Review: Following Christ in a Consumer Society
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


John Francis Kavanaugh’s book, Following Christ in A Consumer Society, originally published in 1981 but still available in a revised edition, can be read as an extended commentary on Jesus’ statement, “You cannot be the slave both of God and of money” (Luke 16:13). Kavanaugh is an American Jesuit and a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, Missouri, and his reflections arise naturally from his own American context. Nevertheless his analysis and criticisms can be applied to advanced capitalist economies elsewhere without any great effort of imagination.
Already in Jesus’ day, when life was onerous enough for the great majority of people, and certainly devoid of the comforts that many Westerners would now consider indispensable, Jesus did not hesitate to warn his listeners about the spiritual dangers of money and possessions.
Kavanaugh has looked around at our modern consumer society, two thousand years later, and concluded that Jesus’ teaching on material wealth is just as relevant now - indeed more urgently so, he would argue, insofar as the powerful framework of competitive and acquisitive values which characterise an increasingly capitalist world has led men and women away from the true sources of human personhood - their ability to transcend self-centredness through loving, sharing, and self-giving in the manner revealed pre-eminently by Jesus Christ - and indoctrinated them into a mentality whereby they understand themselves and others as commodities, or things.
His further concern is the acculturation, as he puts it, of so many Christians to the value-system and lifestyle of consumerism and their failure to appreciate that true faith in God requires an oppositional stance to all ideologies and forms of social life which depersonalise and dehumanise.
He rejects the tendency of the American religious right to glibly identify Christianity with the economic and military power of the United States. Such a conservatism “hungers for the legitimations of power and prestige,” Kavanaugh says, while ignoring the “concrete demands of justice and love for others” (p.xv). Conservative Christians also fail to see connections between the ideology of unlimited freedom of choice and the hedonistic individualism which damages many people’s personal relationships. The central problem is an insufficiently critical attitude to the cultural idols and patterns of life of American capitalism (p.xvi).
Christian and Marxist humanism: complementary forces
Some (perhaps older) readers will immediately recognise an affinity with the work of the psychologist and social analyst Erich Fromm, and indeed some of Fromm’s books (The Art of Loving, for example, and Man for Himself) are recommended in the large and useful appendix at the end of the book. But Kavanaugh himself acknowledges a greater debt to Karl Marx, especially Marx’s concepts of alienation and “the fetish character of the commodity”. He deserves to be congratulated for defending the value of Marxist theory, at least in its more humanistic expressions, at a time when the traditional socialist critique of capitalism is profoundly out of fashion and often seems to be virtually unknown to anyone under forty.
Of course Kavanaugh rejects Marx's dogmatic atheism and even takes Marxists to task for failing to provide a proper philosophical foundation for their moral outrage in the face of oppression and injustice. To this extent he is much more a spokesman for the tradition of Christian humanism or "personalism" associated with Dorothy Day, Peter Maurier and the Catholic Worker Movement, which holds that it is only in conscious relationship with the transcendent God, rather than by denying him, that human beings find their true freedom and realise the essence of their nature.
Yet he is anxious to show how Christianity and Marxism can be complementary “mutually sustaining forces” (p.14) in the battle for a just and humane social order, and Marx’s observation, in his Economic and Political Manuscripts that “[t]he devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation with the increase in value of the world of things”, more or less sums up Kavanaugh's conviction about the harmfulness of consumerism.
The commodity form vs. the personal form: idolatry vs. covenant
Kavanaugh contrasts, then, what he terms “the commodity form” with “the personal form”. Under the commodity form, spread largely through the pervasive influence of marketing, advertising, and by a popular culture which merely reflects and reinforces commodified values, individuals learn to seek happiness and meaning in the consumption of things. At a subtler level they often come to see themselves as objects to be packaged and sold.
He draws out an interesting aspect of the biblical concept of idolatry. Quoting Psalm 115, he passes over the main aspect of idolatry - denying God the dedication which he alone deserves and giving it to some false or substitute deity - and emphasises instead the reifying or “thingifying” effect of idolatry upon the idolaters themselves. Just as those who worship objects of “silver and gold, made by the hands of men” become like objects themselves (Psalm 115, p.11) so in a culture marked by widespread commodification, genuinely personal values give way to markedly inhuman and impersonal modes of knowing, being and interacting.
In a later chapter Kavanaugh illustrates what he means by this by drawing up two columns containing long lists of opposing qualities. The “thing-knowledge”, “thing-behaviour” and reified emotional patterns which typify consumer culture are contrasted with the personal knowledge, behaviour and affectivity (ways of feeling) which denote the alternative culture of human “covenant”. So measurement and control, domination and manipulation, replaceability, coolness, hardness etc. are listed opposite the qualities of understanding and trust, acceptance of weakness, forgiveness, respect for freedom, uniqueness, tenderness, compassion.
