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Has consumer capitalism displaced faith?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 17 August 2020

In his recent book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity Eugene McCarraher writes that "the savagery of WWI administered the coup de grâce both to Christianity and the modern piety of endless progress." He goes on to state that "Mammon was a fetching surrogate for moribund divinity and secular enlightenment". In other words, the spectacle of Christian nations inflicting unspeakable cruelty on each other, while praying to the same God for victory, placed a pall upon Christian belief. Equally, man's inhumanity to man erased the high-flown rhetoric of freedom, equality and fraternity proclaimed by the philosophers and the age of revolution that followed.

It is a truism that the human heart needs somewhere to rest and that hope is an essential ingredient of that rest. The place of that rest becomes God for us. So, when the God of Christian faith is denied (nefariously), we do not get an absence of gods but a multiplication, much like the gods of Rome with which Augustine had to contend. Similarly, when we turned away from the enchantment of Christianity, we did not discover a disenchanted world, but we looked for new forms of enchantment. It is McCarraher's thesis that we found these new forms in the glittering prizes offered to us by consumer capitalism.

For this to happen we had to adopt a view humanity as being free of sin. This was established by key Enlightenment philosophers who rebelled against the Church's insistence that humanity is essentially broken. We in the West, in our desperate attempt to gain our freedom, experienced a wholesale transference of divinity from heaven to earth, from the spirit to the material and hence from grace to law. In the process, money became sacred and humanity was governed by the iron clad laws of the market. The old sins were often recast as virtues, as was avarice, for example. Gordon Gekko's speech in Oliver Stone's Wall Street come to mind:


"The point is, ladies and gentlemen is that greed, for lack of a better word, is good, greed is right, greed works, greed clarifies and cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit, greed, in all its forms, greed for life for money for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed, you mark my words, will not just save Teldar paper but that other malfunctioning corporation known as the USA."

It is significant that earlier in his speech Gekko mentions "survival of the fittest" and in the quotation above talks of "the evolutionary spirit". Darwin's theory of evolution is being used to give permission for avarice, the better word for greed. Since evolution is how the world works, human society can only be understood as a 'war of all against all." This is turned into an insistence that we all must compete. We face here a situation which we are all at the mercy of each other. The understanding of the Christian society caring for the poor, the widow and the orphan must be shear sentimentality. On the contrary, society should support only those who "have a go." We are a species that should always be "on the make."

The enchantment of goods may be observed in the fetishization of products. A fetish object is an object whose value does not reside in itself, but in an illusion of itself, an enchantment, if you will. The ubiquity of brands in our time is an indication of the power of fetish objects. The McMansions we build in the suburbs that have too many rooms to furnish and that crowd out gardens to the minimum are examples of the fetishized mind. I have heard of a funeral at which the dead man's Mercedes was parked as close as possible to the grave.

A discussion of fetishes would not be complete without a discussion of the role of advertising in their production. McCarraher plots the rise of motivational research based on the new psychology introduced by Maslow, Rogers and Dichter. It was the latter who took Madison avenue by storm and directed advertisers to plumb the depths of desire and motivation. Advertising was not just about reasoned facts; advertising must reach into the innermost parts of the human soul and tap the desire that is hidden there. What other name could we give to this than pecuniary enchantment?

All this we know. But what remains to be unpicked is the relationship between a living person, besieged by the exigences of creatureliness, dread, uncertainty of love and bonded to death and the products that are offered that promise to keep the darkness at bay. That this is idolatry does not need to be said. The consequences are dire. McCarraher: "Ditcher's psycho-economic age entailed the creative destruction of personal identity through consumption." When we fill the void within with products, trips, experiences, houses etc, we are in danger of losing the self. We enter a stage of arrested spiritual development that will infantilise us and destroy all around us.

The neo-liberal criticism of socialism is that money may be distributed in an irrational manner i.e. not according to the laws of the market. Such a distribution breaks the nexus between reason and money and hence may be accused of being irrational. Applied to all human activity, this amounts to a pecuniary ontology. "As the accumulation of capital was a categorical imperative, all obstacles to efficiency and expansion had to be summarily obliterated." All value is reduced to the monetary. "Outside of money there is no reality, let alone salvation." This is essentially the argument against the New Deal pushed by the Chicago school of economics and novelists such as Ayn Rand. Having read Rand in the schoolyard, I have personal experience of how an attachment to her thoughts could produce a human wasteland. Rand was viciously against religion, especially Christianity and stands as an example of the displacement of the gentle Galilean with economic rationalism.


It is plain to most theologians that the God of Christians has been erased for entirely the wrong reasons, these reasons being that no evidence of the existence of such an identity/being may be found. But the earliest theologians did not conceive of God as an existent being alongside other beings, rather, the word "God" could only be understood as the triune being in which the Son was the image of the Father coming to us in the Spirit.

The point is, that our hearts may again rest in God without us becoming "religious" in the usual and despised fashion that insists on all kinds of silliness. Such a move is the only way we will escape the idolatry of goods and the deification of humanity that has been so injurious to us and to the environment.

We have traversed the distance between puritan restraint to profligate excess in a few hundred years and we have allowed this to happen by abandoning what we used to know about the human soul; that if we would attempt to create our own life, we will lose it, that it will not profit us if we gain the whole world if, in doing so, we lose our soul. Consumer capitalism surrounds us with Faustian bargains; we are entranced by the glitter of the new and the possibility of total domination of nature and the future. We have become a plague upon the earth.

I am not arguing for a return to puritanism or the modern version of the baggy Moa suit. Fine things that bear the craftsman's touch or the engineer's deft insight or the architecturally designed house are to be valued. However, even these can become fetishized and thus substitutes for the truth that lies at the centre of human being. It is the place they find in our hearts, the existential purpose we put them to that is the dividing line between the fetish and the valued object or experience that speaks truth. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than the luxury cruise in which we are wafted from one tourist site to another without ever encountering the natives, their history or their culture and we return home entirely untouched.

It may be that we have reached an end of an historical cycle of indulgence, profligacy and the sunny view of human nature. The pandemic will leave behind it ruined economies in which the poor will be poorer and more desperate and the rich, perhaps not so rich but rich enough to sail through with their lifestyles unaltered. It may be that we will see through the voodoo of laissez-faire capitalism and understand that we cannot trust the market to care for the whole of society. But for this to happen we need a change of heart. It is still possible to seek the face of God and in doing so be humanised.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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