‘Materialism’ isn’t our real problem: covetousness is
At the age of ten – around 1953 – I threw an especially nasty tantrum. Already an avid reader, I had conceived the notion even then of becoming a writer of some kind. I had also decided that the first successful step of my ascent to literary grandeur must be the ownership of a very particular and sleek fountain pen, heavily advertised at that time. When my parents told me they couldn’t afford this I sulked odiously for a week over my blighted career.
I remember this now because my complaint had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘ism’ that I was aware of – least of all ‘materialism’. The plastic, rubber, metal and other constituent materials of that gleaming object were not of the slightest interest to me. I had instead, and not for the last time, fallen victim to magical thinking – the attribution to a cloned advertised object of the power to enhance my own personal ‘nobody’ status. That particular pen alone, I had convinced myself, would surely make me a famous writer. The very inferior pen I already owned, although made of the same materials, was surely the reason I hadn’t yet written a novel and wasn’t already a celebrity.
Reflection on this, on other similar episodes in later life – and on the way that advertising works generally – has convinced me that the church’s standard diagnosis of the global plague of material accumulation is hopelessly off centre and misdirected. The word ‘Materialism’ implies to me that the feverish purchasing of inessential objects is believed by those who use the term to be driven by a deep interest in matter per se, or maybe even by a belief that nothing but matter exists. Nothing could be further from the reality that I have observed. The diagnosis ‘materialism’ is totally ineffectual because none of us can see that we are actually guilty of it.
What is fundamentally wrong with us has nothing to do with any materialist philosophy, or with entirely innocent matter. Our basic acquisitive complaint – and it seems to be almost congenital – is deep and recurrent doubt as to our own personal value. Reinforced by media, and too often by other aspects of our surrounding culture, it is this complaint above all that makes us vulnerable to ‘iconic’ advertised objects designed to ‘change your life’.
Ireland’s Breda O’Brien once told the story of a friend exasperated by a teenage son. This boy had rebelled when his mother had tried to persuade him that it would be foolish for her to spend an extra €50 simply to enable him to wear the logo of a more expensive branded jacket. When she asked him why on earth she should do that he said, instantly: “Because I’m worth it!” A clever slogan designed to enhance the pulling power of an entirely different class of branded goods had lodged fast in this boy’s consciousness – to be deployed later to bully his own poor mother!
Here again, obviously, this boy was totally uninterested in the constituent material of the jacket. The brand logo – a simple memorable image – had become ‘iconic’ for him, a mysterious guarantee of the personal value and status that an unbranded item of exactly the same material could not give its owner.
This is not simply undifferentiated ‘wanting’ or ‘desiring’ either. Simple lack of food causes an entirely specific kind of wanting and desire, for which we have the precise name ‘physical hunger’. The wanting that fixates upon a particular ‘iconic’ object also surely deserves a specific and descriptive name, a name that isn’t ‘materialism’ either. (Isn’t food, even the Eucharist, material, after all, and clothing also – and don’t we need both?)
Mysteriously we don’t have in common use today a precise name for this particular desire for ‘iconic’ objects.
Thankfully, however, this kind of wanting now has a fully descriptive name, learned gratefully by me from the work of the French Catholic intellectual René Girard. He uses the pinpoint term ‘mimetic desire’ for that specific kind of desire that unconsciously mimics the observed desire of someone else – someone we mistakenly believe to be more highly valuable than ourselves. The power of most of the world’s multinationals is based on a deep understanding of how our mimetic desire can be manipulated to buy ‘designer’ objects of every kind – from clothing to cars, from lipsticks to the very latest smartphone or tablet computer.
Despite our obvious need to understand and resist this phenomenon, I have yet to hear a Mass homily on this problem of truly contagious mimetic desire. How has it come about that so many of our clergy cannot apparently notice and speak insightfully about a pervasive problem of modern culture – a problem that is obviously also moral and spiritual?
This question becomes even more interesting in light of René Girard’s compelling argument that mimetic desire is the very problem denoted by the biblical word ‘covetousness’. How come that no homilist in my experience has ever noted that in the decalogue the triple warning against coveting links this sin in every case to something possessed by a neighbour, i.e. by someone we know? Surely that ox of the decalogue was the sleekest and strongest one, the one that belonged to the richest farmer in the community. Proud possession by someone else is crucial to the transmission of mimetic desire. It is usually the higher perceived status of the owner that transfers addictive desirability to the desired object. This is why celebrities are paid millions to use and to be photographed in association with big brand logos.
