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.


“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


6 thoughts on “Being Consumed (5) unmasking consumerism?

  1. hey Patrick,
    I was thinking about this stuff today, I think what Cavanaugh is saying is really important but it’s hard to explain this stuff in day to day life. Like for instance we were in Curry’s tonight and some new guy was starting on the tills and being training. My darling wife asked why I wouldn’t get a job in Curry’s. and I couldn’t explain my reasons despite having thought about it for ages. If ‘We Shop, They Drop’ is true then ‘We Work in a Shop, They Drop’ must be part of it as well…being detached means that if I was working in somewhere like Curry’s I would be paid to encourage people to buy more consumer goods without thinking about the bigger picture. But being attached and thinking about it would make life really complicated….

  2. you’re right to the key point as usual. Just after writing this there was an article in the paper about Samsung workers being in near slave conditions in China due to a spike in demand in the West ( i think for mobile phones). So if you aren’t sure about working in Curry’s which sells the stuff, is another response to refuse to buy the stuff from companies that we do know something of how they exploit workers? And to put pressure on the company? I confess that finding and researching that info is something I’m either too ‘busy’ to do or just not bothered enough to spend the energy on. And it’s exactly that detachment that enables the status quo.

    Something I’ve been challenged by Cavanaugh is to be bothered enough to find out in future. I imagine it must be possible to some degree on the web? There are increasing pressures for ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ and the like – though I’m a realist about companies playing the ethics game just to gain a consumerist edge.

    Cavanaugh does talk about the need to make concrete connections, not just a vague feeling of sympathy. And not just tellling ourselves that our consumer spending creates jobs for the poor elsewhere. It may – but it may not. He admits overcoming detachment is daunting. But suggests Fair Trade, being generous with what we have (giving it away), buying local and relationally where possible.

    We have to consume to live, so can’t escape to some pure realm. He calls for Christians to ‘sustain forms of economy, community and culture that recognize the universality of the individual person.’ Whether that helps you decide about Curry’s I don’t know. Is Curry’s any different to any form of retail (food, clothing) – is it the ‘consumer buzz of technology goods’ aspect that makes you most uneasy ?

    It would be interesting to hear other’s opinions – should Canalways work at Currys?!

  3. I’ll maybe blog about that soon Patrick.
    I really want to talk about this sort of stuff with my friends and family (as I think it important) but find it so hard to explain and end up feeling ashamed as it feels that nobody else would agree with me… I always find it hard because I fear that they’ll just think I’m avoiding work or being proud in that I won’t do a job, any job.
    For me to be detached would mean things that I don’t think about the other people applying for the job, they are unseen and I won’t really care about how it turns out for them…. for the interview process it’s almost that you have to detach yourself from them being neighbours and go out to beat them. Or they are invisible.

    I could be doing the job but if I was John or Ben (or whatever his name) wouldn’t be doing the job. And it was if he was invisible when we talked about it in car afterwards. He wasn’t even considered.

    Or being detached means that I just have to detach myself from things I know about myself. When I applied for my job in B&Q they make you do a personality survey before you get to the online form…so I detached myself from things I know about myself and lied about my personality just do that even fill the form in. So even applying for the job means detachment or something….

    and that’s before even considering things such as the real aim of my work or the things I would be selling. I have no problem with the fact we have to consume, but it’s more about the amount we have consumed already and if as a Christian I should be involved with that. I would find it really hard to believe that my work should be to push the new iphone 5 for example as I find it hard to believe that we really need it or that it will make anyone happy. To be detached would mean that I would suspend that I believe that until Sunday mornings or reading later on that when I’m at home…

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