The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World by Daniel M. Bell Jr.

The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World by Daniel M. Bell Jr.

A theologian uses two exemplars of postmodernity to argue against capitalism

By Fred Folmer 

Talk about tapping into the zeitgeist: not long after his most recent book, Economies of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012), was published, Methodist theologian Daniel Bell received a rather high-profile, if unwitting, endorsement of the most critical viewpoints he’d argued. While Bell’s work is not well known outside academic and professional religious circles, the name of Pope Francis is probably one of the most recognizable on Planet Earth.

And so when—in a recent exhortation entitled “Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel)”—Francis assailed the strain of economic thought that claims that freeing up the markets will necessarily lead to social justice, he brought high-profile attention to Bell’s cause.

In his exhortation, the pope surprised (and/or delighted, confused or angered) many people by writing that such free-market philosophies express “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” Francis returns to the motif of free markets as false gods several times in the document. “We have created new idols,” he writes. “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” In such a circumstance, Francis argues, “man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

In a similar vein, Bell centers his own argument on the idea that capitalism, particularly in its contemporary free-market purist and neoliberal variants, assumes the form of a false god. He even includes a chapter entitled “Capitalist Theology” in which he details what he says are capitalism’s ontological and teleological claims about human beings, their social worlds and the nature of reality itself. Such claims, Bell argues, go against God’s intentions for how humans are to relate to one another and to God. For Pope Francis as well as Daniel Bell, free-market-purist forms of capitalism are, in a word, sin.

But whereas Francis utilizes a method of argument that primarily is designed to appeal to one’s moral sensibilities—“beliefs,” if you will—Bell further deploys the resources of postmodern thinkers to make his case. He does this in part because he seeks to oppose capitalism’s having become normative; for many people, capitalism’s ontological/teleological claims and prerogatives have become common-sensical, and therefore are bound up with their very personhood—structuring thought patterns, life choices of all kinds and, most crucially for Bell, desires. A change in human subjectivity toward the kinds of claims Bell offers as an alternative to capitalism would therefore have to come at the level of desire, and postmodern thought, in his reckoning, offers resources for his sought-after destabilization of capitalist desire.

That’s in part because postmodernists seek, among other things, to rethink long-held assumptions of modernity, particularly about the distinctive social locations of various “spheres,” such as religion, politics and economics. And so whereas modernist thought might posit a separation between, say, the political sphere and the domestic sphere, a postmodernist might regard such a separation as a line fabricated for purposes of maintaining power of some kind (gender, racial/ethnic, state, class, etc.). The postmodernist might, for instance, point out that the organization of families, gender roles, household structures and disciplines, daily habits, presumptions and beliefs, and so on actually have a great deal to do with the way the political sphere—governments, laws, etc.—are understood and lived out.

Similarly, a postmodernist might further break down lines between the sacred and the secular, noting that “religious life” is lived in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with theologians or churches; a modern focus on “beliefs” only scratches the surface of how religious sensibilities are formed, maintained and altered. Bell contends—correctly, I believe—that capitalism gains such a strong purchase on human personhood in part because these modern “spheres” (massive abstractions, all) are thought to be much more substantive than they actually are. This creates the widespread assumption that economic problems can have only economic solutions, and not, as Bell argues, solutions rooted in everyday human practices and desires. Since Bell’s strategy is, as he writes, to move “beyond beliefs to consider the fundamental human power that is desire,” he draws on postmodernists to help make his case.


Postmodern Theorizing

Bell’s postmodernists of choice are the French thinkers Michel Foucault, who developed theories about the history of sexuality and the intermingling of knowledge, power and social discipline, and Gilles Deleuze, a philosopher whose best-known work focuses on the constant breakdown, via ever-shifting and multifaceted human desires, of “totalizing” structures such as capitalism and the state. One key question of the book is the extent to which these philosophers, whose work is not theological in any traditional use of the term, can be used in the service of an argument that is unabashedly theological in its claims about a God who desires that human beings should live, organize and understand themselves in certain ways.

