I come to praise Eugene McCarraher (rather lavishly, in fact), not to bury him. But I may as well begin with a complaint, if only so as to appear evenhanded. In the penultimate paragraph of his enormous and extraordinary new book The Enchantments of Mammon, McCarraher conflates Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous invocation of St. Benedict at the end of After Virtue with what has come misleadingly to be called the “Benedict Option,” rejecting both together as though they were identical in meaning—which is to say, as if both offered a counsel of Christian disengagement from modern society and issued a call to withdrawal into isolated communities. This is an error. The Benedict Option is the title of an earnest but intellectually confused book by a journalist whose ultimate recommendations are difficult to discern amid the turbulences of his passions and anxieties. By contrast, the figure of St. Benedict as MacIntyre employs it has a very precise meaning: Benedict represents a moment when—in the lengthening twilight of a dissolving classical and Christian civilization—the slow labor of rescuing, recovering, and even reconstructing a unified Christian ethos was inaugurated. That labor began under the shelter of new forms of association located at the very heart of culture. MacIntyre’s St. Benedict has nothing to do with disengagement, and everything to do with the preservation and redemption of communal memory and public reason.
The misunderstanding is unfortunate, since it strikes a discordant note just at the close of a book that might well be called symphonic in form, and in the course of which McCarraher sounds a great many McIntyrean themes of his own. Like MacIntyre, McCarraher is impatient with those tedious modern dogmatisms that masquerade as deliverances of enlightened and disinterested rationality. He too finds the modern displacement of any moral grammar based on the cultivation of virtues by a fragmentary ethos of private values, public platitudes, and voluntarist individualisms a depressing reality. He too laments the reduction of ethical reasoning to little more than assertions of the will and celebrations of private property as the supreme index of the good. He too refuses to consent to modern secularism’s claims for itself, even while eschewing the traditionalist’s politics of nostalgia. Above all, like MacIntyre, McCarraher both recognizes and detests capitalism’s spoliations of creation and disintegration of communities, and casts a fond, forlorn eye toward the possibility of restoring a rationality of genuine human life.
But let me start again.
The Enchantments of Mammon is a magnificent book. It is, before all else, a sheer marvel of patient scholarship, history on a grand scale and in the best tradition of historical writing: a comprehensive account of the rise and triumph of capitalism in the modern age, not only as an economics, but also as our most pervasive and dominant system of ultimate values. But the book is far more than that. It is also a work of profound moral insight: a searing spiritual critique of a vision of reality that reduces everything mysterious, beautiful, fragile, and potentially transcendent in human experience to instances of—or opportunities for—acquisition and personal power, and that seeks no end higher than the transformation of creation’s substantial goods into the lifeless abstraction of monetary value. It is, moreover, a work delightfully subversive of the standard story of how this vision of things progressively became the very shape of the world we all now share (or, I suppose it would be better to say, the world we do not really share at all).
In McCarraher’s telling, capitalism as it has taken shape over the past few centuries is not the product of any kind of epochal “disenchantment” of the world (the Reformation, the scientific revolution, what have you). Far less does it represent the triumph of a more “realist” and “pragmatic” understanding of private wealth and civil society. Instead, it is another kind of religion, one whose chief tenets may be more irrational than almost any of the creeds it replaced at the various centers of global culture. It is the coldest and most stupefying of idolatries: a faith that has forsaken the sacral understanding of creation as something charged with God’s grandeur, flowing from the inexhaustible wellsprings of God’s charity, in favor of an entirely opposed order of sacred attachments. Rather than a sane calculation of material possibilities and human motives, it is in fact an enthusiast cult of insatiable consumption allied to a degrading metaphysics of human nature. And it is sustained, like any creed, by doctrines and miracles, mysteries and revelations, devotions and credulities, promises of beatitude and threats of dereliction. McCarraher urges us to stop thinking of the modern age as the godless sequel to the ages of faith, and recognize it instead as a period of the most destructive kind of superstition, one in which acquisition and ambition have become our highest moral aims, consumer goods (the more intrinsically worthless the better) our fetishes, and impossible promises of limitless material felicity our shared eschatology. And so deep is our faith in these things that we are willing to sacrifice the whole of creation in their service. McCarraher, therefore, prefers to speak not of disenchantment, but of “misenchantment”—spiritual captivity to the glamor of an especially squalid god.