A hundred years ago, the famed German sociologist Max Weber published a revised edition of his classic work. Inserted into the new edition were a few uses of the word Entzauberung, a word that did not appear in the first edition. The word was meant to describe the general condition of the modern Western world. Zauber is the German word for “magic”; Entzauberung is literally the “un-magic-ing” of the world. It is usually translated “disenchantment.” Although Weber himself used the word sparingly, it has taken on a life of its own. Many people believe it captures something essential about our present condition. In his exploration of the causes of secularization in the West, philosopher Charles Taylor has written, “Everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an ‘enchanted’ world and we do not.” Our ancestors lived in a world inhabited by gods and demons, ghosts and angels, wood sprites and saints. The boundaries between the material and the spiritual were permeable, and the immanent world made frequent contact with the transcendent. The premodern world was full of what Taylor calls “charged objects,” such as saints’ relics, that had the power to alter reality. Today, we live in a disenchanted world, devoid of divine or demonic spirits, devoid of mystery, a world with no ordered meaning. Or so the story goes.
In Weber’s view, disenchantment was the end result of a long process of rationalization, of which science and capitalism were the principal drivers. Weber was himself a rationalist, who described himself as “unmusical” with regard to religion. But he did not simply celebrate the process of rationalization and disenchantment. He thought that the technical advances of modernity came at a price, and he feared that modern people had become “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ends with a melancholy description of the “iron cage” of modernity, a heartlessly efficient machine from which all enchantment had been ruthlessly eliminated, for better and for worse.
For an example of how this machine functions in practice, consider an Amazon “fulfillment center,” or warehouse. Not even Weber could have foreseen the lengths to which Amazon has taken rationalization. At an Amazon fulfillment center, poorly paid “associates,” who are often temporary workers with no benefits, scurry among bins retrieving and packing just about anything that can be imagined. A handheld device keeps track of their movements. After it directs them to the next item of merchandise, a timer starts: twenty-seven seconds to scan the next item four aisles over, for example. The device warns them if they are falling behind, and keeps track of their “pick rate.” Falling behind, calling in sick, and other offenses can cost a worker his or her job. Some “associates” have resorted to urinating in bottles so they won’t need bathroom breaks.
In January 2018 Amazon received patents on a wristband that can track a warehouse worker’s arm movements. An Amazon spokesperson presented the wristband as a boon for workers: “This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.” But according to James Bloodworth, who worked at an Amazon fulfillment center for six months and described his experiences in Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain (2018), the company’s real goal was not to make the lives of its workers easier. “It was all obsessed with productivity…. They started treating human beings as robots, essentially. If it proves cheaper to replace humans with machines, I assume they will do that.” In the Amazon warehouse, Weber’s description of the “iron cage” seems fully vindicated.
But this is only one side of the story. For the consumer, the purchase of nearly anything via Amazon is nothing short of magical. Images of millions of products can be summoned onto a screen. One can spend hours lost in a virtual environment of endless abundance. A few clicks later the desired product appears on your doorstep, like magic. If you have the money, or at least access to credit, you can summon almost anything from anywhere in the world, abracadabra. The entire production process—the sourcing of raw materials, the manufacturing and transportation, the packing and delivering—is invisible to the consumer, as are the people involved in this process. All we see are images of the shiny finished products on a screen, and then the products themselves on our doorsteps.
So it seems that there are two sides to our economy: a rationalized, disenchanted side typified by heartless efficiency, and an enchanted side still filled with charged objects and magic. In fact, these are really two sides of the same coin. Each of them implies the other.