Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    linocut illustration of wheat

    PloughCast 70: How Should Christians Relate to the Consumer Economy?

    Money, Part 10

    By William Cavanaugh, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    October 11, 2023

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah talk with Dr. William Cavanaugh about his book Being Consumed.

    What is the nature of the consumer economy? That’s what this short book seeks to explore. William Cavanaugh discusses his argument with the hosts, asking questions such as: When is a market free? Is our problem that we are too attached to consumer products? Should we be aiming at a local economy? Do we live in a world of scarcity?

    Along the way they discuss Saint Augustine and stealing pears, Rene Girard, and whether an Anthropologie window display can point Susannah toward the kingdom of God.

    They also discuss strategies for becoming more aware of the things we use, the production process, and the people who are producing them.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. Dipping back into the theme of our Money issue, Peter and I have with us today William Cavanaugh, professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, to talk with us about the subject of his short but punchy book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.

    So thank you so much for coming on. So can you just tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now?

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah. I’ve just sent off the manuscript of a book a couple of months ago to Oxford University Press. It should be available in the latter part of this year. It’s a book on idolatry and in some ways it’s a sequel to an earlier book I wrote called The Myth of Religious Violence, in which I argue that this idea that religion has a peculiar tendency to cause violence more than so-called secular things is problematic because people kill for all sorts of things that they treat as gods, like flags and money and oil and so on.

    Even though there was no explicit or not much explicit theology in that book, I thought that I needed to come back and write a book about idolatry, because that’s the theme: people treat all sorts of things as if they were gods and sacrifice other people to them. I’ve finally finished this book on idolatry, and it’s an interdisciplinary work on idolatry. So beginning with Max Weber and the idea that we live in a disenchanted world, I argue in many ways that even Weber doesn’t think that we live in a disenchanted world. And the second chapter is Charles Taylor, who writes about the secular age, but I argue that in some ways, even Charles Taylor isn’t convinced by that either. And I look at the biblical material and Augustine and so on. And then have chapters on nationalism and consumerism as idolatrous and end with a chapter on sacrament. So probably a longer answer than you were looking for, but that’s what I’ve been working on.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It sounds like definitely something that we would probably want to revisit at some point on this podcast. But meanwhile, what we’re talking about today is primarily your book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, which came out in 2008. And we don’t normally do basically book talks about books that are whatever, fifteen years old. But this is an unusual case in the sense that at least for me, this book was an introduction to a lot of what I would later call post liberalism or what would later be called post liberalism in a political sense. But it’s through an economic lens.

    The idea of a substantive positive vision of freedom, freedom to do the good as opposed to freedom from constraint, it might be that I ran into that idea first through, I can’t even remember. This was a while back and it was in the foggy days of just post-conversion, me being very strange about everything. But Dr. Cavanaugh looks at the idea of the free market as the market which is enabled to choose the good. Essentially the market which actually promotes human flourishing. As opposed to the market which is free of constraint. And that is a really powerful I guess, vision or tool, which I think is extremely fresh. And you’ve just mentioned that you’re going to be doing a new edition of the book, which I look forward to a great deal. But meanwhile, everyone should read the current edition.

    Peter Mommsen: Which I just read yesterday. And for our listeners, we’re going to get into a bunch of things, but one of them is this free market idea that most of us have grown up in a world that assumes it. So Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek. And this idea still lives in our heads despite some post-neoliberal mood shifts in recent years. This is the natural state of affairs, and this is the way that … greatest human flourishing that looks back at the last couple centuries and sees humankind’s material and also biological increases in flourishing as a grand confirmation of the idea that free markets are the way to go, and that’s how human beings should relate to each other. And that’s the way that money should be handled in society. I realize it’s a very rough version, but we’re going to look at what is free about free markets. And I was so glad to read this book, which I don’t know why I hadn’t read before because it’s so central to so many things that we talk about on this podcast and in Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you just describe your argument? Covering not just free markets, but also the idea of detachment and attachment. Then globalism and localism and scarcity and abundance, as well as free and unfree markets.

    William Cavanaugh: Sure. Part of what I’m trying to do there is get beyond the binary of free market on the one hand and state-sponsored socialism on the other hand. So we all talk about the free market as if there was such a thing as the free market. And then the alternative to that is state socialism. So if you are against the free market, then you must be a communist. And those are the only two choices that we have. I try to analyze what is meant by a free market. I look at Milton Friedman’s classic definition of a free market and find that it’s basically a market in which people are informed and transactions are voluntary, meaning nobody’s holding a gun to their head. Freedom is defined negatively, as you were saying before. That it’s just as long as you’re not being restrained, then it’s free. If a Guatemalan woman is being paid 50 cents an hour, as long as nobody’s holding a gun to her head saying that she has to take the job, then the market is free.

