Being Consumed (5) unmasking consumerism?

Continuing discussion of William Cavanaugh’s excellent little book Being Consumed: economics and Christian Desire. It is essentially a series of essays. The second one on ‘Detachment and Attachment’ begins in chapter 2.

What makes consumer culture worth talking about is not primarily greed. Far more interesting is the way that virtually anything can be (and is) being turned into a commodity.

And he says something here which is fascinating and ‘hit-you-between-the-eyes true’. Consumer culture isn’t so much about greed (hoarding riches for ourselves); it is not about attachment to things (people are hugely indebted and aren’t saving enough for their old ages) – the issue is more of detachment.

Detachment from things that are bought, used and thrown away. Money is not saved, it is spent.

Detachment in selling: we can and do sell anything: water, space, sex, ideas, time, human blood, names, genetic codes, the right to advertise on one’s own forehead.

Detachment in buying: we have a short lived relationship with what we buy. We have a throw-away culture. We are quickly dis-satisfied with what we have. It soon gets left behind within the continuous technological race surrounding our lives.

“Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.” 35.

That’s why it is not so much buying but shopping that is at the heart of consumerism.

Consumerism is restlessness, discontent, living for a never-quite-arrived future. Buying provides a  (temporary) halt to the restlessness.

Consumerism is an important topic for theology because it is about disposition – a way of looking at the world. In other words, we are into a type of spirituality that engages with issues of the heart, hope, contentment and joy.

Cavanaugh takes this further to consider detachment:

Consumerism is not so much that people are making a black and white choice of materialism over spirituality. He’s right: we live in a highly consumerist culture yet one in which ‘spirituality’ (of all sorts) is flourishing (much to the annoyance and irritation of atheists).

So it’s not quite hitting the mark to lament how people choose the ‘lower’ material things of life over the ‘higher’ spiritual ones. Such an approach tends towards dualism in any case.

Neither is, says Cavanaugh, an adequate response to guilt-trip people. This doesn’t get to the heart of the bigger issue.

And that bigger issue is that economic and social developments have “detached us from material production, producers and even the products we buy.”

Production: Simply put, we used to make things, now we buy them. When you’re at home look around the room – what things in it did you make? What things in it do you have any real idea of how they are made? The industrialised world has demonstrated a tremendous capacity to produce things in vast quantities and in bewildering variety. But it has detached us from the creation of things.

Producers: Look around your room again at the things in it. Look at the clothes you wear. Do you have any idea who made them? Or where they were made? (Just guessing China is cheating). Labour is a commodity to be bought and sold. Companies who can do so, hire at the cheapest price they can find globally.  People who do the work are seen as ‘human resources’, ‘labour costs’, ‘work force’. They are detached from the product we buy in a shop.

Cavanaugh tells more stories here of Central American sweatshops, with the big companies now moving out to go to China, not out of ethical concerns but because rather than pay a woman 65 cents for making a shirt, they can do it for half the price in China.

The most powerful bits of this book are when abstract discussion is personalised – the human face of exploitative consumerism. A couple of stories Cavanaugh tells are drawn from an award winning essay by 19 yr old Sarah Stillman which you can (and really should – the prize givers were right) read here.

Lydda González: – worked at Southeast Textiles in Honduras making clothing for Hip Hop star P. Diddy’s Sean John clothing line which had the logo ‘It’s not just a label, it’s a lifestyle’.

She got 15 cents per shirt, which was sold for $40 in the USA. The factory as surrounded by razor wire and armed guards. She had started work at 11. At 17 she began with Southeast with 12 hr shifts, mandatory unpaid overtime, compulsory pregnancy tests, sexual harassment, polluted air and water.

When she and 14 other workers joined together to demand better conditions they were fired and blacklisted with other company owners. She received death threats.

Stillman talks of the Chinese term, guolaosi – death from overwork. Both talk of 19 yr old Li Chunmei who died after working 16 hr shifts, 60 days in a row in a toy factory making stuffed animals for Western kids to play with.

