Words Never Rang More True
We regularly find compelling insights in the online journal Sightings out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. This essay by Martin Marty, titled “Commodification,” is particularly brilliant and deeply resonates with our Repossessing Virtue series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.
The Pope (John Paul II) was right. The World Council of Churches was right. The preacher down the block was right. The “moderate evangelicals” were right. The first had a perfect record against collectivization; the second had a mixed record, but was positive on this; the third reached a hundred or half a thousand per week preaching “You cannot serve God and Mammon;” the fourth were buffeted in response by evangelical kin who preached “the prosperity gospel” or the “gospel that God blessed only ‘free enterprise.’” In their own ways their criticisms and warnings were directed against “commodification”, whether of labor, leisure, or life. They were not whiners or grumps or exempt from the need for self-criticism, but they were serious, and therefore usually unheard and unheeded.
They do not lack platforms or pulpits today. We see illustrations and confirmations of the problems that occurred when devotion to commodities ruled and commodification set the terms for most of life. Colleague Jean Bethke Elshtain, in my aged and crumbling printout from the 2002 edition of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, celebrated the late Pope’s Laborum Exercens, his “social encyclical” which “shares the basic assumption of Catholic social thought that God created human beings as brothers and sisters, not as enemies…” John Paul II demonstrated his difference from Hobbes and Machiavelli and Marx who “assume worlds of enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict.” With the mortal struggle against Communism behind him, he took on orders called “Capitalist” and its cognates, and warned against the trend to measure everything as commodity, as hyper-ability to amass and worship wealth, et cetera.
Today Sightings has bulging files which document where “enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict” were consuming us. Documents now come not just from papal and conciliar warnings but in news reporting in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and your daily paper—if yours has survived. My breakfast encyclical on February 21st included a story by Tom Hundley in the Chicago Tribune. His account shows how pride, not long ago, focused on what luxuries one could buy and own. He quotes one Cecelia Dames, “an expat Midwesterner” who came back from Europe to a changed world. She observes: “Conspicuous consumption is out…Conspicuous frugality is in.” Hundley reports on “the new braggers” who boast of their success in getting bargains at thrift shops, and are now scaling down the goodies they offer friends at parties.
Hundley offers new terms—new to me, at least—such as “frugalista” and “luxury shame” (“a sense that even if you can still afford it, it’s best not to make a show of it”). Dames: “Maybe [those who adjust, and brag] seem ostentatious about [frugality] because they have to embrace it.” Paul Harris in Britain’s Guardian: “For three decades, American culture has celebrated the glories of unabashed capitalism and the ideals of the rich. No longer. Frugalism is taking hold.” What remains to be seen is whether the collapse of everything—of global markets, shopaholicism, et cetera—are replaced by culture-wide adjustments to a changed world, to fresh thought that can inspire more than bragging.