you are so far behind on cutting wood. Although, I have been hearing bits of The Dawn of Everything as an audio book and may add it to my winter reading list if I can find a used copy for cheap.
    Keep up the good work so we don’t have to.
    More later.
    Greg

  6. Thanks for the comments. Briefly:

    Joe, yes despite his ‘ecological calamity’ point I quoted above, McCarraher says little about ecological issues and biophysical constraints. You could argue that these concerns have only become prominent recently, so as a historian it would be anachronistic for him to invoke them in his earlier history of capitalism – and that his analysis of the pursuit of wealth as a religious calling is relevant to understanding how we’ve ultimately come to face resource crises. His failure to take rural and agrarian thought very seriously is less excusable. Generally, I prefer to analyze in reviews the things that writers do say or engage with rather than what they don’t, and I found his focus on traditions and thinkers unfamiliar to me of interest. But I agree you’ve identified a hole in his analysis. Even so, I think it’s useful to look at what you call aesthetic and moral arguments, because resource constraints and what to do about them are always filtered through such concerns.

    …which would basically be my response to Diogenese. For sure, this kind of discussion isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and there are plenty of other things to be getting on with (such as my woodpile, as Greg kindly reminds me). But I’d argue that yes these discussions do impact the real world because even when people are struggling to put food on the table, the causes and remedies of their hunger are bound up in the stories they and others tell about who they are and what they’re doing, even in the face of real resource constraint.

    It’s good to hear from Clem that my book is more than holding its own against fancier rivals in the Ohio library system – the kind of information that would otherwise remain forever hidden from me. Love this blog. Some might disagree, however, that difficult times are not here yet. I’d concede it’s wise to avoid interpreting every bad event as evidence of impending collapse, although I think a lack of wisdom running in the other direction may prove a graver mistake in the long run.

    To Eric’s interesting comments, the fact that it took an intelligent and well educated man 20 minutes to see the pointlessness of pedalling into a battery might just be the smoking gun we need to prove that capitalist progress thinking takes the form of religious dogma. As to the powerful populist alliance, perhaps I was over-egging it. However, at the point where money becomes worthless, it’s better if the people among whom we’re living are more like allies than enemies. Given that no painless political redemption is to hand, then I still think it’s worth putting energy into alliance-building.

    And thanks to Gunnar for the link, which I’ll read, and Greg for the words of encouragement.

    • Well, my library system doesn’t tell me what is held regionally – their inter-library loan program goes over the whole internet.
      But Lawrence Kansas Public Library bought a copy of your book on my recommendation. And it is currently checked out.

  7. Thanks for this review.

    I hadn’t encountered either Vida Dutton Scudder or Bouck White, but they sound like worth adding to my own (ever-growing) reading list.

  8. Re: “the Franciscan way of poverty, a path of dispossession rooted in a confident, premodern ontology of love”, and the related ability “to endure and draw renewal, even joy, from the experience of defeat”…

    Capitalism does not provide this type of hardy joy. Assuming that the deeply satisfying forms of renewal and sources of joy aren’t effectively suppressed by the would-be enforcers of the status quo, the appeal of such alternative paths will surely grow as capitalism fails to deliver.

    (While lying in bed last night after some late reading of this blog post, I had a half-awake insight that joy was the key to getting beyond capitalism.)

    A gift economy comes to mind. Research shows that the “Joy of giving lasts longer than the joy of getting.”

    https://news.uchicago.edu/story/joy-giving-lasts-longer-joy-getting

  9. Thanks for this, Chris. What a whopper! I even had to read the review in two sittings owing to time constraints. Perhaps I should take a speed-reading course – what was it Woody Allen said, he could “read War and Peace in 20 minutes… it involves Russia.”
    Lots to chew on, and as Kathryn mentions, some new names to Wikipedia. Thanks for the other links too. I hadn’t read anything by Harari – he certainly sounds confident. As for what might come after capitalism, we do a bit of the old gift economy out here, usually in the form of duck eggs, but for gifts I try to bear in mind that there’s none like the present, and what a marvellous time of year to savour it. Currently outside I can hear the Green Woodpecker, the Golden Oriole, the Swallows and the House Martins, the Wryneck, Blackbirds, and the Nightingale strafing all from the bushes with his sonic stun gun – feels like all the gang’s here.
    Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may diet.

  10. I kinda agree with Diogenese to a certain degree. Contemplation of philosophy, ethics and morals are the reserve of people with time on their hands. Today the “time” is created by fossil fuels, for the ancient Greeks it was slaves.

    In a SFF, I’m not sure how much free time people will have to discuss such matters. There will be lots to discuss and negotiate regarding day to day matters/relations to keep people busy whilst still planting spuds.

    For me, ethics is quite simple.

    “Don’t treat people in ways you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself”.

    I think people understand the concept of fairness and equality.

    Seems to me, that a lot of navel gazing centres around coming up with justifications for inequality.

  11. I feel the need to push back a little against John’s view. It’s true that few people in any society have the luxury to become full-time philosophical contemplaters and writers of books like McCarraher’s (or mine), and such luxury comes at the expense of others. However, I think it’s far from the truth to say that ordinary folk are just getting on with the practical problems of day to day life without higher order thoughts in their heads about wider politics. Everybody operates with quite sophisticated political narratives about their relationships and actions, one of which indeed is the ‘plain folks’ claim to be just an ordinary joe with little truck for fancy talk. Failure to make the implications of such narratives explicit invites trouble.

    Regarding ethics and equality, I’d argue a lot of political work (navel gazing?) has to go into creating equality just the same as creating inequality. Yes, people intuitively understand fairness, but usually only within particular and limited framings – most historic societies haven’t treated all human beings the same and haven’t been especially ‘fair’. A case in point being the modern capitalist societies theorized by Enlightenment thinkers like Kant with his ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’ universalism, which is not at all how these societies have actually operated. Ethical universalism can lead to some complex, contradictory and counterintuitive results…

    Interesting in that regard that Steve and Simon raise the issue of gift economies, which I’ve also mentioned in recent posts in relation to Marshall Sahlins’s writing. Gift economies in autonomous, non-state situations aren’t necessarily very egalitarian or joyful – but part of my argument which I’ll come on to soon is that when people have livelihood autonomy and a decent political stake (as is perhaps the situation in Simon’s village) then they can approximate to this. But I agree with Steve that joy is a good emotion with which to combat capitalism.

    Also agree with Kathryn’s ‘rant’ about mischaracterizations of religion as intrinsically magical or unscientific. I hope my analysis above didn’t fall prey to that!

    • Chris, thanks for those comments about the compatibility of part-time philosophical contemplation with a small farm future. Nothing quiets my mind, and thus supports deep contemplation, as time spent in horticulture.

      Your comments remind me of Rose, Jonathan (2001, 2021 third edition) The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. [https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1pdrr35].

    • Yes, I will echo Raymond.
      One of the most subtle philosophical minds I’ve known (with a Phd in philosophy!) made his living cultivating garlic with a grub hoe. Those two facts were not only compatible, but one led to the other.

      I’m all in favor of political discourse out in the farm fields. Highlight the connection between ideas and action.

    • Everybody operates with quite sophisticated political narratives about their relationships and actions, one of which indeed is the ‘plain folks’ claim to be just an ordinary joe with little truck for fancy talk. Failure to make the implications of such narratives explicit invites trouble.
      Yep we were called deplorable ,the peasantry were getting uppity .
      I have had many long discussions on many topics while doing something else , John chapter three took a whole afternoon while stringing barbed wire , dinner table discussions can last well into the night ( wind generators lasted untill 2 a.m. General agreement that they are expensive toys built to milk subsidies from the taxpayer )
      IMHO there are two types of capitalism , there is the real type , making things/ growing things for profit , then there is the other , the stock market which in my opinion is more like a casino , the world is run on the whims of the casino, pity it’s not regulated like one !

      • Re. ‘a decent political stake’ and ‘autonomous livelihoods’, perhaps visitors’ impressions to might offer some insight? I’m personally uncertain what to say as I assume that many who live here wouldn’t view their livelihoods as especially autonomous. I also mainly only pass the time of day with pensioners and the unemployed.

