Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Of consumer cathedrals and Catholic capitalists

Can you love capitalism and hate the forms of commerce that the world's most capitalist economy creates? You can if you're Catholic and acculturated to cathedrals. Like Andrew Sullivan:
The striking paintings of Wal-Marts we featured this morning are not alone. Michelle Muldrow targets, among other supermarkets, Target. She calls these photographs paintings “Cathedrals of Desire.” Cathedrals used to function as a way to transcend desire into love, the worldly into the unworldly. Now these new consumer cathedrals make the worldly sacred and turn desire into a virtue.

I have to say that Target in particular engenders in me an instant version of what some hyper-lefty Germans called Konsumterrorismus: a total panic caused by the option of limitless shopping. (The definition is not undisputed). In my case, this phobia is compounded by the lighting – especially in Target. Aaron took me there once and I could not really get past the doorway. It was just horrifying. If I go to Hell, I will not have my ankles licked by fire. And I will not be lit from below. I will be subjected to giant, constant, overhead fluorescent lighting – what Michael Cunningham once called less lighting than the “banishment of all darkness.”

That gets it right, I think. All darkness must be banished to promote and encourage the purchase of things. This is what a huge amount of our culture now rests upon: the purchase of things. I guess you have to banish the literal darkness to disguise the shallow yet impenetrable darkness our shopping civilization represents.
Serendipity!  Yesterday, Andrew linked to an excellent review (by John Gray) of what sounds like an excellent biography of Karl Marx (by Jonathan Sperber). While unsparing about the harm wrought by Marx's "incoherent mishmash of idealist philosophy, dubious evolutionary speculation, and a positivistic view of history," Gray also credits Marx with an insight into the dynamics of capitalism to which the right is generally blind:

The programs of “free market conservatives,” who aim to dismantle regulatory restraints on the workings of market forces while conserving or restoring traditional patterns of family life and social order, depend on the assumption that the impact of the market can be confined to the economy. Observing that free markets destroy and create forms of social life as they make and unmake products and industries, Marx showed that this assumption is badly mistaken. Contrary to what he expected, nationalism and religion have not faded away and there is no sign of their doing so in the foreseeable future; but when he perceived how capitalism was undermining bourgeois life, he grasped a vital truth.
This is not to say that you can't approve of capitalism without disliking some of its forms -- or seeking to reshape them by altering, say, zoning or labor laws. One could follow certain "social business" visionaries, too, in seeking to imagine a capitalism driven by something other than pursuit of maximum profit. That's a rather unlikely path, though, for a "conservative soul."

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