Have yourself an avaricious Christmas

How the consumer economy makes a virtue out of sin.
Thomas Pietsch | Dec 17 2015 | comment  



A recent Cadillac commercial has a wealthy man strolling through his well-appointed house, speaking to the camera.

Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the café, they take August off. Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that? Because we’re crazy-driven, hard-working believers, that’s why… It’s pretty simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you’ve gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.

While the commercial suggests ‘stuff’ is a pleasant by-product of work, the goal of the expensive commercial is that people who presumably already have a car buy a new car. The desire for new things, beyond what we need, is a genuine motivator for working harder and longer and more competitively. We could survive on much less money with much less work, but taking less time off gives us more ‘stuff’.

Back in 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that the progress of technology would be such that in 2030 most people would only work 15 hours per week. He imagined there was a relatively fixed amount that people needed to live a good life, and that once that had been earned, people would look for other things to do.[1] 

He seems to have drastically underestimated the power of avarice, for while his forecasts for growth have been largely met, people are working much longer than predicted.[2] It seems that Keynes was not attuned to the insatiable nature of human desires. This is ironic because modern economic theory is essentially premised on there being unlimited human desires with only limited resources – man is homo avidus.

In December 2014 Australia’s then-Treasurer Joe Hockey implored the public:[3] 

"We want Australians to go out there and spend for Christmas – don’t let Santa down, go out there and spend for Christmas.”

This is noteworthy not because it is unusual, but rather because it has become customary for treasurers to say such things.[4] The modern economy is built on spending, ordered in such a way that our collective wealth is dependent upon our individual spending.

The Treasurer was essentially right. Shopping has become a way to help our neighbor protect and increase his income. Avarice has become less of a sin and more of a virtue that we’re called upon to nurture for the sake of our countrymen and ourselves. How did our economy come to be powered by this ancient vice?

In 1977, Albert O. Hirschman wrote a seminal work on this historical development. The Passions and the Interests examines the climate of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to see what intellectual and even spiritual changes were required for the birth of capitalism.

He began by looking back to Augustine who treated lust for money and possessions as one of the three principal sins, along with lust for power and sexual lust. Out of the three, however, Augustine was willing to allow for attenuating circumstances only when it came to the lust for power, libido dominandi. When this desire was mixed with a desire for praise and glory, Augustine recognized the civilizing value that could result. Hirschman wrote:[5]

“Thus Augustine speaks of the ‘civil virtue’ characterizing the early Romans ‘who have shown a Babylonian love for their earthly fatherland,’ and who were ‘suppressing the desire of wealth and many other vices for their one vice, namely, the love of praise.’”

Of significance for Hirschman is the notion that allowing one vice might lead to the circumvention of other vices. In Augustine’s case this tolerated vice was the love of praise, but Hirschman showed how this came to be replaced by avarice.

Hirschman traces this genealogy which eventually leads to Adam Smith who saw that the invisible hand took avarice and directed it towards societal order. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote:[6]

“It is thus that the private interests and passions of individuals naturally dispose them to turn their stock towards the employments which in ordinary cases are most advantageous to society.”

In this way the capitalist economy came to be structured around allowing for each man to pursue his own material self-interest. In his foreword to Hirschman’s work, the noted economist Amartya Sen provides the example of a man being pursued by thugs who takes his wallet out and throws money around him as he flees. The murderers give up their chase and get down to the serious business of picking up the money, illustrating the way in which avarice can subdue the more violent passions of man.[7]

While former ages were inclined to see the desire for praise as the vice which could control other passions, we now look to avarice to save us from chaos and violence. But at what cost?

William Cavanaugh has explored the spiritual consequences of avarice, with great perception and persuasion, in his book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.  His analysis rests on a perceptive revision of the classical definition of avarice: the consumer economy in which we now engage has transformed avarice to be less about attachment to material possessions and more about attachment to shopping, with an attendant detachment to material possessions.

Most people are not overly attached to things, and most are not obsessed with hoarding riches. Indeed, the United States has one of the lowest savings rates of any wealthy country, and we are the most indebted society in history. What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things… Our relationships with products tend to be short-lived: rather than hoarding treasured objects, consumers are characterized by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods.[8]

Cavanaugh notes that consumerism is thus a “spiritual disposition”. Its error is not in that it seeks the spiritual in the material, for this is a tenet of traditional theology. And nor is its error that people are choosing material goods over spiritual values. Cavanaugh’s insight is to see consumerism as a type of spirituality, “a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.”[9]

This spiritual dimension to consumerism is reflected in the nature of advertising which has come to say little about the advertised product but much about the identity attached to buying such a product. Buying a product becomes a means to attaining a particular identity or experience. In this process, the actual product is only instrumental and so we become detached from it.