In the essay, Stillman says something that fits perfectly with Cavanaugh’s theme of detachment;

“After hearing Li Chunmei’s chilling story and listening to Lydda González’s testimony less than one week ago, I have a slightly different take on things. My goal is not to create crisis—it already exists in abundance, as Lydda can attest. My hope is that the thousands of us marching together will be able to unveil it, to make it visible as a first step toward rendering global sweatshops untenable. The moment globalization enabled so many of the wealthy and powerful to detach from the realities of exploitation—shipping the abuses thousands of miles away—was also the moment that sweatshops became, to them, morally tolerable. My belief is that the reverse will also prove true: the moment that the sad fact of sweatshops explodes in the streets—half carnival, half apocalypse— could be the moment that young women like Li and Lydda are finally recognized as fully human.”

So, the charge against modern globalised consumerism: ‘we shop, they drop.’

The ‘they’ being, as Stillman observes, mainly teenage girls.

Maintaining ‘distance’ or detachment from such unpleasant realities on the ground in far-away places is crucial to the successful branding of companies in the West.

It’s when that distance is unveiled or unmasked that some change might happen.

Cavanaugh references Naomi Klein’s famous 1999 book No Logo. She argues that the goal of transnational corporations is a kind of transcendence of the corporeal world. Image and brand represent the ‘soul’ of the corporation – its essence. Menial work by sub-contracted companies employing teenage girls in near-slave conditions doesn’t fit that image and so is erased from picture of ‘who we are’.

CEOs in the West will typically say they are shocked and appalled when presented with evidence of sweatshop conditions of workers making their products in Asia.

Here’s a challenge: choose a company whose product you are using or wearing that was made in the ‘developing world’, contact them and try to find out in what factory exactly it was made and by whom.

Cavanaugh,

“We participate in such an economy because we are detached from the producers, the people who actually make our things … The “happy meal” toys from McDonalds that we easily discard reveal nothing of the toil of the malnourished young women who make them. We spend the equivalent of two days’ wages for such women on a cup of coffee for ourselves – without giving it a second thought. We do so not necessarily because we are greedy and indifferent to the suffering of others, but largely because those others are invisible to us.”

Comments, as ever, welcome

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Being Consumed (4) when is a market free?

Picking up from the last post on William Cavanaugh’s book Being Consumed: economics and Christian Desire

The problem with pure free-market thinking is that it offers an insufficient account of freedom. It’s a  superficial view of how freedom works.

A worker in El Salvador earning 33 cents an hour may be free to take the job and the company free to relocate there to maximise profits, but such an arrangement is all too conveniently blind to the disparity of sheer power between employee and employer. In this limited view of freedom, to ask questions of the common good or whether it is just, are simply irrelevant.

Cavanaugh makes a telling point; capitalism tends to be defended as the best system as a whole, and individual injustices perpetrated in its name are aberrations,

“A system that is allegedly based on individual rights is thus ironically justified by a utilitarian justification of the system as a whole, to which individuals and their freedoms are sacrificed.”

So Cavanaugh argues that capitalism needs some external positive standard by which to judge whether a market is free. Augustine was right; to talk about human freedom we need to engage with questions of the telos, the true ends of human life and flourishing. And it this sort of discussion free market thinking expressly wants to ban from the discussion.

But says Cavanaugh,

‘Giving free rein to power without ends is more likely to produce unfreedom than to produce freedom.’ 32

So let’s move on from generalisations that ‘capitalism is freedom’, to asking ‘is this particular manifestation of capitalism free? Is it just and ethical; does it contribute to human flourishing?’

He gives some examples of freedom versus unfreedom within capitalist exchanges:

Remember, according to free-market that for an exchange to be free, all that is needed to be known is the price. But is that enough? No wonder then that companies hide these sort of facts:

  1.       Buying a shrink-wrapped steak in the supermarket

Yes, it is cheap, but consider these ‘hidden’ costs.

– the calf spends most of its life in a caged in feedstall, ankle deep in manure

– open grazing is inefficient, so it is fed corn, supplements, proteins and antibiotics

– In 14 months its weight goes from 80 to 1200 pounds

– it is given hormone implants to promote growth (banned in Europe)

– its digestive system can’t cope with corn, and to prevent illness it is fed antibiotics

–  resistant E-coli, can now kill humans if it gets through the production process.

