Review of Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012), 224 pgs., paperback.
This is the sixth volume in the series The Church and Postmodern Culture, edited by James K. A. Smith. The series “features high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology writing for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church.”
Although I am not the least bit interested in postmodern theory, I am very interested in the intersection of Christianity and economics or politics. Thus, the phrase “Christianity and Capitalism” in this book’s subtitle caught my eye. Nevertheless, I have never been more disappointed, or bored.
The author describes his work as “a contribution to the conversation about the relationship of Christianity to capitalism with a postmodern twist.” That twist is nothing short of pure Christian anti-capitalism, although of a very unique kind. You see, Daniel Bell, professor of theological ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and the author of several books, is not a socialist. He maintains that his book “changes the focus from capitalism versus socialism to capitalism versus the divine economy made present by Christ and witnessed to by the church.”
Fortunately, I didn’t have to read through the whole book to discover what the author meant by capitalism. He equates capitalism with the “free-market economy” because the name “highlights the centrality of the market.” This is well and good, and certainly makes it easier to understand where the author is coming from. Unfortunately, this is not the case for understanding Bell’s concept of the divine economy.
According to Bell:
The free market is a total market, a market that is at the center of life and society. By setting Christianity against this I am suggesting that the market should be neither total nor free. That is, it should not be the central institution in life and society, nor should its capitalist logic go unchecked. More specifically, I am suggesting that the market, and indeed the discipline of economics, should be subordinate to theological concerns.
He believes that “the market economy should be subordinate to and so reinforce the virtuous life.” In his “faithful alternative to capitalism,” we still “labor and produce, acquire and distribute, buy and sell, trade and invest, lend and borrow, but we do so in a manner that is different from others insofar as we do so in a manner informed by a desire schooled in virtues such as charity, justice, and generosity.”
After an introduction in which the above is sketched out, there are two chapters on the economic ideas of the French philosophers Micel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, who Bell acknowledges were Marxists. He refers to them throughout the book, even more than Adam Smith, of whom Bell has nothing good to say. Why Deleuze and Foucault? Because they “help us to see that capitalism is more than a mode of production, that it is an economy of desire.” In chapters 3 and 4, building “on the insights of Deleuze and Foucault,” Bell subjects capitalism to “a moral evaluation.” This is the heart of his anti-capitalism. The next three chapters “appropriate the lessons of Deleuze and Foucault for the sake of envisioning the church as an alternative economy where desire is being healed by participation in the divine economy of God’s eternal generosity.” The final chapter “introduces the practice of the works of mercy as the diaspora or pilgrim form that the divine economy takes in the midst of the world’s economies.” There is also a brief preface and conclusion, a series preface, a series editor foreword, and an index. Although the book is heavily footnoted, there is no bibliography.
Bell’s problem with capitalism is not that it doesn’t work; for example, succeed in alleviating or reducing poverty, but “the kind of work that it does when it works.” Even if capitalism actually improves the plight of the poor, “it would still be wrong and therefore rightly resisted.” Even if it “made everyone on the planet a millionaire tomorrow, it is still wrong and is to be opposed because of what it does to human desire and human sociality.” The capitalist “economy of desire” is a manifestation of sin because it both corrupts desire and obstructs communion.”
Capitalism is wrong because “its discipline distorts human desire.” It “obstructs our friendship with God.” It actively works against “the divine will for the renewal of communion with God and humanity.” It “deforms and corrupts human desire into an insatiable drive for more.” It “orders human relations as struggle and conflict.” It “encourages us to view others in terms of how they can serve our self-interested projects.” It is “untethered from virture, from common good.” It rejects “social justice.” It is “founded on an idolatrous vision of God.” It regards “the effort by individuals or governments to coerce one into redistributing wealth” as itself “an act of injustice.” It elevates the corporation “as a mediator of God on par with the church” and “Adam Smith, and modern economists in general, as heralds of the good news of material redemption above and beyond what Jesus envisioned.” It is “marked by a possessive individualism.” It cannot coexist with “the virtue of charity.” It is too impersonal. It doesn’t acknowledge God’s purposes for humanity. It fails to nurture communion. It “treats material goods as deterritorialized commodities that come to us with no purpose other than that which our autonomous wills choose.” It “encourages us to treat goods (and persons) as of no intrinsic value.” It “orders human relations agonistically.” It “deforms human desire such that we neither desire the things of God nor relate to God and one another as we ought.” It “distorts the creative power that is human desire by constantly creating new objects/idols for its fascination.” Its driving force is “scarcity.” It makes a virtue of avarice or greed. It is “nihilistic.” Capitalism is, in a word, “sin.”
Bell likewise disdains individualism, Pareto optimality, self-interest, efficiency, marketing, trade secrets, freedom of choice, corporations, competition, the division of labor, the invisible hand, the rich, laissez faire, philanthropy, and interest. Yet, he is careful to say that his idea of the divine economy “does not condemn production, consumption, private property, profit taking, contracts, the division of labor, or markets in themselves.”
Now you can see exactly why I said his anti-capitalism is of a very unique kind.
