Black Friday Reading: "Being Consumed"

In “honor” of Black Friday I have been reading Wiliam T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans, 2008). Cavanaugh is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In this short book, Cavanaugh puts our free market, capitalist, consumer-driven economy under the microscope of the Christian tradition. His chapters on the free market and consumerism are of particular relevance for anyone tempted to join in today’s Black Friday shopping-fest.

In his chapter entitled “Freedom and Unfreedom,” Cavanaugh sets his theological sites on Milton Friedman and free-market defenders everywhere. For Friedman, a market is “free” when it “gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want.” According to Cavanaugh, two “corollaries” follow from Friedman’s view of free markets. First, this understanding of free markets defines freedom negatively, “that is, as freedom from the interference of others, especially the state.” Second, this understanding of free markets “has no telos, that is, no common end to which desire is directed.”

Using the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo, Cavanaugh responds to both of these corollaries. For Augustine, freedom is not “simply a negative freedom from, but a freedom for, a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile goals.” And all of these “goals are taken up into the one overriding telos of human life, the return to God.” For Augustine, autonomy is impossible because to be “free” without God is “to be nothing at all.” Ultimately, modern consumerism and free markets do not serve any meaningful ends. As Cavanaugh puts it:

In order to judge whether or not an exchange is free, one must know whether or not the will is moved toward a good end. This requires some kind of substantive–not merely formal–account of the true end, or telos, of the human person. Where there are no objectively desirable ends, and the individual is told to choose his or her own ends, then choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good. 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.

Even property, Cavanaugh argues, is a gift from God that must be used to serve the common good. (I will let you chew on that one a bit).

In his chapter “Detachment and Attachment,” Cavanaugh offers a Christian-based reading of consumerism. “What really characterizes consumer culture,” he writes, “is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things. Or:

…the detachment of consumerism is not just the willingness to sell anything. The detachment of consumerism is also a detachment from the things we buy. Our relationships with products tend to be short-lived: rather than hoarding treasured objects, consumers are characterized by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods. This dissatisfaction is what produces the restless pursuit of satisfaction in the form of something new. Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism. Buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies consumerism This restlessness–the moving on to shopping for something else, no matter what one has just purchased–sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.

Cavanaugh argues that consumerism is a type of spirituality–a way of connecting with other people and finding meaning in life. He calls it “one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world, arguable more powerful than Christianity.”

Things and brands must be invested with mythologies, with spiritual aspirations; things come to represent freedom, status, and love. Above all, they represent the aspiration to escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. Each new movements of desire promises the opportunity to start over.

But what about the Christian belief in the goodness of material things? Are we not to enjoy the fruits of creation and the products made by talented and gifted human beings? Yes, Cavanaugh argues, but

Created things, though good, are never ends in themselves; rather, they point outside themselves toward their Creator. As St. Augustine says, all created things contain within themselves traces of the Creator. Precisely because of this, they are not ends but means toward the enjoyment of God. According to Augustine, created things are to be used, but only God is to be enjoyed.

Cavanaugh also suggests some things ordinary people can do to resist the powerful current of consumerism. Churches, he argues, should be involved in promoting economic practices “that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place.” He encourages us to buy locally, put our money into smaller banks that make loans to community projects, and participate in the fair trade movement.

He also suggests turning our homes into “sites of production, not just consumption”:

Few of us have the means to make most of what we consume, but simple acts such as making our own bread or our own music can become significant ways to reshape the way we approach the material world…It also increases our sense that we are not merely spectators of life–for example, hours spent passively watching and listening to entertainment that others make–but active and creative participants in the material world. We can appreciate, as Pope John Paul II said, our true vocation as sharers in the creative activity of God.

There is a lot more we can say about this excellent and provocative little book. For example, Christian readers will want to read Cavanaugh’s suggestion that the Eucharist offers a model of community that challenges our consumer mentality. And I do not have the time or space to write about his chapters on globalization and scarcity.