    It’s bilaterally informed, nobody’s lying to her, and it’s voluntary. She prefers to take the job over starving, and the capitalist is entering into the relationship voluntarily expecting gain as well. I argue that this is a really truncated version of what freedom actually is. So rather than just a negative view of freedom from a Christian point of view, freedom is more than just absence of external constraint, but it’s also in a positive sense, the ability to achieve a good end. So if I sit down at a piano and nobody is stopping me from playing the piano, I can play it and I’m free in the negative sense. But if I don’t know how to play the piano, then I’m not free in a positive sense to play the piano and I’ll just be banging on the keys. I look at Augustine who develops this idea of a broader sense of freedom, and then look at the various ways in which the so-called free market is full of all kinds of coercion.

    We think that the Guatemalan woman is free because she’s so desperate that she has to take a job making 50 cents an hour or something like that. And that’s not a full definition of freedom. The game is rigged. I try to develop the idea that there’s a broader sense of freedom in which we need to examine markets and ask when is it that people are flourishing people and the environment, all of the different actors involved, when is it that this is leading towards freedom and flourishing for all? And when is it just a cover for a powerful person taking advantage of someone who’s less powerful? And those are the criteria that we need to develop to ask when is the market free? So the real question is not, are you or against the free market? The real question is when is the market free? And in order to answer that question intelligently and realistically, we have to ask some of these deeper questions about when it is that people are actually flourishing.

    Peter Mommsen: Could we talk a little bit about the world in which that ideology of the free market came into being? Obviously it was in reaction to something. Of course, Hayek was first writing around a time when political freedom was in question or didn’t exist and the … came from. There was a reason for free market ideology to develop in the way it did.

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, I suppose that’s right. Again, if your only choices are the system that we have in the US or the system that they had in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, then clearly what we’ve got is better, I think, than what they had in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. So if those are the only two choices, if you’ve got totalitarianism on the one hand and this other freedom on the other hand, then sure. I’m certainly not interested in endorsing any state socialism. In some ways that’s understandable. But I think we can do a lot better than that. And part of the problem is these triumphalist narratives just ignore all of the people that are poor and exploited in the current system.

    So about, I don’t know, maybe about the time the book came out, there was, or maybe a little bit later, this was probably ten years ago, there was a study done that claimed that a billion people had been lifted out of poverty over the last, I forget what the last thirty years or something by capitalism. And it was a story that has been repeated over and over and over again about the triumph of free market capitalism that had lifted a billion people out of poverty. But if you look at what’s actually being claimed, there are all sorts of problems with this. One is that 80 percent of those people came from two countries, India and China. And China of course is a communist country. The claim of triumph of free market capitalism is a very odd claim to make about a communist country.

    A second problem with it is that it’s based on the standard of a dollar and ninety cents of income per person per day as the poverty line. Suddenly people were making more money than a dollar ninety per person per day. And this was technically lifting people out of poverty. And a lot of experts think that the standard needs to be much higher than that, probably seven dollars. Some have suggested seven dollars and eighty cents per person per day as a true measure of what being lifted out of extreme poverty would mean. One dollar ninety a day is not much to feed and educate and clothe and everything else that a person needs.

    And the third problem with this triumphalistic myth is that it’s based on cash income. It was looking at the way in which people all over the world had been pushed out of subsistence farming. A lot of them in India and China and elsewhere in the world, pushed out of subsistence farming and into wage labor. Technically they’re making more cash money than they were before, but they’re not necessarily better off. And in many places they were worse off. They’ve gone from dignified subsistence farming to factory work in which they’re making in some cases in China, 50 cents an hour and so on, and are a little better than wage slaves. There’s much triumphalism about this idea of the free market that I think we need to look at this askance and come up with better measures of human flourishing.

    Peter Mommsen: One of the powerful sections of your book begins with the question “is Rosa Martinez free?” Rosa Martinez is someone you described and this is one of the things I love about the book is that it’s tied to these human realities, a woman that you report on from El Salvador who’s making thirty-three cents an hour.

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah. I actually got that example from, it was an advertisement in a trade magazine aimed at US textile companies basically saying, take your business, move it from the United States to Central America where you can pay people as little as thirty-three cents an hour. And this is being advertised as a great advantage for American companies.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the other things that’s really helpful about your book is that, as you mentioned, you are not a proponent of state socialism. And yet you do offer concrete examples of the way that Christians might engage in economic practices that actually do promote human flourishing and that do follow the idea that there’s a positive freedom, there’s an ability to do the good that economic exchange ought to promote. And a lot of these are things again that I had just learned about in like 2011 or so. You talk about Focolare, you talk about the Mondragon Corporation in Spain. This is like, I would call them neo-distributist ideas. Can you talk about what that, it’s often been called third way economics, what that would look like concretely? Other than capitalism or socialism, what could that look like?

