If you are at all concerned about the economy or questions of how consumption relates to happiness, or how Christians should think about economic issues, this is the book for you. In four clearly-written, profoundly insightful chapters William Cavanaugh analyzes some of the most important issues facing economic thinkers today, including free markets, consumerism, pluralism and scarce resources, from a deeply faithful Christian perspective (although the author is Catholic and draws mainly on Catholic thinkers, his theology is strongly ecumenical) and provides sound, practical advice for how Christians can live in a world of scarce resources, rampant consumerism and meaningless relativism.
Modern economics is based on the assumption that human wants are infinite whereas resources to satisfy them are limited. The scarcity of resources creates an over-riding imperative to use resources efficiently (including human beings) and leads to conflict, whether military or monetary, over the rights to those resources. But Cavanaugh wants to tell a different story about consumption, one in which human desires can be directed towards a common end, the vision of God in community with other human beings and the natural world. Instead of people being impelled to constantly consume more and more things (where satisfaction is derived more from the pursuit of material goods than in their acquisition), they can attain a way of life in which desires are rightly ordered and where true happiness can be had in service to others in the body of Christ. The story of Christian economics is a story of abundance, because Christians become transformed to view service to others as their primary obligation, and not simply a 'charity' done during one's free time.
Cavanaugh reveals some truly disturbing facts about supply chains ranging from food to clothes and other consumer goods. We rarely question where the items on supermarket shelves come from. In fact, clothes for designer labels are often manufactured by workers earning 30 cents an hour in dismal conditions and the majority of mass-produced beef comes from calves which are artificially and horrendously fattened to reach 'maturity' in much less time than is natural, wallowing in their own feces and barely able to stand upright because of their weight. If that doesn't disturb you, it should. One way to make economics more human is to increase transparency about our supply chains and insist only on buying products made in accordance with good environmental and health standards, for both human workers and animals.
This book is simply packed with disturbing, challenging insights as well as suggestions for how we can create spaces in which human beings can flourish in their work and consumption. Though it is aimed primarily at Christians, anyone who is dissatisfied with current practices of consumption or economic justice will profit from reading it. It will also resonate with environmentalists (another book I recommend from a more secular perspective is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future) and anyone else looking for alternative ways of living that emphasize human well-being rather than mindless consumption. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Derrick A. Peterson
Do not be fooled by the small size of this book, it packs a hefty punch. Cavanaugh presents his arguments here in four chapters:
Chapter One introduces the working concept of "freedom," contained in the Free Market, utilizing Milton Friedman's (in)famous definition that a transaction is free if 1.)it is informed and 2.)it is voluntary, indicating that a truly "free market," is free from the "restrictions," of any common telos, and that any desire is equally valid and free should it meet these two conditions. Cavanaugh argues that this freedom is too "negative," that is to say it is void of any discernable content, and more importantly in practice it can justify almost any of the multifarious and horrendous conditions of e.g. miniscule wages, outsourcing, and a whole plethora of other economic and dehumanizing maladies. Rather, using Augustine as a dialogue partner Cavanaugh argues that our economic transactions need to be viewed from our humanizing telos in God, and that freedom is not merely "freedom from," but "freedom for" our active participation in community and the realization of our humanity.
Chapter two brilliantly analyzes consumerism as, not greed or an over-attachment to goods, but rather a radical detachment (!) which displaces goods from their contexts, consumers from the products they buy, and producers from the materiality of production via outsourcing labor etc...Rather than completely decrying consumer, he actually sees it as a perverted form of an authentic striving after God (via Augustine's own analysis of this phenomenon). Cavanaugh then uses the Eucharist as an example of how to counteract this type of detachment, the details of which I will not spoil for the reader wanting to discern the brilliance of Cavanaugh's analysis.
Chapter three analyzes the phenomenon of Globalization from the perspective of the philosophical problem of the One and the Many. Arguing that Globalization leads both to a universalization and a radical particularity, Cavanaugh demonstrates that Globalization ultimate reduces the value of the particular and absorbs it into the universal consumption. This was my favorite chapter, and also provides an intriguing analysis of postmodernism as essentially a manifestation of late-capitalist tendencies (which is much akin to many other "Radical Orthdox" readings of post-modernity, e.g. Milbanks concept of "ontologies of violence" or Hart's "narratives of the sublime" or Picktstock's "univocity" in analyzing the devaluing of the particular). Utilizing von Balthazar's concept of Christ as the "concrete universal," Cavanaugh argues that Christianity ultimately provides the proper affirmation of the universal importance of the particular, and that our consumption needs to be corrected by a kenosis and participation in Christ's body in mutual giving and receiving.
Chapter four analyzes the fundamental assumption of the scarcity of resources and, paralleling Walter Bruegemann's analysis of the Old Testament (though he is not cited as such) Cavanaugh argues that Christ's resurrection and the Christian consciousness of Christ as the one who came to give us life abundantly in the practice of the Eucharist fundamentally alters our conception of economic exchange, which is fundamentally in self-service, and affirmation of each other in particular and local communities.
