William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 103 pages, $10.11 paper. Click here to buy Being Consumed from Amazon.com and to help support The Other Journal.
People everywhere are being forced to pay attention to the transnational economy these days, and they are asking questions about the meaning of production and consumption in the brave new world of the twenty-first century. Though the Christian is to ask such questions from the vantage point of belief and practice, especially the practice of worship, it is rarely deemed that such faith has anything to do with the market. Fortunately, there is a contemporary Virgil to guide Christians through this postmodern inferno and purgatory, none other than William Cavanaugh, author of Being Consumed.
The subtitle of this little book—“Economics and Christian Desire”—describes a theme that resonates throughout the book. Nothing seems more self-evident to the modern person than desire and the apparent failure of one’s life to satiate desire. Nevertheless, one talk show host after another introduces the author of yet another self-help book, yet another claim that purchasing, reading, and following his or her twelve steps will satiate all longings for happiness. Cavanaugh’s Augustinian examination of human desire, its true end, and its many economic perversions, however, explains why the pursuit of happiness under capitalism is, necessarily, as unending and insatiable as greyhounds in hot pursuit of a fake rabbit.
Cavanaugh begins by debunking the idea of the “free” market and the “freedom” of choice that it enshrines. Freedom of choice has become so iconic and so universally venerated that both major American political parties pay homage to it. Democrats hold to the pro-choice position on abortion, while Republicans laud freedom of choice as the key to renewing education. In liberal capitalist ideology, what makes a choice free is the absence of coercion, that is, circumstances where the chooser is not forced to select something that she really doesn’t want to choose. Choice therefore reflects desire, and desire is assumed intellectually unproblematic. That is, desire comes to define the core of one’s being and, therefore, undergirds freedom and the rationale of choice. But this understanding is problematized by Augustine.
Augustine, says Cavanaugh, teaches that “desire is a social production.” Desire does not spontaneously arise from within. For example, when the young Augustine participated in the theft of some fruit, it was not because he was hungry. He did it to please the other members of a gang with which he was associated. Desire, here, may not originate as “one’s own”; it may be stimulated by one’s social setting. One primary example of this phenomenon is the fortunes that have been spent on advertising in order to stimulate desire for commodities that may not have been desired otherwise. Is this the basis for a free choice?
If some of our desires are inauthentic, how can we distinguish the true from the false? Cavanaugh, via Augustine, says that we can draw a distinction only on the basis of the end sought by a desire (in the sense of goal). If there is a true end to be desired, then desire is authentic when it seeks that end, and it is false when it does not seek that end. God is, hereby, the ultimate end of all human striving, so our choices are free when they are based on the desire for God.
Thus, suggests Cavanaugh, the free market is not free. Even in the absence of external coercion, our desire may be a form of bondage that keeps us from pursuing our true end: God, and other subordinate ends that lead toward God, like friendship, family, beauty, truth, and social justice.
In a wonderful Marxist move with Chestertonian flare, Cavanaugh reverses one of our commonplace thoughts about modern consumerism, that is, that capitalism is materialistic. It is not that consumer capitalism is materialistic; it is simply not materialistic enough. In contemporary capitalism, the consumer is separated from production (it often takes place on another continent and the producers cannot even afford to buy the commodities they produce). Even the food eaten in most homes is often prepared beforehand and then nuked in a microwave rather than being cooked. The distant producer is little more than an anonymous tool, often working under inhuman conditions and inadequately paid for such work. Large corporations then ship these commodities around the world, selling to persons who will never see the people who produce that which they consume. The products themselves become mere signs of a satisfaction they can never bring, soon to be replaced by other equally enticing and futile signs. The pursuit of anything apart from the pursuit of God, then, is the pursuit of nothingness. The purchase of a commodity can never bring lasting satisfaction.
It seems easy and natural to live as consumers because of the surrounding, virtually omnipresent, matrix of advertising. We are lured in by advertising gods’ vision of the world and the self. The consumer culture, with its practices and disciplines, forms and shapes our desire, and so gives rise to the autonomous, individual “chooser” who finds commodification as natural and absolute.
But there is an alternative. Christianity not only acknowledges desire, but locates desire in the arena of hope. As Augustine said, humankind is made for God, and nothing less than God will satisfy. The beauty, truth, and goodness of the world cannot still the restless heart, but they can direct one to their source—the Creator who is Beauty, Truth, and the Good. Christianity produces, not haunted shoppers in search of the mythical perfect commodity, but hopeful pilgrims walking the path that leads to home and to joy.
Christianity is not a set of disembodied ideas and sentiments one may purchase and possess; this is capitalism. Christianity is, rather, a community created through a particular, collective practice. This practice is the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist, the Christian receives the goal of all human quests—Christ. Christians are not just subscribers to Christ’s teachings or imitators of Christ’s sentiments; Christians are members of Christ’s body. Identity is hereby de-centered. The self is no longer located in autonomy, but in Christ. As Cavanaugh puts it, “[. . .] instead of consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it.”
To be members of Christ’s body is, therefore, to be part of the church—the community of Christ-like praxis. Transnational capitalism sells itself as the true catholic order that will bring all of the peoples of the world into a peaceful commercial unity while preserving diversity in the form of choice. This is yet another empty promise. The supposed diversity of global capitalism evacuates all significance from the communities of the world, trivializing their rich heritages, reducing them to the essentially interchangeable consumer choices of the market. In contrast, the church, in which a universal community exists in the form of diverse and specific Eucharistic gatherings, succeeds in bringing together diversity in genuine catholicity, as all are gathered into the Godhead.
Membership in Christ’s body also presses the Christian into solidarity with the poor and suffering of the world. We serve Christ, in part, by serving the poor in concrete and specific ways. And one of the great strengths of Being Consumed is the naming of various communities and activities that actually do this.
There is much in this slim volume that merits attention. Buy it and read it. It is more than a commodity; it is a gift.