I have an attachment to my material things. If it’s a rock that I found and loved as a child, I probably still have it. Unless I gave it away, which also is a way of honoring the thing. If it’s an item of clothing, I wear it until it falls apart or my mother rips it off my back. I don’t trade in my cars. I run them into the ground and then buy someone else’s trade-in. In this way, William Cavanaugh says, I contradict the spirituality of the consumer culture. This is the third post on Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.
One surprise of Cavanaugh’s work is that, where others see materialism, he finds spirituality. Consumption is a deeply formative relationship. It’s a way of pursuing meaning and identity. A second surprise is that spirituality turns out to be not always a good thing.
A triple detachment
In this chapter of Being Consumed, Cavanaugh identifies the spirituality of consumerism as a kind of triple detachment – from the act of producing things, from those who produce those things, and from the products we buy. Cavanaugh then contrasts consumerist detachment with what Christians mean by detachment. A third section presents the Eucharist as a Christian practice that offers an alternative way to practice consumption.
What lies at the heart of consumerism is very far from greed or love of money or inordinate love of material things.
People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things. (p. 34)
Dissatisfaction with material goods keeps the consumer economy going.
Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is at the heart of consumerism. (p. 35) It reminds me of climate activist Greta Thunberg. She was asked how she personally put her concerns about global warming into practice. Among other things she mentioned “stop-shop.”
Detachment from production
The first detachment Cavanaugh explores is from the act of making things. In past times the home was a place where production happened. People made many of the things they themselves needed to survive. People beautified their homes and lives with crafts and music they made themselves. That’s not entirely a forgotten art, but mostly we buy things that people used to make.
With the industrial revolution, cheap factory-made goods wiped out cottage industries. People often ended up working “in the same factories that put them out of business.” (p. 37-38) Today, globalization increasingly outsources manufacturing. Most people in wealthy countries don’t make anything at all.
Cavanaugh decries the meaninglessness of much work that doesn’t produce things, and I think he exaggerates. Still, something is missing when we no longer make things. We no longer engage creatively with the material world. We cease sharing in God’s own creative activity.
Detachment from producers
We don’t make things anymore, and we don’t know who makes them. Whoever those people are, they are what’s known as labor costs. Since it’s our goal to buy things as cheaply as possible, manufacturing companies that thrive are the ones that reduce labor costs as much as possible.
That often means that production is outsourced to countries where labor is cheapest. Often there’s no way of knowing, much less controlling, under what conditions, with what hours, and for what pay the people who make our things labor.
Detachment from the things themselves
The typical American consumer has a freedom of choice among products in the marketplace that is simply astounding. In Minnesota I can buy bananas all year round and not think about where they grow. On the other hand, if I’m interested in foreign places, I can experience the food, music, sports, and even religions of a wide variety of cultures. They’re all commodities as if on a shelf. When I grow tired of one, I can switch to another.
Powerful forces are aiming to make sure I do grow tired of each new thing. It could be the latest quintuple-blade razor or an exotic meditation technique. General Motors even has a name for the process: “the organized creation of dissatisfaction.” (p. 46)
In a consumer culture
… pleasure resides not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit…. The consumerist spirit is a restless spirit, typified by detachment, because desire must be constantly kept on the move. (p. 47)
Consumer culture forms us morally with a power that a preacher can only envy. Compare her few minutes on Sunday or Sabbath with the culture’s daily barrage of advertising. The next posts will show how consumerism takes up and distorts religious moral disciplines. We must consume to live. The Eucharist, Cavanaugh says, can lead us to turn our practices of consumption toward an abundant life for all.
Image credit: Treehugger.com