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah. I should first of all say probably that I think I’ve become, since the book was published, maybe a little less doctrinaire about not looking for state interference in the market. I think I would say now … I say early on in the book, I asked the rhetorical question, am I advocating for state intervention in the market? And I simply say no. But I think what I might want to say today is that there are certain forms of state intervention in the market that can and are useful. But ultimately, I also argue that the state and the business corporation have become so fused really, that we shouldn’t look to the state to protect us from the market or protect us from the corporation because in a lot of ways they’ve become one. So I think I might want to nuance that a little bit. But what I’m really after is forms of business that operate as a community.

    One of the problems with us progressive Christians is that we oftentimes fall into the trap of thinking that business is in and of itself tainted. And I think that’s a naive and simplistic way of going about it. So part of what I try to do in the book is point to actual examples of businesses being operated on Christian principles. You mentioned the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, which is a really big multi-billion dollar corporation, but it’s worker owned. It was founded by a Basque priest in the 1940s I think it was. And based on these kinds of principles of Catholic social teaching that in any business, the point is not just profit for the shareholders, but is the flourishing of all people involved.

    The highest paid person in the corporation can’t make any more than seven times the lowest paid. The ratio in American business is more like four-hundred to one. And making useful good products in a way that has the interests of the workers in mind. Part of what the distributists were about was overcoming the class divide between the capitalists and the workers such that the workers would be owners and the fruits of their labor would not simply be going to others who may or may not do any work at all and still reap the profits of it.

    So there’s all kinds of different examples. I try to give a lot of examples of this in the book, and when I do a second edition of the book, I want to update that as well. But the whole Fair Trade Movement, I think is another example of this is you don’t simply offer products to the consumer in a way that’s blind to the processes that bring the products to your doorstep, but you actually voluntarily think about how the products are produced and who gets paid and voluntarily in some cases pay more for a product in orders that these relationships might be just.

    Peter Mommsen: In the book, you actually address head on one of the most frequent objections to say the Fair Trade Movement and probably some of these other examples that you mentioned of businesses operating by Christian principles, which is that this is just another form of free market capitalism. Fair trade is just one more niche product where you pay out a little extra for an extra serving of good conscience on top of the product that you’re buying.

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, exactly. And it can be, right? These can be self-serving efforts to just appease our conscience. I read an article recently describing fair trade as just one more fetishism of commodities. Even though it’s intended to overcome the fetishism of commodities, what you’ve actually done is just produced another commodity that is going to save the world. And I think that’s a powerful critique and it needs to be addressed. Ultimately I think that the Fair Trade Movement is an important movement, but it can’t be a token movement. You can’t think that you’ve solved the world’s problems by buying a bar of fair trade chocolate if you spend the rest of your purchases on Amazon and don’t care about where things come from and who’s getting paid what.

    So in the new book actually that’s coming out, I have a section on this and talk about the possibility of thinking of fair trade purchases as penance and not as virtue signaling and so on. But it’s one small act of penitent for the structures from which we benefit and the structures that we’ve created. But as Pope Benedict the XVI argues in Caritas in Veritate, these sorts of efforts can’t be left to be niches in the economy, but they have to evangelize the whole economy. Ultimately, fair trade needs to be not just this little niche hobby, a little charitable slice of the economy, but it needs to be the way that we think about the entire economy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the things that’s strikingly different between the time that you wrote this and today is that, so one of your chapters is on the tension between globalism and localism, and you predictably don’t choose one over the other. But back when this came out, the anti-globalization movement was largely a movement of the left. And today there is still some of that left, but so much of the new nationalist energy comes from anti-globalization. I’m just interested to know what you think about that. What happened and do you think there’s like, can we see something good in the sort of nationalist adoption of anti-globalism?

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I have a chapter on nationalism in the book that’s coming out. And certainly, there are virtues in nationalism or virtues that nationalism is parasitic on anyway. And there are certainly virtues in the anti-global movement that has gotten associated with populism and the right. They’re identifying real problems. One of the problems is that good jobs are being shipped elsewhere and people are being paid peanuts. And a lot of people in the United States are hurting from that. And I think they have identified a real problem and a real issue.

