William Cavanaugh Consumerism Essay

William T. Cavanaugh’s recent work, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire , is a timely read for those seeking to reflect upon the manner in which their Christian faith can be brought to bear not only on their consumer habits but also on the market framework within which those habits are instilled and fostered. Instead of rehashing the myths about the harmony between Christian principles and the so-called “spirit of capitalism” or protesting against any contrived union between the two, Cavanaugh wishes to alter the terms of the debate. Despite his ambition, his book is not provocative, nor did he intend it to be (indeed, the Gospel message is provocative in its own right). Rather, Being Consumed has a sobering effect, directing us back to what it means to engage the world from a distinctively and decisively Christian perspective.

The book is a surprisingly quick read despite the gravity of its content. Cavanaugh covers a lot of ground in four well-organized chapters which are lucid enough for the general reader yet insightful enough to gain the appreciation of the specialist. It is at once a clarion for Christian (re-)engagement with the material world and a significant contribution to political theology. To cite Cavanaugh’s own words: “This book will be, I hope, a contribution to a kind of theological microeconomics. Rather than blessing or damning the ‘free market’ as such, I want to focus our attention on concrete Christian attempts to discern and create economic practices, spaces, and transactions that are truly free” (p. viii). What follows here is a brief synopsis intended to capture main themes and objectives of Being Consumed .

Chapter One provides a much needed corrective to the anemic concept of human liberty that is found in the theoretical model of the free market. Cavanaugh begins by sketching a fair picture of how freedom is understood according to conventional free market economics of economist Milton Friedman and Catholic writer Michael Novak. Essentially, free market ideology understands agents as free when they are informed and their exchanges within the market are voluntary. Cavanaugh highlights two implications of this impoverished view of human liberty. First, proponents of free market economics define freedom negatively, that is, as freedom from interference and external coercion in exchange. Second, free market ideology conceives of agents without a common telos or end toward which their actions are directed. The result is an economic model in which individual choice is determined not by common goals or determined goods, but by sheer individual want and arbitrary desire. Without the idea of objective goods, the will wanders endlessly, pulled by the variegated forces of marketing, consuming for consumption’s sake. Goods and objects are endowed with subjective value largely in arbitrary and capricious fashion. The question from whence the consumer’s desires come and toward what they are directed is irrelevant to the free market scheme. The free market does not differentiate good or bad desires, nor does it inherently promote virtuous action or good stewardship because it is inherently value neutral. In response to this misconception of liberty, Cavanaugh prescribes a return the classical Christian conception of human freedom as it is found in the theology of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and as it is developed with reference to economics in the social teachings of Pope John Paul II. Freedom, as it is understood in the Christian tradition, requires a common telos or end toward which desires and actions are to be directed. Genuine freedom is not freedom from but freedom for what is objectively good. Human nature is directed toward and given the capacity to pursue those goods which enable it to flourish, ultimately aiding it in arriving at its true end, namely, union with God. This means that while the ability for the agent to choose, as it is conceived by free market ideology, is a necessary condition for human freedom, it is not a sufficient condition. The will must also be determined and moved by an objective good before it can truly be called free. When freedom is understood as freedom for human flourishing and necessitating cooperative cultivation of human right desire, particular features of the market such as wages, exchange, and working conditions can be judged by a standard that is not arbitrarily conceived by the individual but is positively determined according to human nature. But instead of turning toward the strictly to the State for the remedy, Cavanaugh suggests that Christians should work together through their church communities in fostering and promoting economic practices that serve to secure the conditions for human flourishing, transforming the market from within instead of attacking it from without.

Chapter Two deals primarily with consumer culture and consumerism. Surprisingly, Cavanaugh starts off the chapter by stating that what characterizes consumer culture is notattachment to things, but rather detachment from them. We do not tend to keep material goods for a long time, instead we tend to spend money buying them and then discarding them afterwards. The root of detachment is understood as having been primarily caused by socio-economic shifts that have severed the ties between those who produce the goods and those who consume those goods. We no longer understand the creation process that lies behind the goods we consume, because globalization has increased the distance between the producers and ourselves (the consumers). The detachment between production and consumption has been such that the people who create the things we buy have become de-personalized in the global market and are increasingly reduced to terms such as “labor costs” rather than real human beings. As Cavanaugh points out, “human relationships fall away from the process of buying products, relationships become more direct between ourselves and our things” (p. 45). To overcome this detachment, he insists, we must take an active role in trying to understand the origin of the things we buy. The consumer culture is not morally neutral; thus, as Christians who have a sacramental view of the world, we have the responsibility to unearth the lives behind the things we buy, restoring the human relationship between producers and consumers. How we spend our money ought to contribute to a sustainable life for those who produce what we consume. Drawing from the writings of Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cavanaugh argues that where globalization fails to preserve the integrity of the particular with the universal, Christianity’s doctrine of the Incarnation sustains the significance of both.

