Monday, April 21, 2014

The Culture of Death and the Logic of Consumerism

Matthew Tan has written an essay that is filled with vocabulary and allusions that only an economist from academia could appreciate, but he ends up saying some compelling things that I will try to translate into non-academic English.

He points out that abortion is more than an individual decision; the abortion industry is a social construct that communicates a conception of man that has been a long time coming.  This vision of man is the flip side of Fromm's homo consumens.  Not only is modern man thought to find value by purchasing commodities (consuming man) - modern man himself is a commodity.  We are valued because of our visibility, which is what gives us marketability.  Hence, invisible humans, such as unborn babies, have no value whatsoever.  And since the value of life is found in the marketplace, we are compelled to insure against anything that might damage the accidentals - or even the cosmetics - that now determine what man is and make man marketable.  Tan explains ...

... the foetus becomes classified as an element of risk because it presents a disruption to the integrity of the autonomy of the more visible mother. Indeed, because of the imperative to consume and be consumed within late Capitalism, the invisible foetus can become vulnerable to being categorised by the mother as a risk insofar as it threatens to consume the mother, whether in terms of her financial resources, future plans or body image. In the face of the foetus' being considered such a risk, the insurational imaginary posits abortion as a form of insurance against risks to the mother's integrity. 

In other words, if our culture tells you that your value as a person subsists in your "financial resources, future plans or body image," then whatever threatens any of this must be insured against - and the vacuum hose at Planned Parenthood is a great tool that protects you from this thing that attacks your very value as a person - this thing that threatens to "consume" you.  It's not a question of killing an unborn baby, it's a question of maintaining your very worth as a human being - or so the economic and cultural structure of society tells us.

Because this way of thinking permeates society, the Church is faced with a challenge - and that challenge is not just to preach the pro-life message, but to offer an alternate cultural reality.

The Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all peoples’ would encompass more than achieving agreement in the minds of those disciples to a corpus of belief. It would involve training the bodies of these disciples into becoming ecclesial ‘fields’ to nourish the necessary habitus that in turn makes believable the claims of the Gospel of life. 

... which is to say you can't just preach at people, you've got to create a new community that lives out what you believe, "housing within its practices a counter-logic to the logic of consumerism" as Matthew Tan states it.

And how can the Church do this? you might ask.  Tan answers, through the sacraments, particularly by means of the Eucharist - for the Eucharist stands as a stark witness against the consumer society, in the following ways ...

  • The Capitalist society is predicated upon "resource scarcity".  The Eucharist is an expression of the plenitude of God

  • Consumer society is founded upon contract, upon buying and selling.  The Eucharist is pure gift.

  • Commoditized man must be visible: slick, sexy, airbrushed, bold, powerful.  The Eucharist is itself a hidden treasure, humble, quiet, an expression of hidden strength appearing as weakness. (see 2 Cor. 12:10 and elsewhere)

  • In modern culture, the value of man is something external to his being.  In the Eucharist "the gift is not alienated from the giver": gift and giver are one.  "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35)

This is what the Church is called to do.  Rather than being a mere prop to a consumerist culture, a Culture of Death whose very structures and modes of thought and whose concept of being and value support abortion and other evils, the Church must become what she already is (though herself in a hidden and weak way), a "public in its own right" (as Tan calls it), whose existence challenges the social structure at large that surrounds it.


jvc said...

I read the introduction and then the conclusion. If those had been better written, perhaps I would read the entire piece. I'll take what I read and your summation as roughly approximating his thoughts.

If Tan is interested in fighting consumerism, and he should be, he should learn enough about economics to make a distinction between market economics and consumerism. Market economics is little more than math. Or, as one professor of mine put it, "common sense made complicated so that I can have a job."

Consumerism is a product of our culture, and often works against the actions and efficiency of a free market when it is manifested in public policy choices. This is how we got to a place where our national, and global, public policy is oriented toward consuming rather than saving.

I find a lot of these critiques these days among the Hipster Catholic crowd. A lot of these people went to Catholic colleges and are pissed that their theology degrees don't earn then 50,000 per year with bennies.

So, instead, they complain about "economics" and the market that values their degree at almost nothing, and they want to smother with taxes the people who planned ahead enough to study something that improved their skill set to the point where they could get a soul-sucking, family-supporting private sector job.

This kind of article does nothing in the service of fighting consumerism.

I'm sorry, it just doesn't.

jvc said...

Kevin, I want to add that, having read enough of your writings over the years and knowing you a little personally, I think your heart is really in the right place on these issues (economics), but I think more reading of actual economists would help a lot. Especially Catholic economists.

This guy doesn't help at all.

Kevin O'Brien said...

JVC, I know the article is difficult to read, but the point of it is not economics. The point is how our secular culture makes it easy for a woman to consider abortion, since the act of abortion fits in perfectly with the structure of society and even the structure of thought she sees around her. This structure has economic components, but he's really focusing on culture, not economics.

Our culture keeps conveying a notion of man and of man's value that is at odds with what Christ revealed. Tan is saying that combating this requires not just talk, but a living breathing alternative culture.

jvc said...

I'll re-read the full article, but the sections I read were so shoddy that I felt embarrassed for the students who attend his university. If I tried to fisk it I wouldn't get past the first paragraph.

Economics, and the market itself, is an objective reality, not a prescription for policy choices or religious beliefs. Culture, on the other hand, is full of suggestions or requirements about how to live a life, and subjective as it is, is an important place of debate and desired change.

I'm surprised that you as the English literature maven appreciated the article, from the standpoint of clarity. The article seemed emblematic of today's academic culture of heavy thesaurus usage to sound impressive while actually conveying nothing at all.

As I said, I'll read the entire thing, tonight after work.

Elias Crim said...

I think JVC's promised re-readings of this article with a fairly straightforward thesis are not likely to change his world. For JVC, economics is not the analysis of how families and communities thrive but instead it's "an objective reality". Which apparently means for him it's a deterministic system we are obliged to simply serve, not manage. JVC is, in other words, a market fundamentalist: the laws of the market must dominate all other truths. He thinks the problem with the article is the philosophical language and he snarks about Hipster Catholics, knowing nothing whatever about the author or his commitment to the faith. Moreover, Tan's critique of economics is share by the emerging new schools of economic thought behind documents such as Caritas in Veritate so it is far from some merely "literary" critique.

Joey Higgins said...

I like the analysis presented in such a way. I haven't heard anything new with the abortion debate for some time and this is definitely new and excellent.

Thank you!

jvc said...

I made it all the way to page 13 before deciding I needed to move on. It still reads exactly as I thought it did. And the guy still needs an editor.

"Elias Crim" sounds like a crackpot.