From the outset, the results are quite mixed. Readers who have a familiarity with Deleuze and/or Foucault, as well as the writings and theory of Karl Marx, may find themselves scratching their head in puzzlement early on, when Bell twice refers to the two postmodernists, without qualification, as Marxists. And while it’s true that Deleuze and Foucault share some of Marx’s concerns, neither argued that institutional power principally stems from economic activity, or that human social life revolves around how labor power is organized—both key indicators of Marxist thought.* At the very least, Bell ought to provide a definition of a “Marxist,” as he sees it, and then defend his contention that Foucault and Deleuze fit it. As it is, the claim doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in a reader that the two philosophers’ work is going to be represented accurately.

However, as the book begins Bell shows exactly how Foucault and Deleuze’s respective theories might provide ballast for his argument. He uses the work of both thinkers to challenge the idea that politics can be reduced to statecraft—that change comes from official channels, such as governmental organizations and laws, rather than from the huge array of minute desires from which people shape their selfhood. As Bell writes, Deleuze calls this arrangement the “micropolitics of desire.” In Deleuze’s line of thinking, the “organization of social space with the state at its summit,” Bell writes, “is not the natural, given order of things.” We have, according to Bell, “been captured by a statist habit of mind,” and so pushing people out of this frame of mind is a first step toward helping them contemplate a way of life beyond capitalism. For Deleuze, this means that “the fundamental character of reality,” in Bell’s description, must be rethought. And because “reality is constituted by desire,” human desires must be redirected. This idea dovetails with Deleuze’s contention that capitalist structures—which depend on a modern understanding of the state, and vice versa—are flows of human desire channeled in a particular way. And since, as Bell writes (referencing Deleuze), “any and every assembly or organization of desire is inherently unstable,” desires can always be pushed in a new direction.

To discuss particular ways that human desire is shaped through disciplines and habits, Bell turns to Foucault. As with Deleuze, Foucault argued that one needed to think beyond the state in order to understand how power operates. Rather, as Bell writes, Foucault believed that “power is better understood as omnipresent, as always already everywhere, with no single point of origin or source.” Foucault called this power “governmentality,” arguing that this entails the commingling of state power along with what he called “technologies of the self”—the myriad forms of public and private power in which personhood is shaped by forces that include, in Foucault’s words, “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions.” In one of Foucault’s most famous studies, Discipline and Punish, he argues that modern individuals internalize these forms of power, incorporating their dictates and prerogatives so that they cannot be separated from one’s own personhood. “Government surveillance” then becomes a matter of the self-policing that is part and parcel of one’s own psychic makeup. For Foucault, such is the “modern art of government,” in Bell’s words.

One of the effects of the governmentality of modernity, for Bell, is emergence of the conceptual individualism on which capitalism depends. Within this framework, individual interests can be understood to emerge completely apart from the control of states or any other social formations; rather, Bell writes, they are imagined to “naturally and spontaneously converge in the public interest.” The public good can then only be conceived in terms of private good, and the public good necessarily shatters into billions of private dreams molded on desires fueled by capital markets. Bell applies Foucault’s argument to what he calls today’s “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control,” in which market logic provides the terms for nearly every social setting or institution, be they churches, governments, hospitals, schools or organizations—a situation frequently called “neoliberalism.” Under this form of power, Bell writes, individuals “must submit every aspect of their lives to the logic of the economic; they must be entrepreneurs of themselves.” In effect, Bell writes, “we are governed through freedom,” a key aspect of which is the freedom to consume endlessly variegated commodities as unquenchably as the market can make them available.

