Capitalism is not a materialistic order but has everything to do with the spirit. Capitalism does not deny the spirit by grounding desire in the material but instead effects a horizontal displacement of desire by constantly misdirecting desire from its true (vertical) home in God, by means of the enchantments of consumerism…
This is an excerpt from the book The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World by Daniel M. Bell Jr. This book was lent to me with high recommendation from a friend and after letting it adorn the shelf for months, I plowed through it this past week. I am glad I did. You ought to read this book! … and I should probably read it again.
Bell posits that the Christian way is not the capitalist way — that they are two very differing economies of desire. In reading this work, I felt as if I was able to step outside our governing societal structures for a time and take in a broader perspective of the landscape of the political, social, economic, and spiritual state of mankind. He traces the inclination of our desires and encourages the Church into an alternative way — a truer way. There are challenging words for us all.
I’ll leave you with a few excerpts:
Capitalism distorts the creative power that is human desire by constantly creating new objects/idols for its fascination. It entices desire with an endless array of distractions. The enchantments of capitalist production are distractions precisely because they cannot satisfy our desire. And as far as capitalism is concerned, this is a good thing, for satisfied desire would spell an end to capitalism, which depends on the frenetic power of unquenched desire to drive it productive engines.
In contrast, Christianity proclaims the good new that we can indeed find rest from the rat race that is the conflict of the capitalist market. Our desire finds its true home, it rest, its delight in communion with God. Desire’s true fascination is the radiance of love that is the glorious life of the blessed Trinity. For this reason, humanity might rightly be called homo adorans—worshiping beings. We are not beings caught in an endless cycle of trucking and bartering (homo economicus) but beings inclined to worship and enjoy the divine love that provides all that we need. In other words, because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want (Ps. 23:1). We need not strive endlessly but can be content.
As desire learns in worship to rest in its true end, the capitalist economy of desire is exposed for what it is: an economy that normalizes the disordered desire that is properly named greed. Capitalism makes a virtue of what the tradition denounces as one of the seven deadly sins: avarice or greed—a restless, possessive, acquisitive drive that is lauded as the entrepreneurial spirit of homo economicus.
The disordered desire that is avarice or greed is frequently identified with a desire for money and wealth, but it encompasses more than that. Greed is first and foremost about wanting more than enough. Furthermore, it encompasses not just wealth or material goods but intangible objects as well, like honor, knowledge, and even life itself. In short, as Augustine observes, greed concerns “all things which are desired immoderately, whenever someone wants absolutely more than is enough.” Thus even the unbounded creativity celebrated by capitalism’s courtiers is a vice insofar as it is not directed by the shared love that is the common good.
The driving force of capitalism is scarcity—limited resources to meet unlimited desires. Scarcity warps desire into a grasping, acquisitive power and so prepares it for the agony that is the capitalist market. Thus the God of capital is revealed to be a stingy deity who parcels out only enough to stimulate the agony of the market, where we are forced to compete like economic gladiators in the hope that the fickle favor of the invisible hand will bestow its blessings on us.
In contrast, Christianity has long proclaimed that God has given and continues to give abundantly; there is enough. God provides for all our needs. As Chris Franks observes, there is a providential coincidence between the requirements for human flourishing and nature’s provision. The Lord is our shepherd; we do not need more (Ps. 23:1). The abundance of God is proclaimed throughout Scripture, and when Christians place themselves under the discipline of the Word, allowing their imaginations to be formed by its vision of God and the world, their desire is graciously released from the capitalist discipline and freed to flow generously.
The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.
Proclaiming God’s abundance does not deny the reality of scarcity.
What it is does is locate the origin of scarcity where it belongs, namely, in sin. Scarcity is not a natural condition but the consequence of sin. Indeed, capitalism has been implicated in the generalization of scarcity, such that it is no longer isolated and occasional but the structure of our existence. That many languish in misery today because they lack access to things like adequate food, shelter, employment, and sundry forms of care is not due to nature or a perverse God but to the distortions of human desire that first shaped and now is shaped by an economic order that fails to use the gifts of God properly. Material scarcity, we might say, has its roots in the scarcity that is the lack of faith (Luke 18:8).
Furthermore, to say that scarcity is not a fact of nature and to assert that God provides is not to suggest that we may never suffer or go hungry. Clearly in this time between the times, God’s provision does not preclude hunger, suffering, and even death, and there is no simple or easy answer as to why this is the case Nevertheless, what God’s provision does make possible is a kind of asceticism, a hope that nurtures faithful endurance and struggle against sin-inflicted scarcity. Here we would do well to recall Christ’s suffering obedience to which we are conformed as we are joined to his body. In this time between the times, God’s abundance may take the form of martyrdom and resurrection, and the assurance that in giving our life, we actually receive life, and that although we may die, we will not perish (Matt. 22:39; Luke 9:24).
I do the book little justice with these few quotes. All I can say is, “Read the book!” Then, let me know what you think.