• Being Consumed

    “Being Consumed” with William T. Cavanaugh

    In this episode, Malcolm interviews Professor William T. Cavanaugh about his book on Christian economics, Being Consumed.

    Background

    Before we discussed the book, I asked Professor Cavanaugh to discuss his background. He talked about his academic background in theology and his time working as a lay volunteer in Chile under the Pinochet military dictatorship. His first book, Torture and Eucharist, was inspired by his experience in Chile. It describes torture as the “liturgy” of the military dictatorship, aimed at atomizing society, and the Eucharist as the Church’s liturgy, aimed at building up the body of Christ. He also discussed his work as director of The Center for World Catholicism & Intercultural Theology, a research center on the Church in the Global South. In particular, he mentioned how vibrant the Church is in some of the poorer countries of the Global South, and how just before the pandemic he visited the Catholic seminary of Enugu, Nigeria which has 855 men in formation.

    Being Consumed

    Economics as Moral Theology

    Then we turned to discussing Being Consumed. The introduction contains the line “Some Christians may be tempted to assume that economics is a discipline autonomous from theology.” Historically, Christians saw economics as a branch of moral theology. In modern times, by contrast, economics has been treated as a separate science. This makes it easier for Christians to justify immoral economic behavior.

    There shouldn’t be any area of our lives which is separate from our Faith. Our economic life, which has such a large impact on our relationships with one another, should definitely be informed by our Faith. In the Old Testament, God’s concern for economic justice is clear. Similarly, as described in the New Testament, the Early Church shared goods in common and cared for the poor.

    What is a Free Market?

    The first chapter of Being Consumed covers the concept of freedom as applied to the economy. Christians don’t have to oppose the idea of a free market. On the other hand, we should criticize the flawed concept of freedom held by many “free market” theorists. They tend to hold a purely negative view of freedom. A negative view of freedom focuses on an absence of external constraints. For this reason, free market apologists tend to see all economic exchanges as free unless one party directly coerces or deceives the other.

    Negative freedom is a necessary component of true freedom. It is not, however, sufficient to make an action truly free. The Christian tradition contains an emphasis on positive freedom. Positive freedom is “freedom for”, as opposed to “freedom from”. During the podcast, Professor Cavanaugh used playing the piano to illustrate these two concepts. In a negative sense, someone is free to play the piano so long as nobody stops them. In a positive sense, only those who have learned to play the piano are really free to do so. Other people can bang on the keys, but are not actually free to play it.

    Positive freedom applied to economics means that a truly free market should promote the dignity and well-being of all. Economic transactions that demean human dignity are not truly free.

    Further, in judging the freedom of an economic exchange, we need to take into account disparities of power. In Being Consumed, the low wages of many sweatshop workers are used as an illustration of this point. If such workers don’t accept these low wages, they will starve. They aren’t really free in this situation. The multinational companies have a lot of power, and the workers have very little.

    In some cases, the workers actually are coerced by a government which intervenes on the side of the corporations. Professor Cavanaugh said that a “free market” often means one in which corporations are free. For instance, the oppressive Pinochet regime supported a supposedly “free” market. Speaking of this situation, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said that “people were in prison so that prices could be free.”

    The Social Mortgage on Private Property

    The Church does accept the legitimacy of private property. In part, this acceptance is a concession to a fallen world. It also stems from a realization of the social benefits that can come from private ownership. The Church does not, however, recognize private property as absolute. Rather, the Church teaches the universal destination of human goods. This means that private property is only legitimate insofar as it serves the common good. Professor Cavanaugh mentioned St. John Paul II’s teaching on the “social mortgage”:

    It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a “social mortgage,” which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods.

    Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, VI, 42

    This emphasis on the social purpose of ownership goes all the way back to the Old Testament. The New Testament reiterates this teaching and raises it to a higher level.

