Mind Matters

The Political Economy of Enchanted Materialism

Hello, fellow humans!

A few new things to share:

  • I published a new podcast conversation, this time with the economist & zen teacher, Julie Nelson. A theme from our conversation: are greed, environmental degradation, and economic precarity part of the 'inherent nature of capitalism’, or are these things byproducts of bad economic theory that we can change without needing to exit capitalism? You can find more info & listen to the conversation here.

  • I was recently a guest on Paul Millerd’s podcast. We discussed how widening economic possibilities can help us conceive of new forms of work, and other fun stuff. You can listen/download our conversation here.

  • I also wrote a short essay for Paul’s newsletter, Boundless. I wrote about Foregrounding the System, and what hyper-capitalism feels like (or: how it can ‘feel’ like anything at all).

Ok, that’s it. In we go.

Enchanted Materialism

For most of human history, we perceived the world as enchanted. Rocks, forests, and rivers were animated, inhabited by spirits. Our environments were full of causality always acting upon us. 

Then, we went through the famous process of what Max Weber calls disenchantment. The onset of what Charles Taylor calls The Secular Age. We came to reject revelation - direct experience of the causal energies coursing through our environments - for detached reason and observation. The human self was no longer conceived as what Taylor calls the porous self. We became buffered selves.

The porous self was susceptible to the environment's many causal influences. The animated environments did things to us. They passed through us like sponges, leaving residue that changed our composition. Disenchantment stripped the world of animism. The buffered self no longer believed that environmental influences existed, let alone entered inside the human self with causal power. The world was made of inanimate, insentient matter. Humans alone had the power of will.

Now, we’re seeing the early lurches of a new worldview. The birth pangs of a new ontology: enchanted materialism.

We’re once again conceiving of the environment as alive with causal influence over our lives, our selves. But without the idea that some spirit or soul is inside. The science fiction author Karl Schroeder puts it this way: in the age of enchantment, we thought the material world was a sock, a vast array of socks, and the whole thing was inhabited by spirits and souls, acting as hands that moved the socks - the material world. 

Disenchantment removed the hands from everything but human bodies. Human’s alone were animated by spirit, by God, by whatever. All that remained around us - “nature” - were lifeless socks, waiting for animated humans to use them.

Now, enchanted materialism is bringing the socks back to life, but without any hand inside them. The causality, the life, arises from the material itself, not some dualistic notion of a soul or spirit that is separate from matter.

This means the buffered self is once again becoming porous. We’re recognizing that our environments exert causal influences upon us. This shows up in the behavioral science and productivity space today. We’re now told the best way to change our behavior is to change our environments. Want to go to the gym more? Leave your sneakers by the door, ready to go. 

This is a big shift from previous thinking, when behavior change was understood in terms of grit and will power. What mattered was the will inside the buffered self, not the way the self’s environment sparked - or impeded - action.

Vibrant Matter & Political Economy

In many ways, we’re just catching up to what the philosopher Simone Weil (and many others) claimed nearly 70 years ago.

As Eugene McCarraher (author of How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity) writes, the problem with the kind of nihilistic, mechanical materialism that disenchantment spawned was that it was a bad, immature form of materialism. Disenchanted materialism, Simone Weil writes, is simply bad materialism. It’s devoid of revelation, the direct experience of wonder and communion inherent in the very nature of matter itself.

It’s like taking a bite of the periphery of a jelly-filled donut, tasting only dough, and proclaiming: “there is no jelly! It’s only dough!”

Weil would respond: “You simply haven’t yet tasted the jelly!”:

“Weil rejected the Marxian theory of modern disenchantment on the grounds that it presumed an erroneous and truncated account of matter, one that rejected out of hand any possibility that matter could convey any spiritual import or power to historical action. The spiritual and material worlds did not, to Weil’s mind, constitute a dualism; they were complementary rather than antithetical or antagonistic, and the corporeal realm could mediate divinity while still structured by the laws of nature. Weil preferred an enchanted or sacramental materialism with its own social theory and political implications. ‘The true knowledge of social mechanics,’ she wrote in Oppression and Liberty (posthumous, 1955), involved a conviction that ‘there exist certain material conditions for the supernatural operation of the divine that is present on earth’. In other words, because matter was capable of conveying the supernatural, she saw Marx’s disenchanted materialism as, in a sense, not materialist enough. There is ‘a divine order of the universe’, Weil insisted, and the historical mediations of ‘labour, art and science are only different ways of entering into contact with it.’”

This line of thinking was picked up by the likes of Jane Bennett, a political theorist & philosopher at Johns Hopkins. In her book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, she writes:

She’s bringing the empty socks back to life, without the need for a hand moving them. I picked up the book hoping to consideer the political economy of vibrant matter. If the world is alive and we are porous and matter is both sacred and profane, how can this inform economic policy? How can we, to borrow Fernand Braudel’s idea, expand the limits of the possible by redesigning the economic structures of everyday life?

