We need to consume things in order to live. The reason why the act of consumption, even though necessary, gets a bad reputation is due to its being hitched onto the wagon of consumerist ideology. It is an ideology where consumption, rather than being a means to an end, becomes an end in itself.
But consume we must and discussions of a distributist economy—in the same way that it must not lose sight of the necessity of private property ownership, even as it is to be distributed widely—must not lose sight of the necessity of consumption, even as a means to an end. The question to be asked is, how might consumption might be corrected in a distributist economics, in the same way that Distributism corrects the capitalist tendency to concentrate private property into the hands of a few?
The suggestion here is that the corrective in distributist economics might be found in the resources of the Catholicism embraced by the early pillars of distributist economics, such as Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. More specifically, it is suggested that Christian dogma of the Incarnation, far from being merely a “religious” doctrine, also has something to say about the realm of things. Even more specifically, the Incarnation is what anchors an affirmation of the realm of things, a healthy materialism that is in stark contrast to the pseudo-materialism of consumer capitalism.
First, it is necessary to explain the notion that consumer capitalism is only pseudo-materialistic. After all, we are so used to calling the culture we live in, which drips with the artifacts of consumer-capitalism, materialistic. Our malls and screens are flooded with sales pitches to acquire yet another mug, car, shirt or ticket that we do not need, calling our attention to the framed image put before us as the gateway to our happiness. It almost seems that we are being called to form attachments to the material thing being presented, making the prefix of “pseudo” somewhat curious.
This prefix, however, may not be so out of place when one understands everyday conceptions of materialism to mean an obsessive attachment to any particular thing, which is borne out of a desire for that particular thing. Thus, it becomes important to highlight materialism to be a matrix of desire, attachment and things. In his book Being Consumed, DePaul University’s William Cavanaugh argues that such an attachment cannot work when consumerism becomes an end in itself, since the acquisition of the thing would fulfill the desire for that thing, and thus ending the acquisitive desire. In consumer capitalism, profit maximisation only works if desire is kept alive, and not stopped short when that desire is completed. This can only work, Cavanaugh says, if desire is not a-ttached to things, but rather de-tached from them. In Cavanaugh’s words, consumer capitalism is one where “our relationship with products tend to be short-lived”.(35) Rather than a materialism where desires are satisfied by material goods, consumers under consumer capitalism are “characterised by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods” (35). Desire is thus not fulfilled but “temporarily halted” and there is generated a hope the next purchase will calm the storm of desire. Thus, “consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else” (35). When consumerism becomes an end in itself, desire is moved from the desire of concrete things, and becomes abstracted to a desire for desire itself.
This abstraction of desire is not just in the realm of shopping, but also in the realm of finance, especially in investment flows which are the lifeblood of supply-side economic regimes. The use of the term “blood” to describe money is apt, for investment flows are pure liquidity that do not bind to any particular thing being invested in. The University of Nottingham’s Philip Goodchild, who wrote the highly compelling Theology of Money, suggests as much. “Money”, he says, “holds liquidity in virtue of its capacity to circulate through all markets”, connecting the “network of markets” and committing to none (154); moving only where profit may be abstracted from the assets investing in and siphoning out of local economies whatever surplus is generated, resulting in an overall drain on any local economy of material wealth or vitality. This effect is exacerbated further, Goodchild reminds us, as financial circuits get tighter and tighter with increasing concentrations of liquid wealth into fewer and fewer hands.
If consumerism is an end in itself and is oriented towards the detachment from things and the abstraction of value from things, the economy that is produced can be said to be Gnostic, insofar as Gnosticism treats the material as a shackle that one must be liberated from. It is also Gnostic insofar as it insists that it is only a select few that are worthy to benefit from this abstraction from the material, and it is Gnostic insofar as it is a repudiation of any goodness of the material realm in and of itself (for goodness can only be measured by the generation of surplus in an economy of consumption as an end).
By contrast, the Doctrine of the Incarnation stands as a bulwark against the vampiric effects of abstraction and, contra the Gnostics, it does so in its affirmation of particular things as good. However, the Incarnation goes further than just furnish a vague endorsement of the goodness of “stuff”. The Incarnation affirms that, in the particular of human matter, lies the universality of the divine. Every movement of that human body— every step, touch, gesture—expresses in full the movements of the life within the godhead. The reality the godhead expresses—and the salvation the godhead brings—is therefore not to be found by unplugging oneself from the world of things, but is precisely within the world of things. These visible signs of invisible realities are what Catholicism calls “sacraments”.
Where sacramentality might translate into the realm of the economic is in the treatment of commodities. The Gnostic economy enjoins an exploitative, non-committal relationship with things as disposable vehicles of an ephemeral thrill, for when what matters is the thrill, things are usually glossed over. By contrast, the Incarnate, sacramental economy, in affirming the ability of things to relay something truly eternal and even mysterious, should enjoin a commitment to the realm of things as they slowly unveil to us glimmers of the transcendent. This slow unveiling of mystery in the realm of things can challenge the throwaway culture upon which consumerism thrives. This commitment to the world of things should also lead to a change of the terms of our interaction with the things we consume. We may always need to consume in order to live, but an incarnate economics can potentially alter the way we think about what life is about. Rather than doing so to lead a life of thrill seeking, we can engage our commodities as gateways through which one can lead a life searching for a deeper, lasting joy.
Moreover, because it is the human body that communicates divine realities, an incarnate economics will implicate our relationship not only with the consumed, but also the body that does the consuming. Because we are not persons that happen to have bodies, but are persons because we have bodies, our solicitude should also extend to the welfare of the persons implicated in every pattern of consumption, which also means the persons implicated in the patterns of production. The doctrine of the Incarnation is not incidental to distributist economic practice, but is central to personalism around which patterns of economics, production, financing and consumption are grounded.