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.

5 thoughts on “Being Consumed (1)

  1. Ooh, I can’t wait to read the part about Augustine. Thanks for the post. Loved it!

  2. […] don’t seem to know anything about either.”Jim Martin’s post on half-alive people. Patrick Mitchel is doing a series on Cavanaugh and consumerism.Speaking of students, which means papers, did you […]

  3. Great post, by the way!

    I think consumerism is one of our (I’m American, but I’m thinking of the wealthy post-industrial world as a whole) biggest challenges.

    When I think of how much of my mental landscape is taken up with “stuff I want” – usually stuff I want because a desire has been manufactured in my by advertising or word of mouth – I shudder. That space should belong to God. That space should belong to my wife. That space should belong to me, to give to God first and then to my wife.

    I’m not anti-capitalist. I mean, what other system will do better in our fallen, imperfect world? But I think we, as Christians, have to be willing to suffer a little materially in order to blunt some of capitalism’s excesses. We also have to be willing to serve as “a voice in the wilderness,” calling ourselves, our fellow-believers, and ultimately the world away from the unconscious worship of stuff.

  4. thanks for the comments. Welcome Tim. I think one of the big issues surrounding this is the assumption that such hyper-consumerism is both normal and without consequences. Normal in the sense of ‘this is the way things are so what can we do about it’ and without consequences in that it is harmless. But it just isn’t sustainable to overproduce massively in a world of finite resources. And that’s before you get to the spiritual impact that you describe so well.

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