Considering that Foucault’s subject was not capitalism per se but rather forms of power of which capitalism is only one aspect—making him, again, firmly not a Marxist—Bell provides some intriguing connections from Foucault’s thought to his own arguments about the emergence and presumed naturalness of capitalism. In particular, Bell makes strong use of Foucault’s genealogy of the supposedly self-governing, autonomous individual. Particularly when it is underscored by Bell’s discussion of Deleuze, Foucault’s account provides a compelling springboard into Bell’s own theological claims. And while many of these claims will not be anything new to many readers, they nonetheless register, to Bell’s credit, as assertions to take seriously anew.

(AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

(AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

Capitalism’s Claims

According to Bell, the choice between capitalism and Christianity is quite stark; it is a matter of choosing between two masters; as Matthew 6:24 states, “you cannot serve God and money.” Capitalism is its own ontological, moral and teleological system, brought on by the kinds of changes in modernity that Deleuze and Foucault describe; for Bell, “capitalism is nothing less than a theological revolution, involving radical changes not only in the circulation of material things but also in the nature of desire” (emphasis in original). What’s more, “every economic system rests on either an implicit or explicit theology.”

There are six aspects, according to Bell, of this capitalist theology. There’s the previously mentioned individualism; individuals are set apart from social groups, and capitalism severs many traditional ties. Second, these autonomous, self-governing individuals are free to make choices of their own, and for Bell, this is a “negative freedom” from authority and tradition. Third, individuals are “interest maximizers,” meeting their own needs first and foremost, absent of any sort of common good. Their desire is, fourth, “construed by capitalism as fundamentally insatiable”; it is ruled by the gospel of constant growth and the dictum that “more is better.” Fifth, the natural state of all of these interest-maximizing individuals is that of a “war of all  against all”; everyone is potentially a threat to the all-important pursuit of one’s own interests. And sixth, justice, rather than being seen as a socially important good, is “strictly personal” and based on the enforcement of legal contracts; therefore, like its conception of freedom, it is strictly negative, insisting “only on noninterference in the free choices of others.”

Underscoring all of this is the theology of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, as famously theorized by Adam Smith; such an “invisible hand” indicates an understanding of a God that serves only to protect self-interests, not to promote social justice or point humans away from sin. If we are inescapably self-interested, as capitalist theorizers argued, this becomes “a claim that we will never be free from sin” (emphasis in original)—that scarcity and self-interest are simply the way of things and can never be redressed. Ultimately, Bell argues, this is a framework “founded on an idolatrous vision of God…that is atheistic, deistic, or Stoic.”

One thing that ought to be said in response to Bell’s argument is that while he cogently lays out the doctrines of capitalism as they are frequently articulated, actual human beings often do not live out these principles as completely as one might assume from reading the book. Traditional ties and group identities endure, despite capitalism’s depredations; varying conceptions of social or collective justice remain. One senses a tendency here to mistake official doctrine, as argued by Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek (or latter-day libertarians) for humans’ lived experience, which, more often than not, holds these things in tension rather than obliterating one for the other. To paraphrase scholar Bruno Latour, we are often not nearly as modern as we think we are. Nevertheless, when one considers how quickly many social formations and spaces are being privatized—and thus turned into commodities for consumption on the capitalist market—Bell’s argument seems not only persuasive but urgently needed.

A Theologian’s Response

Bell’s theological strategy is to more or less respond to “capitalist theology” point by point. Thus, where capitalist defenders would argue that we are conceptually and ontologically alone, Bell’s counterclaim is that “we are not alone”—and, further, the gathering of persons under God (“called the church,” Bell reminds us) provides the antidote for the what the author sees as the idolatrous notion of strict autonomy. “[B]y means of the divine things in our midst—Word and sacrament, catechesis, order, and discipline,” Bell writes, “human desire is being healed of its capitalist distortions and set free to partake of a different economic ordering.” What’s more, for Bell, the natural order of things is not of scarcity, as capitalism would have it, but of abundance. Even the usual narrative of the redemption on the cross, wherein Jesus “pays” for the sins of humanity, “reflects the ways that our imaginations have been so disciplined by the capitalist economy of desire.” The cross, Bell argues, is a demonstration of God’s economy of plenitude and generosity, which is boundless—a mirror image of the endless scarcity and self-interest promoted by capitalism’s defenders. Desiring communion with others called by God—whereby “the love of self and the love of others, including God, is a single, unified love”—replaces the inherent selfishness and conflict embedded in capitalist desire.

