Greed and Detachment in a Consumerist Culture

An act of greed?

In January 2005, a medical student in Nebraska auctioned off advertising space on his forehead, and ended up being paid $37,000 to advertise a snoring remedy for thirty days.  Roman Catholic moral theologian William T. Cavanaugh, in an essay entitled Attachment and Detachment uses this story as his jumping-off point to analyze greed and detachment in a consumerist culture.

It is common to think of greed as the primary moral failure of a consumerist culture, but Cavanaugh argues that greed – a sinful level of attachment to material things – is not what characterizes the Nebraska man (who after all was only attempting to pay his way through medical school) or of our consumer culture.  What makes this story particularly interesting is the way it shows that the ability of a consumer society to turn anything at all into a commodity to be purchased and sold.  Cavanaugh mentions the selling of health care, space, human blood, names (“Tostitos Fiesta Bowl”), adoption rights, water, genetic codes, the rights to emit pollutants into the air, and of course the use of one’s own forehead.

What this illustrates, according to Cavanaugh, is not attachment to things, but detachment from things.  “The Nebraska man describes himself as the ‘owner’ of his forehead, which he can sell and get back.  Consumerism is te remarkable ability to be detached even from those things… to which we are most obviously attached.”

Detachment from what?

In his essay, Cavanaugh describes three areas in which detachment is becoming the defining aspect of a consumer’s place in society.

First, the consumer is becoming further and further detached from the actual production of those things being consumed.  Whereas families in America once produced much or all of the food and materiel used in their homes, as industrialization meets globalization, consumers now often produce nothing at all, and are unfamiliar with how things are created.  (This accounts for the market of shows such as How It’s Made and Dirty Jobs.)  This is morally problematic in a few regards, but Cavanaugh chiefly addresses the workplace angst such detachment from production creates, as Americans feel increasingly detached from the work they themselves do, as labor itself comes to be seen as a commodity to be bought or sold as the market conditions enable.

Second, consumers are detached from the actual producers of the items they consume.  Instead of seeing people who work as we do, those who produce for us become “labor costs,” which naturally need to be “minimized.”  As transnational companies move their production centers to progressively poorer nations, progressively further from sight, they pay progressively lower wages and operate in progressively worse conditions.  Workers are paid fifteen cents for each $40 shirt they produce, being forced to work 13-15 hours per day, seven days a week, often under armed guard.  Cavanaugh observes that the Chinese have even coined a word – guolaosi – meaning ‘death from overwork.’

American consumers are decent people; we wouldn’t intentionally put our material comfort over the lives and health of other people.  But as we become detached from those who  produce what we consume, we are often blind to the problem and powerless to address it.

Third, Cavanaugh observes how our consumerist culture has detached us even from the products themselves.  One passage is worth quoting at length.

Far from obsessively clinging to our stuff, we tend to buy and discard products easily.  We don’t make them ourselves or have any connections to the people that make them [sic]; increasingly, we have no connection to the people that sell them either, as small local business are replaced by gigantic chain retailers.  Under these conditions, our connections to products become very tenuous and fleeting as well.  The products we buy are mute as to their origins, and the people we buy them from can tell us little.  Products say nothing about where they come from and how they are produced, and we scarcely bother to wonder.  We simply take for granted that we can buy fresh bananas in Minnesota in the dead of winter.  Meat comes not from cows and pigs but from little Styrofoam trays wrapped in clear plastic.  We simply dump them in our carts and keep shopping.

So the process of consumerism naturally detaches us from products, but there is more to it.  A consumer culture could not survive simply on what people need.  Instead, the free market has to artificially create needs, and at the same time what General Motors calls “the organized creation of dissatisfaction.”  Simultaneously, companies are investing billions of dollars into creating desire for some new product, while also convincing you that what you just purchased is no longer valuable.  This is both trivially amusing and a serious indictment of the moral values of our culture.  On one hand, how many more blades can we add to the shaving razor?  On the other, it is true that the global economy would come crashing to a halt if we ever looked at all the crap we own and said, “It is enough.  I am content with what I have.”

Moral formation in the consumerist world

All of the above describes the situation that the average American is in: detached from productions, producers and products.  What effect does that have on the average American?  According to Cavanaugh, “Consumer culture is one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world, arguably more powerful than Christianity.”

He observes that while a Christian may spend an hour per week in church, she may spend twenty-five times that watching television, on top of time spent on the Internet, listening to the radio, shopping and seeing the advertisements that fill our world, from junk mail to gas pump handles to the walls of public restrooms.  Cavanaugh states, “Such a powerful formative system is not morally neutral: it trains us to see the world in certain ways.”  Companies are not ignorant of this fact, either.  As one corporate manager Cavanaugh quotes put it, “Corporate branding is really about worldwife beliefs management.”

The church is in no position to unilaterally fix or attack a morally corrupt consumerist culture, but the church must do (in order to be the church) is to provide a counter-liturgy to the consumption of the broader consumerist culture.  The form this counter-liturgy takes is the communion table, the Eucharist.  “In the Christian view,” Cavanaugh says,

[W]e do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation – appropriating, consuming and discarding.  In the Eucharist we are absorbed into a larger body.  The small individual self is de-centered and put into the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life… The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ.  We are not to consider ourselves the absolute owners of our stuff, who then occasionally graciously bestow charity on the less fortunate.  In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available to be communicated to you in your need… In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely “the other” to each other.  In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others.

Finally, Cavanaugh gives concrete steps that flow out of this theological trajectory for confronting the detachment from production, producers and products in our own lives, including making your home a site for production, whether it’s of music or bird feeders.  Simply realizing what goes into producing something will help to prevent us seeing the producers of our consumables as expendable.  He also notes fair trade initiatives, as well as dealing with local small banks and credit unions that invest in local communities.  But no Christian practice can make sense apart from the sacrificial liturgy.

What do you think?  Is the detachment of the consumer from the things we consume dangerous?  Why is our society so detached from valuing things in general?  Can the confessing church function as a counter-liturgy to the detachment that characterizes our consumer culture?


One response to “Greed and Detachment in a Consumerist Culture

  1. great writing, thanks. I’ll send this link to some colleagues. I got here looking for stories to tell my Ranger kids about consumerism, so this isn’t quite right for them, but good for me.

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