Friday, January 04, 2008

A Typically Provocative Eugene McCarraher Interview

Eugene McCarraher is perhaps my favorite leftist. Undaunted by the apparent triumph of American capitalism, he still labors in the small, neglected fields of Christian Socialism. Though his opinions sometimes evoke the clich├ęd irrelevance of the academic Marxist, and his invocations of Trotsky seem curiously indifferent to the overflowing graveyards of revolution, McCarraher is able land quite a few blows upon both lazy liberalism and neo-conservatism.

Therefore, I was delighted when Vox Nova pointed me in the direction of a recent interview with McCarraher, titled Britney Spears and the Downward Arc of Empire.

Noteworthy is his dismissal of the ubiquitous, impotent condemnations of "consumerism" and "materialism":
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.

McCarraher follows some of the criticisms of Christopher Lasch, who defended the purity of leisure against moralizing and professionalizing tendencies that would harness play for something else: play must advance one's career or one's health or one's intellect, but never allowed simply to be done for its own sake. Like Lasch, McCarraher hates the deadening habits of modern work. Yet rote labor seems to be the rule for a great portion of humanity. Though personal control of one's work life is certainly an ideal, I'd like him to explain just how creative a subsistence farmer or a rancher can be in his toils.

Christians should be pioneering a whole new economics, not just tacking "values" onto capitalism. They should be affirming abundance, not scarcity, as the primary ontological fact of economics. They should be offering courses, not in management, but in how to do without management as a distinct class. They should be offering courses and training in union organization, or in dispossessing those useless people otherwise known as stockholders and putting firms into the hands of people who actually work in them.

What I find worrisome is that the ontology of abundance is precisely the basis for many flawed habits of Liberalism. The vastness of the Americas fed the idea that there was natural plenitude; one only need to work minimally to attain significant wealth. The poor, therefore, were either dumb or lazy. This diminished the sense that wealth brought responsibility, even as it enhanced the belief that individuals controlled their lot in life.

Further, it's difficult to distinguish the "ontology of abundance" from the "ontology of wishful thinking."

If McCarraher's remarks about "Christian economics" make you suspect he doesn't care for the autonomy of secular disciplines, you're right. He continues:
...it's absolutely crucial to not give an inch to the secularization narrative, because to the extent that you do, you surrender any serious claim on the disputed territory. Once you concede the essential legitimacy of the "secular" account of the person—or of economics, or politics, etc.—you end up relegating Christianity to the realm of "spirituality," or "values," or some other gaseous invertebrate that hovers around an "essentially" secular self. Rather, Christians should contend that the "secular" marks the repression, displacement, and renaming of our desire for a sacramental way of being in the world. Indeed, the history of the person is both the history of those perversions and of attempts to mitigate or undo the perversions. So I think that it's better to say, not that the Christian account of personhood is "at odds" with the "secular" account, as the secular account is a disfigurement of personhood.

Is Dominionism alive and well and on the left? I don't think so. McCarraher is only expanding David Schindler's criticism of secular space. But his suggestions are so counterintuitive that one fears an anti-secular Christianized endeavor like Christian economics would look a lot like Christian cinema: earnest, pious, and incompetent in execution.

Still, McCarraher's alternative approach yields unexpected scenarios:
I think we must understand the Gates Foundation in exactly the way you described it: as a capitalist soteriology. That’s a basically Augustinian way to frame it, and as Augustine says, not everything about the earthly city is rotten. Still, even compassionate actions are performed with the ultimate intention of preserving and extending the libido dominandi that propels the earthly realm, and those actions are inevitably further compromised by the conditions that made them necessary and possible.

[...]

What should also trouble us about the Gates-Buffett initiatives is the idea that the poor—or the rest of us, for that matter—should have to depend on the benefactions of the super-rich rather than on the ministrations of government or of religious institutions. These acts of bourgeois-oblige, so to speak, exemplify the utter privatization of public services, among which should be the provision of medical care.

Here McCarraher strikes me as openly advocating not just "Big Government" but "Big Church." Imagine if all the conservative complaints about the inefficiencies and paternalism of government welfare could be directed instead against a powerful clerical bureaucracy in charge of vast wealth not inherently dedicated to self-interested growth. You've just imagined the position of anti-clerical economists of the Enlightenment.

This curious recapitulation of past disputes shows how the contingent political relations of the present could have developed along other lines. In imagining those possibilities, I certainly hope Eugene McCarraher expands his work.

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Past McCarraher links:
How the pro-choice culture of capitalism encourages pro-abortion sentiments

The triumph of the Managerial Class in Catholic parishes

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