Conference: Enchantment in the History of Capitalism

King’s College London, 29 June (evening) and 30 June 2023

Click here for the programme
Click here for the abstracts

How should we understand the role of enchantment in the history of capitalism?

In recent decades, the human and social sciences have turned to enchantment in its broadest conceptions as a paradigm to better understand present-day market dynamics. They have shown that enchantment functions as a tool and structuring force in diverse aspects of contemporary economic life, be they magical thinking in advertising, astrology on the stock market, occult finance, the quasi-religious celebration of excess or the magical service economy. This vibrant scholarship draws on a critical lineage of thinkers in late capitalism, from Marx to Latour, which has revealed the modern capitalist economy as thriving on non-rational forces, drives, and modes of thinking.

Rather than ask if capitalism is enchanted, then, the question becomes ‘How is capitalism enchanted?’ To answer this question requires an historical approach. Despite influential historically-oriented scholarship, for example Colin Campbell’s The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987) or recently Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon (2019), histories have yet to examine the role of enchantment in the development of economic structures, relationships, ideas, businesses and markets on a systematic level.

This conference, organised by the ‘Enchantment in the History of Capitalism’ network, aims to provide a first major intervention in this nascent field, and to set a research agenda for studying enchantment(s) in the history of capitalism. More information about the network, as well as previous research initiatives and a working bibliography, can be found at

The conference will open with a reception and keynote address on June 29, and continue with work-in-progress discussions on June 30.

Please note that we will circulate short versions (3-8 pages) of the presenters' papers three weeks in advance.


29 June: King’s College, Strand Campus
Keynote address: 17h-18h
Reception: 18h

30 June: King’s College, Strand Campus


Panel 1: 9h30-11h
Break: 11h-11h15
Panel 2: 11h15-12h30
Lunch: 12h30-13h30
Panel 3: 13h30-15h
Break: 15h-15h15
Panel 4: 15h15-16h45
Concluding remarks: 16h45-17h15


In order of presentation:

Lucy Cory Allen (University of Manchester): ‘“An old baronial castle”: weddings, capitalism, and enchantment as agency in late-Victorian England’

This paper examines how weddings and an emerging wedding industry provided unique opportunities for exercising agency in late-nineteenth-century England, especially in the ways that social actors imagined capitalism in everyday contexts. Inspired by David Morgan, the paper considers how wedding rituals, in momentarily suspending the ordinary functions of daily life, enchanted the social and economic order and facilitated diverse capitalist imaginaries with significant implications for our understandings of the ways that social actors perceived their identities and relationships in capitalist settings. This idea is explored through one aspect of the emerging Victorian wedding industry: arches. Increasingly from the middle of the nineteenth century, provincial newspapers reported how town and village residents across Britain built arches to mark and celebrate the weddings of prominent local families. A case study of a ‘baronial castle’ arch built at Wiveliscombe, Somerset, in 1890 examines medievalist, feudal imaginaries of late-Victorian capitalism, where uses of the past enabled conjurations and critiques of present socio-economic worlds as well as projections of economic future-thinking within the specific capitalist contexts of a late-Victorian town – particularly among (provincial, working-class) groups not typically associated with economic thought. Crucially, the paper suggests that studies of agency and social class, of the operation of power and distinctive motivations between and within social groups in late-Victorian capitalism, require an enchanted lens; a perspective so far undervalued in historical analyses.

