Enchantment in contemporary scholarship on economic life

This roundtable took place on 5 May 2022.


Professor Jean Comaroff, Harvard University

Professor Jens Beckert, Max Planck Institute

Professor Robert Kozinets, University of Southern California


Jens Beckert, Imagined Futures. Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, HUP 2016. Chapter 8 ( Consumption, p. 188-214) and Conclusion (The Enchanted World of Capitalism, p.269-285).

Jean Comaroff, and J. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming.” Public Culture 12(3) 2000: 291-343.

Jean Comaroff, and J. Comaroff, “Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millennial Capitalism.” Theory from the South, Paradigm Press 2011:153-172.

Michael Saler. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Pre-History of Virtual Reality. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Introduction (p. 3 -23)

Per Østergaard, J. Fitchett & C. Jantzen (2013). A critique of the ontology of consumer enchantment. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 12(5), 337–344.

Russell Belk, H. Weijo, and R. V. Kozinets (2021) “Enchantment and Perpetual Desire: Theorizing Disenchanted Enchantment and Technology Adoption.” Marketing Theory 21, no. 1 : 25–52.

Optional: Jenkins, R. (2000) “Disenchantment, enchantment and re-enchantment: Max Weber at the millennium." Max Weber Studies, 11-32.


By Kristof Smeyers

The spectre of Max Weber continues to haunt our research network. In The Romantic ethic and the spirit of modern consumerism (1987), sociologist Colin Campbell reacted against mainstream readings of Weber by arguing that the rationalisation of capitalist markets and production regimes, and the constraints of a so-called ‘Protestant work ethic’ in fact had the complementary effect of firing up the imagination of consumers and workers in unforeseen sensory, emotional, and bodily ways. In Campbell’s thesis, ‘Romantic’ consumers emerged from the Industrial Revolution: modern people with a ‘desire to consume.’ In this third roundtable, Campbell’s book reappeared at several points as our speakers Jens Beckert, Jean Comaroff and Robert Kozinets interrogated contemporary forms of enchantment that emerge – and flourish, in some cases – at the limits of rationality, calculability and the imagination, and often at the centre of consumer culture. Rather than approaching this culture as superficial and devoid of meaning, they posited that the ‘desire to consume’ brims with enchantment.

The entrance to Enchanted Island, Phoenix, Arizona. The amusement park claims to be 'filled with charm and magic.'

The entrance to Enchanted Island, Phoenix, Arizona. The amusement park claims to be 'filled with charm and magic.'

(1) What constitutes enchantment?

The previous roundtables offered predominantly historical answers to the question of definition. This roundtable turned to theories of (dis-/re-)enchantment in contemporary consumer research and economic anthropology. Riffing at times on Marx' notion of the fetishes of commodity and his understanding of how goods are animated (or made animate), Beckert, Comaroff and Kozinets described the appeal of a thing to be purchased as a seduction, a promise, a dream, an expectation, a charm, a surrender. (Terms that, indeed, all hint at a romantic and enchanted sensibility.) Things can thus become conduits of personal enchantment, as Kozinets has argued with Russell Belk and Henri Weijo, because consumers let them – or even consciously shape them into such conduits.1 The symbolic value of a commodity, and its potential to bring about change, are as much if not more a driver of consumption than its actual futility.

Beckert also returned to Weber (and Campbell) to find enchantment at the core of capitalist rationalisation processes. If those processes hinge on the ideal of the calculability of everything, then the unattainability of that ideal means that capitalism can only ever be enchanted: something will always remain non-calculable and out of reach of reason. Beckert calls this fundamentally irrational and imaginative aspect enchantment. It is constitutive of capitalism, steering all decision making, from investment to lotteries, in ways that remind us of the prevalence of astronomical prediction in capitalism. Even when economic processes and mechanisms can be measured and calculated, the complexity of those calculations can imbue them with a sense of black-box mystery that could be described as enchantment: the algorithmic complexity that now underpins some market research practices is such an example. An algorithm’s capacity for calculation is mysterious, and that mystery has in some instances induced people to place their trust in algorithms rather than in people. In Kozinets' thinking, this sense of awe and wonder – in this case for technology – constitutes economic enchantment. The three speakers agreed on the inherency of enchantment within capitalism, ‘manifesting,’ in Comaroff’s words, in different ways at every turn within capitalist structures even as the line between the sacred and the secular is continuously shifting.

(2) Is enchantment theorized as structural or individual phenomenon? and (4) Is enchantment conceptualized as manipulation or as a form of agency?

Specifically within the context of consumer research, the question of agency can only be answered ambiguously. Beckert, for whom it is clear that enchantment functions as both manipulation and agency in capitalism, reframed the question to think about whose agency precisely we are speaking about.