– when slaughtered, it is caked in faeces, where E-coli reside

– Rather than alter the diet, or the feeding and slaughter process, the meat is irradiated and sprayed with disinfectant before shrink wrapping

– Corn uses high levels of petroleum products: each head of cattle uses 284 gallons of oil. Petroleum run-off from fertilizers has run down the Mississippi and created a 12,000 mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

– overuse of antibiotics has created resistant forms of bacteria

Cavanaugh quotes Michael Pollan who has written on this,

“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.”

Ever tightening margins and fierce price competition between corporate producers, mean that this insane system is apparently impervious to change despite its devastating social and environmental consequences. Buying such meat is NOT a free exchange. The facts are hidden from the consumer behind the cheap price.

All this versus the possibility of grass-fed beef, without hormones and antibiotics, on a small local scale by known and local producers – with a higher price.

2.       Buying a jacket from a fashion store

Cavanaugh gives an example of a 1995 investigation into the production of clothing for the Liz Claiborne chain in El Salvador. Workers got 77 cents a jacket or 56 cents an hour. The jacket was sold for $178 in the US. The factory was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Workers doing 12 hour shifts had insufficient money to feed themselves and their families.

Compare this to the Mondragón clothing company in Spain.  It employs 60,000 people (83,000 actually according to its website), with annual sales of over $3billion. Founded by a Basque priest, it is based on distributism; that social order can only be achieved by a just distribution of property and recognition of the dignity of labour.

The company is labour owned and run, with one vote per worker. Capital comes from a Credit Union largely owned by workers and the community. The highest paid worker can get no more than SIX times what the lowest paid worker receives. 10% of surpluses are given to community development. The social effects have been documented as positive – lower crime rates, higher education rates, lower domestic violence, better physical and emotional health.

So which market is free?

Mondragón’s ethos is that true freedom takes account of what constitutes human flourishing.

So Cavanaugh’s point is repeated:

There is no way to talk about a really free economy without entering into particular judgements about what kinds of exchange are conducive to human flourishing on earth and what kinds are not.

In other words, ethics are indispensable for genuine freedom to exist within free-market capitalism. Talk of the ‘blind market’ delivering freedom and being left to its own devices has delivered us right into the Credit Crunch, vast unsustainable debt, a decade or more of austerity, the injustice of future generations paying for this generation’s debts and so on ….

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Being Consumed (3) Libido dominandi

Continuing William Cavanaugh’s discussion of Being Consumed: economics and Christian Desire

If there is no such thing as the free autonomous individual and there is no objective good, in a free-market what we really have is sheer arbitrary power, one will against the other. This is what Augustine called libido dominandi – the lust for power.

Cavanaugh explores what this power struggle looks like in a free-market economy, particularly through the lens of the marketing industry.

On the one hand, advertising communicates information about products to consumers to enable them to make rational choices. Here the consumer is treated as free, autonomous and sovereign.

On the other hand, marketing manipulates the consumer to create desire while simultaneously hiding the fact that it is doing so.

Most advertising has long abandoned the link between mere information and a rational consumer choice. Instead, via memorable images, ideas and themes it links the product with deeper human desires – love, sex, friendship, beauty, self-esteem, success, happiness etc. And this questions the self-acceptability of the consumer.

This is what has been called the ‘organized creation of dissatisfaction.’

Any good examples come to mind?

This all brings to mind what Marva Dawn talked about when in Dublin with us – ‘we technologize our intimacy and itimacize our technology’ (not sure about how to spell those words!)

And this is very deliberate and highly researched. Companies (generally) don’t spend billions on stuff that doesn’t work (unless you are Anglo-Irish Bank). Cavanaugh quotes Marketing News, it is about,

“creating mythologies about their brands by humanizing them and giving them distinct personalities and cultural sensibilities.’

Ah, we may think, “I see through this nonsense. I know a car isn’t going to make me irresistible to the opposite sex. Most of this is, (to link back to a recent post) bullshit.” And so you have a whole genre of anti-advertising advertising that knowingly exposes the game of advertising and invites you, the consumer, to join with the anti-establishment movement connected with the product. For an example see this post on the consumer as freedom fighter.