        “They (the villagers) seem so self-satisfied,” springs to mind. This is slightly lost in translation as the woman was from Tel Aviv and her mother tongue was Hebrew. She meant it in a positive way.

        “Your village is a lot like it was when we were growing up (English Midlands in the Forties) – it’s a nice way/pace of life.” I get this from my mum a lot.

        “They act like they’re independently wealthy!” This from someone coming from another culture (the US), now frustratedly trying to employ local tradesmen to do various tasks, and having to wait, and wait, and wait. It’s a telling thought.

        “This place is a sanctuary.” A local returning for breaks from working life in the UK.

        “The wealthy might, but the peasant will never go hungry!” One that great-grandad occasionally drummed home.

        Perhaps not too revealing after all.

        The hackneyed idea of an autonomous livelihood, at least the air of one, is that achieved through accumulating and using capital, but as Will Bonsall quips of his homesteading life, “the Trumps of this world couldn’t afford to eat like this.”

        We’ve been relieving the local shop’s dustbins of its unsellable fruit and veg for a year now, treating the ducks and the donkey to the spoils, composting the rest. I’ve recently lit on the idea, with the kids, of collecting the discarded aluminium drinks cans too, as these fetch pretty pennies at the recyclers now owing to market trends – pocket money for the kids (and anything to get them to wash their grubby hands more often), and the shopkeeper is happy with it. They call this ‘canning’ in the States. I call it another string in self-autonomous bows, good parasites, I hope, on the rubbish dump of modernity. Well-meaning ones failing that.

        • I’m sure that a rural village seems wonderful to pensioners and the unemployed, and even though younger folk might see it as a refuge from the hurly-burly of the UK working life they still leave anyway.

          There are a few young people who see agrarian peasantry as a desireable lifestyle, but they are a tiny minority. I certainly can’t convince my adult children to leave their city jobs and come home to subsistence peasantry either, but at least they know they have that option.

          It’s when my wife and I are dead that they will have to make the final decision as to what to do with the farm. What do the young people do with their inherited land in your area? My guess is that they sell it to a pensioner, take the money and run, but I could be wrong.

          • I’d estimate around 99 per cent of the pensioners and officially unemployed (often odd-jobbing all over the place much of the time) go back generations in the village, so their roots are soul-deep, with often encyclopaedic knowledge of relations and a visceral connection to the land that incomers will never really be privy to. It’s still a wonderful place to us, and a few other younger families who have moved in and work locally (forestry, National Park, large farms), or are giving homesteading a go (land is relatively inexpensive, but as the area depopulates, grazing small numbers of livestock in and around the village, as of old, is increasingly doable, i.e. you don’t necessarily have to fork out for your own meadow).

            Of those who inherit land – usually small parcels attached to the childhood home or grandparents’ place – often one or other of the offspring keep it on to stay living in the village. Some never shift from living under the same roof as their surviving parent, while others save up to renovate a cherished place, which usually means chasing money and working away for a while. Selling up in the village, although it’s not difficult to land a buyer these days, seldom raises much cash, so hanging on to an inheritance whether it’s used or not, seems wiser.

            Scores of people of working age have left, a few have returned determined to stay, and one or two with the means have decided to leave the city to build or renovate their rural redoubt in these increasingly volatile times. Like yourself, offering ‘an open door’ in the future as my own children become adults, is something I hope to be able to do. There is a growing trend for adults moving back in with their parents as various pressures bite. There’s also the so-called Great Resignation of people re-evaluating their working lives and shooting for a future less vapid. There are several recent books by people who have walked away from an outwardly conventional life to go ape and live with Deer, say (I’m thinking of the Geoffrey Delorme story). Nature is often a pull. These trends might swell the tiny minority you refer to, but I agree with you almost all the way.

    • I’m not suggesting that people who work the land are “simple folk”, unable to take on complex concepts.

      I just think that to “deep dive” into a subject takes time. Time that people in a SFF might not have the luxury of.
      (I know. I did a degree in Fine Art. The ultimate in navel gazing!!! I loved every minute of it)

      All the great thinkers had the time and headspace, to perform the mental gymnastics. That time was created by someone else doing the day to day stuff for them.

      That’s why Universities exist. To “deep dive”.

      I may be a hopeless romantic, but I think our distant hunter gatherer ancestors knew exactly their place in the order of cosmos. They were very much a part of nature, totally embedded in it. They may not have understood earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and came up with all sorts of weird and wonderful explanations, but they probably knew exactly what being human was all about.
      Sure they had disagreements, personality clashes and tensions to work through, but the actual structure of their collective existence????

      I think that philosophy and ethics are our attempts to understand our new roles in agrarian/industrial societies and our disconnect from nature. We no longer understand our place in the cosmos.
      Societies create inequalities that go against our better nature.

      I think that trying to imagine the best social structures is a bit of a doomed task. Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, or squaring the circle.

      We didn’t evolve to live in large, complex, disconnected social groups. Conflict and tension will always be with us as long as we continue to live agrarian lives. (I’m not sure there is any possibility or likelihood of returning to a hunter gatherer existence)

      I think a SFF will throw up constant, shifting, complex issues and tensions for which there are no “total solutions”.

      Not to say that we shouldn’t have the debate though.

    • No Chris, I don’t think your analysis fell prey to the false dichotomy of religion vs fact — it’s more that some historians (and I don’t know if McCarraher is one) tend to lament the demise of religion (or “religious enchantment”) while forgetting that people of faith still exist and live our lives, while others rejoice that we no longer live in an age of “superstitious belief in a sky-fairy” while forgetting etc etc and also using remarkably binary characterisations, based more on rhetoric than reality, to classify us. (And then some Christian comes along and complains about being sidelined or oppressed, in a country where actual bishops sit in the House of Lords and we get bank holidays for two of our major feasts; it isn’t only the non-religious who are guilty of perpetuating societal myths about religion, sadly.) Very much a tangent from the actual discussion, so about on form for me.

      When I was younger I sometimes got to sleep under a quilt my great-grandmother made. I do some of my best thinking when I am walking or tending plants or harvesting berries or crocheting. The winters here have long nights, and without cheap, basically unlimited electric light, I can see a storytelling or conversational culture opening up pretty quickly again. So perhaps a small farm future has time and space both for philosophy and enchantment.

      • Thanks Kathryn. Always welcome your tangents, and usually agree with them – as indeed I do here.

  12. Thanks for this fascinating commentary Chris, the book likes like a very rewarding one. You raise so many ideas here that it’s hard to know where to start!

    For now, I want to think about the idea that starts it all, capitalism as religion. I’m sympathetic to the practice of reframing one thing in terms of another – it can be very productive. I can see how the idea of ‘enchantment’ and ‘sacrament’ can be used to say interesting things about the ways on which capitalist society motivates people.

    However, it also seems to me that if everything is understood as deriving from ‘enchantment’ in some form, then the analysis is bound to end up as a metaphysical or theological one – moving the problems analysed into a realm of how the world essentially works, or what it fundamentally means. Furthermore, to characterise capitalist society as a ‘misenchantment’ evokes notions of spiritual purity and the consequent degraded state of the souls of those upholding capitalist society or hoodwinked by it.

    You highlight McCarraher’s distinction between ‘sacraments’ performed ‘convivially among friends, family and known existing places, in the embrace of small shrines accreted with a weight of local meaning’ and those performed ‘portentously among the heavens, seeking a Promethean unity with the gods that gladly annihilates the solidity of the local and the presently existing’. Clearly the latter is intended to be understood as a perverted form of enchantment, the result of hubris and necessarily dooming those who enjoy it to a terrible fate. But is this really how you want to understand out present predicament?

    There is also an uncomfortable resonance here with the kinds of distinctions made in public discourse between ‘authentic’ local communities and the ‘metropolitan elites’, between ‘citizens of somewhere’ and ‘citizens of nowhere’, which I’m persuaded are essentially racist at heart. Neurasthenia (which, it should be noted, is no longer recognised as a medical diagnosis) was often associated with ‘brain work’, and it seeks to me that a division being drawn here is between the sanctification of a state of being in which one is able to enjoy one’s comforts without being tasked to question them and the damnation of those who insist on such questions.

