1/23/2020

The Return of Utopian Romanticism

"McCarraher treats the religion of “mammonism” as a product of the rise of modern capitalism. There was a turn from the enchanted pre-modern era to the false enchantment of capitalism. For all the pages McCarraher spends on modern mammonism, he misses that the temptation is hardly unique to people in modern capitalist societies. For example, at least three times McCarraher quotes or alludes to the idea that covetousness or greed is “idolatry.” The quotations always reflect application to modern materialism. I have no doubt they apply. But what McCarraher never notes is the genesis of this concept thousands of years before the rise of modern capitalism.

The Apostle Paul, for example, warns his readers that a “covetous man . . . is an idolater” (Eph 5.5) and that “greed . . . amounts to idolatry” (Col 3.5). Similarly, there is Paul’s well-known admonition to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil” (1 Tim 6.10). So, too, both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke record Jesus’ oft-quoted lesson that “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” There are numerous similar admonitions in the Old Testament (Dt 8.16, 1 Chron 29.14, Ecc 5.10, etc.).

The problem this creates for McCarraher is not simply that his hypothesis has been well known for centuries. The problem is more pointed than that. The real challenge is that the religious or spiritual dimension of greed and covetousness were recognized by religious leaders as a central problem of the human condition for millennia prior to the rise of modern capitalism. The argument McCarraher makes compares modern capitalist systems awash in the worship of mammon and less materialistic, premodern times when the allure of mammon was less insistent. That these very old religious teachings treat the temptation as a central problem in the premodern era suggests this form of idolatry is not unique to capitalism. It therefore also suggests the possibility that this form of idolatry can be resisted and overcome by participants in modern capitalist systems in ways it had been resisted by participants in premodern economies."