    Unfortunately, the reaction to this has gotten skewed so that it’s co-opted by nationalism. The concern is not that working class people are being taken advantage of. The concern is that working class people usually, meaning white working class people in the United States are being disadvantaged by this, and that’s a problem. Nationalism as it so often does, is a way of distracting from class analysis, of class awareness. That what’s really going on is that people with money, capitalists are taking advantage of people without money, without any access to the means of production who have nothing to sell but their labor. If you can pay someone a dollar an hour as opposed to twenty dollars an hour, you’re going to take advantage of that power differential. And what nationalism does then is just distract from any realistic analysis of capitalists and workers and simply puts it in national terms.

    You ask, is NAFTA good or bad for the United States? Are these trade agreements with Asia good or bad for the United States? Well, the real question is who is it good for and who is it bad for? Is it good or bad for capitalists? Is it good or bad for workers? But we put it in these nationalist terms. Rather than a solidarity of American workers with exploited Mexican workers, we’re encouraged to see them as the enemies. Whereas the real enemy in a lot of ways is the shareholder class that is only concerned about maximizing profits and not with paying a living wage.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There’s also obviously a way that this is a little bit … to what you said. There’s a way that an anti-liberalism or anti-economic liberalism inflected through nationalism can actually just turn into libertarianism in one country. So there’s a free market, but there’s not an increased social safety net. There’s protectionism as well, along with an internally free market. My grandparents were Trotskyists as many sort of, I don’t know, silent generation Jews were. And my father was raised on a lot of Wobbly propaganda. And every now and then I do reinvent the IWW in my head and I’m like, “Yeah, I think we probably … yeah, that’d probably help. I’m not sure if it’s going to work. But …”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping: don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of my conversation with Dr. Cavanaugh after the break.

    Peter Mommsen: So one of the powerful things in this first chapter of your book on the free market and freedom is that it doesn’t just highlight the supply side, so to speak. I hope it’s easy to see that Rose Martinez working for a few cents an hour in El Salvador sewing products that are sold for way more in the United States, that that’s not real freedom if the alternative is that our kids starve. And you’d hope that it’s obvious that somebody toiling in a Foxconn factory making iPhones and sleeping eight to a room in a company dormitory in China, that that’s not something that somebody would do truly freely. But you also talk about the lack of freedom on the demand side. That free market ideologues assume that our consumer choices, what we choose to buy, express our real desires and just take at face value that what we buy is what we really want and what’s good for us. Could you talk a little bit about the unfreedom of consumer desire?

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, there’s all sorts of ways in which desire is not something that we just have, but it’s shaped by forces outside of us. Milton Friedman treats desire agnostically and says, “People want what they want and you got to give people what they want, and that’s freedom.” But in a lot of ways, wants don’t just spring up within a person, but they are creations of these larger forces from outside of a person. And that’s as true of me as it is from anybody else. We all think that our desires are just our desires, but they’re manufactured in a lot of ways by these external forces, one of which of course is marketing and advertising more specifically. And there’s a whole industry that’s made to mold our desires in a certain way. And it’s interesting that the whole marketing industry comes into effect precisely at the point in which the products are being detached and disassociated from labor.

    Most of the things that people had up until the industrial revolutions were people that they made themselves. And then we moved to buying things rather than making things. And this is a huge difference in the way that we deal with the material world. Up until the late 19th century products were still really embedded in networks of community. Most things were produced locally. You either produced them yourselves or you knew who produced them, or at least knew the people that you bought them from. You would go down to the store and the storekeeper would scoop oats out of a barrel and sell shirts and chairs and so on, most of which were probably manufactured locally. As we begin to move further away from that economy, then you’ve got to personify products.

    This is what Marx was talking about with the fetishization of commodities. So that now suddenly oats in the late nineteenth century have a face, it’s the Quaker Oats man and so on. And the argument that you find in historians of marketing is that when products are disembedded from these networks of community, then you have to personify the products in order to appeal to people. Now you’ve got Tony the Tiger, and you’ve got Michael Jordan, and my baloney has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R and all of that sort of thing. Well, my baloney has a first name because the people that make it now are anonymous and invisible to me. What Marx meant by the fetishization of commodities was the animation of commodities, at the same time that life was being sucked out of the people actually making the products because they’re working horrible hours in factories and they’re completely out of our sight.

    This isn’t just a choice where we are in this whole economy now where, especially with the advent of online purchases. So all we see when we go onto is products. We don’t see people, we don’t have to have any contact with people at all. You just see a product, you click on it, and then it appears on your doorstep magically. People have been completely erased from what the consumer sees. Of course, we are apt to forget that these come from real places with real environmental consequences that the people that are making them or the people that are delivering them or working in an Amazon warehouse might be overworked and underpaid and so on. But we’re encouraged to forget all of that because we never knew it in the first place. All you see are products, and the products have personality. The packages on the Amazon commercials sing and dance, but the people have been erased.

