Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

By William T. Cavanaugh, 100 pages, Eerdmans.

Global capitalism destroys the lives and environment of factory workers in the developing world. They are sometimes literally worked to death, and must breathe noxious factory fumes, work 16 hour days 6 days a week, drink polluted water, put up with harassment and no rights at their workplace. Usually, the companies responsible are from the developed world, and the products are shipped back to rich countries.

Consumerism is therefore a pillar of this unjust system. Cavanaugh uses the writings of St. Augustine to show just how sinful and soulless consumerism has become. Marketing, through the branding of various products, gives a kind of enchantment or soul-like quality to goods that are, in the Augustinian view, literally nothing.

He makes some insightful, if surprising observations about consumerism and its relationship to gluttony and false asceticism: “What really characterizes consumer culture 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.”

We are not like Scooge, hoarding and counting our money and acquired things. Having is not the main prize; shopping is because we like the merry-go-round of buying new things, of course only to discover soon that the new products are as meaningless as any other acquired products. “Buying,” Cavanaugh notes, “brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies consumerism.”

This restlessness is actually a spirituality. Marketing, and global capitalism itself, are spiritual ways of looking at the world, where we define who we are by our consumerism. People in North America are working the treadmill so that they can acquire meaningless goods, made in the shocking conditions that the author briefly though powerfully describes.

Consumerism “is a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people,” Cavanaugh notes.

Yet the system is so entrenched that even when people realize that this is not an authentic way to live, and they know something about the way people are treated in Asian or Central American factories and how animals in North America are treated before they become food products, they still don't know what to do.

Thankfully, Cavanaugh doesn't call for yet another political revolution. The Western world has had enough of those. He calls for grassroots Christian change in the economic system. Christians can start this by finding out the relationships between the things we buy and where they come from. We have to re-establish the connection between producer and buyer, and see how we are responsible for the dire working conditions in so many countries.

Again, Being Consumed turns to good old fashioned Catholic theology: “A sacramental view of the world sees all things as part of God's good creation, potential signs of the glory of God, things become less disposable, more filled with meaning.” A sacramental view rejects the superficiality of consumerism, in other words.

Christians need to reverse the trend championed by the World Trade Organization that gives more power to corporations and less and less to workers.

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