    This is ironic of course, because you demonstrate every week on here how important it is to ask questions and try to answer them, and the Romantics were nothing if not brainy folk. Indeed, I think you make this point yourself when you point to ‘a tendency within ‘plain folks’ thinking to dismiss as liberal wokeism an awareness of the historical advantage accruing even to ordinary working-class people of white or majority ethnicity in the Global North arising from colonial power and its modern versions’, which you suggest McCarraher succumbs to at times. Likewise, you point out that McCarraher vacillates between moralism and despair – I would suggest that one can do little else if maintaining an analysis at the level of sacramental enchantment, in which agency is ultimately driven by the ‘otherworldly spiritual significance’ of things. Clearly behaviour can then only be understood as natural or unnatural, wholesome or perverse, and thus as right or wrong.

    It seems to me that, if we are to take the Romantic lineage seriously, then it’s important to maintain a distinction between enchantment and dis-(not mis-)enchantment, and not to push the idea of ‘enchantment’ into a kind of metaphysical space. While reading this I was put in mind of the work of Raymond Williams, and in particular his ability to explore disparities of power and class at the affective level, within their local contexts, which seems to me a more productive way to go. Does McCarraher invoke Williams at all?

    I think we can usefully consider processes of enchantment in modern and premodern worlds, but we can do so without basically arguing that everything is fundamentally religious in some way – I’m all for promoting localist conviviality, but I don’t want to turn it into a form of church-going. I don’t think the way out of our current predicament will be helped by developing a discerning eye for the distinctions between saints and sinners. Now, I don’t think that’s what you’re advocating either, but I can’t really see how the seeing everything through a lens of ‘enchantment’ ends in anything else.

  13. Thanks for the very interesting further comments. I will try to respond but I have a couple of busy weeks ahead with various meetings and presentations, followed by their worships pronouncing on my misdeeds. Hell, I may even try to fit in some actual farming. So please forgive me if I’m slow to engage.

    Interesting comments and questions from you as usual, Andrew. I will have to re-read once or twice as I wasn’t quite sure first time around how much you’re questioning my position or McCarraher’s (or at least my telling of the latter). My first blush response is to say that I do think all politics, including all modern politics, is fundamentally religious, or at least spiritual – church-going is another matter. Then we get into questions that you rightly broach about how classes or in-groups and out-groups are formed around the spiritual commitments of politics. I’ll respond to your points there when I can. Your comments prompt the thought that ecomodernism is a kind of plain folks ideology for the professional and managerial classes. Which suggests how complex and shape-shifting these identifications can be.

    Regarding Raymond Williams, a glance at the index indicates two brief mentions of him in McCarraher’s book. One is Williams’ appraisal of John Ruskin’s thought as essentially religious, and the other is a quotation from Williams’ excellent book ‘The Country and the City’ on the horrors of medieval hierarchy that McCarraher nicely complicates with reference to Rodney Hilton and Richard Tawney, including this interesting quote from the latter:

    “if medieval moralists were naive in expecting sound practice as the result of lofty principles alone they were also innocent of the contemporary form of credulity which expects it from their absence or their opposite” (McC p.28)

    It’d be interesting to discuss that further!

    Also hope to weigh in on the nice discussion between Joe and Simon…

    • Thanks Chris. To be honest, given I haven’t actually read McCarraher’s book, I’m not entirely sure whether I’m questioning him, your presentation of him, or a bit of both – further complicated by the fact that my comment was also a first blush response!

      You posit a plain folks ‘ideology’ for ecomodernists above, and I must admit I’m a lot happier with that term, although that may say more about my own commitments than anything else – social life is ideology all the way down?

      I’ve recently seen an analysis of ideology that frames it according to three modes or ‘narrative structures’: history (stories about what has happened to us), metaphysics (stories about how the world works), and theology (stories about what things mean and what value they have). I’m happy to accept that modern politics (all politics really) has a theology in that sense – that it is freighted and maintained by commitments grounded in what it is felt to mean, what is felt to be valuable about it. Perhaps that’s enough common ground for us here.

      I like the idea of ecomodernism as a ‘plain folks ideology’ (PFI) for the professional and managerial classes, to the extent that any PFI basically describes the grounds upon which practices of conviviality and solidarity are built around specific attitudes towards how the world works and what it’s point is. As a current inhabitant of the ‘ivory prison’ I’m constantly bombarded with emails lauding the latest ‘progress’ narrative, usually ‘world-leading’, around my university’s contributions to the sustainable societies of the future, within which ecomodernist commitments fit very nicely.

      The quote you end with is thought-provoking. It’s perhaps interesting to note that the ‘contemporary form of credulity’ is often as adamant about its lack of ideological underpinnings as it is about religious ones. So perhaps I have just swapped one word for another! But it leads me to wonder whether the most interesting thing about the ideology of our capitalist epoch is that its ‘history’ tells of the subversion of religious authority, its ‘metaphysics’ insists on a kind of brute materialism, and its ‘theology’ promotes an individualist spirituality – that is, perhaps capitalism is not so much a religion, as impossible to bring into being without a deliberate attempt to negate religion.

  14. If I own my own farm and work on it, am I a capitalist or a socialist ?

    As far as capitalism being a religion, you know how futile it is to argue with anyone’s beliefs. An additional problem is that the real capitalists control the system that makes the rules and they benefit from that system.

    Philosophy has its work cut out for it.

    Given that we have to operate in the system / world as we find it, how do we make a living, transition to a SFF, and prepare for a world run off the rails by the greedy ?

    I just spent the afternoon stale bedding and tilling in old crop residue on about 5 acres (2 1/4 hectares). In the process I burned about $30 worth of gasoline. Paying enough people to do the work by hand, well, it would cost a lot more than $30. Clearly I’m benefiting from the current system but not enough to pay myself or the people who do work for me what is considered a living wage.

    Solutions ?

  15. Apologies for the slow response to new comments. My complicated week has been made both more and less complicated by an unexpected night and day in hospital, but it’s certainly delayed responding. It’s also reminded me about the need to write about health and welfare in a small farm future at some point soon.

    Anyway, a dashed out response to the comments:

    I found the discussion between Joe and Simon concerning village life, youth etc very informative. For me, Simon’s writing captured nicely the relative autonomy and self-reliance of historically grounded small farm societies that’s worn more lightly than the political edge of latter day back-to-the-landers. Something precious, but understated, that feels quite normal and not especially autonomous to the folks involved. It also hints at something I think is important – a lot of rural people move away not because they don’t want to farm but because structurally they have to, but they retain connections with rural/agrarian life to which their city-slicking is partly directed. Most people in the UK are far more alienated from that kind of rural connectedness, but young people are getting more interested due to push and pull factors. It’s then the structural difficulties of actually getting involved that loom large. So I think the ‘young folks today don’t want to farm’ narrative needs complicating.

    Thanks to Diogenes for the linked article. Of course, there were things I disagreed with in it, and others I agreed with. I certainly agree that the Davos set and their ilk are cooking up some weird shit that ordinary folks would do well to safeguard themselves against.

    Much to agree with in John’s response to my response to his response (it’s a tough old business keeping up with this blog sometimes…) Personally, I place less emphasis on the transition to agriculture as a critical point of alienation, though I don’t discount it entirely. As I see it, agriculture had a long prehistory within forager lifeways long predating the conventional 10,000 year timeline, and forager peoples have faced starkly new circumstances often enough through migrations, social change, premodern climate change, natural disasters and the like that have called forth radically new thinking and responses – not entirely the same challenges we face today, but not entirely different in their character either. Also, as I see it abstract thought is pretty intrinsic to being human, and so is inequality – premodern forager societies had their philosophers, ethicists and autocrats. But I agree that they didn’t have Eugene McCarraher, exactly.