Thus the Cadillac commercial comes into greater focus. The advertisement ultimately works because it sells a distinct identity of the hard-working and innovative American. The Cadillac is the means by which one can enter this group and have an identity bestowed.

One consequence of this attachment to shopping has been a commodification of the selling and buying process. We are not so concerned about the products we buy, or the labour involved in making them, as we are drawn to the spiritual engagement our shopping affords us. Thus we become detached from the actual production of goods and the means of production.

Cavanaugh writes that our houses are less and less places of production, and have become places of almost total consumption. Production is not only outsourced from the home, but it has become outsourced from our whole economy.

As we become more and more detached from production, manufacturing work especially thus becomes commoditised and treated more as an input than a vocation, a factor of production rather than a participation in subduing the earth. As a result, labour has largely come to be seen as something to be traded which enables us to dehumanize the reality of working life for many upon whom we are dependent.

But consumerism’s detachment from production also affects our own approaches to work. Labour is not only something to be bought from others but “a thing to be sold to the employer in exchange for the money needed to buy things. For many people, work has become deadening to the spirit.”[10]

Avarice and its twin consumption have led to a commoditisation of work and thus a dehumanisation of labour. Units of labour are given a monetary value which our consumerist spirit readily identifies with worth. A mother at home is thus considered better off to trade her labour on the market in order to earn so much that she can consume more (hiring cleaners, buying takeaway) than what would be possible if her home was a place of production.

Cavanaugh’s insight is to show that this has not been necessarily because people have found the traditional view of vocation and fulfilment through work as lacking. On the contrary, they remain deeply attracted to it.[11]

“Rather, [the dehumanisation of labour endures] because our whole system of production has changed. The system has shown a tremendous capacity to increase the volume and variety of goods produced, while it also detaches us from the creation of things.”

The products we seek to find meaning in are empty idols, failing to deliver on their purported benefits and failing to improve our families and societies. But the solution is not merely to be more conscientious in what we buy, for the issues are more systemic than this.

Thinking with Cavanaugh, we can say that one remedy is the need for a greater attachment to our material goods. The peculiar form of avarice that has emerged with consumerism has fostered a gnostic detachment from the created order.

Cherishing what we have – through utilising, mending, improving and giving thanks – has become counter-cultural. Greed is ultimately a negation of the material order and its worth and beauty. In thus attaching ourselves in gratitude to our possessions, we can resist the cultural forces that seek to detach us from the things we have in order to buy new ones.

Thus a true attachment to goods – seeing them for what they are and not as means to a “spiritual disposition” – will also bring with it an attachment to their production and the nature of the work required. This is something that can also be fostered by turning our homes into places of production as well as consumption.

In such ways, the division between production and consumption can be breached and labour can be seen not merely as a factor of production but as a vocation. We can experience our own labour not merely as something to be traded, but as a part of who we are, enabling us to then see also the labour of others in such a way.

But our study of avarice also shows that the capitalist economy is morally compromised and Christians should approach it with wariness. Hirschman has helped to reveal the capitalist assumption that treats avarice as a tolerable vice in order to tame the other passions. Both at a personal and national level, we have become accustomed to sinning in order that grace may abound.

We should be attuned to the forces of advertising which seek to manufacture desire for things which may ultimately be counter-productive and damaging to our families and communities. And we should also be attuned to our own spiritual thirst and the ways in which we are tempted to turn to the false idol of consumption in a futile attempt to feel connected and be energised. Christmas only affords us one path of spiritual renewal, and it is not at the checkout.

Thomas Pietsch is a Pastor in the Lutheran Church of Australia, and is currently pursuing a Masters degree at Concordia Seminary in St Louis, Missouri.


[1] See Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life (New York: Other Press, 2013), 4-5.

[2] Skidelsky and Skidelsky, How Much is Enough?, 18-21.

[4] A US equivalent would be George W. Bush’s ‘I encourage you all to go shopping more’ after 9/11.

[5] Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph, Twentieth anniversary ed (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1997), 9-10.

[6] Quoted in Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, 110.

[7] Amartya Sen, ‘Foreword’, in Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph, Twentieth anniversary ed (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1997), x.

[8] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 34-5.

[9] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 36.              

[10] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 38.

[11] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 39.

 

Works Cited

Texts

Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

Hirschman, Albert O. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Twentieth anniversary ed. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Skidelsky, Robert, and Edward Skidelsky. How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life. New York: Other Press, 2013.

Articles and Advertisements

Cadillac ELR Coupe 2014 Commercial, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNzXze5Yza8, last accessed 3 November 2015.

“Treasurer Set for Disappointing Christmas,” http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/treasury/treasurer-joe-hockey-set-for-disappointing-christmas-spending-figures/story-fn59nsif-1227145319287?sv=1f2b6a8b2b3842024e5f987081da9a2, last accessed 3 November 2015.



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