I first ran into William T. Cavanaugh’s work a few years ago with his article of revisionist history in Modern Theology (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”). I’ve just finished reading his Theopolitical Imagination (the first chapter of which is a revision/representation of that article from Modern Theology). I’ll comment more on the book later.
Today I came across a piece he wrote for Sojourners on Consumerism (free registration required). He notes:
What marks consumerism as something new is its tendency to reduce everything, both the material and the spiritual, to a commodity able to be exchanged. Things that no other culture ever thought could be bought and soldâ€”water, genetic codes, names (Tostitos Fiesta Bowl), human blood, the rights to emit pollutants into the airâ€”are now routinely offered on the market. The recent story of the Nebraska man who auctioned off advertising space on his forehead is only the latest example of the commodification of everything. This story is not so much a lesson about greedâ€”his forehead was apparently not big enough to garner bids for more than a few hundred dollarsâ€”as a statement about the extent to which we are able to become detached from even those things, like our foreheads, to which we are most obviously attached. We stand back from our bodies, faiths, vocations. Our very identity is something to be tried on, chosen, bought, sold, and discarded at will.
I recognize the temptations of consumerism in my own life as well as its prevalence in society. Everything is conceived as belonging to someone, and thus sellable (remember the story a few years ago about a couple Australian guys who copyrighted every possible phone tone?) I’m sure I know what the solution is. Cavanuagh offers both a dose of Marxism – “Worker ownership of the means of production” – Christian theology. The latter he expresses thusly:
The Christian task in a consumer society, then, is to create economic spaces that underscore our spiritual and physical connection to creation and to each other. We must strive to demystify commodities by being informed about where they come from, who makes them, and under what conditions. We should support products, such as fair-trade coffee, that pull back the veil from the production process and offer a sustainable life to their producers. We should attempt to create local, face-to-face economies, where consumers and producers know each other well enough that their interests tend to merge. My parishâ€™s connection to a local cooperative of family farms (www.wholefarmcoop.com) is a hopeful example.
As far as implementing this in America, I don’t see any easy way to do it – for ordinary people anyway. If you live in the urbs or the suburbs you can find places like this. If you have a high enough income you can do the research and buy the more expensive stuff you know all about.
I guess my difference with Cavanaugh (besides the fact that I know less about the subject), is that I fail to see the complete evil of capitalism, understanding it more as one currently available economic system, not inherently worse or better than other systems. From what I see, however, it does seem to be the most effective system for large scale populations. Maybe I’ll learn differently as I advance my economic education.
An angle on the anti-consumerism that has long concerned me is the utter collapse of the economy if even a modicum of people heeded the advice of the anti-consumerists!
Yes, that would be a problem. It would seem that apart from capitalism, the growth of market economies, the profit motive, and the increase in products we’d be stuck with Malthus.
While I lack the economics educational background to deal with some of the issues involved, I think that consumerism is a cultural challenge to Christian discipleship. We are to approach resources as stewards of what God has graciously shared with and entrusted to us. But our consumerism culture promotes an attitude that sees everything as a potential commodity to be sold or acquired. We also carry over the same attitude to other areas as well–in our relationships, for example, other people become commidities whose purpose is to address a need until they are no longer useful to us, or when the new luster wears off. The consumer mindset that currently pervades our culture is certainly antithetical to the fruit of self-control.
I noticed that after 9/11, the response promoted to us as US citizens was to come to NYC and consume–spend money in order to help out. I know there must be reasons for this that make sense within the machinations of our modern economy, but it struck me as a bizarre approach. Nothing like sacrificing our current desires for sake of future stability. Instead, the plea is to help out by indulging ourselves. Also, it seems that economic analysts are generally concerned about the state of the economy when consumers back off in their spending. The debt industry seems alot like the tobacco industry, with products on the market both to get us into high interest debt and to get us out of it. I’m not sure that a “healthy” economy ought to be that dependent on unhealthy personal financial practices. Like I said, I lack the economic education to understand many of the factors at work and to interpret them but our cultural consumerism and the economy that accompanies it doesn’t pass the smell test. I hope I’ll be able to put my finger on specifics of why or why not someday.