    To Andrew’s points, I agree with your implication that McCarraher doesn’t theorise ‘enchantment’ with sufficient depth to make a truly plausible case for why capitalism involves misenchantement, a point that I hinted at above. I find your points about the three narrative structures of ideology helpful in developing such a case – whose analysis is that? I do actually think that Prometheanism is a perverted form of enchantment, but I don’t think it attaches in any straightforward way to social groups or classes, so I think you do me (and, more so, McCarraher) something of an injustice in imputing a ‘plain folks’ dualism of the ‘real’ people vs the ‘inauthentic’ elites to our thinking.

    Much of my writing is precisely about trying to break down this dualism, as indeed was my intention in the piece above, but I think you have to work on both sides of it. The ‘plain folks’ might not be as real and plain as they think they are, but then neither are the elites … hence ecomodernism, or Enlightenment more generally, as ‘plain folks’ ideology for the elites or professional classes. There aren’t many good intellectual resources to attack this dualism with, because it’s so deeply entrenched in contemporary thinking on both of its sides. I agree with you that Raymond Williams was a nuanced thinker about these things, but ultimately I think he retreated to a Marxist materialism – class and power was determinant ‘in the last instance’, as they used to say. Well, it’s certainly important. But so are other things. Shades here of my review of Graeber and Wengrow…

    I think you’re right that capitalism and modernity are ideological negations of religion, which kind of reveals their religious character (as in the old saw that if you completely disagree with somebody on absolutely everything, it means that in fact you completely agree with them on everything that matters … I’m not sure I agree with that view – not completely anyway! – but I understand the point it’s making in terms of framing assumptions). As others here have said, there’s probably a need in this discussion to give concepts like ‘religion’ and ‘enchantment’ stronger definition and more critical edge, but I don’t think it’s necessary to see enchantment as a matter of saints and sinners, more a commitment to the fact that some things have an untradeable sacredness – a commitment that I embrace. Maybe Karl Polanyi’s discussion of labour, land and money as ‘fictitious commodities’ because they are not produced for market sale would be a way in to that discussion, and towards Distributist and Christian socialist traditions that could do with some reviving.

    Finally, to Greg’s points. If you own your farm and work it, then you’re a capitalist according to certain strands of socialism – though not ones I have any sympathy with. But you’re not capitalist enough according to certain strands of capitalist ideology (with which I’m also out of sympathy), because you’re less easily bought off with their crap. As I see it, being a farm owner-worker, and being neither capitalist nor socialist, are great places to start from in successfully solving the problems of the 21st century. But not the only places.

    Maybe Polanyi’s ideas about fictitious commodities that I just mentioned are also a good place to start from in thinking about Greg’s economic conundrums on the farm. The relative prices of the things that farmers and consumers use aren’t a fact of nature. So I invite people to play with them. Let’s increase the price of gasoline, say, tenfold. Let’s quadruple the price of hired labour, on and off the farm. Let’s quarter the price of farmland and housing. Let’s increase the price of liquid capital twentyfold. Let’s increase the price your crops fetch fivefold. OK, so I’ve just made all those numbers up on the spur of the moment. But you see my point…

    • I doubt that Greg has the pricing power to change his financial situation (even as a joke), but even if he did it wouldn’t last long. Some other entity with pricing power would trying to do the same thing and Greg could end up collateral damage. There is much to be said for what Nitzan and Bichler argue, which is that capitalist income is a function of power — the power to wield property rights. It is therefore likely that there will always be someone with more power to run roughshod over small farm finances. Hence the mantra of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz to US farmers, “Get big or get out”.

      The only surefire way out of financial peril is to not participate in the market, or make that participation only a very minor part of the financial needs of the farm. Surely Greg could feed his family and friends from a farm his size if he opted out of the market and practised subsistence agriculture. But this solution requires zero debt and just enough earning power from somewhere to pay the property taxes. For subsistence agraian peasants, too much land becomes a burden due to maintenance costs and taxes. Greg may need to turn the Earl Butz mantra on its head, “Get small or get out”.

      • IMHO the best way of altering things is to cancel all government subsidies that would even up the playing field somewhat stopping the big corporate farms milking the system , it’s crazy in a world where there is shortage of food governments paying the large farmers not to plant both here and in the EU and again IMHO a form of racism starving the brown people ,

    • Thanks Chris. I’ve been giving this some thought over the last few days, and I wonder if there’s a important distinction here between two perspectives: one that is still essentially materialist, and views religion as a set of practices with underlying assumptions, affects, etc; and another that is, I don’t know, perhaps in some sense spiritualist, which views religion not only in the way just described, but also as an engagement with something fundamentally otherworldly.

      Your work tends to operate through the first perspective in my view. Enchantment is a label that usefully describes observable phenomena in the ways people approach the world. Indeed, perhaps we should acknowledge Marx’s anthropological use of the term ‘fetish’, drawn from observations of ‘religious’ practice, to describe how people relate to commodities in capitalist societies.

      The second perspective would, I think, actively seeking out enchantment, looking for the sacred. As a lens through which to understand the world, it is not one that simply observes the way people mark out sacred spaces for themselves through notions of taboo and the like, but instead recognises that enchantment is ‘out there’ to be discovered and acknowledged in some way.

      Like all dualisms, this one is no doubt imperfect and can be subverted in some way, but it might be useful to think through for now. I don’t want to impute to you a simple ‘plain folks dualism’ between ‘authentic’ people and ‘metropolitan elites’ (in my defence I said as much in my earlier comment!), so instead I’ve described an alternative one! Now, I probably need to read McCarraher’s book, as I don’t want to impute anything to him unjustly, but it seems to me that talking about a ‘misenchantment’ implies a right way and a wrong way of being enchanted, and therefore some commitment to enchantment as a phenomenon out there to be encountered. Capitalist society has in some sense lost its way, and the religious enchantments of the world that preceded it were in some way preferable.

      I’m wary of this. Moving things into an enchanted space that is to some degree unreachable seems like a foundation on which to build exclusionary hierarchies – to be clear this is my fear of where such perspectives end up, and not something I have any reason to think, from your review, that McCarraher is actively promoting. But it is the kind of thinking that might, to draw on an example broached here recently, begin to dabble with notions of natural law. The language of ‘perversion’ falls easily into that category.

      I can get behind your assertion that ‘some things have an untradeable sacredness’ if I read sacred as a metaphor. Things should be marked out as ‘sacred’, not because some quality of enchantment renders them so, but because people have freely chosen to make hem so. As you point out, you’re exploring Polanyi’s territory here – the world of ‘fetishes’ outside the commodity, echoing other discussions we’ve had on here about withdrawing land and labour from capitalist markets. Sounds good to me – but not something that I would see as requiring a commitment to an otherworldly enchantment.

      • Thanks Andrew – interesting.

        I’m happy to embrace, largely, your characterization of my approach as ‘materialist’, albeit only in the broadest possible interpretation of the term. But I think I am also a little bit ‘spiritualist’ as you define it (less so than many, but more so than some) inasmuch as I think there is an otherworldliness to be engaged with which can only be partly relativized by materialist means.

        It’s interesting that you raise both Marxism and exclusionary hierarchies in this connection. Marx’s brilliant analysis of commodity fetishism indeed shows the religious, otherworldly nature of capitalism lurking within everyday engagements we barely question. But you can turn the tables on him … and even more so on legions of his later followers. There is a ‘religious’ fetishization of science, progress and history in Marx and Marxism which creates its own exclusionary and inclusionary hierarchies: counterrevolutionaries, petit bourgeoisies, vanguards, dictatorships of the proletariat, progressives, reactionaries and so on.

        McCarraher writes on p.65: “if Marx fetishizes anything it is surely matter – more precisely “history”, the realm of labor and productivity … Despite Marx’s assertion that in the future wealth would be measured in terms of leisure, his portrayal of communism more often suggests a paradise of overachievers. His avowed mythological hero was, after all, Prometheus, and the ideal of perpetual achievement and innovation pervades his collected works”.

        A surprising overlap, perhaps, between Marx and George Osbourne – not to mention Kai Heron and Alex Heffron – all on the side of the strivers against the skivers, the rationalists against the romantics, the people transcending a labour-intensive agriculture against the hayseeds who actually want to make a steady livelihood out of the immediate world around them.