But back to Cavanaugh’s main point – in our intensely commodified culture is an inbuilt imbalance of power in favour of the marketer. And we are hopelessly naive if we think that we are not deeply shaped and influenced by such power. Here are some examples:

  1. Companies withhold information about products to consumers that may be damaging to consumer confidence. Battles over transparent food labelling come to my mind here – feel welcome to add any examples of your own.
  2. The power of surveillance: companies gather vast amounts of detailed data about individual consumers and target those consumers using that ‘disequilibrium of knowledge’. Cavanaugh references Erik Larson’s famous 1992 book The Naked Consumer: How our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. What he describes – how purchasing patterns, births, deaths, political views, educational levels, credit histories, pet ownership, hobbies, illnesses and so on – are harvested from various sources, can only have increased exponentially in reach and sophistication since the arrival of Google and the Web.
  3. Companies saturate the social space of consumers with a torrent of images and messages. Everyone of us swims in this torrent every day and hardly notice. It represents ‘an almost total takeover of the domestic informational system for the purposes of selling goods and services.’ (Herbert Schiller)
  4. Concentration of power in enormous transnational corporations. In numerous industries, a few huge corporations dominate production and consumption – Cavanaugh lists meat production in the USA (4 companies have 80% of the market).  Smaller producers are put out of business, or are powerless to challenge the power of these corporations. Supermarkets like Tesco come to mind in the UK and Ireland.
  5. Increasing disparity of power between employer and employee: and here we are right into current hot issues of executive pay especially in banks that have helped wreck the economy. In 1980 says Cavanaugh, the average CEO made 42 times more than the average production worker. In 1999 that had risen to 475 to 1 and continued to rise. This represents increasing power of the ‘owners’ of capital.

And (rant alert) how the convenient naivety of the free-market about human-nature led to the wild excesses that led to the current Credit Crunch. Those with power and the access to capital misused that power for their own ends. Christians shouldn’t be surprised at this but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be outraged at the abuse of power either. And outraged at the seeming invincibility of the powerful from prosecution and conviction. Ireland, with her deeply authoritarian, paternalistic and enclosed ruling class  is one of the worst places in the West for such justice to be done in my opinion.

But the vast power of corporations also means deep insecurity and powerlessness for the employee. Ask former Dell factory workers in Limerick or countless other examples. If you know that your company can up-sticks and move to India (or wherever) and pay employees desperate to work for anything there a fraction of what they pay you, you are in a fatally weakened position. This is ‘free trade’. The only ‘end’ is the profit of the company. You are expendable and decidedly ‘unfree’.

Cavanaugh doesn’t go into this – but to take an example of a famous US multi-national in Leixlip in Ireland that makes computer chips – it also puts employees in an uncertain and competitive ‘market’ with each other within the company. You are constantly measured against your peers and if you are in the bottom x% of a bell curve of productivity you probably won’t last, even though you are doing your job. This is a ruthless use of power to increase productivity.

But in this ‘free-market’, many companies will say they have no choice but to act this way. If they don’t, their opposition will. They ‘have’ to search for cheap labour because if they don’t the company may not survive. Consumers want and expect the lowest price.

“In a world of consumption without ends, it is assumed that the consumer will want to maximize his or her own power at the expense of the labourer, and the manager does not feel free to resist this logic, lest his or her own corporation fall victim to competition from other corporations that are better positioned to take advantage of cheap labor.” (22)

But underpinning, and more important than, consumer demand for low prices is stockholder expectation of profit. Huge investment funds demand a return from corporations and put seemingly irresistible pressure on executives to deliver. If they don’t they are out – see the recent story of UK Tesco boss being forced to resign after 26 yrs of working there after a shock profit warning wiped £5 billion off the company’s share price . And those executives have added reason to maximize profit – they will gain personally from significant stock options.

6. Political power and the free-market. Cavanaugh unravels here the fascinating, and apparently contradictory, link between authoritarian regimes like China and free-market economics. How can Communism co-exist so comfortably with Capitalism?