Julie-Marie Strange (Durham University): ‘Saving money and the god of “respectability”: British working-class financial investment as enchanted practice, 1850-1914’

Inspired by McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon (2019), this paper examines British Victorian and Edwardian working-class financial investments through the lens of enchantment. Promoted by middle-class philanthropists, saving was ostensibly a moral, prosaic habit that fostered self-help and guarded against pauperism. But it was also sacramental. Placing hard-earned – often scant - money in investments such as insurance schemes against sickness and savings bank accounts was a heavily ritualised practice which required faith in the intangibles of financial capitalism broadly (investment, interest rates, banks, commercial insurance) and specifically (money represented in the form of a chit or bank book) while demanding that savers trust the high priests of finance and believe in an imagined afterlife (i.e. what came after the ability to earn regular, full wages). Crucially, saving money in one form or another was oriented around an omnipotent god of ‘respectability’. The paper argues that working-class savers also understood financial investment in enchanted terms, although not always in the way philanthropic evangelists intended them to. For some, the savings bank passbook operated as a talisman against misfortune, even when no monies had been deposited. Others understood life and sickness insurance as contracts with Providence. To some working-class people, making a financial investment for the future rested on more abstract modes of speculation, such as donating to a chapel fund or welfare charity as security against personal disaster (storing up ‘lucky’ capital). Crucially, working-class savers did not always worship at the altar of respectability but operated in an emotional and spiritual cosmos that recognised the fallibility of a doctrine of self-help and decried respectability as a false god.

Sarah Roddy (Maynooth University): ‘Conduits of capitalism: priests, people and money in modern Ireland’

This paper is based on research for my monograph Visible Divinity: An Intimate History of Money and Irish Catholicism which explores the range of financial relations between people and priests in Ireland in the period 1850-1921. While the book focuses mainly on the means by which priests and other religious raised money from the laity, including regular dues payments, sacramental fees, collecting boxes, sponsorship of material items, lotteries, and overseas fundraising tours, in this paper I will concentrate on the important wider economic role that this activity appeared to bestow on priests, bishops and other religious. I will argue that by the latter half of the nineteenth century Catholic priests in Ireland acted as the central financial administrators within their parishes, managing significant sums of money, often by way of complex structures of bank debt and stock market investment. Lack of clerical training in financial matters, along with the strictures of canon law and emerging advice from instructional manuals led to a reliance by priests on advice from wealthy and professional lay Catholics when it came to such capitalist ventures. At the same time, clergy were frequently afforded a significant role as local arbiters of monetary disputes and stewards of financial resources by the laity lower down the social scale. Catholic priests were thus not only the spiritual leaders of their communities shaping their religious worldviews, but also, alongside that, ‘conduits of capitalism’, helping to spread capitalist logic by virtue of their roles as spiritual leaders. In essence, the paper shows that solicitation by lay people of priests’ financial resources, material authority, and perceived economic expertise were a means through which ordinary Catholics of all classes enchanted their everyday economic lives.

Will Pooley (University of Bristol): ‘Commercializing magic: France, 1790-1940’

Ulrike Krampl has argued that eighteenth-century fraud prosecutions paradoxically professionalized magic, encouraging magicians’ clients to see themselves as consumers, and turning magician into a profession in its own right. This paper picks up where Krampl leaves off: what were the consequences of this commercialization of magic in the long nineteenth century? Drawing on my database of 1030+ cases of criminal investigations and prosecutions involving witchcraft, I will offer some preliminary quantitative findings, and a closer, qualitative analysis of a prolific commercial magician in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Kristof Smeyers (University of Antwerp): ‘Enchanting the economic history of Belgium’

What does it mean for a country to imagine its own economic history as enchanted? This paper traces key moments in the history of Belgium on which governments, banks, media and others built the mythology of an economy that makes no sense: irrational, inefficient, stagnant, self-destructive, surreal, transcendent. From the country’s debt-ridden independence in 1830 to the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2007-8 and the malgoverno of 2011, I explore how and to what end Belgians enchanted their country’s economic history and present. And I reflect on the implications of this mythology, suggesting sustained enchantment has been a (spectral) form of economic policy.

