George Seferis, the Greek poet and Nobel Laureate, once had a nightmare that the Parthenon stood for auction. After it was purchased by a group of American advertisers, they promptly set about replacing all its columns with giant tubes of toothpaste (Seferis 326-327).
This image, the Parthenon propped up by pillars of Colgate Total™, is a fitting icon of Eugene McCarraher’s argument in his recent The Enchantments of Mammon (2019). Capitalism, with its rapacious appetite, holds nothing sacred. Anything can be commoditized, advertised, and drained of sanctity, as it is replaced by a preposterous substitute for religion.
Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds (2019) embodies McCarraher’s argument in many ways. Video games have been my pastime during the pandemic, and as I read his book I discovered that the game demonstrated two elements of his thesis. First, that capitalism has become a substitute religion. It is not simply eroding the foundations of existing religions, but has become an actual religion in its own right. Second, that this economic order, and the religious reverence for it, has so hobbled our imaginations that we labor fruitlessly to conceive of a different world. As Mark Fisher observed, following Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” (Fisher 2). The Outer Worlds manages to demonstrate both of these arguments: first by depicting capitalism itself as a religion called Scientism, and second by failing to come up with a plausible alternative after making its critique.
The usual story about the modern West is that it is “disenchanted” (Taylor 25-30). This thesis was primarily originated by the sociologist Max Weber, who defined the term and applied it to the modern West’s post-Enlightenment cosmology. The world used to be magical—full of spirits, beings, and sacredness—but we do not see it that way anymore (Weber 13). Entzauberung, the German word Weber borrowed from Friedrich Schiller and Karl Marx, is usually translated as “disenchantment,” but literally it means “un-magic-ing.” After the Protestant Reformation and the rise of modern science the world has, in Weber’s view, been drained of its mystery and reduced to instrumental matter—there to be used as a tool and not wondered at as the mysterious creation it had been.
This thesis has become something of a staple in the western canon, but McCarraher disputes it. Yes, he admits, a spiritual, sacramental conception of the world has been dissolved. Science played a role, as did Protestantism, but capitalism’s influence cannot be forgotten either. “Capitalism,” he writes, “evacuated sacredness from material objects and social relationships….things lost their souls when they became commodities made and exchanged for profit” (1). McCarraher, conversely, argues that this has not resulted in disenchantment but in fact, has produced the opposite effect. Capitalism has not disenchanted the world, he argues—rather, it has “misenchanted” it. The world is as magical as it has ever been.
“We have never been disenchanted,” writes McCarraher in The Hedgehog Review, “capitalism has been a form of enchantment, a metamorphosis of the sacred in the raiment of secularity.” Rather than de-sanctifying the world, it has modified and twisted our religious sensibility. Businesses are our temples; advertising our iconography; middle managers our magicians and priests. “Capitalism is a form of enchantment,” writes McCarraher, “a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world” (6). Magic never disappeared; it only changed its form. We are as religious as we have ever been, but we devote ourselves not to Almighty God but to the Almighty Dollar. Our devotion must be total, for as Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick reminds us, “there are more important things than living.”
Which brings me back to The Outer Worlds. It was released in October 2019, only two weeks before McCarraher’s book was, and it serves as a timely affirmation of his thesis—both positively and negatively. It highlights the religious nature of capitalist society, but it fails to conjure up any kind of economic alternative.
Obsidian are the popular and well-regarded creators of classic RPGs like Fallout: New Vegas (2010) and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 (2004). Their games are remembered for their thematic depth and complex characters. The Outer Worlds is similarly rich thematically (in fact, it won the 2019 Nebula Award for best game writing), and central to the game’s critique is a satire of our new Gilded Age.
In the game, the player wakes from hibernation on a colony ship, somewhere outside of a solar system called Halcyon. The ship, called Hope, has been lost for decades. A renegade scientist tasks the player with saving the colony from an unclear threat. During the adventure, the player travels from planet to planet, recruiting crew members to a ship called the Unreliable. The world of Halcyon presents itself as an Eden, in space, but it is in truth nothing of the sort. Governed by an incompetent managerial bureaucracy known as the Board, it is a dystopian farce. There is no institutional presence other than a myriad of companies who peddle shoddy products, drown you in advertising slogans (“it’s not the best choice, it’s Spacer’s Choice”), and work their employees long hours and offer little pay.
Much of the game’s send-up of laissez-faire economics is quite funny—though almost always morbid in its humor. The first person the player meets on Terra 2 is injured and in dire need of help but is contractually bound only to use medicine produced by his employer Auntie Cleo. Citizens in the town of Edgewater are trying to hide a suicide that took place in their factory for fear of being fined for “damage to company property.” A shopkeeper for Spacer’s Choice, Martin Callahan, has worn a hat of his company’s logo on his head for so long it is a “part of him now,” and any question put to him results only in a nonstop avalanche of advertising jargon. Ask him about the temperature on his ship and he replies, “of course this heat sure makes a Zero-G Brew extra refreshing! It’s an ale that’s good for what ails you.” Martin has been so subsumed by his company that he becomes an extension of its brand. Even Martin, however, is not efficient enough. One finds, for instance, robots cooking up food but still wearing chef’s hats while doing so. Art too has been annihilated—the only music allowed by the Board are variations of earworm corporate jingles, banners of the Board’s leaders resemble kitschy socialist realism paintings, and TV shows are simply schlocky propagandizing efforts like “the Masked Marketeer,” a Robin Hood-like bandit who, instead of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, teaches the principles of laissez-faire.
