Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

With a presidential election looming and the most substantive policy debate (to the extent that there is one) being on the topic of jobs and the economy, turning to this text seemed appropriate. In addition, a reader had recommended William T. Cavanaugh to me in the comment section of my review of Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, so I was eager to read some of his work.

If one of the main characteristics of those authors and thinkers who fall within the stream of Radical Orthodoxy is re-thinking traditionally 'secular' realms of thought and practice according to explicitly Christian premises, language, and categories, then this text is a quintessential example of that sort of disposition and method. In considering the field of economics, Cavanaugh lays out parameters for Christians to approach a just economic life that doesn't aim to overthrow or oppose the reigning global capitalist order -- something he thinks is not actually possible anyway -- but which seeks to seize on its legitimacy and respond to it in a transformative way.

Cavanaugh is often perspicacious in his musings on the nature of capitalism and consumerism. He rightly recognizes that the capitalist definition of economic freedom is defined purely negatively: it is the lack of illegitimate coercion or force in the economic realm. While the Christian definition of freedom is ends-dependent; true freedom is understood with reference to the telos of human nature. Freedom isn't the arbitrary, unmolested exercise of will, as it is defined in capitalism, but freedom is found in choosing rightly. Because Cavanaugh doesn't think progressivism offers a real alternative to capitalism, he only really engages with capitalism and one of its most staunch defenders: Milton Friedman. This is the only spot where Cavanaugh stumbles a bit. At times he correctly recognizes that the Christian understanding of freedom, as positively defined, isn't necessarily at odds with the capitalist understanding -- as defined by Friedman -- but is rather a more specific and demanding sort of freedom that can exist underneath and within the capitalist order (though it's obviously destined to transplant it in the eschaton). But then he will turn around and act as if there is some inherent conflict, when there really isn't. That aside, his observations as to the distinct types of freedom are important and thoughtful.

Another example of penetrating insight is Cavanaugh's recognition that the consumerism of our culture is not marked by attachment to things, but by detachment to them. We don't buy things to satisfy particular desires and then rest content in those things, rather we buy things and once we acquire them, start to shop for something else. It is shopping, not the actual buying, that drives us. We desire to desire to desire, and of course the desires of our heart are never more than momentarily satiated by obtaining material possessions.

Cavanaugh goes on to say that detachment from material possessions is an aspect of the Christian life as well, though consumerism is a perversion of it. The Christian model for what a redeemed, healthy mode of consumption ought to be is found in the Eucharist. We consume and in so doing are consumed by God; we consume the bread so that we might become bread for others. And Cavanaugh gives concrete examples of what this might look like, as lived out in the realm of economics; different sorts of business models, nontraditional charitable activities, etc.

In the section on the 'global and the local', Cavanaugh evaluates the process known as 'globalization', in the context of the ancient philosophical problem of 'the one and the many'. Turning to the doctrine of the Incarnation, Cavanaugh convincingly argues that it is only in Christ that this problem can be solved, as Christ is the 'concrete universal'. Drawing heavily on the thought of Hans Ur von Balthasar, Cavanaugh believes that the Church's catholicity is the living out of this reality of the nature of Christ. The church is catholic -- whole and complete -- in each particular, local church, with Christ as its head. So in the Incarnation, in Christ, the particular, the concrete is redeemed and taken up into the life of the Trinity. The Many need not dissolve into the One, and the One need not disperse out into the Many, but Christ's work infuses the particular with the infinite, without the infinite ceasing to be infinite. And this reality for God is the reality for the Church, which becomes a model for how the Church can engage and affect the economic realities it inhabits, specifically in a time of 'globalization'.

As I've said, Cavanaugh makes these connections -- which I'm somewhat glossing over -- explicit in tangible examples. It isn't all abstraction, and when it is, it's abstraction about concrete, physical realities. One of the examples of an outworking of his premises are supporting certain sorts of local farms, where the relationship between production and consumption is at least a more intimate one, where a communal relationship among parties can develop, rather than the way globalized capitalism tends to set production off in some far corner of the world where workers can be exploited. Another example are business models which themselves incorporate an ethic of gift by having employee ownership, or a certain percent of profits going directly to charitable causes in the community. None of this undermines capitalism and can take place within it, but it also frees those engaged in these mini-markets from some of the more harsh, inescapable realities of the pure self-interest of the global market.

Though Milton Friedman might note that, in decreasing the market for extremely cheap labor in foreign countries, for example, you take away some of the poor-paying jobs those people are glad to have, perhaps making their poor quality of life even worse. There are always trade-offs, and the solutions Cavanaugh offers often have hidden costs. But, to be fair, his examples are not intended to be an exhaustive explication of everything that would need to happen to bring economic justice to the world.

The book is written in a highly readable fashion at a popular level. Cavanaugh seamlessly transitions from appropriating the Trinitarian theology of Balthasar and contrasting Augustine with Milton Friedman, to contemporary implications and pop-culture illustrations and references. The result is an illuminating investigation of what it means -- and what it should mean -- to be a Christian 'consumer' in the modern world of economics.

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