Jose Bellido (University of Kent): ‘Authors on the other side’

It is seldom the case that a ghost could be considered the author of a work. However, the lawsuit brought by the well-known Irish spiritualist medium Geraldine Dorothy Cummins against the architect Frederick Bligh Bond put that notion to the test, raising the possibility of imagining copyright in the era of mechanical reproduction in suggestive and important ways. The controversy concerned different techniques of communication as well as their connection to the control of ideas, documents, and collaborations. It was also an acrimonious dispute between law and spiritualism, handwriting and typewriting, gender, quotation and appropriation. The legal controversy emerged even though the parties were repeatedly encouraged to reach an out of court settlement to avoid the spiritualist phenomena being ridiculed. This was a risk that Sir Conan Doyle, a prominent member of the Society of Authors, painstakingly highlighted. Looking at mediumship and authorship, and how they were conceived both in the courtroom and in séances, allows us to observe the technological underpinnings of the human imagined in copyright. As the judge rejected the call to draw a distinction between the natural and the supernatural, it left the question of technology unanswered. However, it is precisely this legal presumption about mechanical authorship that enables us to trace the rise of the entertainment industry in the twentieth century.

This paper examines the relationship between prize and brand advertising in the formative era of mass advertising in Britain. It argues that they have more in common than is usually acknowledged, as both rely on a single mode of enchantment, namely, the economic magic of something-for-nothing. The pursuit of this magic was and remains a central and under-theorized driver of standard economic exchange in the consumer market. It further argues that legal limitations on prize advertising, rooted in the materiality of the prize, created an environment that encouraged its dematerialization, hence the emergence of brand advertising. The legal history of prize advertising therefore sheds light on the logic and development of brand capitalism, as well as the recent return of prizes and gifts with digital influencer advertising.

Aris Komorozos-Athanasiou (University College London): ‘Real fake: an intellectual history of distortion’

The paper offers an alternative account of our present ‘crisis of truth’ by unearthing new and compelling connections between the enchanted world of finance and modern political technologies of truth. It unravels how the denizens of financial markets distort factual reality to produce what I describe as the ‘real fake’ of capitalism: new and vertiginous worlds that blur boundaries between fact and fiction, and, in so doing, challenge time-honoured classificatory systems of truth and falsehood. This becomes strikingly apparent in our age of virtual realities, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and the Metaverse, as the digital platforms through which we work, trade and play become increasingly untethered from real-world referents. The paper, however, argues that market-driven distortion has been with us for longer than we usually think. I trace the progenitors of such augmented realities in the dawn of finance capitalism in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, when market technologies of prognostication and forecasting were deployed alongside occult cosmologies and forms of mystical foreknowledge to arbitrate truth claims in society writ large. I discuss the implications of that history for studying the pervading elusiveness of our current political reality, and I offer an alternative framing of emerging trends such as the growing traction of popular conspiracy movements and the sustained advance of the simulated worlds dreamed up in Silicon Valley.

Carrie Bramen (University at Buffalo): Astrological speculation on Wall Street

Whether it was J. P. Morgan reviewing astrological charts or Cornelius Vanderbilt consulting the stars with Victoria Woodhull, famous nineteenth-century financiers relied on the illicit knowledge of the occult to guide their financial speculations. With the rise of a risk economy, investors often sought the advice of astrologers such as Evangeline Adams who had an office in Carnegie Hall and consulted with the Wall Street elite including Jacob Strout, head of the New York Stock Exchange. In fact, according to Adams’s memoir, J. P. Morgan once said that astrology did not make him a millionaire but a billionaire. This paper will explore how the ancient art of astrological prophecy shaped and informed modern capitalist speculation. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism spurred the development of methods for navigating uncertainty. Astrological prediction became one way to peer into the future to reap financial profit while avoiding disaster. Scientists, including British astronomer Richard Proctor, acknowledged that “heavenly bodies do rule the fates of men and nations in the most unmistakable manner.” The belief that planetary configurations influenced human behavior became so normalized that by the late nineteenth century, some economists, according to Mark Skousen in The Making of Modern Economics (2001), theorized that “the configuration of the stars and planets was the principle cause of commercial crises.” But despite the growing use of astrological forecasting, “prophecy” was still illegal in the US. My paper will conclude with the case Board of Trade v Christie (1905), when the Supreme Court had to adjudicate which forms of speculation were considered legitimate, and which forms were still viewed as illicit gambling. At stake in this question was how certain kinds of knowledge were seen as more professional than others, a distinction that was also highly gendered in terms of who possessed the authority to speak for the future.