The gameplay itself also reflects the economic conceits of the game. In an interview, lead designer Charles Staples explained that The Outer Worlds had no crafting system, because it was inconsistent with “all the corporate branding that we had.” If the player had been able to make their own weapons and armor, an RPG staple, that would have mitigated against the monopolistic stranglehold boasted by the game’s corporations and would thereby undercut one of the game’s main themes.
Beyond the corporate hellscape, The Outer Worlds also features a religion that has evolved out of capitalism. Known as Scientism, it is formally the Order of Scientific Inquiry and is the official religion of Halcyon, endorsed by the Board. One of your crew members, Vicar Max, is a priest of Scientism, a perverse parody of religion—particularly liturgical forms of Christianity like Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. Vicar Max wears a clerical collar and vestments. He hears a confession. He oversees a church in the town of Edgewater that is roofed by a Byzantine dome but instead of Christian iconography it depicts the vast void of the universe. And in place of the usual theological doctrine, Vicar Max propounds a social Darwinist ethics.
The ideology of Scientism is very much a transplantation of 19th century mechanical deism into the science fiction future. Its basic premise is that the universe was planned out by a kind of demiurgic Grand Architect who built the universe and then retreated from it. Its animating principles are the survival of the fittest, genetic determinism, empiricism, and in-built teleology. Obsidian’s Leonard Boyarsky, one of the lead game directors for The Outer Worlds, said in an interview, “I’ve always been fascinated by Laplace’s demon, the idea that somehow the entirety of the universe could be divined if only we had enough information, so I worked that in as well in the guise of their ‘Universal Equation,’ their version of their ‘divine right’ to rule.”
Scientism is a brutal religion, with no place for mercy. When the player and Vicar Max are attacked, he will brandish a shotgun and cry, “May the Law have mercy on you, I won’t,” or “The strong survive and the weak perish!” Concerning Scientism, Boyarsky stated that Obsidian wanted to explore a “type of purely materialistic religion the corporations might espouse as a way to remove everything spiritual from their workers’ lives.” Scientism deadens any spiritual impulses and reduces the corporations’ workers into cogs in the Grand Plan. It is a more on-the-nose presentation of McCarraher’s point: capitalism is a substitute religion.
Vicar Max himself is something of a tragic figure. He is an angry man, and desperate; he is searching for meaning in his life but cannot find it. He wants the simplicity of faith that his parents had, and he became a man of the cloth to find it, but it eludes him. The player can help him on his quest and help him overcome his rage, but even so, Scientism itself offers him no hope. It is designed not to.
There is, however, hope in Halcyon—more specifically, the Hope. The ship the player was awakened from—a ship full of intellectuals, engineers, scientists, and artists—is still frozen in stasis but awaiting revival, if only the player can do so. It becomes clear that Halcyon is on the border of an ecological crisis—just as we are on Earth. The ruination of the planets and the despoiling of their resources has resulted in an intractable food shortage. The Board’s solutions are idiotic and misguided—putting the workers in stasis to prolong food stores or creating appetite-suppressing diet toothpaste (perhaps the same brand upholding Seferis’s nightmare Parthenon). The player must overcome the Board’s foolishness, bring the Hope back to the colony, and awaken the engineers aboard. With enough manpower, firepower, intellectual resources, and applied science, the problem will be solved. Should the player do this, they are treated to a rather treacly epilogue in which all of Halcyon’s problems are resolved by this cadre of technocrats. The solution to capitalism is more capitalism! Managers can save us all if we let them.
However, this hope is one that McCarraher would reject, and the way The Outer Worlds approaches salvation from capitalism’s ravages helps illustrate his second point in The Enchantments of Mammon: our imagination has been destroyed by capital too. For him, we must look at those outside the system, not to the Marxists (whom McCarraher emphatically rejects), but to what he calls the “Romantic” critique of capitalism—the litany of malcontents at the margins who speak truth to power and decry the horrors of the world: people like John Muir, Dorothy Day, and Lewis Mumford. It is there, not in the liberal technocracy nor in Das Kapital’s “gigantic joint-stock company for the exploitation of nature,” (66) that one can find intimations, however brief, of a different kind of life.
The Outer Worlds recognizes the problem Fisher highlighted above, but it, too, inadvertently demonstrates his point about the lack of alternatives. Obsidian wanted to give the player the opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to this world. We come from outside Halcyon, we can see things differently and, maybe, do things differently too. According to a Polygon review, “we haven’t been conditioned to love these corporations in the same manner as those who were born and grew up in the Halcyon system. We believe we can find a better way.”
But what better way is the managerial technocracy? On Earth, we are in the same situation as Halcyon, and the managers are already here. The Hope is among us and has so far proven incapable of its task. As Jacobin noted, “if [only] The Outer Worlds was as good at plotting a new course for humanity as it was critiquing the one it’s on…It’s too bad it can’t fathom a better future beyond a benevolent technocracy.”
The ultimate message of The Outer Worlds is the one that dovetails with McCarraher’s—the emptiness and seeming impossibility of alternatives. Where is the Hope for us? Is there any different future we can yet make for ourselves? We stand on the broken and ravaged earth, this Halcyon “builded in the waste,” to paraphrase William Blake, and all that is left for us is to join with the forlorn Romantics and utter William Jennings Bryan’s prayerful cry that has reverberated throughout the ages: how long must we be crucified on this cross of gold?
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Washington: Zer0 Books, 2009.
McCarraher, Eugene. The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.
Seferis George, Dokimes B’. Athens: Ikaros, 1974.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Weber, Max. The Vocation Lectures. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004.