William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

May 5th, 2008 / 2 Comments

Recent Christian approaches to economics tend to fall into two categories. Neo-Conservatives praise capitalism for its freedom of invention, autonomy, and individualism while critics, frequently from Social Justice streams, loudly protest the problems of greed, self-centeredness, and human rights abuses. Indeed, my own explorations on the subject of Christianity and economics have been informative but seldom helpful at suggesting a constructive way forward. In Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William Cavanaugh avoids the binary categories of having to accept or reject “the free market.” Instead, Cavanaugh suggests we should approach the issue by asking, “When is a market free?”

Like those in the Social Justice tradition, Cavanaugh recognizes the systemic neglect of workers at the bottom of the supply chain and the problems with assuming that these “irregularities” will work themselves out over time all while serving the greater good. By doing so Cavanugh questions what free means to these workers. Yet he takes this deconstruction of free markets one step further and questions whether those at the end of the supply chain are likewise ever capable of making free decisions. Building off of Augustine’s understanding of sin and human freedom Cavanaugh argues that our decisions are not free from external interference nor are they free from the struggle to determine real vs perceived needs. Instead Cavanaugh writes:

Freedom is thus fully a function of God’s grace working within us. Freedom is being wrapped up in the will of God, who is the condition of human freedom. …Autonomy in the strict sense is simply impossible, for to be independent of others and independent of God is to be cut off from being, and thus to be nothing at all. To be left to our own devices, cut off from God, is to be lost in sin…

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, p.8

As a recovering techno-gadget-addict, I think his discussion of consumerism perfectly demonstrates how freedom, understood as an action of God’s grace, can guide our economical decisions. Contrary to what I was expecting, Cavanaugh is cautious to point out that nothing is wrong with tangible material goods per se, but rather it is the perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction and desire, and the quest to turn everything - and anyone - into a commodity, that is behind the problem of consumerism. It is what GM calls “the organized creation of dissatisfaction.” For Cavanaugh, “it is not simply buying but shopping that is at the heart of consumerism.” The problem with shopping is both its ability to create dissatisfaction with what we have, and its propensity to separate material things from their production, from which we have arrived at our current culture where nearly everything is disposable. In essence, our wanting takes precedence even over our having. He goes on to write:

We are not to cling to our things, but to use them for the sake of the common good. But to have a good relationship with others, it is necessary to have a proper relationship with things. We must understand where our things come from and how our things are produced. Things do not have personalities and lives of their own, but they are embedded in relationships of production and distribution that bring us into contact, for better or for worse, with other people’s lives. A sacramental view of the world sees all things as part of God’s good creation, potentials signs of the glory of God; things become less disposable, more filled with meaning.

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, p.32

I seldom feel the need to post reviews on my site as there is usually plenty of that elsewhere (and one can always browse my reading list to see what I recommend), but Cavanaugh’s work occupies such a barren field in the teaching of Christian ethics that I feel it warrants special attention.

I also recommend Cavanaugh’s article “The Unfreedom of the Free Market” (which is basically a summary of chapter 1) and for those of you new to William Cavanaugh, like myself, I suggest exploring catholicanarchy.org’s excellent Unofficial William T. Cavanaugh Internet Archive.

So I’m interested to hear what you think:

  1. Do you think a “free market” exists?
  2. How has Christianity changed your approach towards material goods and consumption?

Comments (2)

  1. Aaron / May 5, 2008 / http://www.519music.com/

    I agree that markets are never totally “free”, and in a larger sense, . . that there are inherent flaws within capitalism. It’s interesting how quickly anyone who comes against capitalism is labelled a communist (as if that term, by itself, is a terrible thing) or socialist.

    Being a Christian for me just means that we should go without from time to time, and possess things, not letting them possess you.

    I liked his thoughts. . and I wonder what solutions, if any, he would propose in the current American political climate.


  2. Being Consumed : Sub Ratione Dei / July 2, 2008 / http://subrationedei.com/?p=714

    [...] won’t specifically review the book as there’s already decent reviews out there. However, just to say this is a wonderful little book and the ridiculously heavy irony [...]

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