        More importantly, while I share your disquiet about the human tendency to create exclusionary hierarchies, I don’t think this maps neatly onto your materialist/spiritualist duality. There are materialist hierarchies and inclusive spiritualities.

        I’d apply this also to natural law. I agree there’s a risk of it coarsening into the language of perversion (though, again, the same is true of its secular materialist descendants in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought). On the other hand, without such wider conceptions the risks of strongly conventionalist or relativist politics are also grave, becoming broadly supportive of might makes right arguments. So for example while I know there are those who dismiss the entire postwar international human rights framework of the UN variety as a form of liberal bad faith, I’m unpersuaded. Without something like these frameworks it becomes difficult to even critique, say, the US-UK intervention in Iraq, or the failure to intervene in Rwanda – except perhaps through optics like Marxism which involve their own versions of natural law.

        Still, I agree with you that it’s unwise to drift too far into the duality ‘secular modernity bad, religious premodernity good’. For all that, I do think that capitalist society has in many senses lost its way, as evidenced by the fact that it’s endangering the very livability of the planet for humans and other organisms but seems unable to accept and act upon this meaningfully. So one way or another it seems urgent to get some critical traction on our present bad trajectory. I think both materialism and spiritualism as you define them possess resources that can inform such critical traction – they also both contain possibilities for obscuring it. On balance, I think I’d place contemporary Marxism higher in that latter obscuring category than natural law theories, but maybe I could be persuaded otherwise. I’d be interested in Sean Domencic’s view, if he’s reading this.

        • After some delay, he is!

          To Andrew’s point: I think the whole point of McCarraher’s book is that “a commitment to an otherworldly enchantment” is not optional. Whenever we deny the existence of the “Divine” (broadly conceived), we can only do so in the name of some other central philosophical principle, such as “Progress”, “Freedom”, “Prosperity”, etc, and thus this principle becomes the Divine to us, even if we choose to shed all the language and symbols of a previous religion.

          To Smaje’s point on human rights: I agree that human rights are desirable. Not only are they desirable, but I also believe they are metaphysically real, due to the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church. I’d point out that the very concept of universal human rights has its origins in a] early Christianity, which suddenly and radically emphasized the dignity of all human beings in the midst of the pagan Roman Empire, and b] late Scholasticism which laid out in jurisprudence via–you guessed it–the natural law tradition. These ideas did not spring out of the void, but from human reason pondering human nature, alongside God’s Revelation.

          Liberalism (and the Enlightenment tradition broadly) maintains the words of “human rights”, but empties their content of all foundation. In the words of D.C. Schindler, expounding on the social/political nature of humans (known to the natural law tradition ever since Aristotle’s Politics!), “To posit a natural condition that is somehow outside of the mediating institutions of culture is to change the meaning of nature; it is to render “nature” an abstract and univocal concept. This is what we mean by speaking of the modern theory of natural rights as “disembedded”: it conceives of human beings most basically as non-relational agents, which in a subsequent moment interact with others to form something like a political community. If nature is “disembedded,” it is separated out from all contexts which would fill it meaningful content, and so becomes an essentially empty notion.” In other words, these “empty” abstract rights are part of a symbolic system (Progress, Growth, Freedom) not derived from the Real World of Real Human Beings, and thus, when asserted and enforced, they are violent imposition on human nature (and, inevitably, a means of an elite class tyrannizing others).

          Now this doesn’t mean all of us just have to choose (or acknowledge) our favorite form of (mis-)enchantment as a Divine Revelation in which to have faith and accept our mutual incommensurability. Rather, we can find common ground by beginning like Socrates: “I know only that I know nothing,” and using our shared rationality to deduce the nature of the Reality which we share and beginning to answer questions like “what are humans?”, “what is happiness?”, “what is good?”, “what is being?”–those are the questions from which “human rights” cannot be disemmeded, and they are precisely what the virtue ethics / natural law tradition has been answering for the past 2,500 years.

        • Thanks Chris, and Sean – your comment has brought some clarity to issues that were becoming rather muddled in my head.

          I take from all this the point that we all behave as if there is some fundamental mechanism at the root of our existence in the world – ‘the way the world works’, which we tend to treat as fundamental even when we don’t realise we’re doing so. Sean characterises it as ‘the Divine’, and I take it that McCarraher would agree, and it is what Chris has largely been calling ‘religious’ in his review and commentary.

          I would be happier calling it a metaphysics, because I don’t think it has to be treated as divine. In saying this, I think I’m accepting the notion that other ‘central philosophical principles’ might substitute for the Divine in ways that don’t simply make them empty place-fillers for what is really the Divine.

          Sean makes a case, I think, for the metaphysical emptiness of a materialist philosophy structured around ‘state of nature’ arguments – they are essentially intellectual exercises dealing with abstract versions of humanity that never actually existed. I think I broadly agree with this. Abstracting rights based on a materialist understanding of the human individual reduces down to versions of a ‘right to do whatever I think right is’.

          The issue, though, is what I termed theology in an earlier comment when talking about the narrative structures of ideology. Where does meaning come from, how do we frame purpose?

          As I understand it, natural law traditions see metaphysics and theology as inseparably entangled. Purpose is part of the structure of the universe and can be ‘deduced’, as Sean explains, using our natural faculty of reason. But in my experience natural law deductions always take certain farmings for granted, such as the idea that the purpose of the individual is ultimately in service to the purpose of the species, or at least its communal subgroups. For example, in his comment under Chris’s previous post, Sean advocates the ‘communal policing of sexual morality’ rather than preserve ‘the “loose” sexual mores of our own era’.

          This assumes a formal definition of the human, or human nature, as something to be deduced from the way the world works and applied to all humans. It assumes that theology is homogenous and essentially a part of metaphysics. I don’t share this view, and that is why I think theology needs to be kept separate from metaphysics. I can accept that ‘purpose’ as such might be encompassed in a metaphysics that moves beyond materialism in some way, but I would also posit that my purposes are different to others, even as they must take others’ purposes into account.

          So capitalist society isn’t just another form of religious society; it has its own metaphysics and theology that are usefully distinguished from other kinds, all the better to strive to create an alternative more satisfying to all.

        • Thanks Andrew – I find your latest comment very insightful and clarifying. Great typo too – IMO people very much do take farmings for granted!

          Can’t really find anything in what you’ve written that I disagree with, but there’s something I want to add that might open up another line of discussion. While I agree that it’s possible to create a new metaphysics, in practice new ones are usually built out of and in reaction to old ones and share many of their predecessor’s characteristics. Then, the inability of the new metaphysicians (metaphysicists?) to see their debt to the old ones, and their attempts to create clear water between them often creates a lot of problems – I’m sympathetic to Sean’s arguments along these lines, and to those of people like Alisdair MacIntyre.

          Maybe another point wrapped up in this is that metaphysics always seems to involve a sense of supra-individual ‘purpose’, which I suppose is what I’ve been calling religious – even the metaphysicians who try to look purposelessness fearlessly in the eye end up being tortured by it, tortured by purpose.

          I think there’s a need to extend this discussion into how to reconcile our individual/local purposes with our metaphysical commitments to ‘purpose’ in ways that don’t simply efface or destroy one item of the couplet. A discussion I hope to have with you and Sean at some point in the future, after I’ve done a bit more reading and thinking…

          • Ah, a textbook Freudian Slip!

            I’ll happily follow the discussion opened by your addition, though I think it would be long and wide ranging. We’re all metaphysicians in our own ways, and the messy processes of creating new metaphysics give us some of the most rewarding aspects of studying history.

            I’m sure you’re right about the desire of some to rid themselves of their debts to earlier metaphysics – we touched on active negations of religion in elements of capitalist society earlier. Equally, attempting to trace connections and associations between old and new is often very revealing, and I wouldn’t want to stifle that by insisting that capitalism isn’t a religion.

            My own framing of ideological narratives around history, metaphysics and theology (itself shamelessly pinched from someone else!) is, of course, a sort of metaphysical position, and only one way through which I or others might seek to interpret the past. Ultimately it’s not about categorising distinct theologies and metaphysics through time, but asking questions: how did/do people think the world worked, what did/does it mean to them, and what implications does that have for us?