    Use Value instead of Exchange Value

    One of the problems with our current economy is an excessive focus on exchange value. The ultimate purpose of the economy is providing for human needs. Use value is a measure of this kind of fulfillment. Exchange value, on the other hand, is a measure of the salability of an item. A focus on exchange value leads to commodification. Commodities are not seen as useful, but merely as saleable. This can lead to bizarre consequences. Among other examples, I mentioned that at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, many farmers ended up plowing under their crops. The farm operations were designed to sell exclusively to the restaurant trade. With this market opportunity temporarily unavailable, the food had no value as a commodity. At the same time, many people were going hungry. The use value of the food was as high as ever, but due to a focus on exchange value it was unable to be used.

    Professor Cavanaugh pointed out that this emphasis on exchange value leads to the proliferation of advertising. We are shown shiny images of things that can be quickly shipped to our doorstep. They arrive in packages with a smile on them. What we don’t see is the conditions under which they are made. Products become more important than the people. This is fundamentally incoherent, since products are designed to serve human beings.

    Detachment

    Christians are supposed to be detached from the world. Our modern economy also promotes a kind of detachment. We tend not to be attached to any particular thing. Unlike those in more thrifty cultures, we’re constantly throwing things away and replacing them with the next thing. Christian detachment is supposed to leave us free to become attached to God and attentive to the needs of others. The modern “detachment”, however, leaves us attached to the very process of consumption itself.

    The Eucharist as Anti-Consumptive in Being Consumed

    Professor Cavanaugh said that he has sometimes been criticized for saying that the Eucharist “does things” apart from the disposition of those receiving. It is of course true that things can be misused, and the Eucharist is no exception. The Eucharist can be, and often is, seen as a merely individual, consumptive experience. Parishes can become “Mass stops” where we go to “get our sacraments.”

    The reality of the Eucharist, however, is deeply anti-consumptive. In our current economy, we consume things, thereby taking them into our possession. Our consumption of the Eucharist, however, is the opposite. In the Eucharist, we are taken up into a larger whole. We become part of the body of Christ, which includes all those who receive the Eucharist with us.

    Chapter 4 of Being Consumed includes the following line: “Those of us who partake of the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation.” This is extremely important. We need a holism of life, a certain kind of “Eucharistic Coherence.” We can’t partake in the sacrament of unity and then spend the rest of week exploiting and abusing our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    This connection between serving others and partaking in the Eucharist goes back to the Early Church, as seen in the teaching of Basil the Great and John Chrysostom. It goes even further back to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We can’t fall into the modern temptation to separate our lives into watertight compartments.

    Practical Responses to the Message of Being Consumed

    Professor Cavanaugh suggests that in reclaiming our economic lives, we should focus on our problematic detachment from three different aspects of our economy: detachment from production, from producers, and from products.

    • To combat our detachment from production, we should take back up the practice of making things for ourselves, even if on a small scale.
    • To combat our detachment from producers, we should consider the impact of our economic decisions on others, particularly those who make our goods.
    • To combat our detachment from products, we should avoid advertising as much as we can. We should cultivate satisfaction with what we have, instead of searching for the latest model.

    Conclusion

    Being Consumed is a great examination of the Christian view of economic activity, and is accessible to those without a specialized background. I highly recommend it; we were only able to cover a few of the many concepts discussed in the book. And I’m very grateful to Professor Cavanaugh for joining the discussion.

    Header Image: Book Cover image courtesy of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Amazon warehouse image from D K, CC BY-NC 2.0

  • Blog Posts

    Poverty, Justice, and Peasant Economics

    A version of this essay was presented at Denver Faith and Culture in 2017

    How should Christians relate to God’s creation? First and foremost, we should be thankful for it, we should be in awe of it; but our relationship with creation goes beyond that of an admiring spectator. We are part of creation, and we interact with it. We are called on to tend the garden, to rule over the beasts of the earth; in short, we are called on to practice economics.

    “Economics” comes from the same Greek root word which gives us the word ecology: oikos, the home. Economics studies the provisioning of the home, the feeding of the family. Ecology studies the home God has made for us. 

