Book Review: Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World
The Economy of Desire is basically a critique of capitalism. However, in many ways it breaks new ground in clear and compelling ways and therefore deserves a full account. Unlike most of this genre, it is a theological critique and in support of this critique it locates economic issues within the broader cultural patterns of desire formation. Bell draws on the work of two French Marxists, Foucault and Deleuze, in order to open our imagination to this broader location for today’s capitalist economics of Neo-liberalism. In many ways the early chapters on Foucault and Deleuze are not essential to the argument of the book; however, they set the scene for a comparison that Bell wants to make between the implicit (and sometimes explicit) theology of the neo-liberal vision and the explicit theology of the Christian one. In so locating our economic practices, the Marxist thinkers also remind us of a blind-spot within capitalism; namely, the way in which our system not only responds to desire, but also forms it and (as Bell argues) distorts it in what is effectively a totalitarianism of the market.
The core of Bell’s project turns on the way he locates his critique of the market. As he puts it, the core question is not ‘Does it work’(i.e., does it reduce poverty) but, even if it does work ‘What work does it do?’ At this point, Bell is not as clear as I would like him to be. He appears to be saying that in some sense capitalism does work and is ‘productive’. However, the debate on its success in alleviating poverty is inconclusive and possibly unavoidably so. What is clear is that no matter how successful it is, it ought, nevertheless, to be rejected on theological grounds.
Bell’s account of the theology of capitalism comes in three parts. The first deals with theological anthropology, the second with theology proper, and the third with the nature of the good life. In the first of these parts, capitalist anthropology is defined by six ‘marks’, the first four of which deal with the kind of human being (homo economicus) produced by capitalist practices, and the final two describe the mode of relations in a capitalist society. Homo economicus is fundamentally (i) an individual (autonomous, self-creating and self-owning), (ii) whose freedom is ‘formal and negative’ (freedom from rather than for), (iii) who is quintessentially driven to maximise self-interest, and (iv) whose desire is insatiable. Social relations for this capitalist individual are thus defined by (v) the ‘agony of competition’ and therefore all cooperation is on the basis of contractual relations and obligations beyond the contract have no force. This reduction effects any purported moral obligation of neighbourliness between, for example, producer and consumer, and is reinforced in the globalised division of labour. Finally, (vi) justice is strictly ‘personal or commutative’, serving the terms of the voluntary contracts which define social relations. In other words, beyond this there is no such thing as social justice.
On the question of God, Bell draws from the ‘messiah’ of capitalism himself, Adam Smith, to show that capitalism’s God is essentially removed from the world (deus absconditus) but has providentially ordered it so that, by his ‘invisible hand’, self-interest will produce maximal human well-being. Furthermore, capitalism’s God is not redeeming the world, as humans in this world are irredeemably self-interested. To think otherwise is deemed unrealistic and utopian; after all, as capitalism’s theological defenders contend, God’s kingdom is ‘not of this world’. Bell summarises this critique as follows: ‘Taken together, the invisible hand, the denial of sanctification now, and the disincentive to holiness, suggest that capitalism is founded in an idolatrous vision of God, a vision of God as atheistic, deistic or stoic’.
The second more properly theological foundation of capitalism has to do with creation. God did not create enough. Scarcity is God’s providential ordering within which the battle and creativity of capitalism emerge. Scarcity conditions the fear which drives the insatiability of desire. Bell then goes on to argue that many theological defenders of capitalism make its implicit theology explicit when they describe the corporation (a despised and suffering servant) as mediator of the well-being of humanity and Adam Smith as the prophet of the new age.
Finally, Bell asks about the nature of a ‘life well lived’ according to capitalism. Under the conditions of scarcity, argues Bell, it is a matter of survival by means of (i) distinguishing oneself from others and thus gaining recognition, and (ii) producing and consuming more. In these tasks the wealthy and the corporations play a leading role. Bell summarises the capitalist soteriology thus: ‘The individual is saved by acquiring more. More income results in more choices, which leads to greater satisfaction … Together the wealthy and the corporation function as a kind of means of grace, generating and then spreading wealth’.
The second crucial turning point in his argument is his defence, not of socialism but of ‘church’ as the alternative to capitalism. He defines church, for these purposes as ‘a Spirit empowered economy of desire, one that functions as a kind of therapy, healing desire of its capitalist distortions and enacting the divine gift economy’. As in his earlier discussion of capitalism, the theological framework ends up changing the question. What other world might be possible is not a matter of answering the question as to what we can do but the question of what God is doing in the world. The theological response hangs on the orthodox Christian conviction that God is indeed at work in the present redeeming the world. We live in the overlap between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of Christian salvation.
Before spelling out the shape of this alternative, Bell spends a chapter defending Christianity against its critics. Here he picks up again his engagement with atheist and Marxist theorists Deleuze and Foucault who see Christianity not so much as a source of healing for human desire as a form of desire-repression supportive of and akin to the state’s attempt to control desire prior to the advent of capitalism. Bell acknowledges that modern Christianity has indeed strayed into rationalistic modes of desire-repression. However, this is neither true of historic Christianity nor does it offer a balanced account of the history of the arrival of capitalism, when both church and state were defeated by the market. As a counter-example to the notion that Christianity is fundamentally repressive of desire Bell describes Cistercian practices and then goes on to engage critically with Deleuze in particular. Here he argues that Deleuze’s unexplained and perhaps ‘romantic’ (my word) optimism in believing that the anarchic excess of desire will overwhelm capitalism’s constraints and bring harmonious joy, is probably misguided on at least two counts – firstly, Deleuze’s notion of ‘univocity of being’ means that individuals will need to separate themselves from others to defend their individuality and thus rivalry akin to the agonistic relations of capitalism is more likely to result; and, second, a lack of common goals and teleology would make such a positive outcome improbable.