Caley Horan (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): ‘Financial astrology and the naturalization of “the market" in the modern United States’

This paper begins with a brief sketch of the history of astrology in the US and an examination of engagement with finance by practicing astrologers in the years leading up to the 1930s. The crisis years of the Great Depression witnessed a massive expansion of astrological consumption in the US – a development made possible by the popularization of “sun sign” astrology (a simplified form of astrology that fit smoothly into the culture of classification then reshaping American life). As sun sign astrology rose to prominence in popular media and culture, it largely supplanted older and more technical forms of astrological practice. Dormant forms of predictive astrology, however, found new life in the uncertain and speculative world of finance. Drawing on tools from the expanding profession of economic forecasting and the interdisciplinary academic field of cycles analysis, a new group of star gazers self-identified as financial astrologers emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. The paper examines the rise of financial astrology as a field during this era, its relationship to technical analysis (or “chartism”), and the role of cycles analysis in legitimizing financial astrology and other forms of esoteric market prediction. The paper then shifts to the mainstreaming of financial astrology in the 1980s and 1990s as computing technology and astrological software transformed the field. Financial astrologers acquired fame and fortune during this era by merging technical methods developed by their predecessors in the 1940s with new, therapeutic approaches from the self-help culture of the 1970s. This combination helped entice a growing class of amateur investors into stock market speculation. Small-scale, individual investors turned to astrological advising in the 1980s and 1990s for a vision of “the market” as a uniform entity that followed natural laws and a site of self-exploration and personal growth. The paper concludes with a meditation on astrology in the twenty-first century, its role in finance and other arenas of American life. Should astrology’s renewed popularity in the US be understood as evidence of resistance to financial capitalism – of desire for alternative temporalities beyond those offered by capitalist structures and yearning for coherent selves in an increasingly segmented and anonymous world? Or does astrology’s resurgence instead signal the containment of resistance as “pseudo-irrationality” and capitulation to narratives that naturalize the market as a model for social life?

Isabella Streffen (De Montfort University): ‘Counterspells’

Counterspells (2023) is an experiment – perhaps even a promise to be realised like any contract – in the form of a twenty-minute fully-illustrated performance lecture. It draws on the overlapping languages of capitalism and enchantment to think about the role of both in the contiguous histories of economic structures and personal relationships. It considers the circulation of objects of desire (both human and not) and how to pay attention to enchantment’s insistence that something other than money is valuable in the world. Counterspells uses practice research methodologies to navigate the uncomfortable territories of new technics as they generate new intimacies. It is playful and propositional, rooted in artistic practice and the tradition of the performance lecture. It seeks to speculate and elucidate, rather than finalize the deal. In re-thinking some of the curatorial strategies of the 2014-16 exhibition The Image of Finance 1700 to the present¬ by co-opting artistic strategies of dematerialisation and rematerialisation, Counterspells considers how we now navigate our personal relationships through equivalent algorithmic tools in social contexts. It wonders: how do we steer courses through computational order? How do we find our people? How do we build our webs of emotion on barely-functional platforms owned by unreliable billionaires? Lastly, Counterspells considers representational practices hitched to systems of exchange. Marc Shell has written how this leads to money becoming understood as a manifestation of authority, and as ‘disturbingly close to Christ as an architectonic principle’. What is enchantment’s role here, and what is its relationship to desire? Using images from a research trip documenting Benjamin’s arcades of Paris, this work-in-progress will propose some possible things which we might find more valuable than money.