    We believe that we are free choosers, but we’re free choosers in this situation of profound ignorance. That’s one of the ways then that our choices are not entirely free because any information that we might have or we might want about the people that come in contact with the products all the way up the line is deliberately withheld from us. We have relationships with products rather than relationships with people. And that’s I guess a segue to chapter two, because it’s that detachment that I’m talking about in chapter two.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It is probably helpful to just say just on the off chance that we have any remaining Reaganites or libertarian Christians who are listening to us, which seems incredibly unlikely to me. Because I think –

    William Cavanaugh: They probably tuned out once you said Trotsky.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You know what? I think if they have any parasocial relationship with us at all, I just don’t think that would probably be very likely. But …

    Peter Mommsen: We love our Reaganite listeners and we look forward to your responses.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We do love them. We love you as brothers and sisters, but this is something that obviously it is exacerbated by consumerism and the consumer economy. But the problem of unbridled or illicit or wrongly ordered desire is the Augustinian problem. This is a problem of the Fall. And that shouldn’t prevent us from saying at the same time, “Hey, we also have an economy that seems particularly geared towards messing with that particular aspect of the Fall and encouraging it.” So you can just as easily say, “Lust is not the product of capitalism or the product of the internet,” but that shouldn’t let us close our eyes to the fact that OnlyFans is really bad. The economic and material and technological ways that old school sin is encouraged in us shouldn’t … there’s not a battle between “this has a material cause or an economic cause that’s modern,” on the one hand, and “this is an old problem because there’s nothing really original in any sin,” I guess is what I’d want to say.

    Peter Mommsen: Can we dive into the Augustine a little?

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, sure.

    Peter Mommsen: Because you point out in the Christian tradition, there was a solution to the fact that we are not the masters of our own desire and that our desires can be really, really bad. In fact can be the root of all sin. Augustine talks about the desire for dominance, this libido dominandi that animates our lives unless it’s supplanted by something else. So what is the something else and what is Augustine’s way of talking about good desire and bad desire here?

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah. He recognizes that it’s a social creation. So when he talks in the Confessions about how he would not have stolen the pears had he not been in a group, that’s part of what he’s talking about. That desire is not something that just wells up inside of us from somewhere, but it’s a social production. And in that sense, I think he would be right on board with Rene Girard’s idea that all desire is mimetic. That it’s imitative of what other people desire. It’s a social product. So the solution to disordered desire also needs to be a social product. And that’s what he thinks the church is for. It happens in community, and it doesn’t just happen because people get together, but people have to have a good end. And that end is God. That ultimately all of the stuff that we pursue in this life can be good and beautiful.

    And he talks about the attraction that we have to things because they’re beautiful, because a beautiful God has made them, and that’s all good. But if we treat them as if they are the ultimate things, then ultimately we turn into nothing because we lose touch with the root of our being, which is God. What we need to do is use things on our way to serving God, serving other people, delighting in the beauty of life. But always seeing them as penultimate to the higher end, which is God. And the people that are going to train us in that way of thinking and way of seeing are the other people in the church that are going to act as this Sinners Anonymous. That are going to help us to heal through their own brokenness.

    Peter Mommsen: It almost struck me that Augustine’s description of wrong desire and how it can be healed can sound a bit abstract. But when he talked about the Christian community, the church being the place where our desires are healed, he himself, of course actually practiced this. He founded a community, he renounced all his possessions. He wrote a rule, the Rule of Saint Augustine, that quotes Acts 2 and 4 and speaks of how the first believers at Pentecost and Jerusalem shared all things in common. And he emphasized this principle from each according to the ability to each according to their need, but not as state socialism. And this was a man who knew what and what he was talking about.

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s a really good point. And he is just drawing on probably an idealized account of the early Christian community in Acts 2 and 4. But nevertheless, a normative account of the early Christian community in which the ideal is having all things in common so that everyone is taken care of. So that the life of the sacraments and praising God in the temple becomes the point.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think that the subtitle of the book, is it An Economics of Christian Desire? Is that the subtitle?

    William Cavanaugh: Something like that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, something like that. This along with, do you know David Schindler, D. C Schindler? Does that name ring a bell?

    William Cavanaugh: Oh, sure.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I know you’re left wing coded and he’s right wing coded, but at the same time, Schindler’s work and yours both seem to me to point to when I get a little bit too rationalistic in my Thomism and I’m like, “Well, I just need to rationally decide what the good is and then hack my habits so that I choose it, and then I will desire to choose it after I choose it repeatedly, because that’s how habits are built.” That can get very depressing and a grind. And both your work and Schindler’s remind me that desire is at the heart of these things. That you actually can attend to beauty and let beauty point you in the right direction as long as you don’t get hijacked by it.

