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Eugene McCarraher on capitalism, abortion, and the “culture of death”

December 3, 2007

The Other Journal, an online journal of theology and culture, recently posted an interview with one of my favorite Catholic thinkers, Eugene McCarraher. McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University and a frequent contributor to Commonweal, Books and Culture, In These Times and other journals. His books include Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought and the forthcoming The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination. An excerpt:

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.”

Do read the whole interview. A must. Check it out here.

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