You Asked for the Quote: Cavanaugh on Consumerism

Yesterday in the sermon I cited William Cavanaugh’s interesting work, Being Consumed. Some very penetrating insights are offered in this book, and though I would not agree with everything that is said, his analysis of consumerism is hard to assail.

In the book, Cavanaugh deals (quite briefly) with some basic matters of economic life: the free market, consumerism, globalization, and scarcity. As Cavanaugh notes in the introduction, he tries to step back from the customary lingo associated with these subjects and employs different terminology as an attempt to change the terms of the debate. As you might expect, he takes a theological slant on all these matters.

Sales tax holiday shopping on your vacation.

At the point where we were discussing the thorny soil from Luke 8:4-15 yesterday–what I called “crowded hearing”–I noted Cavnaugh’s section on consumerism. I’ll give you a much lengthier quote here than I was able to give yesterday. And like yesterday, I would encourage you to take inventory of your own life concerning these important matters. None of us are unaffected.

Cavanaugh said this, “Consumerism is not simply people rejecting spirituality for materialism. For many people, consumerism is a type of spirituality, even if we do not recognize it as such. It is a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.”

A few pages later he continues, “Over the course of the twentieth century, marketing moved from primarily offering information about a product to associating certain feelings with a product. Soft drink commercials say little about the actually fuzzy liquid that you get when you buy a can; rather, they try to associate the product with positive images like swimsuit clad youth frolicking on the beach. As one marketer says, ‘Products are made in the factory, but brands are made in the mind.’ Associating in one’s mind with certain brands gives a sense of identity: one identifies one’s self w/ certain images and value that are associated with that brand. Branding offers opportunities to take on a new self, to perform an ‘extreme makeover’ and become a new person. This is why some people face depression by going shopping; it offers the chance to start anew, to bring something new into one’s life. At the same time, branding can also provide a sense of community with all the other people who associate with a particular brand.”

A few lines later he says, “There would be no market for all the goods that are produced in an industrialized economy if consumers were content with what they bought. Consumers desires must constantly be on the move…The extreme makeover is an ongoing process in search for novelty, bigger and better, for ‘new and improved,’ and for different experiences…This is more than just a continuing attempt to make a product better; it is what General Motors called, ‘the organized creation of dissatisfaction.’ … The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and declared, ‘It is enough. I am happy with what I have.’

The truth is, however, that we do not tend to experience dissatisfaction as merely a negative. In consumer culture, dissatisfaction and satisfaction cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not so much the possession of things but the pursuit. There is pleasure in the pursuit of novelty, and the pleasure resides not so much in having as in wanting. Once we have obtained an item, it brings desire to a halt, and the item loses some of its appeal. Possession kills desire; familiarity breeds contempt. That is why shopping, not buying itself, is the real heart of consumerism. The consumerist spirit is a restless spirit, typified by detachment, because desire must constantly be kept on the move.”

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