The Culture of Death and Consumerism
Contributor Joe Hargrave posted a link to an interesting new essay of his today on the topic of the Culture of Death and its connections to consumerism. It’s an interesting essay, and I encourage people to read it. I do not pretend to similar length or erudition in this piece, but in formulating some thought about Joe’s essay I realized that it would be very long for a comment, so I’m writing it up as a post here instead.
There are a lot of things I found interesting and wanted to discuss (or dispute) in your essay — perhaps in part because I get the impression that our areas of historical knowledge are somewhat non-overlapping (I know most about 3000 BC to 400 AD, you seem to be most expert on the last two centuries), and the person who imagines himself an expert in anything invariably has all sorts of quibbles with what the “outsider” writes. However, I’m going to try to stick to what I think is my most central critique.
Joe finds at the root of the culture of death the materialistic and individualistic phenomenon of modern consumerism, and about consumerism he says the following, beginning with a quote from Pope John Paul II:
The manner in which new needs arise and are defined is always marked by a more or less appropriate concept of man and of his true good. A given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption. It is here that the phenomenon of consumerism arises. (36, emphasis in the original)
Our choices with regards to production and consumption are neither arbitrary nor amoral. Further, they are not only subject to moral laws – that much ought to be evident – but they are also revealing of our hierarchy of values. JP II goes on to explain that there are two fundamental approaches to production and consumption. There is an approach that ‘respects all dimensions of his being’ and subordinates his baser instincts and passions to ‘interior and spiritual ones’. The other approach is the opposite; an economy that appeals to what is crude and and selfish in man. That is modern consumerism.
This approach not only degrades man’s moral character, but it is also a source of profound alienation from the human community.
My quibble is not with the condemnation of consumerism per se, but with what I take Joe to be defining consumerism as — and with what moral problems that consumerism indicates. (And of course, do correct me here if I’m misunderstanding you, Joe.) Joe seems to see the evil of consumerism as being that of reducing the human person to its exchangeable value. Quoting the Manifesto he says, “It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”… It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.”
There’s some accuracy to this, but it seems to me that the issue here is not with modern capitalist society as an economic system per se, but rather with an age old human failing: treating other human beings as nothing more than means to our own gratification. We do often see this in consumer contexts. Sit in almost any restaurant or enter a shop, and one is likely to be treated to the display of some customer treating the waiter or salesperson with a rudeness and imperiousness which that customer would never want to be on the receiving end of. This is just a small, indeed perhaps trivial, example, but if you’ve ever writhed inside while watching someone humiliate a waiter who for fear of his job cannot strike back at his tormentor, you have some idea of how ugly the idea that in return for money one may treat someone else however one wishes can be.
Yet this is not, I think, merely a product of a cash economy or a capitalist society. Rather, it is a sinful tendency which is much deeper in our fallen natures. Someone who has power, whether it is be because he is paying for a service, or because he is the lord of a feudal manor, or because she is beautiful enough to launch a thousand ships, or because he is the pater familias, or because he is the shaman of his tribe , is invariably tempted to treat others as objects. The greater the power and sense that that power is one’s natural right, the greater the ease with which one treats others as objects rather an other human beings of equal dignity. After all, if you’re the lord of vast estates and the young servant catches your eye, she clearly isn’t your equal, is she? She is there to serve — and to serve whatever desire you might have.
As the above example indicates, this objectification of the other is at the root of much sexual sin — not merely in the gross sense of treating the other person as merely a tool for gratification, but also in the more subtle sense of two people who believe themselves to very much love and respect each other nonetheless treating the sexual act itself as nothing more than a tool for pleasure between the two of them — ignoring the natural reproductive power of that act, and setting themselves up to later see the young product of that act as nothing but an object and obstacle to be disposed of.
Now what our modern materialistic culture provides us is such phenomenal riches, on a historical scale, that nearly everyone in society finds himself in a position of at least some power — in a way that was reserved in varying degrees for heads of families and nobles and warriors and others of more obvious power before. Not that those with little are not still capable of treating other meanly, but the sheer material abundance of our modern society both provides us with the means of objectifying others and with the training to expect that whatever we want, we can have. Thus I would agree that out modern capitalistic society accentuates or empowers this natural vice which is found in all of fallen humanity — but then our material abundance encourages us to avoid of vices. For instance, modern capitalist society is much less violent, on a daily basis, than many previous societies. Not that wrath itself is necessarily less, but that wrath is less often expressed in physical violence.
In this regard, I don’t necessarily see Joe’s economic suggestions as flowing as necessarily and as urgently from the moral evils he correctly identifies as he seems to. I don’t necessarily see that people working for a collectively owned firm would be less inclined to treat others as objects than those working for a publicly traded corporation — just as I don’t necessarily see that those who belong to a credit union would be less likely to use their money to buy porn than those who use for-profit banks. Yes, an unequal relationship between employer and employee may lead to the one treating the other as an object — just as the unequal relationship between lord and serf might — but I don’t think it is the economic organization which is the primary problem so much as the more basic moral failing. It is certainly possible for employers to treat their employees as human being, and for customers to treat wait staff as human beings. And changing economic systems is neither a prerequisite for doing so nor a guarantee of improved moral tenor.
That said, I don’t want to take away from Joe’s moral point about consumerism. And his article is certainly worth reading for its extensive thinking in regards to the teaching of various popes on the topic. My only difference is that I think that to stop at condemning consumerism without going to the deeper moral failing loses the sense in which our moral failings and temptations in modern human society are in harmony with those of others in past societies.