The Economy of Desire

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer admonishes Christians who have bought into the theology of “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace as “the grace we bestow upon ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.” In Bonhoeffer’s view, the heresy of cheap grace is founded on a false separation between faith and obedience: “…we must never forget the indissoluble unity of the two, we must place the one proposition that only he who believes is obedient alongside the other, that only he who is obedient believes.” The alleged disjunction between belief and obedience, between faith and action, is both absurd and terribly dangerous.

In The Economy of Desire, Daniel Bell makes a parallel point: Just as there can be no faith without obedience, there can be no obedience without faith. Put another way, when we are subject to social structures, including economic systems, our participation in and according to those structures, our obedience to them, cannot fail to shape our beliefs. And just as Bonhoeffer saw Christians losing faith for failing to obey the commands of Christ, Bell sees Christian hearts being captured by the market through their obedience to consumerist logic of self-interest and insatiable, restless desire.

Bell’s thesis is underwritten by a guided conversation between Deleuze, Foucault, and Augustine. From Deleuze, Bell takes the idea of Desire as the motive power of  human action. Deleuze also conceives of social structures, including economic systems, as harnesses for Desire, which channel its raw power for the production of culture. From Foucault, Bell takes the idea of Discipline, the means and methods (“technologies”) society employs to mold its members and shape their behavior. Considering their insights together, Deleuze and Foucault reveal that “every economic system is about human desire,” because it is by disciplining desire that economic systems organize the production and distribution of material goods.

Bell takes the ideas from twentieth- century France and transports them to fifth-century Hippo, providing an Augustinian gloss on the discipline of desire as theorized by Deleuze and Foucault. For Augustine, too, desire is the fundamental driver of human action, but he goes further, explaining desire as our innate longing for relationship with God. When desire becomes misdirected or disoriented from its proper end (“telos”), it turns to false “gods” like wealth, power, or pleasure, and according to Augustine, such idolatrous desire is the essence of sin. The cultural forces that distract our desire from its true object may be identified with “the world.” Augustine’s thought provides a theological framework for applying Deleuze and Foucault’s account of the economy of desire to normative questions about economic systems and behavior from a Christian perspective.

Having laid the theoretical groundwork, Bell proceeds to a theological “reading” of our contemporary consumerist economy, asking how it disciplines our desire and whether it thereby tends to orient us toward or (dis)orient us away from God. While he attacks our system along several fronts, three points of his critique stand out. First, our system is premised on competition between individuals, and its “emphasis on self-interest entails a rejection of any substantive notion of a shared purpose or common good that unites humanity.” By fostering a war of all-against-all and construing each individual as an economic competitor, contemporary economics shapes our desire for selfishness. Second, the capitalist system presumes scarcity, a lack of material goods that drives economic competition. Because scarcity is assumed, satisfaction, an experience of the sufficiency of available goods, is impossible. Therefore, under capitalism “the entire economic enterprise is rooted in the unquenchable, infinite nature of human desire.” Finally, because desire is limitless, it is also restless and continually in search of some new object promising temporary relief from dissatisfaction. This restlessness drives our culture’s consumerism, which in turn keeps the capitalist machine in motion by creating new demands for the economy to supply.

Having made his case against capitalism, Bell turns to an alternative. He does not advocate some sort of top-down, nationally mandated socialism, like those who are wary of critiques of capitalism might suspect. Rather, according to Bell, we must recover an understanding of the church as “an economy of desire—an ensemble of disciplines and practices that (re)shapes desire to flow in particular ways.” As an economy of desire, the church embodied what Bell calls “the divine gift economy,” which is born of “God’s ceaseless generosity, of God’s graceful prodigality.” In contrast to the capitalist logic of self-interest and limitless and restless desire, the divine gift economy is based on the common good and desire satisfied and settled in God.

According to Bell, the Christian economy of desire is characterized by two practices or disciplines: renunciation and stewardship. Renunciation is the practice of voluntary poverty, which has historically been associated with monastic orders, but which Bell urges the church-at-large to reconsider: “As Martin Luther said, echoing Christ, when God calls, then we must be ready and willing to give everything away, even to the point of being poor.” Likewise, Bell calls Christians to a renewed vision for stewardship that transcends philanthropy to enact the church’s traditional “works of mercy,” embodied practices of ministering to the poor. These twin practices are acts of resistance against the desire-distorting consumerist system: “If we have eyes to see, then all around us, in the midst of the economies of this world, the divine economy appears in a variety of practices and forms challenging the capitalist order of things and freeing desire to flow in the joyous conviviality of love.”

Whether or not one finds Bell’s critique of capitalism persuasive or his portrait of the divine gift economy compelling, his interpretation of economic behavior as obedience to worldly structures reminds us that our participation in economic systems can never be uncritical. Because Christ’s claim on our desire is absolute and his claim on obedience is unconditional, no economic system can rightly claim supremacy. Our obedience to its discipline can only ever be incidental, our allegiance can only ever be provisional.

About Charles Clark

Charles Clark graduated from Dartmouth College in 2011 with a Classics major and English minor. He is Editor-in-Chief emeritus of The Dartmouth Apologia. He is currently a member of the class of 2014 at the University of Tennessee School of Law.


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