Why Consumerism Is Not the Problem: Reshaping Desire from the Bottom Up

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Consumerism Gone Wild. Read other perspectives here.

"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.

It is often overlooked that deep down the goals of working people tend to differ from the goals that mainline economics attributes to a small group of business leaders, or that mainline theology attributes to the top leaders of religious communities. The goal of working people, their deepest desire, is not the infinite maximization of profit for stockholders. By the same token, in religious communities, the goal of so-called lay people is not primarily the increase of membership rolls and budgets. Instead, the desire of working people as well as lay people points to a world where human dignity is respected, where fair compensation and benefits are accrued, and where the welfare of their communities and families is increased.

Dominant desire is challenged and alternative desire is produced in relation to the "last" who "will be first" (Mt. 20:1-16). Alternative desire is at work in unexpected places: it emerges from those who are forced to endure the pressures of the system but who can never be completely controlled because they benefit from it only in very limited forms. This alternative desire may not look like much at first sight, but neoliberal capitalism is challenged by any desire that is not in sync with its purposes and that does not play according to the rules.

As we move beyond shallow critiques of consumerism, the most important thing to keep in mind is that desire cannot be changed easily, and that moralizing or sermonizing — the common responses of the system — will not work. Alternative desire emerges in the pressures of life, where Godself is at work. Nevertheless, this alternative desire also needs to be organized. Without organizing, it disappears quickly. This may be the wisdom embodied in alternative religious and social movements, both past and present, particularly when they form on the underside of history.