The Nation Magazine Discussion Group Presents Eugene McCarraher on The End of Capitalism

Sunday, January 15, 11am – Discussion
The Nation Magazine Discussion Group Presents
Eugene McCarraher on The End of Capitalism and the Wellsprings of Radical Hope

Eugene McCarraher, Associate Professor of Humanities and History at Villanova University was published in a June 8, 2011 issue of The Nation on the topic: Reimagining Capitalism. His essay follows.

“Why should we want to reinvent capitalism? Rather than reinvent it, we should remind ourselves why capitalism is so pernicious. We could start by stating the obvious (which, apparently, needs restating): the nature and logic of capitalism are incorrigibly avaricious. As a property system driven by the need to maximize profit and production, capitalism is a giant, ever-whirling vortex of accumulation. Anything but conservative, it’s the most dynamic and protean economy in history. As Marx observed in the opening pages of The Communist Manifesto, capitalism thrives on constant reinvention: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Always seeking new ways to make money, capitalists have reinvented the system several times already. Enclosures, factories, Fordism, automation and “flexible production”—metamorphosis for the sake of profit is the only constant in capitalism. Each incarnation has featured new brands of exploitation and corruption, designed and packaged by masters of economic and managerial sophistry.

To be sure, reformers have been partially successful at shaping these reinventions: collective bargaining, regulations of business, the welfare state. Whatever victories for justice working people have won have been hard-fought and tenuous, the fruit of protracted struggle. But however ingenious or effective the reforms, they’ve been limited, if not eventually subverted, by the intractably mercenary nature of capitalism. As we can see from the history of the past forty years—an era that has been marked by a transatlantic assault on social democracy and New Deal/Great Society liberalism—the rage to accumulate remains the predatory heart and soul of capitalism. We have good reason to assume that capitalists will always seek and find fresh ways to cast off the fetters and vanquish their opponents.

But the iniquity of capitalism goes deeper than its injustice as a political economy, its amoral ingenuity in technical prowess or its rapacious relationship to the natural world. However lissome its face or benign its manner, capitalism compels us to be greedy, callous and petty. It takes what the Greeks called pleonexia—an endless hunger for more and more—and transforms it from a tawdry and dangerous vice into the central virtue of the system. The sanctity of “growth” in capitalist culture stems from this moral alchemy, as does the elevation of market competition into a model of human affairs.

Conscripting us into an economic war, capitalism turns us into soldiers of fortune, steeled against casualties and collateral damage, ransacking the earth to fill the shelves and banks with plunder. Capitalism stands condemned most profoundly not by its maldistribution of wealth or its ecological despoliation but by its systematic cultivation of people inclined toward injustice and predation. And I think we on the left need to start dismissing as utterly irrelevant the standard apologetic riposte: the material prosperity and technological achievement generated by capitalist enterprise. No amount of goods can compensate for the damage wrought on human nature by the deliberate nurturance of our vilest qualities. The desecration of the values we claim to hold most dear is the primary reason we should want to abolish, not reinvent, capitalism.

This suggests that what needs reinvention is not capitalism—leave that to the well-mannered barbarians in the business schools—but our moral and spiritual imagination. I don’t mean only the wisdom that lies in the venerable traditions of the left. Even those who have opposed capitalism have often fallen for its illusions: the ideal of “growth,” the mythology of “progress,” the cipher of “innovation.”

Any effort to end the tyranny of Mammon must be leavened by other concerns. What does it mean to be human? What do we really want? These are moral, even religious questions—the kind of questions we often dismiss as politically unserious, or relegate to the hallowed oblivion of “private life.” But they’re also political questions, for the answers determine the ends as well as the means of production. The ancient moral and metaphysical concerns may turn out to be not redoubts for reaction but wellsprings of radical hope.”

From Eugene McCarraher’s  forthcoming book The Enchantments of Mammon:

“First, I think that Christians should stop yakking about “consumerism.” “Consumerism” is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I’ve come to think that that’s the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It’s just too easy a target. There’s a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don’t, by the way, believe that we inhabit a “post-industrial” society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they’re materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome, because it clearly doesn’t work, and wrong-headed, because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.

As for abortion, I think we have to stop seeing it as the primary culprit in a “culture of death.” Abortion becomes conceivable as a moral practice once we take individual autonomy as the beau ideal of the self; but to recognize that is, if we’re logical, to indict not only abortion but also our cherished idyll of “choice” or “freedom.” But that, then, is to indict capitalism, which employs a similar language of sovereignty both to legitimate itself and to obscure the remarkable lack of creative freedom at work. I know that I’ll catch a lot of hell for saying this, but I think that a lot of opposition to abortion is sheer moral sentimentality which turns the fetus into a fetish. (You’ll notice that I think fetishism of some sort or other is a pretty salient feature of the contemporary American moral imagination.) Many of the same people who oppose abortion are champions of laissez-faire capitalism, and they either don’t see or don’t care to see the linguistic and cultural affinities between themselves and the pro-choice advocates they fight. They’ll retort that capitalism doesn’t kill anyone in its normal operations, but, first, that’s just not true—capitalism has never been instituted or maintained anywhere, not even in the North Atlantic, without considerable coercion and violence—and second, it doesn’t matter, because the exercise of market “autonomy” has devastating effects on individuals and communities regardless of whether or not they wind up dead. (“Yeah, the company cut your medical benefits or cut your job or left your town a mess, but hey, you’re still alive!”) When I say this, a lot of people retort that I’m “changing the subject.” In one way, yes I am, but for a reason—because I want them to see that it is the same subject, in a different guise. Talking about abortion is a way of not talking about the “autonomous individual,” the latest ideological guise of libido dominandi, discussion of which would topple quite a few idols, and not just “reproductive choice.”

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