The answer lies in a disciplined labour force which is highly attractive to business. The ‘employee’ is a small and powerless cog in the state machine. Political power is used to serve business, the individual is expendable. Lack of employee rights and muffling of free speech sits very well within a free-market economy. Cavanaugh quotes Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano speaking of the military dictatorships in Latin America of the 1970s and 80s,

“People were in prison so that prices could be free.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Being Consumed (2) Augustine and Desire

Augustine is the classic source for Christian reflection on desire. Cavanaugh has him in conversation with the two beliefs underpinning the free market.

How familiar personally and true to life do you find the following sketch about disordered desire and how consumerism works?

  1. Freedom is not just absence of interference from others (like the state) – what matters is what freedom is for.
  2. Rather than freedom being maximized when individuals can choose their own ends based on nothing but their own wants, the question for Augustine is to what end is the will moved?

Taking these in turn:

Freedom is found within the grace of God. It finds purpose within his will. To be left to ourselves, is to be left under the power and control of sin. It is grace that frees us from the sickness and slavery of sin, to be able to choose freely.

In other words, we can only choose freely when we are liberated from sin and are able to desire rightly. Such right desire is to love and please God. This means that free market thinking sketched in the last post is, at best, naive about human nature. There is no such thing as the free autonomous individual. That ‘self’ needs itself to be freed in order to live freely – just like a slave or addict cannot free himself or herself.

“Freedom is something received, not just exercised.”

This means that wants are not just neatly internally generated and then acted upon by the autonomous individual. For Augustine, it is more that the self is a battleground of competing loves, both internal and external.

So the bigger question (unasked by pure free-market thinking) is what kind of desires drive our choices? There are true and false desires and, says Cavanaugh, we need a telos, a bigger narrative purpose, to tell the difference between them.

Freedom depends, not purely on the autonomy of the will, but on the end to which that will is moved. And for Augustine, therefore we need liberated from the tyranny of our own wills. Such change comes from without, from the grace of God.

So to Augustine and the free market: for the latter the only thing that matters is free choice of the individual to pursue his / her own desires. Choice itself is inherently good and all that is necessary whatever the circumstances. For example, Cavanaugh puts it like this,

“when there is a recession we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.” (13)

But for Augustine such desire is cut off from their source and end in God. They become desires for ‘nothing’. We want without any reason for why we want what we want. This is disordered desire.

And it finds expression in (for example) the Western addiction to shopping. Addiction rates, says Cavanaugh,  for shopping outstrip those of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Fuelled by desire for more; leading to a purchase without meaning, leading to a repeated and endless cycle of buying.

Being Consumed (1)

As prep for a course I’ll be teaching soon on faith and contemporary culture, I’m reading a short but dense little book by William Cavanaugh called Being Consumed: economics and Christian desire. Over time a major part of this course has focused on attempting to think about consumerism from a Christian perspective.

I don’t know if you agree, but it seems to me that it is only something like the recent near global collapse of turbo-capitalism that has woken many people up to ask questions about a system that, before the crash, was benefitting most of us very nicely thank you so we didn’t look much beneath its shiny successful surface. Christians included. How could you be against the ever rising free market, full employment, rising shares, apparent wealth creation, optimism, freedom, success – may as well throw in motherhood and apple pie.

This wee book is a great conversation partner in poking underneath the surface.

The first chapter is entitled ‘Freedom or Unfreedom?’ and in it Cavanaugh explores the nature of the market and freedom. The question he says is not so much are we for or against the ‘free market’ but a deeper question of what constitutes freedom? When is the market really ‘free’?

One the one hand there is endless talk that we live in an era of unparalleled freedom of choice. And (for some) this is undoubtedly the case. On the other hand there is a deep unease about the manipulated and commercialised erosion of our culture. A culture in which we feel beseiged by marketing and surveillance, aware that our shoes (and shirts and mobile phones – take your pick) may well be made by underpaid wage slaves in a distant land but with little idea what to do about it.

Does that capture your feelings about life in a consumer culture? Or would you put it differently?