While all this has its undeniably compelling aspects—many people, whether Christian or not, are likely to be drawn in by such a noble vision—at the same time it may seem fairly foreign to non-Christians, and particularly those who do not subscribe to a worldview that depends upon claims about a God as an agent who calls humans together for a specific purpose. This may be especially problematic because Bell’s arguments apply not merely to Christians but rather try to articulate “a good that unites all of humanity.” Also, there really is no separating Bell’s ideas about humanity from his theological claims; one cannot have “communion” as he envisions it without an extrahuman agent that calls forth such a gathering. As with the aforementioned papal exhortation, there is a normative claim being made rather fervently, and if one does not accept it, one might find oneself consigned to a state of sin.

This is where Bell decisively parts company with Foucault and Deleuze, who, suffice it to say, did not make normative claims of this kind, as is typical of postmodern theorists whose project is to “deconstruct.” While this departure initially seems as though it can be harmonized with Deleuze and Foucault’s arguments—Bell’s arguments are “postmodern” insofar as they question and seek to push past the assumptions of modernity—ultimately their differences show them to be incompatible in other ways, leaving one to wonder whether Bell’s project of using them to make his argument was doomed from the start.



Desire and Power

Deleuze, though certainly an anticapitalist writer, makes no affirmative claims about what are appropriate kinds of desire; rather, his theories aim merely to describe how flows of human desire can destabilize centers of power, without articulating what an alternative should look like. In fact, Bell himself takes Deleuze to task for prescribing only further anarchy. “Deleuze’s madness,” he writes, “is not a break with capitalism but an intensification of it.” Unlike Marx—or Bell—Deleuze has no teleology; there is no endpoint or ideal toward which human beings need to strive. We keep spinning forward as flows of desire break down barriers and mutate endlessly, “rhizomatically,” to use Deleuze’s famous wording. And while one could argue that this is a conceptual problem in Deleuze’s thought, it nevertheless puts Bell’s use of Deleuze into question, because Bell has offered Deleuze as a credible source of evidence as to how desire “really” works. But in the end, Deleuze and Bell fundamentally disagree on the nature of human desire. Bell thinks that desire “really” works to the glory of God, whereas Deleuze’s work points to more or less the opposite claim—that “the glory of God” is a totalizing structure that can, and should, be destabilized.

The problems Bell has with Foucault are arguably even greater, because they illustrate Bell’s skirting, if not outright elision, of the issue of power in the “communion” he envisions. Like Deleuze, Foucault did not prescribe a particular teleology; he was interested in problematizing the modern categories that helped to constrain and discipline subjectivity, and gender and sexuality in particular. Let’s remember Foucault’s central formulation: power is everywhere, and perhaps especially emanates from systems of thought that make claims about human morality. In this aspect, Foucault followed one of his key intellectual progenitors, Nietzsche. For Foucault, the basic claims about human beings that Bell makes would fundamentally be claims about power—power on a human, not a theological, scale—putting the two at odds over a fundamental assumption in their respective arguments. How, Foucault might ask, does Bell’s “communion” happen? Only through what Foucault would call “capillary power”—the everyday work of shaping habits, sensibilities and, yes, desires to conform persons to a particular ontological/theological framework. In the end, Bell is asking readers to accept Foucault’s logic (of deconstructing operations of power), but then to abandon this logic once an optimal theological/ontological vision has been reached. Foucault would have had none of this. For Foucault, the operations of power in reaching such a vision are exactly what would need to be put under the microscope.

