January 23, 2012

Dead ends: William Cavanaugh and the limits of consumer-centred critique

The American Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh was in Edmonton last week for a small conference on faith, economics and social justice at King’s University College. Given how influential Cavanaugh’s work was for my friends and I during our undergrad degrees, I felt obligated to go and hear him speak. I should mention that it was a conference aimed undergraduate students; his delivery was light and his argument familiar. It arises out of an Augustinian understanding of right living, the validation of all material (read: created) things with an emphasis on the proper ends of human desire. While I've appreciated Cavanaugh’s various attempts to align theology and politics, over the course of his lectures last week, I grew increasingly skeptical of his critical project.

In his first lecture, Cavanaugh narrated our culture as one of progressive detachment. Against commonplace accusations of “materialism” (which somehow explains our consumerism) he described the West as a place of increasing dissatisfaction with material goods, and thus increasing detachment from producers, the ground of production, and from the products themselves. Throughout the lecture images of scandalous magazine ads were projected onto a large screen. Some induced gasps from the audience, others pointed out how advertising has infiltrated every corner of human life. In Cavanaugh’s hands, this weak cultural analysis paved the way for an Augustinian prescription: for classical theology, the argument goes, all material things bear a spiritual restlessness because all of creation is predisposed to its eternal source—the only place where this constitutive trauma ends. Like other theologians in the "post-secular" school, Cavanaugh rebounds from this negative critique of a secular economy to another standard trope: the Eucharist. Participating in Christian model of consumption known as the Lord's Supper, we are not consumers, but are instead the objects that are consumed by God through the church. Thus, rather than an atomistic community based on the clash/coexistence of individual wills, our very subjectivity is transformed into sheer relation: the distinction between what is yours and what is mine is thrown into question [I was slightly confused by this aspect of his model, as Cavanaugh had made a passing remark, earlier on, that “we need private property so people will take care of their possessions”]. From this perspective secular versions of charity don’t go far enough because they rely on a model of violent consumption, rather than this apparently radical inversion.

The focus of Cavanaugh’s second lecture was the “free market,” a term which he questioned by holding up the liberal theory of American economist Milton Friedman alongside that of Augustine. Again, the content of this lecture was quite familiar. The free market system of contemporary liberalism is based, at least theoretically, on the assumption that all market transactions are acceptable so long as they are voluntary. Here, the argument goes, there are no common ends and thus there is only brute force: it’s essentially the same argument we get from RO theologians against what is disparagingly called “a metaphysics of violence” (as though the secular theorists who are lumped together in these critiques actually endorse violence as such). Where there is no objective standard, continued Cavanaugh, the one with the most power wins. While this understanding of freedom is “negative,” Christian theology offers a “positive” view of freedom: not freedom from interference, but freedom for the collective pursuit of human flourishing. Here, the ability to sin is not understood as an index of individual power, but as a weakness. We have true and false desires, the objects of which are either good or bad. For Cavanaugh, secular models of economic exchange fail because their appeal to voluntarism allows for exploitation; Christian models, on the other hand, can set a price on goods that contributes to flourishing on both sides of the exchange.

Of course, this sort of diagnosis begs some pretty obvious questions: Who decides which ends qualify as “good” or “bad,” and what constitutes an “objective standard”? Doesn’t Christianity already espouse some form of voluntarism, and how does one decide where human freedom ends and violent coercion begins? Second, how do objective ends emerge if not through power—how else do we account for the rise of the capitalist market as our only real objective touchstone? Surely, Christianity (and not simply secularism) has also helped to spread the global reach of capital. And it’s just lazy to say that there’s any clearly defined separation between the two, given our history of colonial expansion. 

What really discouraged me was the answer Cavanaugh gave to a student who asked what he should do. “You have two choices,” replied Cavanaugh. “You could run off and become a Marxist revolutionary, which would be to participate in and condone violence; or you could make more of an effort make good purchases (buy fair trade, organic, local when you can) and get more involved with your church. You see,” continued Cavanaugh, “Marxists believe that everything has to change all at once and, therefore, they think that what is necessary for transformation is a violent disruption of everything.” According to Cavanaugh, this logic stems from a narrow view of history that runs counter to the Christian tradition. Christians believe that God works slowly, on the margins, through His elect.  What frustrated me most about this throwaway answer wasn’t how reductive it was – of course Marxists are going to be caricatured by politically moderate theologians, but I’m tired of hearing that going to church and buying better products is the only option available to Christians who are dissatisfied with global injustice; I’m not sure I can accept the argument that church ritual is the proper end of all social and economic life, and that we can only ever change the objects/ends of our consumption. While I do think questions of ends and objectivity are on the right track (a track that hopefully leads to a critique of production, labor conditions and exploitation), I'm more interested in examples of how this shift in what Cavanaugh calls "spiritual discipline" leads to the empowerment of the dispossessed.

Is it really so hard to accept that the church doesn’t have a monopoly on the proper “ends” of human flourishing? Surely the church is not immune from this critique as it more often than not represents the interests of an increasingly paranoid middle class. What bothers me most about Cavanaugh's line of critique is that its focus on consumerism (which disingenuously steals most of its valuable insights from Marx) never seems to move beyond a simple reorientation, a change of buying practices, which are currently no more than a diversion that is just as often reinscribed by the market. This is bound to happen when our focus is on the symptom (and questions of individual morality) rather than the system, and when the work of historicization (a glaring weakness in much contemporary theology, which regularly tries to protect the church and what it considers to be “true” theology from any kind of historical necessity) is dismissed as a form of totalitarianism.


  1. Thanks, Jon, for what is I think an extremely important criticism not only of Cavanaugh but of an entire movement in theology which seeks to turn back to clock. I think the motivation for such a desire is good-hearted, but there is something fundamentally conservative about Cavanaugh's approach which is unhelpful for all of the reasons you bring up - he wants to bring us back to something that was abandoned for a number of reasons. There is something I'd like to push you on, though; Cavanaugh is appealing to the listeners conscience in an attempt to encourage people to make small changes but fails to address practical ways in which a fragmented and secular society can effect large-scale transformation. What I find with many more revolutionary critiques is that they excuse my individual behavior in the here and now by claiming that the whole system is tainted, and therefore nothing short of complete overhaul is worth pursuing (a complete overhaul which is then generally deferred). Is there any way we can develop an imminent ethic that has revolution on the horizon but which doesn't let us off the hook as we act within the system? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts...

    1. Andre! I see that you've entered the blogosphere. Welcome and thanks for the kind words re: my post. I think you're pushing me on exactly the right tension: it's that classic dialectic that between structure and agency. More often then not, these emphases correspond to the apparent sides of our political spectrum. (You can see it most clearly in the way certain media outlets cover certain events. I did a brief review of responses to the UK summer riots where the split was very noticible: http://www.latechurchgoers.blogspot.com/2011/08/on-london-riots.html)

      In response to your final question: I think you and I would probably agree that some form of synthesis between a radical political horizon (alert to structural injustice by way of immanent critique) and the kind of ethical discipline regularly called for by the Christian tradition. I'm just as critical of those structural critiques that let individuals off the hook as I am of moralizing critiques that fail to look beyond isolated acts to their larger socio-economic position. This might be one reason why I'm more and more convinced by dialectical criticism. It takes such contradictions quite seriously and seeks to make them visible.