At the end of each chapter he gives particular examples of how churches and organizations can (and have) incorporated these insights into their practices. Though this book's length will not occupy you for more than a long weekend, its analysis will last you a lifetime. This is undoubtedly one of the best books of its size you can buy. You will not be disappointed.
This book by Bill Cavanaugh, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, is short -- weighing in at a mere 5 ounces and 103 pages -- but packed with well-reasoned thoughts regarding the crossroads of economics and theology. The book is actually a collection of four related essays, where the author investigates four different pairs of perceptions of economics: "Freedom and Unfreedom", "Detachment and Attachment", "The Global and the Local", and "Scarcity and Abundance".
Cavanaugh does not seek to answer the question of whether or not "the free market" is right and proper. Instead, he asks, "what kinds of economic practices can make the market truly free?" This can only be answered, from a theological viewpoint, when we have defined freedom by God's Word. That is, we are only truly free through our inclusion and participation in the Body of Christ. On the surface, he is absolutely right. Because of our different understandings (Cavanaugh is Roman Catholic) of what inclusion and participation in the Body of Christ (displayed and experienced especially in the Eucharist/Communion) truly means, though, we come to different conclusions.
Cavanaugh begins by challenging the traditional capitalist/free-market definition of "freedom" -- derived from the writings of prominent economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman -- as being a purely negative definition. For instance, he says, capitalists generally understand freedom as being free from coercion and governmental interference. He contrasts this by quoting Augustine to demonstrate that the Christian understanding of freedom is that we are freed by Christ for good works. How then should this Christian ideal of freedom be reflected in our transactions?
At the core of economics, he says, is desire. Desire, in and of itself, is good. We are created to desire God. As Augustine said, we are passionate, desiring creatures, and the constant renewal of desire is what gets us out of bed in the morning. After all, God's mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23)! Unfortunately, our sinful human nature replaces this desire for the Creator with a desire for created things. Thus, our ultimate purpose in life -- our telos -- shifts from desiring God and seeking to please Him, to pursuing our own desires, seeking always to please ourselves.
Cavanaugh goes on to describe ways in which our current economic system thrives on -- and even depends on -- the constant renewal of our desires. The "having" is not nearly so addictive as the "getting". We are bombarded with media and marketing which is designed to create and manipulate our desires through "the organized creation of dissatisfaction". In fact, he even goes on to say, rightly, that "the economy, as it is currently structured, would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, `It is enough. I am happy with what I have.'"
It is the responsibility of the Church, according to the author, "to be a different kind of economic space, and to foster such spaces in the world." This is to be accomplished through the changing of our desires back to the things of God. Thus far, I am in agreement. The way in which these renewed and proper desires are to be obtained, however, is where I would begin to differ greatly from the author.
He expends a great deal of effort and many words to paint a picture of how our capitalistic system has been driven by our corporate desire for consumption to seek the lowest prices, greatest variety, and ease of access for all of our goods and services, with no thought given to the ramifications this has on our work force (as jobs are exported) and on the lives of exploited workers overseas. Cavanaugh spreads the blame for this fairly and evenly among corporations, unions, individual workers, and consumers. Everything in our society is geared toward the ultimate end of consumption.
He does not believe that any (or at least not many) of us consciously choose to satisfy our own desires at the expense of others. "The problem is a much larger one: changes in the economy and society in general have detached us from material production, producers, and even the products we buy." Over hundreds of years, we (especially in the West) have seen our society change from a time when the home was a center of production (nearly everyone made/grew everything they needed) to a time when labor is much more specialized, and very few people own anything that they have made themselves. Because of this, we give no thought to how things are produced.
Even here I am in agreement with Cavanaugh's assessment, and his identification of the problems. His solutions, though, are completely wrapped up in human effort. His portrayal of current efforts such as Fair Trade and Church Supported Agriculture as ideal, even if they have the noblest of intentions, are simplistic solutions that do not sufficiently answer all the questions he has raised. In fact, they don't even support his earlier (true) statement that freedom is found only in Christ!
Our best efforts -- and I would agree that all of us, myself most of all, could and should do more to understand the plight of the poor and work to meet their needs -- can never free people from their enslavement to sin. Those actions must always be secondary to our primary mission of taking the Gospel of Christ around the world. Of course, the manifestation of being the body of Christ in the world is the feeding of the poor and the pursuit of justice, so on the practical level our ends are very similar to those proposed by Cavanaugh.
The main reason for this distinction is the difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant (particularly Reformed) interpretation of God's Word. For instance, Cavanaugh frequently (and almost exclusively) quotes from 1 Corinthians 12 as the biblical foundation of his ideas. However, this passage is relating to members of the Body of Christ, meaning those who have been regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit by God's grace through faith in Christ. Cavanaugh believes that everyone is a member of Christ's body. If this were the case, then he would be correct in believing that the greatest unmet need of the poor would be their physical well-being.