Relating to that ambiguity, Beckert and Comaroff raised an important question about the mechanisms of consumer enchantment: Who are the enchanters? It does not suffice to think of individuals enchanting the goods they buy without taking into account production and labour at an organisational level. In that regard, building on the conclusion of his book Imagined futures, Beckert argued that fundamental to the ‘enchanted world of capitalism’ is the future industry, tasked with creating possible, promissory futures, in business as well as in politics. This necessarily relates to questions of power and accountability on a broader, societal level. Imagining a future, also in economic models and forecasts, is also always an attempt to make that future present, and to interest others – consumers, advertisers – in that future.

Comaroff too conceptualised enchantment as a dialectic between the individual and the collective, and between subjective values and historical processes. This dialectic, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff have shown, can crystallise in concrete cultural figurations from the ‘new spectral economy’ such as the zombie, which direct collective efforts to make sense of changing market systems, and can embody anxieties as well as the promise of empowerment of the disenfranchised and marginalised.2

Who are the enchanters, then, is a question that leads at once to the inner lives and psychologies of consumers and to large-scale, industrialised, mass-produced forms of enchantment. Kozinets gave the example of Disney’s layer of ‘pixie dust’ that covers the company’s products, from theme parks to films. It also led the discussion towards another Weberian concept: charisma, as it is for instance embodied by modern entrepreneurial prophets from Silicon Valley – driving home the point that, as Kozinets contended, modern consumer enchantment can be found primarily in technological commodities. The figure of the entrepreneurial prophet, cultivated in the media as a charismatic leader of our times, exemplifies the performativity of enchantment in modern capitalism.

(3) Is enchantment described as a continuous phenomenon, a new phenomenon, or as historically-specific constellations? and (5) Is materiality fundamental to enchantment?

A major theme of this roundtable was the temporality of enchantment. Durkheim said the sacred has always existed, and enchantment, too, has sometimes been understood as a transhistorical category. But it manifests differently in specific contexts that are historically meaningful. The three speakers turned to this temporality from different angles. Beckert described capitalism’s orientation towards the future as the driving force of its enchanting power. That orientation is not predetermined; it cannot be calculated. Instead it means risk, opportunity, ontological uncertainty, and expectations of an unknown but imaginable future as a place of possibility.

Comaroff approached the temporality of enchantment through the lens of historical momentum. As mentioned in the previous roundtable, moments of social or economic crisis can foster an increased sense of magic; magical thinking can pervade rhetoric and analysis of such crises. Joseph Stieglitz, for instance, along with other economists, spoke of enchantment, irrationality and magic in the markets after the crisis of 2008. Building on her work on millennial and spectral capitalism, Comaroff observes signs of the triumph of a market system – a ‘Second Coming’ – at the end of the Cold War, and of related anxieties concerning the global casualization of labour. Those signs are visible in an outburst of occultism in the United States and especially in South Africa around the millennium: a flourishing of Pentecostal and evangelical movements, pyramid schemes and money magic, concerns about Satanism, and gospels of prosperity that promised material wealth and winnings through born-again, participatory spirituality. The specific historical and geographical context of millennial South Africa rooted the zombie figure in popular consciousness in Black rural communities and in popular culture, as an instrument for people to think through economic conflicts and inequalities.

Kozinets, finally, approached temporality on the level of the commodity. Citing Benjamin Hartmann and Katja Brunk, he argued how the rhythm of consumerist enchantment (and disenchantment) can be cyclical and how, after initial enchantment and inevitable disenchantment, consumers ‘can recover a sense of magic, myth, specialness’ of an object after having gotten used to it. (Kozinets gave the example of the first iPhone, which at the height of its ‘near-religious hype’ was nicknamed the ‘Jesus phone’.) The initial wonder of a new technology or object is not sustainable. But it can be conjured up again either as newness or, as Hartmann and Brunk have shown, nostalgia; a sense of wonder can be reproduced in the ‘new cathedrals of consumption’, from theme parks to shopping centres. This rhythm of consumer enchantment has also been observed historically since at least the consumer revolution, which Colin Campbell situated as running parallel with the Industrial Revolution, as ‘a fantastic realm in which things act, speak, rise, fall, fly, evolve’.3

  1. Belk, Weijo and Kozinets, ‘Enchantment and perpetual desire: theorizing disenchanted enchantment and technology adoption’, Marketing Theory 21:1 (2021), pp. 25-52, p. 29. ↩︎

  2. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, ‘Millennial capitalism: first thoughts on a Second Coming’, in Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, eds., Millennial capitalism and the culture of neoliberalism, p. 2. ↩︎

  3. Thomas Richards, The commodity culture of Victorian England: advertising and spectacle, 1851-1914 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 11. ↩︎