For those of you looking for a theological critique of the kind of economic system that informs “Black Friday” go out and get a copy of Cavanaugh’s book. (But wait until tomorrow!)

5 thoughts on “Black Friday Reading: "Being Consumed"

  1. John,

    You've asked me some insightful questions.

    “I wonder how far you would take the idea that the ultimate end of the market is human freedom and the satisfaction of our wants and desires.”

    I suppose that John Piper's theory of “Christian Hedonism” deserves mention here. Piper points out that our true problem as sinful human beings is not that we have wants and desires, but that we want and desire insufficient things. Piper exhorts his readers to want and desire Christ, someone worthy of our desire.

    I would apply this to the market as well. The market gives us what we want. Now, all too often we want bad things because we are depraved. Yet our response should not be to simply prevent ourselves from being able to make those bad choices, but instead to change our wants and desires.

    It is not the market that tempts us to make bad choices, but our sinful hearts. Even if we contrained the market completely – say that we were perfectly able to keep people from purchasing anything displeasing to Christ – we would not have addressed the real problem: our sinful hearts.

    Indeed, since no such constriction of the market is ever perfectly enforcable, you'd find that our sinful nature would simply manifest in other transgressive external behaviors. Close the casinos? Video poker flourishes. Ban methamphetamines? Prescription drug abuse booms.

    “And if we give in to the temptations that market brings our way, we should let God sort it all out and ask for forgiveness.”

    This made me smile. My own dad – a fundamentalist of the fundamentalists – used similar reasoning (just replace the word “market” with “Christian liberty”) to try and convince me to avoid “sliding into new evangelicalism” which supposedly uses liberty as an excuse for license.

    We must eschew legalism, both in our theology and in our political philosophy. We are constantly tempted to use politics to force other people to behave in a manner that we believe best pleases God. This belief betrays our low view of God's sovereignty; surely God must laugh at us for thinking that we can force other people to become more Christlike! For the Religious Right this impulse manifests itself in constitutional ammendments banning gay marriage. For the Religious Left it often results in involuntary philanthropy (we will use government fiat to make you give money to the poor and needy).

    But we please God not by conforming to a set of external behaviors – and that's all that the law can ever offer – but by having hearts that choose to glorify Him. If we could end poverty in America by taxing and redistributing income, God would be no more glorified than the status quo because our hearts would be no less sinful. If we could prevent homosexuals from marrying, God would be no more glorified because our hearts would be no less sinful.

    People should be allowed to be wrong, to make wrong choices. Sin should be legal.

    “My guess is that you could never see yourself as part of any institution, tradition, or authority that places demands on your life (apart from the Bible) because this would be “paternalistic.””

    I have no problem identifying myself with any number of institutions, traditions, or authorities. The key here is that my submission should be voluntary, not cooerced. Paternalism is inherently cooercive.

    I do not think that God is a paternalist. Sure, He says, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” but he says that to admonish the disciples (the true paternalists in this story) for trying to prevent the children from choosing to come to their Savior.

    “If this is what you are saying, I see little hope for convincing people to make sacrifices for the common good…”

    I don't think that necessarily follows. If I am concerned with my own “self-interest,” pleasing God, then I ought to be concerned with doing what pleases God. God is pleased by – among other things -self-sacrificing acts of love towards others.

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  2. Paul: Thanks for the response. It is very Protestant (in terms of its emphasis on individualism) and very American (in terms of its celebration of individual human rights).

    I wonder how far you would take the idea that the ultimate end of the market is human freedom and the satisfaction of our wants and desires? What is the difference between consumer, free market capitalism and the teachings of Christianity? Are there any?

    Your view seems to say that we should let the market pervade out lives, even if it tempts us to be selfish, consumer-driven, and materialistic. (Because, after all, this is our sin nature anyway). And if we give in to the temptations that market brings our way, we should let God sort it all out and ask for forgiveness.

    My guess is that you could never see yourself as part of any institution, tradition, or authority that places demands on your life (apart from the Bible) because this would be “paternalistic.”

