Interview with Daniel Bell about The Economy of Desire

Briefly comment on the title of your book: The Economy of Desire. How did you land on that title, and how do you see it fitting into the Church and Postmodern Culture series?

The title of the book arises from one of the central things I have learned about the economy, namely, that the economy is about a lot more than just the allocation, production, distribution, and consumption of material goods and services. While it includes all these things, it also works at a deeper level. Economy shapes and forms our desires, our loves, and the longings of our heart, and this has tremendous implications for how we relate to ourselves, others, the rest of creation, and God. I hope the book encourages us to think about and discuss how economy affects these relations.

As I see it, the Church and Postmodern Culture series is meant to aid the church in engaging the culture in which we currently live. Over the last few decades there have been so many cultural shifts that it is understandable that the church might be tempted to go on the defensive, seeing all the changes that collectively are called “postmodernism” as a threat and a challenge to the faith. Certainly much of it is a challenge, but this postmodern world is also rich with opportunities for the faith. In this regard, as I reflect on this age, I am constantly drawn to Luke 10:2: “The harvest is plentiful.” In many ways, the passing of modernity presents the church with wonderful opportunities for growing in its mission. The Church and Postmodern Culture series is all about engaging some of the principal currents of postmodern thought for the sake of enriching the church’s life and practice.

Two of your conversation partners in The Economy of Desire are, in your words, “leading Marxist thinkers and vehement atheists”—Foucault and Deleuze. What can Christians learn from these thinkers, and why did you choose to engage these two specifically?

The church has a long history of “plundering the Egyptians,” as St. Augustine pointed out long ago. So even as we have little truck with atheism, and Marxism has shown itself as something decidedly less than liberative, we can nevertheless learn from the likes of Foucault and Deleuze. I might summarize the chief lessons I learned from Foucault and Deleuze in this way.

First, they help us see that economy is a discipline of desire. For example, capitalism disciplines desire so that we relate to one another instrumentally, as commodities in constant struggle, competition that is the logic of the market—a logic that is insinuating itself ever more pervasively in our lives. Likewise, it distorts human relations with God so that God appears to us as a kind of sadistic cosmic Easter bunny who does not redeem us from sin but only manages it. (For an explanation of the cosmic sadistic Easter bunny you’ll have to read the book.)

Second, Deleuze and Foucault challenge us to rethink social change. We are constantly encouraged to think that the nation state and government are the principal agents of social change. Their account of a postmodern “micropolitics” proves helpful in dislodging the state from the center of our thought and reclaiming Christian community as a substantial and significant force for social and political change. Indeed, I argue that the practices that constitute discipleship amount to an alternative political economy.

Third, Deleuze and Foucault help us recover the older Christian understanding of the faith as a therapy of desire. If, as I argue, capitalism disciplines desire and so distorts our relations with one another and God, the work of Deleuze and Foucault helps us envision Christianity as more than a set of beliefs or convictions. They help us reclaim Christianity as a set of practices or a way of life that amounts to a counter-discipline that heals desire of its sin-sickness, of its capitalist distortions, so that we may live in communion with God and our neighbors.

In your book, you look critically at capitalism and evaluate how it influences human desire and relations. Are there any redemptive aspects to capitalism?

“Redemptive aspects to capitalism.” An interesting choice of words. Apart from a few economists, I do not know of anyone who thinks capitalism is redemptive. The more interesting question is, does capitalism do any good? Yes. Clearly it does. For example, it feeds some, it employs some, it provides services to some, it provides some with resources to give away.

But doing good is not sufficient. What matters is if it does good in the right way.  Consider the temptation of Jesus as recorded in the fourth chapter of Luke. There Jesus is tempted by the devil not with evil things but with good. It would be good to feed the world, and it is a good thing that Jesus rules the kingdoms, and one day everyone will kneel before the Lamb in worship. And yet Jesus refuses all these goods. Why? Because merely pursuing a good is not good enough. Goods must be pursued in the right way. So, pursuing a good like feeding the world is not right if such a good requires bowing before the devil. It is for this reason that the Christian tradition has long recognized that sin and evil are a disordered pursuit of good things. That is the problem with capitalism. It pursues and in some cases provides goods in the wrong way.

In the second half of your book, you set up Christianity as an alternative economy to that of capitalism. Give us a taste of what that looks like.

This question really gets to the heart of the matter. Many will concede that capitalism is not perfect; it has its flaws. But, they say, given the alternatives, it is the best that we can do. The theological heart of the book is found right here: What is given? What does God give? What is God doing here and now to liberate us from sin? My argument is that God is delivering us from the sin that is capitalism here and now as we participate in the divine economy on display in a host of economic practices that have been part of Christian discipleship across the ages—from the ban on usury to the practice of a living wage to the constellation of practices known as the Works of Mercy (which are different from both philanthropy and welfare). All around us, in movements like the Catholic Worker, church-supported agriculture, fair trade, or the Economy of Communion, we catch glimpses of this alternative economy, which is not anti-market, anti-production, or anti-profit but rather situates all these practices in a moral context that renews and extends communion.

Daniel M. Bell Jr. (PhD, Duke University) is professor of theological ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and the author of Just War as Christian Discipleship and Liberation Theology after the End of History.

For more information on The Economy of Desire, click here.