Mammon

Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon is a remarkable book, beautifully written and narrated with great verve. However, I do not find its argument persuasive. You can only find the argument persuasive if you accept the book’s two key axioms, and I don’t. I say “axioms” because McCarraher doesn’t argue either of them, he takes them as … well, axiomatic.

The first axiom is that the Middle Ages in Europe, especially western Europe, constituted a great coherent sacramental order — McCarraher loves the word “sacramental” and uses it to designate pretty much everything he approves of — a “moral economy,” a “theological economy,” in which “preparation for [God’s] kingdom was the point of economic life.” Even the vast waves of rebellion and protest that occurred throughout the Middle Ages weren’t protests against that order as such, only complaints that the political and ecclesial authorities weren’t properly fulfilling their duties. McCarraher cites rebellions (e.g. Wat Tyler’s) of which this could plausibly be said as characteristic, and ignores all the more radical protests. (See Chapter 3 of Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium for examples.) Similarly, he presents the political-eschatological vision of Piers Plowman as though it’s typical of its age, when it isn’t typical at all, any more than William Blake’s poems are typical of England circa 1800. A fair look at what we know suggests that the Middle Ages was as governed by greed and lust and the libido dominandi as any other era, and if God had spoken to the rulers of that age he would have asked them, “What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?” I think the great preponderance of the evidence suggests that McCarraher’s portrait of the Middle Ages is a pious fiction.

The second governing axiom of The Enchantments of Mammon is that modern capitalism, which was, he says, created by Protestantism, sacralizes wealth in a way that no previous system did. But I don’t think that’s true. In all times and all places that I know of, wealth is generally perceived as a sign of divine favor. The peculiarity of the Axial Age is that in that era there arise, in various places around the world, philosophical and theological traditions suggesting that human flourishing cannot be measured in money and possessions. (After all, one of the key features of the land that Yahweh promises to the wandering Israelites is that it flows with milk and honey, is a place in which the people can prosper economically. It’s only when we get to the book of Proverbs that we discern a serious ambivalence about all this. Proverbs 22:4: “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” But also Proverbs 11:4: “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.”)

At one point early on McCarraher writes, “Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism.” This is true. However, it could equally well be said that talking about capitalism is a way of not talking about money. “The love of money is the root of all evil” was written long, long before the rise of the capitalist order that McCarraher denounces. Moreover, talking about money can be a way of not talking about human acquisitiveness, about the sin of greed. The tension between acquisitiveness and a dawning awareness that acquisitiveness isn’t everything goes as far back as the Odyssey, the great predecessor (or maybe great initiator) of the Axial Age sensibility, the first major work of art against greed, which suggests that only tragic suffering — like that of Odysseus, exiled and imprisoned far from his homeland, or Menelaus, whose family is destroyed as he gains godlike riches — is sufficient to break the hold of greed upon us. It seems to me that McCarraher is blaming capitalism for something that is a permanent feature of human life.

Anyway: If you believe that the Middle Ages were a veritable paradise of sacramental order and that the sacralizing of greed is an invention of modern capitalism — which is to say, if you believe that pretty much everything bad in the world is the result of Protestantism — then you may well find McCarraher’s case compelling. But even if you don’t accept those axioms, it’s a terrific read full of fascinating anecdotes. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.