In turning to the alternative economy of embodied Christian existence, Bell begins with its theological foundation in the action of God. In other words, he offers an account of the economy of salvation. Here he draws on the classic but controversial account of St Anselm in Cur Deus Homo. Rather than reading it as a system in which divine action is subordinated to and necessitated by a transcendental exchange economy controlled by a retributive notion of justice (as I tend to do), he reads it as an account of a divine gift economy in which divine self-donation is the gift which empowers us to live life as the gift that it is.
Within this framework Bell then goes ahead and contrasts the Christian economy with the capitalist one he described earlier. Here the human being is conceived as creature before it is ever creator of anything. And as creature it is created for communion – it is a new creation (in the context of fallenness) which, in Christ by the Spirit, is reoriented to communion rather than competition. The person saved in and through the divine economy is thus a person-in-relation. For this person freedom is a positive freedom ‘for’ the will of God, seeking not a maximisation of individual interest but the common good. Indeed, this quest is expressed in terms of ‘love’ rather than ‘interest’. It is a love in which love for others and self is encompassed within love for God. In such love, desire (in Augustinian terms) finds its rest and satisfaction. Worshipful existence heals the insatiability of capitalist desire. All this means that bonds are formed that extend beyond any merely contractual arrangements, and property, production and consumption all serve a common good for the communion of all. Justice is also reconceived as social and restorative.
The God of this economy is not ‘the invisible hand’ of the market but the Trinity who transcends and locates (and also challenges) all markets with free giving, redemptive giving (contra deism), and abundant giving. Where ‘scarcity’ functions to define the competitive nature of capitalist economy, divine abundance promotes communion. Abundance, Bell argues, is not to be confused with ‘unlimited’ resources. God does not provide all that our insatiable desires demand, but enough for human flourishing. Actual scarcity is, on this view, a product of sin and exacerbated by capitalism. That corporations do not have the sacred and messianic status they do in capitalism need hardly be stated. However, Bell stresses that this does not imply that they are excluded or are irredeemable.
The struggle for distinction and survival in the rivalry of capitalism is thus transformed by the Christian experience of justification by grace. In this grace the divine economy is in the business of creating a non-conflictual mode of existence in the vulnerability of giving and receiving. Under the conditions of our fallen human nature such an existence will be a risky one.
In his final section, Bell seeks to dispel potential confusion about the nature of the alternative to capitalism and then spell out some of its practices. As a gift from God in the ‘time between the times’ the gift economy is by its very nature not a general human possibility or construction. It is nomadic and incomplete. This fragmentary economy is, however, also by its very nature bound up with the surrounding economies of the world. This, says Bell, is inherent in its missional character. To describe this situation Bell helpfully draws on St Augustine’s conception of the two intermingled cities. Like Augustine’s cities, the economy of God and the economy of the world are not distinct institutions or territories but intermingled and overlapping practices and patterns of desire. Bell puts it succinctly:
In other words, in this time between the times the Christian economy does not take the form of a separate and distinct economy alongside the economic blocs of this world, as though there should be a ‘Christian economic zone’ next to the capitalist order. The practices that characterise the divine economy in this time between the times do not constitute an entire economic order unto themselves precisely because the economic mission of the church is to intermingle with the economies of the earthly cities, making good use of them, as Jeremiah and Augustine remind us – making better use of them than homo economicus and the messianic corporation can – by offering a just wage, refusing usury, accepting responsibility for the common good, limiting the reach of the market, and so forth. Thus the divine economy does not reject the market entirely, denounce the division of labor out of hand, or renounce currency, investment, and profit. Instead, Christian economics is about redeeming such practices, that is to say, properly ordering them toward the end of the renewal of communion in God’s household.
Bell goes on to describe the practices of the household of God. He first engages in a fascinating discussion of the relationship between stewardship on the one hand and voluntary poverty on the other, suggesting that there might be a need for a renewed consideration of the possibility of voluntary poverty. He follows this up with an account of the once pervasive tradition of Works of Mercy, largely ignored in modernity. These he helpfully distinguishes from both philanthropy and welfare. In contrast to these, the Works of Mercy have the character of mutuality (contra philanthropy) and of the common good (contra welfare). Both of these modern substitutes fail to nurture communion. There is more of value in this discussion than I can summarise here, although his critique of the notion of ‘basic needs’ is a useful one.
In a final section, Bell addresses the sense of despair in the face of an apparently all-dominating and all-pervasive capitalism. To this he responds that there are many signs of the fragmentary coming economy for those who have eyes to see. He lists some movements and institutions which embody some of what he is talking about.
In a concluding mini-sermon, Bell encourages his readers to small steps and the business of making friends with dishonest wealth (Luke 16) – nurturing friendship, relations and communion.
I struggle to recommend this book highly enough. It is succinctly written with beautiful summaries at the beginning and end of each chapter. It transcends the standard leftist critiques of capitalism with its rigorous commitment to a theological critique and is incisive in its discernment of the theological pretensions and assumptions of capitalist theorists. It is a fine example of cross-disciplinary scholarly engagement. Much more could be said on the theological side of this debate and no doubt the same applies to economics. However, what is said is very accessible to non-specialist readers of both disciplines. It could well be the most practical piece of theology written this century, picking up where William Cavanaugh left off. It is, however, as profoundly challenging as it is enlightening and potentially life-changing.