Along these lines, there are indications in the book that Bell has overlooked important historical issues of power and discipline. For instance, contending that Christianity has long been about desire at least as much as it has been about “beliefs,” Bell argues that “for much of its history, the church was understood as a workshop of desire, a hospital where desire that had been disordered by sin recovered its true direction toward God and the things of God.” But in this description of desire, Bell never mentions the very public acts that the pre-Reformation church took in securing those desires. As anthropologist Talal Asad argues in his important book Genealogies of Religion, in the middle ages it was power that nurtured “true Christian dispositions,” including “laws (imperial and ecclesiastical) and other sanctions (hellfire, death, salvation, good repute, peace) to the disciplinary activities of social institutions (family, school, city, church) and of human bodies (fasting, prayer, obedience, penance).

These variegated and far-reaching forms of power, Asad continues, “created the conditions for experiencing [religious] truth.” In other words, Asad’s argument implies, it was impossible to separate the political from the religious; these categories are creations of modernity, but would have been unintelligible in the pre-Reformation setting. And so if Bell seeks a return to a medieval understanding of Christianity as a model for how this tradition should shape human selfhood, his book would have been better served by articulating whether he thought this could be done absent the church’s public, “political” powers—and, if so, explaining why such measures were no longer necessary or relevant.

A telling moment illustrating this elision is found in a footnote at the end of a paragraph discussing the numerous medieval Christian works of mercy, such as hospices and hospitals; these works, he writes, “permeated Christian society.” In the footnote to this, he adds, “This is not to absolve medieval Christian practice of its failures and abuses.” But a logical question arises: whether such “failures and abuses” might have been part and parcel of the very power that the church wielded in fomenting certain kinds of human desire. We simply do not get a glimpse of what a contemporary Christianity rethought to mold “all of humanity” into a “communion” would have to be, in terms of public power. This omission might very well lead observers—whether non-Christians or simply Christians whose assumptions are different from Bell’s—to wonder whether Bell is really arguing that the only alternative to contemporary neoliberalism is a return to an authoritarian form of public religion that could brook no dissent (to say nothing of “pluralism,” a notion that is never mentioned in the book) in its pursuit of communion.

That’s not quite what Bell argues in the book, but given the implications of his arguments, the above wouldn’t be an illogical conclusion to infer. Bell would like us to think beyond the state in asking how human desires are formed, but then doesn’t provide a full picture of how power would circulate—what, exactly, “the state” (or whatever would replace it) would look like. One thing that mitigates this problem somewhat is that Bell’s actual practical prescriptions are frequently more modest than his argument might suggest or imply. Following Augustine, he argues that the job of Christians is to dwell within the “earthly cities” of “disordered desire,” serving as “nomads, refugees, exiles, sojourners, and pilgrims” whose task is to model Christian community and reform economic practice. As evidence that desire is “being healed of its capitalist distortions,” Bell cites several “glimpses of the kingdom in its pilgrim form”: the Catholic Worker Movement, New Monasticism and alternative fair-trade market practices. Change, he writes in the book’s closing pages, “may not be a matter of one great leap or stride but many steps, many very small steps.” We should start, in other words, with practice based on desiring this nexus of Christianity and economic/social justice, and then a new form of human co-existence could emerge; maybe, for all we know, “power” may be beside the point if such a community ever arose. Whatever questions may remain, there is no denying that there are compelling and challenging aspects to Bell’s vision, ones that stir the imagination to what could be, rather than what “is.” Still, given how tethered Bell’s arguments are to particular theological claims—and given how fundamentally plural the world as we now know it is—it is hard, if not impossible, for some of us to think past the practicalities, and power arrangements, of how such a vision could come to fruition.

Fred Folmer, a graduate of New York University’s M.A. program in Religious Studies, is a librarian at Connecticut College.

*Thanks to Jeremy Walton and Anthony Petro for their crucial thoughts on this particular point of discussion.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.