    If this is what you are saying, I see little hope for convincing people to make sacrifices for the common good or contribute to anything outside of their own personal experience with God and their own pursuits of happiness.

    What am I missing?

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  3. Thanks John, I've put it at the top of my ever-growing vacation reading list.(-:

    I wasn't under the impression that Cavanaugh thought we should spend our way out of the recession, rather he seemed to be suggesting that free market guys would advocate that. I was noting that that was inaccurate.

    You've asked me the million dollar question! (-:

    I would start with the assumption that all truth is God's truth, every vocation is a sacred vocation, and every aspect of our lives can be a conduit for God's glory. To quote Bob Jones Sr., “For a Christian, life is not divided into the secular and the sacred. To him all ground is holy ground, every bush is a burning bush, and every place a temple of worship.”

    Our lives are a divinely-ordained means to display God's glory. Economics is no different. That's all pretty non-controversial, but it sure gets a great deal harder when we try to apply it!

    I believe that the free market recognizes the depravity of humankind. For there to be a free market, there must be individual rights to life, liberty, and property. I believe that all three are sanctioned by Scripture (though that's a whole nother discussion). Without those rights, the free market – which is predicated upon voluntary transactions – cannot exist. I can force you to do something against your will. This concept of rights is based upon a belief in depravity. We need rights to protect us from our own depravity.

    But the free market also recognizes common grace, that we are all God's image bearers. I don't know exactly what the image of God in man is, but I believe that it includes a form of autonomy in conjunction with moral responsibility for our choices. God allows us to write our own moral law and then bear the consequences of our choices. Hopefully, we will choose to write the law of God on our hearts, but He allows us to choose otherwise.

    The market is adverse to paternalism. The paternalist says that he knows best and will then make you follow his example. So an evangelistically-minded foodie might push for laws banning transfats, a social conservative might oppose civil rights for homosexuals, or the President might make it illegal not to carry health insurance.

    I'm impressed by the contrast between the paternalist and our God! Time and time again, God gave the children of Israel their autonomy, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” Time and time again the children of Israel chose wrongly. God allowed them to make those bad choices and then allowed them to suffer the consequences of their choices. But He was ever ready to forgive and bless them if they chose differently. God is no paternalist.

    So, I believe that the free market most accurately reflects the true condition of man and the true nature of God.

    Less importantly, I also believe that the free market is the most utilitarian means to a variety of God glorifying ends: the mitigation of undeserved poverty, disease, etc.

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  4. Paul: I am intrigued by your comment, but you are really going to have to read the book. Cavanaugh is not endorsing the idea of getting the economy moving through shopping as your post seems to imply.

    So what exactly, in your opinion, are the “ends” of the free market? I am curious to hear how you believe the free market helps you to glorify God.

    Again, I think you will enjoy engaging with the book.

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  5. I've only read your summary, but it seems that Cavanaugh has created a strawman. Thus he criticizes free market theorists and immediately says “When there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference.”

    Advocates of the free market (myself included), especially those who adhere to the Austrian tradition, advise exactly the opposite. They explicitly discourage the idea that all consumption is equal; they also argued against so-called “stimulus” spending. Indeed, many free market economists have long wished that Americans had a higher savings rate (our low savings rate being a distortion in the market created by government incentives).

    More broadly, Cavanaugh seems to think that all free market advocates believe that the market is an end in and of itself. I would propose instead that the market is a vehicle. A free market is not the end, but the most efficient and fair means to most ends.

    Certainly, different people have different ends. But as a Christian my end, the glorification of God, is best served by the free market.

    In any case, consumerism is not the same as capitalism. Greed existed before capital. People are materialistic not because they have the option of being materialistic, but because their hearts are depraved. Capitalism gives us what we want. Unfortunately, our depravity means that we don't desire what we should, the glory of God.

    What is Cavanagh's solution? Restrict us to only one option as if we could glorify God by forcing people to do the right thing?

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