    All economic activities start with the gift of the land given to us by God, because economics consists in the application of labor, human effort, to the land. Similarly, all economic activity should end in the giving of gifts, the tribute of worship to God and the gift of food and shelter to family and neighbor.

    In our efforts to redeem society, we must realize the primacy of economics. Leisure is first in intention, but economics is the first in order of actuality. If we are not able to feed and clothe ourselves, we will not be able to produce art or liturgy or politics. Similarly, if a society’s economic order is unjust and works against human dignity, the culture of leisure in that society will become degraded. 

    Today, our economic system is brutal, unsustainable, and unjust. Simply by participating in our economy we are supporting injustice, the enslavement of the poor and the destruction of the environment. This injustice will undermine all our cultural efforts, which will become just another trendy hobby of the rich. In the end, we will have built a “good life” that would have been familiar in the ancient world; leisure and culture for the upper class, slavery for the others. If we can not restore a right relationship to the land, none of our other attempts at societal renewal will bear fruit.

    There are many ways a society can organize its economic relationship to the land, ranging from the clan solidarity of hunting tribes to the vast slave empires of antiquity, and these various forms largely determine the type of culture a given society will produce. 

    I purpose that in our quest for a just economy we can learn from one form in particular, that of the peasant. 

    Today the word carries connotations of poverty and backwardness, but all it truly means is production for consumption instead of for trade. It is a simplification of economics in which an individual family or small group of families controls all the economic factors; land, labor, capital, and consumption. Cutting down a tree to heat one’s house is an example of peasant economics. So long as the primary focus is on self-provisioning, it is still peasant production. The adjective “peasant” says nothing as such about technology use or wealth. 

    I’d hasten to add that many goods can not be produced this way, and no healthy society can consist solely of peasant production. Primary goods, such as food, shelter, and clothing, as well as the tools to produce these, can and have been provided by peasant villages. There is a bit of a blurry line here, I admit; there was division of labor in a peasant village. A blacksmith may shoe his own horse, but will spend much of his time shoeing horses for others. However, the blacksmith is part of the village; he will live his whole life with the other villagers. Just so, there was some division of labor in most peasant families. But the focus was on the self provisioning of the unit. In this way, the village can be seen as the literal and functional extension of the family. Secondary goods, such as computers, television sets, smart phones, and fluorescent lights can not be produced in a peasant fashion, not solely because of their complexity but because of the economies of scale necessary to their manufacture. Secondary goods, however, are not essential to life, and can’t be allowed to dominate the economic order to the detriment of primary goods.

    We are called to live lives of Christian poverty, though not of destitution. As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, God knows we have need of “all these things”; the primary goods of food, clothing and shelter. But as Luke’s Gospel warns us: “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.” And as Matthew’s Gospel warns us, our wealth can make entrance to heaven as difficult as the passage of a camel through a needle. If we are to be followers of Christ who came to earth poor and humble, we must shun unnecessary wealth. Some secondary goods are necessary for a full life, but when we live in a society where the bulk of our income is spent on secondary goods, we can guess we have made a mistake. A life spent seeking for comfort and fashion instead of sufficiency is not a Christian life. 

    In fact, because we spend so much on secondary goods our primary goods are shoddy and unsustainable. In the USA we spend less than ten percent of our income on food, and then wonder why farmers can’t make a living and our soil is eroding away. Italians spend 30 percent of their income on food, because they still realize the food is important. If we want a right relationship with the land we must stop spending our lives in a hunt for secondary consumer goods. 

    It also should be noted that I’m not advocating the rejection of any technology that can’t be produced by a peasant village; I am advocating relegating such technology to its proper place in society. Also, the Gospel condemnation of wealth is a hard saying. It will take a long journey of Faith to arrive at Christian poverty. But when we find ourselves living much more comfortably and wielding much more power than the rich of Christ’s time, we must begin to ask some hard questions. I don’t have all the answers; each Christian must discern with much prayer their proper relationship to wealth. 

    In exchange for relocalizing our production and eliminating surplus secondary goods, what will we gain? A better quality of primary goods has already been touched on. Beyond that, simplified peasant economics frees us in many ways, from dependence on markets, from ecological destruction, from the support of empire, and from the financialized imagination. 