There’s a connection here I cannot quite grasp. ‘Expanding the limits of the possible’ is a phrase I’m fond of in terms of economics, but as the scientist Michael Nielsen writes, it equally applies to matter itself:

What are the most interesting states of matter which have not yet been imagined? It’s remarkable that human consciousness, universal computing, superconductors, fractional quantum Hall systems (etc) are all pretty recent arrivals on planet Earth. Each is an amazing step, a qualitative change in what is possible with matter. What other states of matter are possible? What qualitatively new types of phenomena are possible, going beyond what we’ve yet conceived? Can we invent new states of matter as different from what came before as something like consciousness is from other states of matter? What states of matter are possible, in principle? In a sense, this is really a question about whether we can develop an overall theory of design?”

Nielsen is adding another layer to the historical saga of enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment. For these concern our perception and experience of matter. Nielsen points out that matter itself is a constantly evolving substance, of which we are continuing to discover new forms and potentialities.

So we have two vectors of development:

  1. We’re theorizing, perceiving, & experiencing matter in new ways

  2. We’re discovering new qualitative states of matter itself

Schroeder wrote up a reading list on enchanted materialism, and his conclusion is enlivening:

Let’s reiterate: “This is a creative period…they all see new vistas of possibility for our self-definition as human beings alive in a vibrant and essentially living universe; and they do so without resorting to mystification, new age formulas. or any turning-away from reality to some soothing metaphysics.”

I have no idea what the economic implications of enchanted materialism are. I don’t know how experiencing matter as vibrant, or discovering/inventing new states of matter altogether can change the socioeconomic relations that structure our lives.

Or, to reverse the thinking: I don’t know how we can design economies so as to bring us into closer contact with the vibrancy of matter, the inherent animism of matter.

But this is a creative period, and the questions beckon.

Foregrounding the System

As I mentioned, I wrote an essay for Paul Millerd’s Boundless newsletter. I’ll post an excerpt here, and if you dig it, you can read the full thing over there.

You’re probably familiar with the “what the hell is water” story. A fish swims by two other fish, asking them as he glides by: “how’s the water, boys?” Shortly after, one fish turns to the other with a furrowed fish-brow and asks, “what the hell is water?”  

The question doesn’t land because it has never experienced anything other than water. Without this kind of relational tension - where we perceive black because of white, hot because of cold, left because of right - water never registers as something that exists in the fish’s perception. Without contrast, water remains part of the imperceptible background.

Maybe the fish who asked the question recently found herself swimming above a whale right at the moment it expelled a great big jet-stream of water from its blowhole, launching the fish beyond the water's surface and into the air. Upon falling back into the water, the fish had experienced something other than water, which created the relational tension required to register water as something to be perceived in the first place.

I’ll call this process foregrounding. Foregrounding yanks things from the imperceptible background of our lives into our fields of perception.

One of the threads running through my work - essays, podcasts, newsletters - is an attempt to foreground the economic system as a causal force in our subjective experience of what it feels like to be alive. We often take sentience, consciousness, subjectivity - whatever you call it - for granted. As if it simply is, and our lives are to be lived through that default configuration of consciousness.  

Any number of folks can tell you this isn’t so. Neuroscientists can tell you that neuroplasticity - the brains capacity to rewire itself in accord with new experience - is a lifelong phenomenon. Psychedelic connoisseurs will tell you that one measly mushroom, or a small acid tab stamped with George Harrison’s face will (temporarily) reconfigure the way you experience anything in the first place. Meditators will tell you how their practice opens previously unknown states, or rooms, of consciousness.

But does economics have anything to add, any role in the configuration of consciousness?

Turns out, if you look hard enough, yes. There’s a scattered history of economists, cultural theorists, and philosophers who’ve argued that economic systems have as much to do with the construction and development of consciousness as any of the above.

What If ‘Capitalism’ Isn’t the Problem?

In my conversation with Julie, we touched on a number of these questions. As a zen practitioner & economist, I asked her about the relationship between consciousness and materialism.

How deeply does changing the social & material conditions of our lives change consciousness itself? Is there an unconditional dimension of consciousness that transcends material conditions?

Is it fair to think of economic policy - like basic income - as a form of contemplative practice, since a materialist view would argue that doing so changes the material conditions from which consciousness arises? Or, at least as what Michel Foucault called a Technology of the Self:

“…techniques that allow individuals to effect by their own means a certain number of operations on their own bodies, minds, souls, and lifestyle, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, and quality of life.”

In this sense, basic income is something we’d be doing to ourselves, that directly changes the environment of everyday life from which consciousness arises (in a Marxist, materialist view). She pushed back on this frame, and I really enjoyed the conversation.

Listen to Podcast

That’ll Do

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Until next time,