Being consumed – William T. Cavanaugh
In his book on economics and Christian desire, Cavanaugh borrows from Augustine’s teaching on desire and disordered loves to examine the effects of consumerism on our lives and what a Christian/Catholic response to that might be. He quotes Augustine’s well-known refrain:
“Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”
as he reflects on our ultimate desire for God and the way in which we try to satisfy this desire with cheap replacements – with created things. We want and we desire things and we consume things but are constantly left dissatisfied and our ultimate appetite unsatiated. That is why the act of shopping is more fun than actually getting what we want – we enjoy the wanting, the desiring and the pursuing. Once we have what we think we wanted, we are dissatisfied again and the cycle is repeated – endlessly.
“A person buys something – anything – trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine. And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing, and she has to head back to the mall to continue the search.”
Shopping is the new religion and shopping malls are the new cathedrals, but they leave people feeling empty and dissatisfied.
Cavanaugh questions and challenges the concept of a “free market” – the right and freedom of two parties to exchange goods or services, stating that there is no such mutual freedom, but often the exercise of power and influence and coercion by the stronger over the weaker. He looks at the commodification of labour, whereby we buy the cheapest possible labour we can from around the globe, paying people wages from which they can hardly live. Globalisation and the availability of other labour sources in a different country or on a different continent means that people working for ridiculously low wages must either take it or leave it. A cheaper alternative workforce can simply be purchased elsewhere. Cavanaugh also takes a good look at marketing and advertising and the creation and manipulation of dissatisfaction and desire.
He also questions our own internal choices and wills, and the slavery of our misplaced desires.
“In Augustine’s thought, we desperately need not to be left to the tyranny of our own wills. The key to true freedom is not just following whatever desires we happen to have, but cultivating the right desires.”
For Cavanaugh, “we must consider the end toward which the will is moved”.
In all of these processes, we have become detached from the production processes and the people that produce the goods that we consume. Whereas we used to make things and produce things ourselves, which we would then consume, thus appreciating the work and effort that has gone into the production of such goods, we are now completely isolated and detached from the source of the meat that we eat or the clothes that we wear. Price has become the bottom line and we easily discard what we have for the new and the novel. Cavanaugh shares some very interesting insights into the misuse of labour, the mistreatment of livestock and the social and moral costs and compromises involved with the free market.
Cavanaugh offers some responses to this, from the use of Fair Trade suppliers to buying locally from suppliers with known sources where possible. He also argues for the Eucharist as an answer to our misplaced desires and our endless consumption. We are to consume the body and blood of Jesus and to be consumed by it. His arguments here do not convince wholly, and are very Catholic in their view of the “magic” element of the body and blood of Christ. Overall, however, this book provides some fascinating thoughts and insights on desire, economics and the free market, which made me think hard about my consumption and disordered loves.
 Quoted from Augustine’s Confessions
 Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 15
 Cavanaugh (2008), 11.
 Cavanaugh (2008), 11-12.