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Eugene McCarraher

The False Gospel of Work

Against the cant of diligence and virtue.

Our big question this year, you'll recall, is How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? Addressing this question is more or less a fulltime occupation for Gene McCarraher, who teaches humanities at Villanova University. His first book (which belongs on the same shelf as the work of Christopher Shannon, profiled in our previous issue) was Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought, published by Cornell University Press in 2000. Long before the Democratic National Committee got religion, McCarraher was arguing that the American Left needed to rediscover its theological roots. He's now at work on an anatomy of corporate capitalism and what he regards as the baleful spell it has cast on the American moral imagination.

A faithful Catholic and a fierce socialist—in 2006, socialism is about as countercultural as you can get; even anarchism is more fashionable—McCarraher here sets his sights on "the hopeless and infernal world of the capitalist round-the-clock workhouse" and "the cant of diligence and virtue" which, he argues, keeps us from recognizing that "the Work Ethic's boss is Mammon."

Let the argument begin.

Reflecting on the misery of industrial England in the 1840s, Thomas Carlyle mixed acute discernment with moralistic perversity. Capitalism, he wrote in Past and Present (1843), bore "the Gospel of Mammonism," in which money, through its "miraculous facilities," held its devotees "spell-bound in a horrid enchantment." That's a nice encapsulation of capitalism's grotesquely religious character, akin to Marx's later exposition of "commodity fetishism." But in the face of that "Gospel"—whose fruits Friedrich Engels would judge in The Condition of the Working Classes in England (1845)—Carlyle recommended, not the apostasy of revolution, but an evangel of Work. To his tired, hungry, sweated countrymen, Carlyle delivered a sermon on that "unpreached, inarticulate, but ineradicable and foreverenduring ...

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