Chapter Three focuses on globalization, which is presented as a view of the world that tends to ignore the interests and concerns of the local and the particular. According to this view, different cultures are virtually dissolved and human relationships become abstracted for the sake of efficient and profitable economic relationships. In the global market place, the significance of a particular location is merely reduced to how elements such as wages, environmental regulations, and strategic location contribute to the bottom line of corporate profit. As Cavanaugh succinctly points out, in such a context, “free trade” is “a detachment from the local and a commitment to the hypermobility of capital” (p.63). From the Christian prospective, the depersonalization of the economy demands a new course be taken that brings the human person back to the center, which can only be brought about through concrete, local economic. One of the attractive features of this book is that Cavanaugh does not limit himself to the purely theoretical. Throughout the book, he provides real-life examples of how Christian communities around the world are already creating economic spaces where the dignity of the human person is safeguarded. He particularly mentions the virtues of the Fair Trade movement and Church Supported Agriculture (www.wholefarmcoop.com). The former connects consumers with producers from local communities abroad through ties of solidarity and respect while the latter connects producers and consumers through face-to-face encounters.

Finally, Chapter Four provides a beautiful meditation on the abundance of the Eucharist as a means for reorienting our attitude toward justice and benevolence. The story of the free market, as told by Adam Smith, tells us that the scarcity of resources will be guided by an “invisible hand” in such a way that the uncoordinated pursuit of self-interest by individuals within the market will lead miraculously to an abundance for all, rendering benevolence and charity private and optional. But when has self-interested consumption produced the sort of justice Smith and others have envisioned? The Eucharist orients our understanding of scarcity and abundance quite differently. The Eucharist is the abundance of life, yet it is inseparable from the self-emptying love of Christ in whom our own lives are incorporated through the consumption of his body and blood. Our consumption is not self-interested but self-emptying, resulting in our participation within the body of believers united to Christ. Through the Eucharist, we share in the pain and suffering of others, underscoring our responsibility to feed the hungry. Whereas Smith separates justice and benevolence within his economic model, Christ brings the two together permanently: “Unlike in Adam Smith, there is no priority of justice to charity here, no prior sorting out of who deserves what before benevolence can take place. In Matthew, as in Paul, the hungry and the benevolent are confused in Christ, so that distinctions between justice and charity, public and private, become impediments to seeing reality as God sees it” (p. 96).

Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed is perhaps one of the most important books on Christian faith and economics in recent years. He employs and interweaves effortlessly the insights of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, von Balthasar, and Pope John Paul II, teaching us how to transform the free market into a true tool for justice and love. Cavanaugh is not sparing in his criticism of free market economics, but true to the spirit of Christianity, he believes that grace permeates all forms of natures. Accordingly, Christians are called to take seriously their belief in human freedom, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist and commit themselves to transforming and completing the formal principles of the free market and to remedying its material deficiencies.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, March-April 2009.

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Honors and Awards

  • DePaul University Media Star Award, June 2014
  • Book Migrations of the Holy, First Place in the Social Concerns category, Catholic Press Association Book Awards, June 2012
  • University Scholars Grant, University of St. Thomas, 2005-2008
  • Book "Being Consumed" named Englewood Honor Book for 2008 by the Englewood Review of Books
  • Award of Excellence (first place) in the Theological Reflection: Short Format category, 91st annual "Best of the Christian Press: awards of the Associated Church Press, April 24, 2007
  • Visiting Fellowship, Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame, Fall 2001
  • Maxi-Grant, University of St. Thomas, 1999
  • Research Assistance Grant, University of St. Thomas, 1997
  • Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, 1994-95
  • Julian Price Graduate Fellowship, Duke University Graduate School, 1990-94
  • St. Edmund's College Prize (top student at St. Edmund's College), Cambridge University, June 1987
  • Firt Class Honors, Preliminary Tripos Exam, Cambridge University, June 1986
  • Graduated With Highest Honors, University of Notre Dame, May 1984
  • Phi Beta Kappa, University of Notre Dame, May 1984



Present Professor, Catholic Studies, DePaul University
Present Director, Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University

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