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Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

This little book by theologian William Cavanaugh [Eerdmans ,2008] is a tool for helping us reflect in our churches on why we got into this economic mess. Its four essays are structured around the contrast between pairs of key ideas related to contemporary capitalist economics: “Freedom and Unfreedom,” “Detachment and Attachment,” “The Global and the Local” and “Scarcity and Abundance.”
In the first essay “Freedom and Unfreedom,” Cavanaugh uses Augustine’s concept of freedom as the basis for a Christian critique of the modern capitalist notion of “free markets.” The thrust of his critique lies in the distinction that the capitalist concept of freedom is a “freedom from” that has no clear end, whereas Augustine views freedom as a “freedom for” which has a specific end in mind (i.e., reconciliation with God). Cavanaugh also emphasizes that in contrast to the stark individualistic autonomy of capitalism, the Augustinian view of freedom maintains that others are “crucial to one’s freedom” (9). Our desires, he observes, do not merely bubble up from within us, but rather our desires are formed in a social crucible, being shaped both from within and without (i.e., from our relationships with others). Finally, Cavanaugh highlights Augustine’s notion that everything that exists is good, but only to the extent that they participate in the telos of creation – reconciliation with God.
He then uses these Augustinian concepts of freedom to critique injustices that arise as a result of free market capitalism. He argues persuasively that the intentional removal of ends in capitalism creates a vacuum in which sheer power reigns supreme. This power is wielded most clearly, he notes, by the corporate marketers, who on the one hand offer the consumer the information needed to make a rational choice and on the other hand manipulate our desires in the direction of their products. The supremacy of power in capitalism is also manifested in transnational corporations that destroy local businesses by their sheer size and resources.
Please read the whole of this response at the Englewood Review of Books by visiting… and then commenting here. Thank you!
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