William T. Cavanaugh provides an intriguing analysis of modern consumer culture in relation to Christian social norms and morality in his work Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. He addresses many questions that many Christian wrestle with on a daily basis. Namely, how does one embrace the teachings of the Gospel and Christianity in general while simultaneously participating in a culture that espouses an amoral foundation on material consumption? The ramifications of this answer not only have an impact on the local level but globally as well. This question is deeply rooted in articulating the human relationships in the midst of a capitalist society. At times in the United States the culture of consumption seems to be both inescapable as well as inevitable. From this insight another question becomes apparent. What is the true meaning of freedom in a free market economy? Cavanaugh seeks to answer this question in the first chapter.
He first points to Milton Freidman to identity the traditional notion of freedom in a free market capitalist society. Friedman believes that freedom comes from absence of external coercion when two parties enter a mutually beneficial exchange of production (pg.2) According to this understanding all exchanges must be voluntary and informed. Perhaps equally as important is that free market is defined in a negative sense. It is freedom from “eternal coercion.” Many have interpreted this to mean a freedom from state or government intervention. In other words, freedom here is defined by the absence of external interference which ideally frees the individual to enter upon a mutually beneficial agreement. What is not factored into this notion of free market capitalism is the idea of telos. In relation to capitalism markets telos is broadly defined as common end through which desire is directed. Every individual who embarks on an agreement according to this view of free market capitalism does so, based on their own individual interest. Neither communal good nor the wellbeing of society as a whole is factored into the decision making process.
Cavanaugh next point is to employ the work of St. Augustine as a corrective to this view of the free market. One of the more obvious flaws in Friedman’s view of free market capitalism is that quite often people do indeed enter into exchanges that are not mutually beneficial. One group is exploited while the other group does the exploiting. Perhaps the greatest example of this in modern society is the phenomenon known as global outsourcing. Cavanaugh notes that many American businesses in the mid-20th century began to move overseas to Latin American countries because labor costs were much cheaper abroad. However, several decades later these same businesses moved again to the Asian continent because they hire laborer even cheaper there. Whereas the cost of production in Latin America was around 60 cents an hour for the average worker, in China that same labor could be outsourced at as low as 12 cents an hour. Compare this salary to the revenue generated from selling these items to American customers and it becomes apparent that this type of free market exchange is not mutually beneficial.
I think it is appropriate here to illustrate the exploitative nature of outsourcing through the context of the current season of Lent. Many people celebrate what is known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday for spiritual or secular reason. There are several aspects of this festivity that can be seen as problematic. Particularly, the Mardi Gras beads that are so readily celebrated are the result of exploited Chinese laborer. David Redmon’s documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China, exposes American fetishism of these beads and the paltry condition under which they are made. Workers in these factories, primarily teenage girls, spend 14-16 hours a day laboring over mardigras beads. For all of their efforts they make around sixty-two dollars amount by which they are supposed to support both themselves as well as their families. Redmon even notes how the factory owner states that he does not want more than 10 percent of factory workers to be females because the females are easier to control. The owner also mention how he docks one month’s worth of pay if he catches the workers fraternizing with members of the opposite sex. The list of exploitative practices could go on. Suffice to say Friedman’s notion of free market freedom does not provide the sort of freedom that he hoped for when it is practiced. Freedom from something in a free mark capitalist society is certainly not freedom from exploitation.
Augustine fits into this equation because for him freedom is not merely from something but for something. Freedom is the ability to work towards a common good or telos. Everything that we do should be for a greater good and to serve a greater purpose. For Augustine this good is deeply connected to God. All interactions and relationships should connect God’s goodness to society at large. This has implications on how to understand telosin relation to free market capitalism. Model of production as well as economic relationships should be based on the telosof promoting God’s goodness for anyone who considers themselves a Christian. This means that one has to recognize the exploitative nature of free market capitalism as articulated by Milton Friedman. Outsourcing labor that leaves one group at a gross disadvantage does not promote God’s goodness. God’s goodness is revealed through the divine equality that everyone shares. This should be reflected in human relationships. So what does it mean for a person to understand an economic system with a conception of telos?
Cavanaugh at various points in his work makes several recommendations on how to conceive an economic system while having in mind, what end that economic system should meet. As previously noted for Christians this telosshould be towards the purpose of serving the greater good, articulated as God. There are many ways this can be accomplished however; I would like to emphasize one that I think is particularly important towards understanding freedom. Individual practices can be the way that any person can participate in their own liberation. What Michel Foucault calls practices of freedom can help to navigate a Christian perspective of how to view a free market system as freeing. Foucault’s notion of practices of freedom is the process by which an individual’s employ practices aimed at alleviating their own domination. According to Foucault oppression is not solely an institutional process. As such it cannot solely be attacked at an institutional level. It is up to individuals as well as communities to fight oppressive forces. For Foucault when oppression is examined through the lens of the individual it is more aptly termed domination. Individuals alone may not be able to overthrown oppressive systems but that does not mean they have to play a role in their own domination. Through using specific practices the individual is able to exercise agency in the midst of oppression or domination. In other words, through practices they are able to acquire their own sense of freedom
Free market capitalism as well as many other economic systems are so easily linked with exploitation that individuals lose any sense that they may be able create change. Thus it is imperative that individuals recognize their own agency in these situations. It is equally important that individuals realize that they do not have to contribute to their own domination. Practices of freedom can include education, speaking out against exploitative practices etc. It is the responsibility of every Christian to also engage in these practices of freedom as well. Through participating in practices of freedom Christian can actively work toward the telos that Augustine describes and that is necessary for a Christian understanding of economic relationships in a free market society.
(Photo description: Obama-ized photo of Milton Friedman where half of the photo background is red, the other blue. The words “FREEDOM” appear in text across the bottom. Found on Flickr.)