Consumerism and Wealth
Why Consumerism Is Not the Problem: Reshaping Desire from the Bottom Up
"Consumerism" is often blamed for economic and ecological disasters, together with what is casually called "materialism." These accusations are based on the assumption that everybody desires more and more stuff and that these desires are somehow causing economic inequality and ecological destruction. Unfortunately, this reasoning fails to get to the roots of the problem, as it tends to blame individuals, assuming that desire is their personal problem. Worse yet, this reasoning is unable to produce real alternatives when it attempts to replace what is called "materialism" with non-material attitudes, which some confuse with spirituality.
Charges of consumerism and materialism tend to overlook two basic problems. First, despite the common assumption that people always want more, the will to consume as much as possible cannot be taken for granted even in a so-called consumer society. Much of the advertising industry is kept in business because of the ongoing economic necessity to fuel the will to consume and to produce the desire that drives it. Second, this so-called materialism is not ultimately about material things. The things that we consume promise us much more, as the advertising industry directs us not toward material but toward ultimate things. The expectation is that buying certain things results in happiness and fulfillment.
As we are being bombarded with enticements that reach all the way into religious worlds, how can religious communities and their theologies escape being shaped by the neoliberal capitalist economy? Lamenting consumerism is harmful in this situation, as it covers up the ways in which desire is produced. It also covers up the fact that the problem is located not primarily at the level of acquiring material things but at the level of our identity as a whole, which includes what people think, believe, and feel. Even the seemingly nonmaterialistic worlds of our beliefs and ideas are shaped by these processes. People are lured into consuming to such a degree that their whole identity is reshaped.
As a result, the appropriate response cannot be to become less materialistic and more spiritual, as if the spiritual world were safer and less impacted by the dominant economic interests of neoliberal capitalism than the material world. What we need is a different materialism coupled with a different spirituality. The religious traditions of Christianity in its Jewish roots might be helpful in this process, as they refuse to play off against each other material and spiritual matters.
That Moses organized laboring slaves and that Jesus was a construction worker may turn out to be more important that we could have ever imagined. Why did God not choose to manifest divine power at the top levels of ancient empires like Egypt and Babylon, and why did God not become human in an upper-class Jewish or Roman family, especially since this would have had all sorts of advantages, "all other things being equal," as the economists say? Apparently, all other things are not equal in this case.
Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Jesus, Peter, Paul, Mary, and other religious leaders shared the perspective of working people, and were, therefore, able to see more clearly what was going on and what the real problems were. Equally important, from this perspective they were able to gain fresh visions of God, cutting through the many images of false gods, which enslave people — from the slaves in Egypt in the story of Moses to the peasants at the margins of the Roman Empire in Jesus' time. Moreover, it seems that by being in touch with the needs of working people, desire was reshaped and readied for resistance as God appeared in unexpected and life-changing ways.
Joerg Rieger has taught at Perkins School of Theology since 1994. Rieger continues to develop a more challenging vision of Christianity in close collaboration with colleagues both nationally and internationally and with emerging grassroots movements. He is the author of numerous works, including No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, and Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude. In Dallas, he is active in the religion and labor movement. In 2009, Rieger was appointed the Wendland-Cook Endowed Professor of Constructive Theology at Perkins School of Theology.