A friend recently brought to my attention the July 8, 2007, column by Rod Dreher in the Dallas Morning News. Dreher, famous as a “Crunchy Con”—a conservative who cares deeply about the environment—provides another excellent example of the important shift taking place on the fault line that for too long has polarized and paralyzed “left” and “right.” His title, “Evils of Capitalism,” and the subhead, “Big business can be as dangerous a threat as big government,” tell you that he defies old binary categories.
The greatest challenge facing American conservatives today, he says, is not liberalism but capitalism, which he says, “in its current form, undermines not only the virtues necessary to the kind of society conservatives claim to want, but ultimately risks subverting itself.”
He acknowledges capitalism’s strengths, but laments that today’s capitalism “is defined not by a producer mentality but by a consumer ethos,” evidenced by the fact that personal savings—undercut by credit card debt—have slipped into the negative zone for the first time since 1933.
He calls the mentality promoted by consumerism “childishness,” quoting Benjamin Barber’s recent release, Consumed. When big business promotes consumerism by inhibiting adult judgment and self-discipline, Dreher says, it works against the very family values conservatives cherish, making them “prisoners of their own cravings.”
“Childishness” sounds like the mentality that has been reinforced by our political and corporate titans. On one hand, we hear warnings that inspire fear, and then on the other, we hear a lot of “Trust me and don’t ask questions.” These titans profit if the rest of us act like children, trusting and submitting without thinking and making mature decisions with foresight, self-discipline, and concern for the common good.
Rod Dreher is so right. Consumerism, whether in government or business, sucks.
Consumerist government sucks in more and more power and tax revenue that it uses to create bloated bureaucracies, consuming time and money without producing improved social infrastructure. It sucks in more and more power to all its branches, waging ill-advised wars and protecting powerful partners with whom it colludes for narrow interests rather than the common good. It also sucks in attention, focusing on short-term political fights while ignoring the longer-range, bigger-picture issues that demand our best thinking and leadership. The framers of our constitution were aware of the danger posed by the craving for more power among the already powerful. Their brilliant system of checks and balances was intended to curb the suck of consumerism in government.
And just as consumerist government sucks in power, revenue, human energy, and attention, consumerist business sucks resources—human and natural—to satisfy a craving for profit that has been raised to the level of idolatry. Here’s how I put it in my upcoming book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nelson, October 2, 2007):
Our current prosperity system … is amazingly powerful—growing more so every day—yet it is unsustainable long-term, an example of self-delusion and denial about our creaturely limits that may be one of the most striking characteristics of modern times. As part of this insane and suicidal economy, we act as though the resources we consume are infinite and the wastes we deposit are invisible. Just as our bodies consume food and produce excrement, in this economy we consume trees and produce smoke, consume clean air and produce smog, consume clean water and produce sewage and toxic waste, consume rock and produce radiation, consume oil and coal and produce gases that turn our planet into an overheating oven in which storms boil and oceans rise and deserts spread and forests whither. Our prosperity system thus becomes an excrement factory.
In order to be healthy and not implode, our economy needs virtue, Dreher says, especially virtues of self-restraint. He defines a kind of conservatism that people across the ideological spectrum would be wise to warmly receive: “to do more with less … to conserve for the sake of a higher good.” He continues, “…we can’t pretend that our prosperity does not present us with serious civic problems. Consumer capitalism contains within its unfolding dynamic the seeds of its own destruction, to say nothing of the way it chews up traditional loyalties to faith, family, community and place.”
Dreher expresses exactly the kind of both/and thinking we need in a world where conservatives have tended to focus on personal sin and liberals on social sin. If we define our freedom only as individual choice, he says, we make it difficult to “inculcate a sense of obligation to any traditions or ideals higher than serving the autonomous self and its desires,” which are exactly the kinds of traditions and ideals proclaimed by the biblical prophets and Jesus.
We truly reach a new stage in our civic dialogue when more and more of us climb to a political and moral higher ground that acknowledges the twin downsides of both big business and big government.
Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) serves as board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. His next book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, will be released in October.