    The really trashy version of this would be something like if you seek first the, I don’t know, Anthropologie window display, you’ll lose even that. But seek first the kingdom of God and the Anthropologie window display will be added to you, which probably is not true. You probably are not … if you sort of live as a Christian, you’re not necessarily going to get all the consumer beauty that you want. But at the same time, just as someone who is very subject to good marketing, and I look inside myself and I see desire for nice Anthropologie clothes. It’s also true that I’m just, again, thinking back to the time in my life when I was first thinking about this stuff.

    And you do realize in a concrete way, OK, what I’m wanting as I’m wandering through Harvard Square and looking in all of these windows and seeing all these attractively presented clothes is something that’s not … if I buy those clothes and I bring them home, the thing that was offered to me is not going to be in those clothes. And you do eventually get to this goofy place where you’re like, “Oh, actually, I do think that really good marketing does point me towards the kingdom of God as long as I let it.”

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah. Interesting. I think that’s a good point. I have in this chapter on consumer culture in the new book, I start out with a sympathetic take on consumer culture and drawing on Mary Douglas who was a Catholic anthropologist. And she points out that people always make meaning by arraying products, material things, around them from the most so-called primitive societies to the most modern. Is that we always make meaning by displaying products to ourselves and to one another and so on in different ways. And this is who we are as material beings, and this is not necessarily bad.

    I want to start out with a sympathetic recognition that that’s the case. And all these moralistic finger wagging at consumer culture isn’t going to do any good if we try to ignore who we are. But part of the problem is that Baudrillard has this wonderful thing where he talks about Melanesian natives noticed that these flying machines that went overhead would never land for them. They would only land for white people. They made the simulacra of airplanes and landing strip out of branches and leaves and so on, and then waited for the planes to descend. And Baudrillard says, “This is what we all do in consumer culture. We put out these sham products and wait for happiness to come down out of the sky to us.”

    A lot of it depends on what we’re looking for and the meanings that we’re seeking to portray. The definition of beauty gets changed. You see some of these beautiful clothes, but then if you actually start poking around into how the clothes were manufactured and who brought them to you and who’s profiting and who’s not, and so on, they end up looking rather ugly. And then on the other hand, Balthazar talks about how if you look at Jesus on the cross, it’s very ugly, this man being tortured to death. But there’s something beautiful about the self-sacrificial love that you see there, that your definition of what’s beautiful gets changed. It gets turned around. Beauty I think is really important and necessary for us humans, but it just all depends on what we’re trained to see as beautiful and what actually is beautiful.

    Peter Mommsen: Susannah, I know you wanted to talk about the second chapter of this book on detachment and attachment. Which brushes up against many of the things we’ve just been talking about.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So can you just give us an overview of your argument in that?

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah. Gosh, you might have to help me out because I can’t remember exactly. But the basic argument is that we think that consumerism is about attachment to things and that …

    Peter Mommsen: It’s materialism.

    William Cavanaugh: It’s materialism. Exactly. That we are overly attached to things and we need to be detached from things. And I argue the opposite, that in fact, consumer culture has to do with detachment. And it’s detachment from products. It’s detachment from production, and its detachment from producers. Products in the sense that we’re always encouraged not to become too attached to things. We shouldn’t get too attached to the iPhone that we have because the next version is coming along in another six months, and we got to have the new one. So we’re always encouraged to keep our desire moving on to the next thing. Because if we actually got attached to our products, then it wouldn’t be very profitable. We always need to want the next thing …

    Susannah Black Roberts: We would try to repair our iPhones, which would be disastrous.

    William Cavanaugh: Exactly. Right. And then it’s detachment from products in that sense. It’s detachment from production because we don’t make anything and we don’t even see where products are made. They just come from elsewhere and appear on our doorstep. We have no idea how production takes place, and again, who’s benefiting and who’s not, what’s happening to the environment and so on. We just click and things appear on our doorsteps. So detachment from production and then detachment finally, from producers especially. We just don’t see Rosa Martinez or any of the other people, the people in the garment industry and Sri Lanka now, who, according to a recent report, they make fifty-four dollars … the minimum wage is fifty-four dollars a month in Sri Lanka for garment workers. We just don’t see them. They’re just invisible to us.

    So we’re encouraged to be detached from all of these different kinds of things. It’s not materialism at all. It’s an immaterialism. So in place of these attachments, what we get is this spiritual flight from reality, flight from materiality. I illustrate this to my students with a series of shoe advertisements. The first one I show them is it’s an old hanging sign from the late nineteenth-century, and it’s a picture. It’s in the shape of a boot, and it just says, “James H. Johnson” on it. There’s an advertisement saying, “If you want shoes, you can buy shoes here.”