    Among these, the most obvious is freedom from markets. Alternative market farming is currently trendy, and small scale farmers are often locked into an intensive process of providing fancy salads for urbanites. This type of farmer faces competition from “Walmart Organic” with minimum standards and slave worked fields in Mexico or China. The competition has conditioned the customer to expect cheap food, which is only made possible by vast mechanization, government subsidy, debt, ecological destruction and social exploitation. If we eat our own crops and build our own furniture, we can meet our own needs without reference to market values. 

    Looking farther afield from our individual plots or farms, we should take note of Uncle Sam. Potatoes grown and eaten on the peasant plot are duty free. If we sell our potatoes or tomatoes, taxation will take a cut before we buy our bread and beef. Do we support what our government uses our tax dollars for? From local town councils funding shoddy development to the Pentagon buying million dollar bombs, our taxes fund waste, evil and destruction. 

    Between the sale of the turnips and the purchase of the bread, our money will presumably sit in a bank. What is the bank up to with our money? Who are they funding?  Bureaucrats and other parasites are only too willing to suck the wealth out of our local communities. The less liquid it is, the less they will be able to get. Potatoes grown and consumed on a peasant plot are revolutionary; they threaten the established order while building the new. They free us from the support of empire and exploitation, because they are not financialized or monetized. 

    At a deeper level, that is exactly the point. Monetization itself is the enemy. In theory the farmer on his combine or the CEO at his desk are providing for their families, just as is the turnip grower. But it is much easier for us to realize this in the third case. Money’s purpose is to abstract; it is artificial and corrupting, becoming an end of its own. It has always been a tool of managers, bureaucrats, and imperialists, given their inability to directly interact with the local, particular, and real. 

    Proponents of the globalized market economy claim that individual vice or virtue, the quality of the product produced, and its effect on society are irrelevant to the common good. In fact, they do not scruple to base a vision of the common good on the selfishness of individuals, claiming that our evil is magically turned to good by the all powerful hand. But if we let our minds run idle, without direction and intentionality, evil creeps in. Similarly, when our economic life lacks intentionality, evil inhabits it. In fairy tales a snuffed candle may end a life, or a shattered crystal may break a spell. And in our modern economy, such a trivial thing as buying a new shirt may kill another half a world away, or destroy a home we’ve never seen. The Bible says that love of money is the root of all evil. Why love of money, and not of, say, turnips? Because money is pure, abstracted power. We can have an unlimited desire for profit. The love of any real thing, while it can become evil if it is not properly ordered, still involves an outward turning towards something other than self. The love of money, in contrast, easily becomes a love of power and security for oneself, even if one tries to use that power for good. 

    In contrast, inhabitants of other cultures did not feel this profit motive. Instead, they were motivated by more local and concrete concerns; family, local society, religion. They could, and did, misuse these local relations; but the lines were more clear cut. Greed was not admired as it is today, because the greed of one impacted those around him, not those half a continent away. By avoiding the use of currency, we can strike a huge blow in the favor of reality, sanity, and meaning in our lives. We can “reincarnate” our relationships by dealing in the local and particular instead of the abstract and far away. 

    As St. John Paul II said, faith that is not inculturated is not truly Faith. There can be no point at which we draw a line: “Faith Stops Here”. Our faith must be central to our economic life. We exist for the glory of God. All else must be subordinated to this. All our work and art and craft should exist to praise him; to support his worship directly, or to feed and clothe ourselves that we may continue to praise him, or to raise up the next generation to praise him here when we have joined the great song of praise in heaven. One can offer even the most futile tasks to God: but weak mortals that we are, we need all the reminding that we can get. And so our goal must be to reconnect the broken cycles of our lives so that every economic act may flow to its proper end of love; love of our families, love of our friends, love of our homeland, and ultimately love of the God in whose image we are made. Human life was broken in a garden, and restored in another. To restore our society, body and soul, we must return to our gardens.