I am certainly no expert on Catholic theology, and I don't want to speak from ignorance, so I will go no further into our theological differences other than to make one final comment. What frustrated me the most reading this book was that the author has asked all the right questions, and provided all the logical (even most of the theological) groundwork for arriving at what I believe are the "right" solutions. Unfortunately, when it comes to answering the question most critical to the entire book -- determining an objective telos of mankind and all creation in order to form an economic framework around that ultimate purpose -- Cavanaugh finds his answer in all the wrong places. His references are nearly always to "church tradition", "papal teaching", and the writing of historic theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, rather than to the Word of God. Even when these traditions and teachings ARE based on sound doctrine, his choice to base its authority on human words rather than on the Word displays a reluctance to give the final glory to God alone. Similarly, if our ultimate purpose is to feed and care for the poor, then we are basing our charity on human effort. If, on the other hand, our ultimate purpose is to desire and serve God, and we are faithful in doing the things that he desires for us to do, then the physical needs of the poor are still being met, but the glory goes to God. Again, it's a subtle distinction, but it's one that makes all the difference.
Most of what I have discussed here comes just from the first two essays... as you can see, there is a TON of food for thought crammed into a small, easy-to-read book! I don't want to go into nearly so much detail on the other sections (and there's a lot I've left out that you'll have to read for yourself), but I do want to touch on some of the highlights.
One point Cavanaugh made that I found particularly interesting was the connection between capitalism and postmodernism. Since consumption is the engine that drives capitalism, and purchasing is necessary to stimulate economic growth, then without an external basis of moral values on which to base our purchasing decisions, there are no "wrong" purchases. Gambling and pornography can contribute to the growth of the economy just as much as purchasing food and Bibles. In a purely economic sense, there is no ultimate meaning in our choices. All that matters is pleasing yourself. This pervades everything about our consumer culture, and when this "anything goes" economic philosophy is applied to all of life, we begin to see that all choices have no meaning, and there is no objective source of Truth. This is obviously a very cynical view of capitalism -- and I happen to believe that, within a Christian understanding of Biblical morality, free-market capitalism CAN conform to the Bible's teaching about economic transactions -- but the logic of his point can't be denied. Our society does NOT, in general, have a Christian understanding of Biblical morality, so our unchecked desire to consume results in much corruption and the type of postmodern thinking that we see everywhere today.
I also found the final and shortest essay to be very good. He shows how our current economic system is built around the idea that resources are scarce. Therefore, our desire to help others is always in competition with our desire to meet our own needs. Because we have been taught to believe that the solution to scarcity is trade, we convince ourselves that additional consumption meets the needs of others. Our purchases stimulate the economy, leading to jobs and more money and resources being available for others. Ironically, we begin to feel that our increased consumption is sufficient to feed others! This is built around the false notion that we can generate abundance for everyone... which is really placing our hope in the manifestation in this life of things that have been promised for Heaven, and fulfilled only in Jesus Christ. In reality, our problem is not scarcity. If we consume only what we need, placing our trust in God to provide for our needs and our hope in the Kingdom to come, we will always have an abundance from which to give to others.
Overall, this is a book that I do recommend for anyone with an interest in economics. I must caution you to read it with discernment, however. There is much to be learned from this book, but I can't affirm the author's conclusions.
Can we live different lives, socially and economically as Christians. Cavanaugh say we can - and really we must.
This is a great, small book. It's 100 plus pages are meaty - much to chew over. And much to challenge us. Cavanaugh's call is clear and simple, "From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor and communities so that real communal discernment of the good can take place".
Of course most Christians are aware of the plight of factory worker around the world making designer clothing (Liz Claiborne jackets) which while retailing at $178, cost only 77 cents per jacket (56 cents an hour). And of course most Christians are concerned. It is just that most Christians are too lazy (yes, fingers pointed at me too!!) to change our shopping habits. But is it possible to be a business and give to the community? Cavanaugh details the pain-based Mondragon Co-operative which was founded by a priest in 1956. The company employs 60,000 people and has annual sales of $3 billion. But it's philosophy is based on the principles of distributism: this idea is that a just social order can only be achieved through the distribution of property and a recognition of the dignity of labor. Mondragon is entirely worker owned and worker governed. It is based on a system of one vote per worker. Their philosophy is that labor hires capital, instead of capital hiring labor. The highest paid worker can make no more than six times the lowest paid. 10% of surpluses are given directly to community development projects.
Not only is the company successful and laborers highly satisfied with their work, but the communities in which Mondragon plays a significant part enjoy lower crime rates, lower rates of domestic violence, higher rates of education, and better physical and emotional health than neighboring communities.
There is much more to this book - but I'll leave you to find out for yourself.