    And the next one is an advertisement from Regal Shoes of Boston in 1909 where it has paragraphs of dense text explaining how the manufacturing process that they’ve come up with makes it so that the shoe doesn’t shrink over the instep. And it’s got a long explanation of this and why the product is superior. Now you’ve got to magnification of the product itself, concentration on the product itself and how it’s going to bring you happiness, but it’s still very much concentrated on the material qualities of the product. And the next one is from 1972, and it’s a naked woman lying on the floor, admiring a man’s shoe, and it only has five words. “Keep her where she belongs,” or is that five, how many words is that? Keep her where she be …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, that’s five.

    William Cavanaugh: Now the shoe, there’s no attempt to explain the qualities of the shoe. It’s just an attempt to associate the shoe with these pathetic male fantasies of power and sex and so on. And then the final shoe advertisement is just a black square with white lettering that says, “Write the future.” And it has the Nike swoosh on it. So now the shoe has vanished entirely, and it’s just this vague admonition to be the author of the future. The desire over the course of the century has just taken flight from material objects into this ethereal web of fantasy. And that, I think is the true story of how of the economy that we’re dealing in. It’s dematerialized and it’s become a new religion. That’s what I mean by calling it idolatry.

    Peter Mommsen: I’d like to change the topic a bit to a later chapter in the book on globalization and localism. Many of our listeners and Plough readers probably think of themselves as localist or sort of localist friendly. And what’s intriguing to me about your discussion of this is that it’s not anti-globalization, but you take some care to talk about what globalization is and the good and bad forms of it. There’s a sentence in there that is stuck in my mind that “globalization is a parody of true catholicity.” So could you talk about that? Because it seems to me that one sidedly being localist has its own problems.

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, I think that’s right. And the problem is a parochialism that we don’t care about what’s going on in Africa or Ukraine or wherever it might be, that we just become insular and just turn our backs on the rest of the world. And that’s certainly a possible temptation of localism. The problem with globalism is the opposite temptation to think of ourselves as universal subjects who can drop in on any part of the world and understand their problems. I remember being struck by this at a dinner party when I was just out of graduate school where people were talking about what ought to be done about Kosovo and me thinking even none of us knew where Kosovo was. I had never heard of it until a couple of weeks ago when it hit the news. And now we think that we have the right to opine on what ought to be done about it.

    Universities especially encourage us to think of ourselves as universal subjects who can drop in on anybody around the world and understand them and figure out what’s good for them. We’re always being admonished to go out and change the world. And I think that the world has had enough of well-meaning Americans trying to change it. So trying to find a balance between these two things. It’s not going down the middle, I think, but it’s rather finding the universal in the local. And that’s the idea of catholicity that I draw on from some of the early Christian thinkers. This idea that the Eucharist is the whole of reality in a very particular piece of bread in one sense, and this is what the body of Christ is. Paul talks about the whole church being present in the local community, and that’s the same with the Eucharist. The whole Christ is there in the Eucharist, even though the whole Christ is also a cosmic reality. Trying to find a way of speaking about globalism in this more Catholic way. That’s what I’m after in that chapter.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The last chapter, which maybe we can touch on, focuses on scarcity and abundance. Can you just give the listeners a little bit of a taste of what you’re getting into there?

    William Cavanaugh: Right. The concrete universal. But I’m talking about the way that economics is often defined in terms of scarcity, that there’s a limited finite amount of goods that are out there, and we have to figure out how to distribute them in this way of scarcity. But finding instead that the message of Christ is a message of abundance. “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” And trying to understand that not in the way of the prosperity gospel, where more stuff is being promised to us if we’re faithful enough and send enough donations to the preacher, but rather this idea that we all have enough.

    Peter Warren, I think has something like this, is that if everybody takes less than everybody will have more or something like that. I guess Ignacio Ellacuria talks about a civilization of poverty, by which he doesn’t mean a civilization of relative scarcity, but he means a civilization in which nobody claims things as their own, but is ready to share them amongst others in their need. Which sounds like a really radical idea, but it’s actually Aquinas too, that we should think about material goods as being common.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So the kinds of goods that actually are naturally common goods that you literally can’t enjoy by yourself. So for example, the good of being a friend or being at a party. You can’t take that off by yourself and enjoy it because that’s not the thing it is. And one of the things that it seems to me that Christian economics calls us to is try to enter into an imaginative state where that’s true of everything to a certain degree, where private goods, movable goods, like a piece of cake or whatever, is a opportunity to enter into a communion with other people by sharing it.