According to Bell, the alternative to capitalism is not socialism but “the kingdom of God, where those who build, inhabit; where those who planet, harvest; and where all are filled.” It is “not something that we construct; rather, it is something we confess that God is doing here and now.” It “has already appeared, even if it is not yet present in its fullness.” It “is present in the initiatives that have emerged from the practices of simplicity and solidarity.” It “appears in our midst in an array of institutions and practices that encompass lay and ordained, congregations and intentional communities, as well as institutions and initiatives organized by both church leaders and laity.” But “just as the capitalist division of labor conceals from us the conditions of commodity production, so we do not see the divine economy that is taking shape and already active all around us, even in the church.”
If you are starting to get bored, dazed, and confused then try reading the book.
So where is Bell going with all of this? That is the question I asked as I turned each page of the book. We get a hint on page 129 where Bell introduces “two distinct but interrelated disciplines, or asceticisms” that the church’s economy of desire enacted in history “for the sake of healing desire of its economic disorder.” These are renunciation, characterized by the monastic life with its vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; and sharing, characterized by almsgiving or stewardship. It is only near the end of the book where we see that voluntary poverty includes the virtue of begging.
The material goods God has given us are “not intended solely for our private good, but “are given for the sake of meeting our needs—our needs and the needs of our near and distant neighbors.” We should see to it that material goods are “put to their proper, divinely intended use.” Since “all that we have and all that we are is meant to serve the common good,” we are called “to work for the common good.” Therefore, “our various rolls [sic] and jobs ought to be describable/narratable in terms of service to the common good.”
Bell’s divine economy is characterized by “sharing and solidarity; noncompetitive, complementary exchange; and mutuality.” The divine economy does not call for the abolition of private property, but “property used in a manner that serves the common good.” Private property “is simply a means of serving the common good.” His divine economy “is not adverse to all profit taking.” But legitimate profit is “use value, which is measured in relation to the common good.” Labor in the divine economy is not “sheer drudgery and/or a necessary evil,” or even a “job or career,” but is instead “a vocation or calling” that is “always connected to our God-given purpose.” The divine economy “does not reject the market entirely.” It is “compatible with a limited market, but “embraces a market where efficiency does not have the last word, and where notions of a just wage and a just price are welcomed as integral components of a truly moral market.” Trade is okay as long as it is “fair trade.” Christian economics is about redeeming the practices of the market, a market which should not include interest. In fact, in his conclusion, Bell recommends that we call our banks and cancel “an interest-bearing account.”
Bell’s divine economy sounds much like the standard social justice drivel about the supposed excesses, injustices, failures, and inequalities of the market, but with a religious twist and without the usual calls for more government intervention in the market. This is what is so perplexing and frustrating about the book. The divine economy is not to be instituted by government; it is already here. We just need to follow it instead of free-market capitalism.
But Bell in The Economy of Desire is not just saying that Christians shouldn’t be materialists. He is not just giving Christians instructions on how they should interact with the market. He is not just warning Christians to not make a god out of capitalism, Adam Smith, corporations, or the free market. He believes the market everywhere and for everyone should function as a divine economy.
Among many others, there is one major problem with all this. There are billions of people on the earth that are not Christians. They care not a whit about the divine economy, the divinely intended use of goods, acknowledging God’s purposes for humanity, renunciation, sharing, or the common good. They don’t care whether their job fulfills some God-given purpose. They would rather have a job or career than a vocation or calling. And there are millions of people in the world that wish they didn’t have to beg ever again.
Should Christians change capitalism from a free market to a divine economy, thereby forcing atheists, Buddhists, and other non-Christians to either adapt or else? Bell doesn’t say. He vaguely describes how the market should be, but never says how it should be transformed into a divine economy or how such a transformation should be enforced.
And if everyone begs and gives alms then who will produce, provide, and purchase the goods and services?
The bottom line, of course, is that no divine economy needs to be introduced in the first place. As I say in book The Myth of the Just Price, laissez faire is natural, moral, and biblical. It is not the job of capitalism to alleviate or reduce poverty, see that goods are put to some divine use, help people to work for the common good, make you like your job, see that goods are distributed and traded “fairly,” ensure that profits are “legitimate,” make sure wages and prices are “just,” instill virtue, tame or redirect human desire, promote the divine will, redistribute wealth “equitably,” nurture communion with God or anyone else, stamp out avarice or greed, value goods “properly,” order human relations, or encourage us to view others in a certain way.
Capitalism is what you make of it. It is precisely because the market is a free market that you can make of it what you will. There is no such thing as market failure. Christians and everyone else can participate or not participate in the market to any degree. One can make the market the only place where anything is obtained or just a place where extra items are purchased that cannot be grown or produced “in house.” But even “buying local” requires a local market. And even a barter system still needs a market of some kind unless it is just between you and your neighbor.
Early in the book Bell asks: “With our economic lives ordered by capitalism, are we able to worship God truly? Are we able to desire God and the gifts of God as we ought?” The answer, of course, is yes.
I don’t normally read let alone review books that have absolutely nothing of value to say. The only redeeming thing about The Economy of Desire is that it is a lesson in how not to “fix” capitalism.
Time to go out and open a new interest-bearing account.