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Krista and the staff regularly find compelling insights in the online journal Sightings out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The most recent essay by Martin Marty is particularly brilliant and deeply resonates with our Repossessing Virtue series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.

“Commodification”

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.


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4 Comments

The Collapse of Everything.

Often we find a big gap between the real world and our vision of one ethical world. The troubled atmosphere we breathe in the planet today does not require a specific example to conclude the world is declining (Tuchman, 1987). Ethics is an eclectic model to overcome the chaos of judgment implied in every crisis. However, if we just mention the 2008 global economic turndown, it indeed pushes the ethical age to the forefront. Does the free market corrode moral character? (John Templeton Foundation, 2008). No. It corroborates what ethics means: human dynamics and relationships; nevertheless, ethics generally connotes doing the right thing. Hence, unethical behavior destroys our trust and dignity.

Every day “reality” impacts who we are and how we are living our lives. Is the real world what makes our lives, or do we work to shape that reality? Human consciousness and responsibility does not come from what is going on in the world, even though the real world is reflecting a lack of them today. These human ethical values come within each individual, regardless of any religious or non-religious setting. Happiness, freedom, and peace are not with us just because we have human rights, democracy, or a good job, but because they are inherent in our human dignity. This is a universal ethical principle which could help everyone to achieve those human ethical values that we can aspire to.

Excellent!

Oh great. Now those of us who have always lived frugaly because we've had to, being the chronically underpaid class, will have to compete with those who can afford more because they don't want to appear as they really are. Yard sales and thrift shops have been my 'Mall of America'. I wonder if the middle class will start keeping a rusty older car on hand just to go yard saleing in ? I wonder if they'll like being looked down upon as being lazy, uneducated and stupid as well.

Oh, Mary, I really understand your comment. And the worst is not coming yet: when you realize that you are the person than can help them about how to live the rest of their lives frugaly; how to cope with the difficulty and hard times; and, how to overcome being despicable from others with a smile.