It's Lent: what better time to discuss joy?
Kenneth Colston (at Crisis Magazine) wonders if we might benefit from year-round Lenten discipline. After all, if prayer, fasting, and abstinence are tolerable and even commendable for six weeks, why not try them for a full fifty-two?
We would have much to gain, says Colston:
What would happen if the world as a whole practiced a “little Lent” 365 days a year? The consumer economy might slow, but a house built on greed is a house of sand. Time might expand. Prices might rise, but superfluities would disappear, and the net result could be more leisure and less superannuated work. The planet might heal, communities coalesce, gardens spring up; is it possible that type-2 diabetes would become extinct and hip replacements diminish? Could the clash of civilizations ease with less pressure to secure crude oil? If the Cistercians can survive on four hours of manual labor a day, resting on Sundays and solemnities, why couldn’t the richest country in the world?
Mr. Colston, of course, is not the only one questioning the value of our “consumer economy”. As he notes, no less a personage than Pope Francis is among the dissenters:
Pope Francis’s Laudato Sí, in fact, now nearly makes this little Lent a year-round lifestyle requirement, a moral obligation to be observed in and out of season, in order to care for our “common home” and “sister earth.” The encyclical is replete with Thoreauvian exhortations to live small, to save not only the planet but also our souls: “the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality” that makes it “difficult to pause and recover depth in life”; he observes that “a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony” (LS, 113). He calls for “a bold cultural revolution” to overturn a “use and throw away logic” (114, 123) for “a constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment” (222). In the section “Towards a New Lifestyle,” he calls for simple personal sacrifices that can be seen as a perpetual, if modest, Lent: turning down the heat and wearing sweaters, foregoing air conditioning, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, separating refuse, reusing goods, car-pooling, taking the bus, eating less, and avoiding plastic and paper (212).
Meanwhile, and on a related note, Matthew Tan (at the Distributist Review) borrows William Cavanaugh’s critique of consumer capitalism in order to promote what Tan calls a “sacramental economy” grounded in “a healthy materialism that is in stark contrast to the pseudo-materialism of consumer capitalism.” Tan explains:
First, it is necessary to explain the notion that consumer capitalism is only pseudo-materialistic. After all, we are so used to calling the culture we live in, which drips with the artifacts of consumer-capitalism, materialistic. Our malls and screens are flooded with sales pitches to acquire yet another mug, car, shirt or ticket that we do not need, calling our attention to the framed image put before us as the gateway to our happiness. It almost seems that we are being called to form attachments to the material thing being presented, making the prefix of “pseudo” somewhat curious.
This prefix, however, may not be so out of place when one understands everyday conceptions of materialism to mean an obsessive attachment to any particular thing, which is borne out of a desire for that particular thing. Thus, it becomes important to highlight materialism to be a matrix of desire, attachment and things. In his book Being Consumed, DePaul University’s William Cavanaugh argues that such an attachment cannot work when consumerism becomes an end in itself, since the acquisition of the thing would fulfill the desire for that thing, and thus ending the acquisitive desire.
In consumer capitalism, profit maximisation only works if desire is kept alive, and not stopped short when that desire is completed. This can only work, Cavanaugh says, if desire is not a-ttached to things, but rather de-tached from them. In Cavanaugh’s words, consumer capitalism is one where “our relationship with products tend to be short-lived”. Rather than a materialism where desires are satisfied by material goods, consumers under consumer capitalism are “characterised by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods”. Desire is thus not fulfilled but “temporarily halted” and there is generated a hope the next purchase will calm the storm of desire. Thus, “consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else”. When consumerism becomes an end in itself, desire is moved from the desire of concrete things, and becomes abstracted to a desire for desire itself.
It’s worth pausing to consider the counter-intuitive nature of Cavanaugh's claim: consumerism promotes not having things and owning things but discarding things and replacing them with new things. It therefore actually devalues the objects themselves while simultaneously enshrining desire and actively promoting dissatisfaction.1 If Cavanaugh is right (and I think he is), then the truly insidious effect of consumer capitalism is how it thus distorts human character (a character already distorted towards “self-interest” by an oversimplified reading of Adam Smith), a distortion best captured by the famous advertising slogan “Have it your way”. That slogan, however much it may have boosted burger sales, simply cannot be reconciled with any known moral or ethical system, religious or otherwise; nor can it be reconciled with the intractable world itself, a world in which we simply cannot always have it our way and in which recognition of that fact is (or used to be) an essential element of maturity.2
Dr. Tan notes how the economy of desire is further facilitated by the quasi-magical power of money in modern finance:
This abstraction of desire is not just in the realm of shopping, but also in the realm of finance, especially in investment flows which are the lifeblood of supply-side economic regimes. The use of the term “blood” to describe money is apt, for investment flows are pure liquidity that do not bind to any particular thing being invested in. The University of Nottingham’s Philip Goodchild, who wrote the highly compelling Theology of Money, suggests as much. “Money”, he says, “holds liquidity in virtue of its capacity to circulate through all markets”, connecting the “network of markets” and committing to none (154); moving only where profit may be abstracted from the assets investing in and siphoning out of local economies whatever surplus is generated, resulting in an overall drain on any local economy of material wealth or vitality. This effect is exacerbated further, Goodchild reminds us, as financial circuits get tighter and tighter with increasing concentrations of liquid wealth into fewer and fewer hands.
Money is everywhere and nowhere, the measure of everything and the goal of everyone (thus the ubiquitous pitch of politicians: I want this to be a country where anyone can become a millionaire!). Yet money (as the Beatles told us long ago) can't buy us much that really matters, even if it were distributed with exquisite fairness. We all know the limitations of money, but we all (or most all) submit to its demands nonetheless.
In contrast, Tan offers a “sacramental economy”:
[an economy which] in affirming the ability of things to relay something truly eternal and even mysterious, should enjoin a commitment to the realm of things as they slowly unveil to us glimmers of the transcendent. This slow unveiling of mystery in the realm of things can challenge the throwaway culture upon which consumerism thrives. This commitment to the world of things should also lead to a change of the terms of our interaction with the things we consume. We may always need to consume in order to live, but [a sacramental] economics can potentially alter the way we think about what life is about. Rather than doing so to lead a life of thrill seeking, we can engage our commodities as gateways through which one can lead a life searching for a deeper, lasting joy.
Whether we think of all this as a kind of perpetual Lent (per Kenneth Colston), as a kind of “Thoreauvian” refusal, or as a “sacramental” turning away from a consumer society which subverts both human character and human relationships with the physical world: it seems to me that we ought to take it seriously as an alternative to the way we live now.
Unless, of course, we've lost interest in searching for joy.
1 William Leach’s LAND OF DESIRE documents the origins and early decades of America’s modern consumer economy; T. J. Jackson Lear’s FABLES OF ABUNDANCE focuses on the role of advertising in that economy. Readers should feel free to speculate for themselves about any link between an “economy of desire,” a “throwaway culture,” and such contemporaneous phenomena as rising rates of divorce and illegitimacy.
2 That latter quandary is one of the main points of Matthew Crawford’s THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: the less we interact with a physical world that resists us, the more we are given to widespread delusions of control (Just click the mouse! Just press “Delete”! Just hit “Escape”!), which lead in turn to increased frustrations about the many things we can’t control--like other people, for instance, and like life.