            As to ‘purpose’, that perhaps is the heart of any theological question: what shall I do now and why? Various materialist ‘theologies’ have been pretty stumped by that over the past two or three centuries, more so than religious theologies, and that’s certainly part of our current problem. Whether purpose can be located in metaphysics in a way that is not dependent on otherworldliness, I don’t know. I’ve read about some interesting versions of idealist metaphysics recently, but I’m still very much in the muddled state there!

            I look forward to the future threads of this discussion…

        • Andrew, thanks for an excellent response!

          Allow me to hone in on a distinction that I think is clarifying, and one which is entirely lost in modern philosophic discourse.

          Andrew already drew the distinction between “metaphysics” and “narrative structures.” I agree with that division, with an important caveat: Andrew placed the concepts of “theology/religion” and “purpose” in the latter camp of narrative structures, which MacIntyre would argue is a mistake at the heart of the modern crisis of ethics. Rather, theology and purpose can be discussed /both/ within the realm of metaphysics /and/ narrative structures (which I would also call “revelation”).

          This deserves a little explanation. I again think Andrew is right to describe metaphysics as “some fundamental mechanism at the root of our existence in the world,” but that’s he’s wrong not to call this “the Divine.” It’s important to note that “the Divine”, to the first philosophers, did /not/ mean the incredibly specified and self-revealed /Person/ of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Rather, the /the Divine/ simply referred to what Plato called “the Good”, or what Aristotle called “the Unmoved Mover,” and what many Romans Philosophers called “the gods” or “the Divine” in a general sense, and what Varro called under the mythic title “Jupiter” or “Jove.” All of this discourse, which is called “natural theology”, belongs not to narrative structures but to deductions about the nature of Existence (/actus purus/, per the Scholastics). It’s important to understand that God, to all these thinkers, is not /a/ being, a limited creature, but rather /is/ Pure Being, and the underlying and original Source of all things that are. So while the idea of God as a /Person/, Who communicates with particular people and places within history, belongs to narrative structures/revelation (which couldn’t be derived by reason/philosophy, but would have to be heard/experienced at a particular time/place), the idea of God as /Pure Being/ is something universally deducible from natural reason. St. Thomas offers a good summary of the natural theology arguments for God in his famous “Five Ways”: http://www.faculty.umb.edu/adam_beresford/courses/phil_100_11/reading_five_ways.pdf

          It’s also very important to consider whether “purpose” belongs to reason or revelation, to metaphysics or meta-narrative. In the modern world, whenever we talk about “the purpose of life”, we tend to assume that it must be a religious question. But the ancients thought about this very differently; for them, teleology was evidently observed in the physical world and there is no reason this shouldn’t apply to us humans. One argument goes like this (and note, always, that I’m summarizing a very extensive tradition, so if my brief notes feel uncompelling or incomplete, it’s worth consulting the experts for deeper study!):

          Whenever a thing is not moving, it can be said to “at rest” or “in peace.” But when it moves, it has an “end” towards which it naturally tends. Stones fall downward and only come to rest when they are unable to move closer to a center of gravity. An atom seeks to fill its field/orbit with a particular number of electrons and only bonds with another when it can fill a shell. Living things have a desire to maintain their life and similarly will seek out food, water, shelter, and (for more complex animals) companionship. These are not sought as individual choices but because they are naturally desired, naturally pleasurable, and naturally necessary to survive. In all cases, there is an “end”, a “purpose”, or (in Greek) a “telos” which naturally inheres in created beings.

          Reason observes that humans (contrary to the Enlightenment narrative that places humans above and outside of nature) are also created, limited beings (“dependent, rational animals” as MacIntyre says). So when natural law looks for, in Andrew’s well-stated words, “a formal definition of the human, or human nature, as something to be deduced from the way the world works and applied to all humans”, it is not “always taking certain [framings] for granted”, but it is genuinely deducing them from the biophysical and spiritual realities of what it means to be a human being. The basic conclusion for ethics/morality is that there are habits, patterns of acting, informed by reason, by which humans moderate their intentional actions. A few more steps of the argument (which I’ll skip for now) names the four “cardinal” or “natural” virtues as prudence, justice, temperance, and courage–which are necessary at all times and places for both individuals to be happy and for polities to enjoy peace (there’s plenty more detail that could be gone into; regarding sexual mores, for example, those would fall under “temperance”). These virtues are to moderate things which are inherent in human nature, so in this way, they are an objective, universal part of the “purpose” of every human life. Just as an animal which lacks any habit of eating will die, a human who lacks any habits of virtue will, at minimum, be unhappy and ignoble (again, in the objective sense).

          Now there’s also a sense of “purpose” which seeks to answer the ultimate, eschatological question of “what is the telos of Creation as a whole?” and /this/, I grant, belongs to narrative/revelation, rather than to reason. But that’s for another time!

          • Thank you, Sean, for this. I remain wary of elements of the philosophy of natural law, but I can’t deny its encouragements to rewarding thinking and I appreciate some of the ways it acts as a foil to more recent philosophical developments. Like Chris, I also feel the need to read more about all this, and I can’t claim the expertise you have in it, only a desire to think these things through.

            To clarify my own stance from previous comments, I had suggested that metaphysics, theology and history were each different narrative modes of ideology, and didn’t intend to contrast ‘metaphysics’ with ‘narrative structures’. I don’t want to dwell on this though – my use of ‘narrative’ was less precise, and only meant to refer to the fact that each mode involves telling ‘stories’, about the way the world works, or what it means – and I find your distinction between ‘metaphysics’ and ‘narrative structure’ interesting, so I’m happy to follow it. There seems to me to be some overlap between what I have referred to as ‘theology’ and you describe as ‘revelation’ or ‘narrative’, but again, I don’t want to dwell on that except to note that you clearly use the word ‘theology’ to mean something else, as you see it in both metaphysics and narrative structures. But let’s leave that to one side for now.

            My focus here is on a couple of issues. First, that I should call the ground of metaphysics ‘Divine’. I take your point that the early natural philosophers did not mean to refer to God as a person when characterising this ground as Divine, yet clearly you attach more than just semantic importance to the label. I could, for example, call the ground of metaphysics ‘the Universe’ in an attempt to evoke its all-encompassing quality, and yet I’m not sure that would wash from your perspective, so I’m interested in why you insist on ‘Divine’, which to me has otherworldly or spiritual connotations.

            I think I’m more in tune with ‘purpose’ as not simply religious (or theological as I would have it), but an element of metaphysics as well. It is a clear problem for so many philosophical explorations of materialism that ‘purpose’ is omitted from its metaphysics and instead at best shoehorned into ideas about the mind as some kind of derivative effect. We agree on the inadequacy of all this, and that purpose must form a part of metaphysics.

            I’m a little less confident about the deduction of metaphysical truth, including purpose, through reason, although this is in part because I have only partial understanding of the natural law arguments here. But only in part, and I would point to your distinction between the ‘biophysical’ and ‘spiritual’ realities of being human as a point at which we part company. The former is an area in which I think it is possible to deduce ‘the human’ in a formal and generalisable way (although within tolerances that vary more than perhaps is often expected); the latter (perhaps read in a more secular way, as ‘moral’ or similar) less so, beyond very very generalised statements.

            So I do not see ‘virtues’ as metaphysically given beyond a general sense in which our own purposes are always already bound up with those of the others with whom we share the Universe. As far as religious traditions are concerned I find more of use in Protestant thought, such as the ‘inner light’ of the Quakers, although I claim neither expertise in this nor that I find it ultimately satisfying.

            Indeed, I end up in a place that is perhaps unsatisfying more generally, as I cannot point to a strong or well defined metaphysical definition of purpose, despite recognising that it must have metaphysical force. There is an idealist current that would see the ground of metaphysics as mind or will, which again requires far more reading on my part. But I find that I’m generally content with the idea that human purposes and virtues might be many and varied. Perhaps this connects with Chris’s point that we need to ‘reconcile our individual/local purposes with our metaphysical commitments to ‘purpose’ in ways that don’t simply efface or destroy one item of the couplet’. To end on a lighter note, perhaps I should follow the Vulcan philosophy of infinite diversity in infinite combinations!

          • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying “the Universe” in principle. Afterall, that’s pretty much what Varro meant by “Jupiter.” But I say that with one crucial caveat: if by “the Universe” you exclusively mean the matter/energy of an entropic, mechanistic materialist cosmos, then you do /not/ mean the same thing as the classical philosophic tradition. If you include immaterial things like souls, spirits, forms, ideas, angels, demons, and (perhaps most importantly) transcendentals (such as Being, Unity, Goodness, Truth, or Beauty) in your understanding of “the Universe”, then we are one the same wavelength. Whether immaterial realities can be deduced, discussed, and known is an insurmountable divide between Liberalism and classical philosophy (and I mean the latter term widely, from the antiquity of the Amerindians to the Greco-Romans to the Chinese, though my knowledge is obviously most rooted in the second).

            This is related to your note that we “part company” on whether we can know “spiritual” realities of being human, rather than just biophysical.

            To be clear, classical philosophy does not proclaim a set of hyperspecified doctrines which you must accept on Faith (that’s the Catholic Church’s business, lol!); rather, it’s a long and on-going philosophic discourse, deducing knowledge from the Principle of Non-contradiction and empirical observation (similar to “science” or “natural philosophy”, which is the branch limited to questions about matter/energy). Another important distinction, and a difference from the modern, materialist paradigm, is that the “empirical” is not limited to the “quantifiable” or the “measurable.” So we can have empirical knowledge that humans have consciousness, by observing our own consciousness and the nature we share with other human beings. This consciousness (which is called our “soul” or “spirit” in many writers) has various faculties/abilities/passions which give us both the ability and desires to do a variety of things, some of which are very harmful, and others of which are very helpful, to both our bodies and souls. So as long as you grant (again, not on faith, but by introspective empirical observation) that part of human nature is having an immaterial consciousness, then it follows that there are immaterial goods towards which it is directed, and in which it finds its ultimate fulfillment/happiness/satisfaction (all attempts to translate Aristotle’s “eudaimonia”).

          • Thanks for this discussion Sean, it’s clarifying a great deal for me. Re ‘the Universe’, I agree that the definition needs to be far more capacious than what is described by the matter/energy mechanistic Universe of today’s natural sciences.

            You present an interesting distinction between material and immaterial things. I am happier taking an idealist position here, so I would certainly recognise thought as an immaterial thing, but I would group it with material things as an aspect of our own conscious experience. The distinction I would then emphasise is between this Universe of experience and what might be labelled the Universe-in-itself, recognising that the former is but a representation of the latter, an underlying ground of some kind. The latter may resonate with your transcendentals, so perhaps, as you say, our wavelengths aren’t too far apart.

            Your reminder that classical philosophy is an exercise in deduction from empirical observation in both material and immaterial sphere is an important one. But I would limit the validity of empirical observation of immaterial things to thought, or whatever you would want to call immaterial things that are actually experienced. As the underlying Universe-in-itself cannot be consciously experienced I don’t see how any reasonable deductions can be made about it, except insofar as the tautological observation that it must provide the ground for what we do experience.

            Perhaps this is a better distinction on my part than that framed as biophysical/spiritual in my comment earlier. The realm of conscious experience, which is more than just biophysical, is open to reasoned observation; the realm of the Universe-in-itself is not, especially as reason itself is an aspect of conscious experience.

            I therefore find it difficult to see how notions of what is good for us (‘helpful’ and ‘harmful’ in your comment) can be deduced in any kind of generalisable way, at least beyond some version of the golden rule, which recognises that we have to take account of others when deciding on our own purposes and actions – although even there the extent to which our relations with each other include hierarchical elements and whether these are seen as benign or not will undoubtedly vary.

            The ‘virtues’ of natural law appear to me to be particular framings of specific purposes, in which, for example, the stability of certain cultural structures is understood to be a ‘helpful’ thing, and instability and counter-normative experiences within those contexts are recognised as ‘harmful’. I don’t see how these two kinds of experience necessarily map onto a distinction between healthy and unhealthy lives. A great deal of happiness might be found on both sides of the distinction, or conversely disappointment and depression.

            In sum, I can appreciate the grounding of a metaphysical ‘purpose’ in the Universe-in-itself, and its representation as a sense of purposefulness common to all human consciousness. But I don’t think we can reasonably deduce specifically metaphysically defined purposes or virtues in our own lives beyond the Graeberian aphorism that the world is something we make, and we might as well make it differently.

          • Hi Andrew, thanks again for the thoughtful reply.

            I think what you are advancing here is, at bottom, a skeptic position. You say that there is a fundamental rift between the Universe-as-experienced and the Universe-in-itself.

            If this is so, then philosophic knowledge, in general, is not really possible. I would argue (and as always, nothing new here: refuting total skepticism was what many classical thinkers considered the first step of philosophic inquiry) that the very fact of the shared words we are now exchanging speaks to our shared /knowledge/ (though limited!) about the Universe we both inhabit. As children, our brains are not truly blank slates but are biophysically (or “naturally”) inclined to deduce abstract concepts from particular sense perceptions. The very act of “thinking” presupposes the ability to deduce abstracts from particulars. If one wishes to deny this, they cannot do so via speech, thought, or any logical demonstration because all that these things refer to is known to us by deduction.

            The same argument could be stated another way in response to your words that “I don’t see how any reasonable deductions can be made about it [the Universe-in-itself], except insofar as the tautological observation that it must provide the ground for what we do experience.” The “ground” that the Universe provides is the Principle of Non-contradiction, which allows us to make distinctions (the beginning of deduction/logical thought). If we had to deduce this principle, it would indeed be tautological (“I see things are logically ordered, therefore I deduce the Principle, therefore I see things are logically ordered…”). Rather we know the Principle /inherently/: I /know/ the Principle of Non-contradiction before I see anything. It is baked into our common nature, given to us by the Universe. And the fact that the Universe (of which we are a creation) is logically ordered, allows us to make deductions about It.

            This skepticism can seem to be a noble self-limitation, refusing to claim any certainty about the Universe-in-Itself. But in fact, the result is a lack of any limitation whatsoever, as is evidenced by the
            Graeberian will-to-(egalitarian-)power: when our ability to act in the Universe is ruptured from our ability to know It, we become our own defining and limiting ethical principle. Perhaps we all decide to live by the Golden Rule. Or perhaps we all decide to live according to private gain. In either case, it is a random illogical choice—it is not something we are inherently /made/ for, or teleologically ordered towards; it is not a common Truth to which we might all assent, if we are wise, nor a Reality which we are given, should we accept it. It is what MacIntyre calls ‘emotivism’, a pure assertion, which is why he proposes at the end of his book that we have a choice between Nietzsche (ie the will-to-power) and Aristotle (ie the tradition of virtue ethics). There is no third option when it comes to a coherent ethics.

          • Thank you for this Sean. I’ve been giving it some thought, and I must admit that I’m less clear on the stakes this time.

            If I understand correctly, you are suggesting that we can know something of the Universe-in-itself (i.e. the ground of our conscious experience), but what you appear to be describing to me are some of the parameters of rational deduction: the notion of abstracts that encompass particulars and the principle of non-contradiction.

            This seems to me to substitute principles of linguistic communication for the metaphysical substance of the Universe-in-itself, and it has implications that I find strange. For example, if the ‘the ability to deduce abstracts from particulars’ is presupposed by our ability to think it would imply that abstracts have independent existence and that they are discovered by our deduction of them.

            I would instead consider abstracts only as elements of linguistic communication (including thought – communication with ourselves) – they are useful vehicles with which to attempt to convey meaning. They can be used to probe the boundaries of what we claim to know of the Universe as consciously experienced. But ultimately they are like the spoken part of a metaphor, of which the Universe-in-itself remains the unspoken ground.