A classic free market defence goes something like this: it is all about the cooperation of free individuals without coercion, doing business where both will benefit. Cavanaugh engages with Milton Friedman (1962) here. The market is to be free from outside interference (especially the state). Exchanges are to be voluntary and informed.

Regarding information, the real and most effective regulator of the free market is the price. This is the only important information people need to know. The price tells the truth (my words). Cavanaugh gives the example of pencils; the wood producer does not need to know why the price of pencils has increased, she just needs to know people are willing to pay more to increase wood production.

Voluntary exchanges are by definition free choices. The parties enter into them for positive reasons. Desires can be met – what sort of desires is irrelevant (within the law). Those who seek to control the market do not reallly believe in freedom.

Freedom here is freedom from others’ interference. And such freedom is determindly agnostic about the telos, the ends of desire. The free market liberates each person to pursue their own ends and desires. Cavanaugh quotes Michael Novak – democratic captalism is built on the explict denial of any unitary order or overarching purpose. It is a ‘wasteland’ on which individuals wander alone. The transcendent is a personal and private affair.

Where those desires come from is not actually that important in a free market. What matters is that they exist. Friedman, and his wife Rosa, suggest that there is little distinction between real and manufactured wants – what shows what is really real is what people in fact choose to buy within a free market.

If that is a reasonably fair summary of free market thinking, what are Christians to make of it? Cavanaugh goes to St Augustine and his reflections on desire and freedom. That’s the next post.

In the meantime, comments, as ever, welcome.

thinking death

This links in with the post the other day on Near Death Experiences.  I’ve been reading Anthony Thiselton’s book Life After Death: a new approach to last things.

Thiselton refers to Moltmann who said

“To push away every thought of death, and to live as if we had an infinite amount of time ahead of us, makes us superficial and indifferent … to live as if there were no death is to live an illusion”

And Thiselton says

“To be reprieved from serious illness, or to have experienced near death, far from deflecting us from this life, can give our present life a new depth. It is those who repress the thought of death, who turn life into an idol, who perhaps have also deeply repressed anxieties about death.”

And that repression is a symptom of Western life’s avoidance of death. Some interesting contrasts to consider:

In Victorian times, death was a central concern – and still is for 2/3 of the world. Death is near and is witnessed, experienced and familiar. Children are not protected from seeing the dead and dying.

In our culture a quick and painless death is a blessing. In the medieval and Renaissance times it was viewed with horror because there was no time to prepare for the afterlife.

Thiselton argues the self-love of modern life makes an idol out of life itself.  This life is all there is and this means that death is marginalised, avoided, meaningless and absurd – the end of everything good.

The idolisation of life leads to full-on living – fast food, fast cars, fast relationships, fast meetings …

Modern fear of death means that death is “no longer the public solemn event it used to be.” Dying and death are now personal and private affairs.

I’d be interested in your thoughts here – how has being confronted by death changed the way you look at life?

I’m not sure I agree with Thiselton on the last point. Seems to me that death is becoming more openly incorporated in public secular remembrance services celebrating someone’s life. Christians may say this is one way the ‘idol of life itself’ is worshipped. Atheists have the opposite take; here Christian postmortal hope is seen as narcissistic.

A personal note here: having spent quite a while in hospital visits over the last few weeks and in some meetings with (excellent) doctors talking about odds of life/death survival rates and so on, never has it been more clear to me that modern science and medicine is wonderful and resourceful and remarkable, but it has nothing at all to say about the most inevitable part of life – death.

Discussion of death was studiously avoided. It was a taboo subject because it was outside the parameters of science and medicine. Pastoral care and support was therefore all focused on practical issues of life.  Important of course, but ultimately superficial. Meaning, significance and hope beyond death were off limits because there was no framework for them to exist.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Rory again

The stats don’t lie. Double major winner at 23 – up there with Nicklaus, Woods and Ballesteros at that age. Record winning margins of 8 shots at the US Open and now the USPGA. And doing it all with free flowing style and obvious joy. The most impressive thing last night was ice-cold putting under pressure. Congratulations Rory! Go Holywood!