A covenantal outlook and attitude is one in which other human beings are recognised as persons with the same thoughts, feelings, needs, sensitivities as ourselves. This sense of sympathy and identification with others is the root of the Christian commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” - as opposed to the sinful self-assertion which identifies others principally as objects to be manipulated to our advantage, thus alienating one person (or one group) from another.
The difference between the two forms, covenantal and commodified, is demonstrated most clearly for Kavanaugh by the commercialisation of human sexuality and intimacy:
“Cultural consciousness is saturated by mercantile media which for the most part reject any relationship between sexuality and human affection, and often identify sex with violence, domination, escape, consumption, exploitation and thinghood” (p37).
As a description of most people’s relationships this may seem exaggerated. And yet many people today experience a breakdown of their close partnerships because possessive and controlling motives, initially disguised as affection, frequently become manipulative or even violent when frustrated. As a social phenomenon such breakdowns have hardly become less prevalent since the original publication of Kavanaugh's book.
Christian non-conformism
Kavanaugh also comes back repeatedly to his Christian belief that Jesus Christ, as the final and unsurpassable revelation of God, is also the definitive revelation of “the personal form” and human covenantal relationship. Christians turn to the narrative of Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection, and not to any abstract theory of human nature, to ground their ideas about human identity, dignity and love. Christ's holiness and the content of his preaching of God's Reign leave Christians with no choice but to resist the divisions, the injustices, and the reductionist view of human life perpetuated by capitalism. This is likely to entail disagreement with mainstream moral values and therefore a sense of not belonging to mainstream culture.
“It should not come as a surprise,” Kavanaugh declares, “that a follower of Jesus might find himself or herself to be an outsider in a culture dominated by the commodity. It should be no shame to be different, even to feel a bit disjointed and out of place, in a civilization which divinizes the thing”. He adds finally: “If we [Christians] do not feel different, even embarrassingly different, something is wrong” (p.99).
The final chapters of the book address the practical measures that Christians must adopt to cultivate the necessary “spirituality of cultural resistance”. Traditional Christian practices and values - personal prayer, a deepening of sacramental understanding, faithful marriage or consecrated single life, fostering the bonds of love and mutual care which constitute authentic community - are all elaborated by Kavanaugh as the components of a “revolutionary holiness”, a distinctive Christian lifestyle which subverts the norms of consumerism through personal interior depth and its vision of just social arrangements.
Conclusion
I suppose some readers may find that Kavanaugh concentrates too narrowly upon the way that modern advertising and marketing inculcate consumerist attitudes and reflexes among the affluent American majority. This may reflect a now-outdated image of the capitalist economy as stable, secure, endlessly but peacefully expanding.
Since the book's first edition over twenty years ago the introduction of neoliberal economic programmes has seen a huge growth in poverty - and in the gap between rich and poor - within the capitalist countries as well as globally. The largest part of the world's population today have not even come near the standard of living that most people in the West were enjoying by the 1960's, nor has it seemed further from their grasp. Greater immiseration seems a more likely prospect for many in the southern hemisphere.
Within the developed countries too “consumerism” is far less homogeneous today than it appeared to be in 1981 and some new distinctions are doubtless necessary.
The tiny layer of super-rich differ in the scale and style of its consumption when compared with the comfortable (but often credit-dependent and debt-ridden) majority and with the impoverished underclass. At one end of the social scale the flaunting of big wealth is brazen and arrogant. At the other end, the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption is pathetic and crass, as occasionally served up in low-cost television docusoaps pour amuser les bourgeois. For many people today work is more presurred, less secure with fewer protections, and access to good schooling, health care etc. more difficult than it was twenty or thirty years ago.
The American-British invasion of Iraq is a new departure, signalling the beginning of an era of violent expropriation of physical resources by the rich countries in defiance of international law. Moreover, the relative indifference and lack of protest within the rich countries indicates that neoliberal politicians like Tony Blair have got the measure of their public: the majority ultimately deem the death and maiming of scores of thousands of poor people in some distant country to be a price worth paying for the continued functioning of the western economy and the comfortable lifestyle it supplies. The role of the mass media in deflecting attention from real issues and anaesthetising the public would require a separate article.
So there is more that’s wrong with life under capitalism in 2004 than commodity fetishism. Yet despite the economic changes that have taken place in the last twenty or so years Kavanaugh’s book identifies an important and central dimension of the whole picture. He also restates the norms of a radical Christian, and even specifically Catholic, humanism at a time when such a restatement could hardly be more opportune. And the extensive list of books which he records in the appendix, many of which are some thirty, forty or even fifty years old, will supply his readers with many of the moral and intellectual resources they need to counter the shallow and ultimately predatory way we in the West live now.
(Following Christ in A Consumer Society - Still: the Spirituality of Cultural Resistance, Orbis Books (USA) ISBN: 0883447770. This is the revised edition of the book. The page numbers above refer to the original.)