First, I think that Christians should stop yakking about ‘consumerism.’ ‘Consumerism’ is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I’ve come to think that that’s the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It’s just too easy a target. There’s a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don’t, by the way, believe that we inhabit a ‘post-industrial’ society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they’re materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome, because it clearly doesn’t work, and wrong-headed, because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.
Not only does capitalism deform the desire of those who prosper or at least survive under its tutelage, it also distorts human relations, even of those who are excluded from its fruits. This is to say, even if capitalism elevated the poor, it would still be wrong on account of the way it corrupts human relations, rendering them antagonistic, competitive. Capitalism has so construed the market that humans interact agonistically, competitively. All of us, winners and losers, consumers and excluded, compete for resources, for market share, for a living wage, for a job, for the time for friendship and family, for inclusion in the market, and so forth. Capitalism is wrong because even if it delivers the goods, it nevertheless works against the Good, corrupting (and perpetuating the corruption of) human sociality in competitive and conflictual modalities. Capitalism is wrong, not simply on the grounds of what it fails to do but because of what it succeeds in doing: distorting human desire and relations.
There is no point to making broad utilitarian claims about the benefits of ‘the free market’ as if we could identify a market as ‘free’ merely by the absence of restraint on naked power. Giving free rein to power without ends is more likely to produce unfreedom than to produce freedom. There is simply no way to talk about a really free economy without entering into particular judgments about what kinds of exchange are conducive to the flourishing of life on earth and what kinds are not. Though my purpose in this essay has not been to go into detail about the specific ends of human work and material possessions, the Christian tradition provides a wealth of reflection on these matters. I believe it would be counter-productive to expect the state to attempt to impose such a direction on economic activity. What is most important is the direct embodiment of free economic practices. From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place. Such are spaces in which true freedom can flourish.