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, that sounds exactly right. Yeah, that’s good. The story that I tell at the beginning of that chapter is I was living in a poor neighborhood of Santiago, Chile for a couple of years when I was in my twenties, and it was a woman named Rosalinda who made little crocheted birds and other things for a living. And one of the first times I was with her, she gave me one of those, and I wanted to give her money for it. And then I realized that that would’ve been the wrong thing to do because it would reestablish the boundaries between me and her and annul her gift by turning it into a transaction.

    Other people, I think, have rightly criticized. That’s the way I tell that story, because you can’t stop there. She needed money. There’s got to be a sense in which can’t just sentimentalize this and say, “Oh, the boundary between us has been broken down,” but it actually has to be enacted in real economic terms. But ultimately, what we say, I think your point is exactly right. What we talk about is economic terms are not, they’re never just economic terms. They’re always the sharing of goods that ultimately are not just monetary, but much larger than that.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s so much in there that we haven’t covered or have only sort of lightly grazed on. We basically encourage you, our dear listeners to read it. And then also the footnotes give a full reading list on the Christian tradition’s teaching on these topics. There’s a lot more to dive into. But you’ve mentioned that you don’t exclude the state as having a role to play here. But that primarily, this is not about calling for the state to do this or policy change X, Y, or Z. It’s within community that these Christian principles of good economics can play out. So if people are listening to this podcast, maybe just intrigued by these ideas, what are some of the concrete things people can do to practice a way in which the market is truly free?

    William Cavanaugh: Yeah, I think there are certain kinds of advocacy for state intervention, I suppose. Which are useful and good, but the problem is that it gets us off the hook too easily. We think of the economy as being this thing out there that only the state has control over. And that for us, it’s just like the air that we breathe. But in actual fact, the economy is just what we do with our lives on earth. It’s just how we live. It’s the way we live out our material being. It’s something that we all have to be directly concerned with. It’s a matter of, I think trying to overcome those detachments. The detachments to products, detachment from production and detachment from producers.

    Overcoming detachment from products might mean making things if we can, or buying things that are going to last rather than, or being content with the things that we have and not being constantly trying to move on to the next thing. Overcoming detachment to production might mean trying to overcome the way in which the whole process of production is invisible to us. Fair trade, I think is one of those examples. And this also gets at the overcoming the detachment from producers as well. Trying as much as possible to humanize the economic transactions that we participate in. And this can be everything from starting a business that operates on these kinds of principles to patronizing the kinds of businesses that operate on these sorts of principles.

    There’s all different kinds of examples that I give in the book for this, but ultimately forming co-ops, banking, not with large conglomerates, but with small credit unions. Putting retirement funds in ESG kinds of, is low level, small businessy mutual funds as you can find. There’s a million different ways, but it requires a certain amount of awareness about the actual material lives that we’re living. And we’re so often encouraged to forget about our material lives, and it all becomes very immaterial. So it can sound exhausting. And that’s one of the objections I think that people get is that, “Oh, Lord, I just want to go and pick things up at the grocery store, and I don’t want to have to make a separate trip to the farmer’s market, and do I really have to think about every thing I buy?” And so on. And there are limits to what we can do, especially because the economy is so structured in such a way to encourage us not to think about these things.

    But ultimately, I think the key is joy: the joy that you get in visiting the farmer’s market and having a concrete relationship with somebody, or the joy that you get from growing your own stuff or making your own stuff. I make my own beer, for example, and it brings me great joy. But ultimately that, I think it has to have the final word. That this is not all about a guilt trip about how bad we are and the choices we make are bad, and we need to change these bad choices. But it’s rather the encouragement of creating economic spaces and ultimately trying to create a whole economy where people flourish and where it’s a joyful thing and not an exploitative thing.

    Peter Mommsen: And speaking of desire, people do have that desire. We saw that with the explosion of sourdough baking during the Covid pandemic.

    William Cavanaugh: Right. Yeah, exactly.

    Peter Mommsen: This is not an unnatural thing to have to force yourself into.

    William Cavanaugh: No, it’s the natural thing. Yeah. We’ve been forced unnaturally into a different economy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, this has been a really wonderful conversation, and just, I hope to encourage everyone who’s listening to get to know Dr. Cavanaugh’s work, and we’re really excited to maybe talk to you again when the new book is released. And thanks again for, I don’t know, introducing so many people to these ideas.

    William Cavanaugh: Sure. Being Consumed has two virtues. It’s short and it’s cheap. It’s only like 110 pages and it costs like twelve bucks or something. Don’t buy it on Amazon.

    Peter Mommsen: And our listeners now know the producer.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By WilliamCavanaugh William Cavanaugh

    William Cavanaugh is the professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University.

    Learn More
    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

    Learn More
    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now