            Finally, when you describe the situation in which ‘our ability to act in the Universe is ruptured from our ability to know It, [and] we become our own defining and limiting ethical principle’, aren’t you describing what we actually see in the world, as unpleasant as it is when people ‘decide to live according to private gain’?

            If there was an ethical principle at the foundation of the Universe-in-itself that ‘we are inherently /made/ for, or teleologically ordered towards’, to then I would have thought that we would have no choice but to live it. That many people do not actually live according to Aristotelian virtue ethics surely indicates that those ethics are not a fundamental metaphysical ethical principle.

            I suppose I do understand ethics ultimately as assertion, in the sense that it involves commitment to certain principles, alongside a recognition that others might commit to other principles. Both argumentation and evangelism constitute attempts to convince others to commit differently.

          • Andrew, Sean – thanks for continuing this debate, which I’m finding informative. I don’t think I’m going to weigh in further myself at this point, but I do want to come back to this in the future. So I appreciate your stimulating engagement.

    • I’m sorry about your trip to hospital Chris, I hope all is well now (or at least stable, we all die eventually) and you didn’t pick up any nasty bugs while you were there. Take care.

      • Thanks for those words of (temporary!) solace. Yes, much better now – for the time being 🙂

  16. Hear. Hear. Let’s stop helping the big guys. If they can’t make it on their own by now, they aren’t ever going to make it.

    Joe has a pretty clear view of the situation. I’m competing with companies that have a broccoli fields as big as this farm. They get to decide what the prices are. Subsistence farming works as long as you don’t have property taxes, ever break your arm, or need dental work. “Retirement” is tricky too.

    I pulled out my trusty Schedule F and plugged in a few multipliers that Chris had suggested. Sales X5, labor (including myself) X4, fuel X10, and since everything else repairs, supplies, taxes, utilities (electricity), etc is basically oil or dependent on it, I did X10 for them too. Bottom line, I came out $1400 ahead.

  17. Joe is of course right that Greg can’t summarily change the relevant prices on his own, and framing it in terms of who has the power to wield property rights is spot on. But I see this as confirmatory of my basic point. The price structures that tend to bury small farmers and a range of other people are a function largely of political and monopoly power – personal forces, not impersonal or natural forces. They are therefore amenable to being changed in such a way that Greg could earn a farm livelihood, get health care, retire at some point and serve his community in sustainable/regenerative ways. I’m not saying those changes are easily made or necessarily likely to happen. But I think it’s worth considering what changes would be required, and how they might be effected.

  18. Well changes are coming , talking to truckers they are now getting very concerned that going a long way there will be diesel to get them home , one now carries 1000 gallons on his truck plus the DEF , he refuses loads from California . There is a wave of bankruptcies on the horizon of feed lots and daries , drought is also complicating things we have had temps over 100 degrees 38 c this week , next week the are forecasting in the upper 60’s 20′ c , maize will not like that . There is a perfect storm coming and no one in Washington cares , diesel , transmission fluid , parts , fertilizer , tyres , silly things like fence staples and a host of other things in short supply or so expensive they are left on the shelf including the much vaunted wind generated electricity , ,hell a local junk yard sold a running battered 1960 ish D 6 agri dozer ( It was used to drive over cars crush them down to load easier ) that will have to do the job of a 2 year old JDeere that has no parts,and no idea when they will appear , farmers and ranchers out here are beginning to get dispondent , as to turning them into small farms it’s too dry to make that work , land will be abandoned and let go back to the buffalo scrub it was a couple of centuries ago .

    • Well, there’s a lot to be said for buffalo scrub. But I don’t necessarily see that aridity rules out small farms. It’s just that small farms in arid places may have to be bigger than small farms in humid places. Of course, there may come a point when buffalo scrub commends itself as the best land use for the small farmer, at which juncture there’s no point being a small farmer any more, though there may be a point to being a roving pastoralist. There is, of course, a danger that the climate becomes too hostile even for buffalo scrub. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

      • I know that increasing plant coverage makes for differences in humidity, and on larger scales can affect rain patterns; I wonder what the smallest viable scale for this is. Certainly in London when we have hot, dry weather I notice a difference in comfort between Zone 2 and the outskirts of Zone 3, or between a pavement with no trees and, say, Epping Forest. But I don’t know how relevant my perceptions of thermal comfort are to, say, irrigation needs.

        I do know that on the allotment (okay, one of them… I’ve now taken on a half-plot on another site which is much more sheltered), wind drives our watering about as much as sunlight does, maybe more. Row covers and wind break fencing go a long way toward limiting the amount of watering, and longer-term the perimeter will be planted with woody perennials that can take the edge off.

        It strikes me that in marginal, partially-desertified ecosystems, this kind of micro-scale approach might actually be more viable than it would be on, say, an acre or two. If I had an acre of buffalo scrub I would probably irrigate a very small corner of it for horticulture, and try to encourage soil-building grasses on the rest. Of course, I’m relatively new at this, and my answer might be different in ten years.

        • Astute points, I think! I read Gary Paul Nabhan’s book ‘Coming Home to Eat’ many years ago, in which as I recall he spent a while eating only things that grew readily within a small radius of his home in Arizona, and learned the virtues of local abundance, along with a dollop of patience.

          • I imagine mesquite might have featured in such a diet.

            Foraging is still a substantial part of my own provisioning; last week I got excited because I found a black mulberry tree I hadn’t previously known about, and some chicken of the woods. In theory, I try to aim for a rough 80% of my food to be from within cycling distance away, but in practice there are foods I just… never buy any more, and I am trying to increase this. (Last year’s list: apples, plums, pears, most of the soft fruit (strawberries raspberries tayberries wineberries blackberries gooseberries), melons, rhubarb, asparagus, celeriac, swede, lovage (can you even buy lovage?), Jerusalem artichokes, oca, rosemary, sage, French beans, broad beans, soup peas, dry beans of various sorts, fennel, beetroot, lettuce, chard, black salsify, parsley, mint, winter squash, summer squash, garlic — at least for about 10 months — and probably others.)

            That said, amid increasing food prices (…and increasing everything-else prices too), this year we are going big on potatoes. They are so cheap that it almost doesn’t make sense to grow them instead of buying them, but so much more delicious when homegrown, and l am aware that if we don’t have to buy them, then the potatoes we would have bought will be available for someone who doesn’t have access to growing space.

            I did eat the first allotment strawberries yesterday, though, so it is not all about utilitarian calorie stockpiling. Sure, they’re a great source of vitamin C; so is broccoli. But I grow them because they’re delicious. Last June we had strawberries for dessert two or three times a week for a month; this year I am hoping to have enough for jam, too. We didn’t buy wine last year either, but even after my largest batch got sadly contaminated by poisonous dust from ceiling replacement work, we had enough various fruit wines to have a bottle with supper fairly frequently.

            And this year — well, the “that grape vine is a variety that doesn’t make fruit, the previous allotment tenants used it for leaves” vine has prodigious numbers of blossoms on it; I don’t know whether it’s a dessert variety but I’m thinking with the frost pocket we might be in with a chance at making icewine. We’re adding loganberries to the soft fruit rotation, though I don’t expect substantial yield until next year. Perhaps unwisely, we’ve expanded the Jerusalem artichoke patch. I use a lot of oregano so I have put in thirteen plants of various edible varieties, with the hope that in a few years I’ll be able to pick enough to meet my needs. The wine cap mushroom expansion programme is continuing apace and a few weeks ago we had a harvest of 2kg; I do eat a lot of mushrooms so we’re not quite yet at “never buy these” even with my foraging activities, but definitely moving in that direction. I’ve added several sorrel and salad burnet plants for the spring leaves. I’ve started a trial of blight-resistant tomato varieties, with a view to finding some that don’t taste of cardboard and then dehybridising the seed. And I’m getting serious about row covers for the carrots and leeks, with a view to having more than a paltry harvest (carrot root fly and allium leaf miner are both pretty bad on the allotment).

            Most of the expansion is in the perennials; I think in a buffalo scrub situation my instinct would be to do the same, but with a different set of perennials.

  19. Pingback: It takes an ecovillage…: some thoughts on ‘Going to Seed’ - Resilience

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