Capitalism and the Culture of Consumerism

This week we celebrate the feast day of Saint Matthew, patron saint of bankers. Reflecting upon my patron saint, I recall many times having been asked how capitalism can be compatible with Christian theology. As a banker and Catholic intellectual, I draw upon both faith and reason to explain this often misunderstood relationship.

What Capitalism Is and What it Is Not

Many people use the term capitalism to mean an entire philosophy of life where money and material acquisition is seen as the ultimate goal of existence. This understanding is not capitalism.

In contrast, Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, recognized throughout the world as the Father of Capitalism and its chief apologist, writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that “the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man.”

A capitalist society, Smith writes in Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is one in which consumers are free to demand products to serve their needs, and firms must compete for the right to supply products (and earn profits). This is a system of economic organization (not a philosophy of life) where markets are created to serve the needs of man.

Pope Saint John Paul II explained in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis that “the economy, in fact, is only one aspect and one dimension of the whole of human activity. If economic life is absolutized, if the production and consumption of goods become the center of social life and society’s only value—not subject to any other value—the reason is to be found not so much in the economic system itself as in the fact that the entire socio-cultural system (emphasis added), by ignoring the ethical and religious dimension, has been weakened, and ends by limiting itself to the production of goods and services alone.”

What the Church criticizes is the spirit that capitalism has encouraged, utilizing capital to subject and oppress the man,” Pope Francis wrote in his little known 1998 book, titled Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro.

What we often come to think of as “capitalism” is really something else—the culture of consumerism.

The Scourge of Consumerism

The culture of consumerism is understood as a purely materialist answer to the meaning of life. Why do we live: to consume. How do we find happiness: we acquire “things.”  Economic theorists hold that there is a distinction between the economic sphere and the moral/cultural sphere.

In 1965, The Church Fathers in Gaudium et Spes made clear that “[I]t is what a man is, rather than what he has that counts.” The spiritual risk is that the human person is diminished by his own economic progress by becoming less an acting person, who reasons about his good and pursues it in the world, and more a person who is acted upon—ruled by passions and subject to outside manipulation of his desires. This dichotomy between “having” and “being” is the frame work for the Magisterial teaching on consumerism.

Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio laid the foundation for future teachings on putting economic development into a moral context. He explained that “[e]very kind of progress is a two-edged sword. It is necessary if man is to grow as a human being; yet it can also enslave him, if he comes to regard it as a supreme good and cannot look beyond it.”

In following, Pope Saint John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, continues Paul VI’s teaching by addressing the scourge of consumerism– reminding us that the world economic situation is the embodiment of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. He calls on us to recall the rich man in the scriptures (caught up in his feasting) who does not see the important human good outside his door—a man in need of basic material goods. He warns that (1) an abundance of goods makes people vulnerable to consumerism (or slavery to possessions), (2) consumerism is essentially an inability to see beyond material goods, and (3) consumerism generates a restlessness that manifests in a constant search for new products and the creation of a “throw-away” culture.

In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio, Pope Saint John Paul II, continued his teachings on the dangers of consumerism in Sollicitudo Re Socialis, reminding us that the economic growth does not necessarily lead to moral improvement: “In fact there is a better understanding today that the mere accumulation of goods and services, even for the benefit of the majority, is not enough for the realization of human happiness.”

In his book Following Christ in a Consumer Society, John Kavanaugh argues that consumerism is a “Commodity Form” of life. As such, he means that consumerism is “a system of reality and a religion.” He argues that consumerism is “a total world view” that “affects the way we think and feel, the way we love and pray, the way we evaluate our enemies, the way we related to our spouses and children.” Kavanaugh sees that the “Commodity Form” of life is a complete way of perceiving, valuing and behaving.

Why is Consumerism So Dangerous?

Consumerism is deficient as a moral and cultural attitude because it treats every person and relation as a commodity that can be had rather than recognizing the existence of goods that cannot be reduced to commodities.

Kavanaugh concludes that the “Commodity Form reveals our very being and purpose as calculable solely in terms of what we possess We are only insofar as we possess. We are what we possess. We are, consequently, possessed by our possession, produced by our products.” In the end, we are “remade in the image and likeness of our own handiwork, we are revealed as commodities… We are robbed of our very humanity.”

Pope Francis is Evangelii Gaudium explains the danger: “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’”

Consumerism as a Cultural Distortion of Human Freedom—Not the Result of a Free Market

The free market is an expression of the human capacity for free choices. Consumerism is not a necessary by-product of the market but a very common distortion of freedom. It is the result from poor choices made by free individuals.

Pope Saint John Paul II warns in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:

  1. An abundance of goods makes people vulnerable to consumerism and a susceptible to becoming a slave to possessions.
  2. Consumerism is essentially an inability to see beyond material goods.
  3. There is a restlessness inherent in consumerism that creates a perpetual need to new products which facilitates a type of “throw-away” culture.

Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us that the dominion given to Adam and Eve was not absolute and that the original sin of Adam has distorted the relationship between man and the material world. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis underscores that consumerism is yet another chapter in the ongoing story of original sin and the promise of redemption.

Capitalism is merely an instrument for effectively utilizing resources and responding to needs. At its heart is work, initiative and entrepreneurial drive—operating in the economic sphere in such a way as to appeal to man’s inherent dignity.

In his book Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist, Father Richard John Neuhaus reminds us that [The pope] is not so much criticizing an economic system as he is warning against the excesses that the efficient working of that system makes possible.”

Is Capitalism Sufficient for Man?

In the end, capitalism is a mode of economic endeavor layered upon a fallen world. Some of the most disheartening abuses of our fellow man have been done in the pursuit of profit. However, does capitalism afford man the opportunity to exercise his freedoms? Yes. Is there evil in the world? Yes. But Adam Smith would posit that the chaotic interaction of self-interested consumers and of self-interested firms produces outcomes that benefit society. Our job as individuals is to call on our conscience as we participate in the market and call out those who disregard the dignity of our fellow man. Arguably this is a cultural endeavor and not a metaphysical one.

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