There is a further reason our homilists need to notice this. Girard shows convincingly that in certain circumstances mimetic desire can lead us into the most brutal violence – and that the Bible is probably the world’s greatest literary source of illustrations of this. Cain killed Abel because for some mysterious reason he concluded that Abel’s animal sacrifice had won more favour with God than Cain’s own sacrifice of grain. Desiring the intangible divine preference that Abel apparently now possessed, and the apparently unattainable status that went with it, Cain went mad with jealousy and killed his brother.
And Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery out of mimetic desire for the ‘coat of many colours’ – the garment that marked him as his father Jacob’s favourite. And Absalom rose in rebellion against his father David out of mimetic desire for the kingdom of Israel. And the land of Israel’s ‘milk and honey’ – the produce of its richest soil – made it mimetically desirable to its neighbours, such as the Babylonians and later the Romans. There was even a near outbreak of violence among the apostles themselves, when they visualised one of their number being granted the highest status in heaven, next to Jesus himself. This is a clear echo of the story of original violence between brothers.
The Bible even tells us that the desire of the people of Israel to have a king was a contagious borrowing of an institution that ‘all the other nations have’. (1 Sam 8: 4,5) Could the reason for that particular mimetic desire be that surrounding kings were apparently better at the high-prestige art of warfare?
As for violence and mimetic desire in Irish history, what about the extraordinary tale of the Cathach, the copy of the Psalter that reputedly caused the war that led to Comcille’s exile on Iona?
Today’s mass production of desirable objects has allowed the many rather than the few to possess apparently identical objects, hiding from us the full violent potential of mimetic desire. However, teenagers have been murdered in the US for possession of top brand sneakers. And the sweat-house production of branded clothing in the developing world – an almost inevitable product of globalisation – has caused inexcusable violence to exploited workers, for example in the building of criminally unstable factories. Chinese factory workers have sometimes been driven to suicide by the terms of employment in factories that produce our highest status electronic goods.
René Girard has been writing about mimetic desire, and its connection with all kinds of violence, since the early 1970s. Unless we take deliberate steps to arm ourselves, the very same phenomenon dangerously envelops every one of us in the developed world – through the media and our ludicrous celebrity culture. Why is it still so widely unnoticed (and why is the precise meaning of covetousness still unreclaimed) – by so many of our homilists? Why so seldom a critique of ‘celebrity’ itself – the source of so much youthful ‘wannabe’ depression? Especially at a time when so many priests visibly lack real enthusiasm, edge and topicality with the young – and seemingly can’t talk comfortably about sex any more either? And why are so many of our greatest Catholic intellectuals still maundering on ineffectually about ‘materialism’ as a diagnosis of over-acquisition?
Lastly, if biblical covetousness is indeed what Girard calls mimetic desire, why does our magisterium apparently not know that?
I believe the answers to all of these questions lie in Christianity’s own historical acquisition of the very highest social status. This caused clergy themselves to acquire that status and to become blind at the teaching summit to the fashion-setting power of high-status congregants. What bishop or parish priest could critique the pursuit of more expensive clothing, horses and carriages when the owner of the most expensive of these was likely to be sitting in the front pew, and maybe contributing most to the collection for an even bigger chapel or cathedral? This blindness persists in an over-complex philosophy and psychology, and in a moralism that became fixated upon sexuality. (Did the latter become a safer target than covetousness because the upper classes could always more easily conceal their sexual misbehaviour.)
I don’t now have the time to prove or disprove this primitive thesis with another lifetime of reading. Aged 70 now I can only invite others to refute it if they can, and to deny that ‘mimetic desire’ precisely describes a moral problem that threatens us all, both as individuals and as a species. And to agree or disagree that ‘materialism’ is a far less precise and helpful diagnosis of our acquisitive malaise.
I am furthermore convinced that our simple central weakness – recurrent doubt of our own value – is the true origin of all status-seeking in all periods of history, and therefore of all social pyramids. (How else are we to explain the emergence of a fully-blown US aristocracy in the space of less than three centuries. Or why status pyramids so quickly develop in all Christian religious institutions.)
And then, completing the circle, it is those status pyramids that constantly tell us that we are deficient in value to begin with. This is ‘the world’ that Jesus of Nazareth overcame – challenging all of us to do the same. A church that is status-blind cannot do that. An institution run by blind careerists is itself very much part of ‘the world’ and cannot effectively critique it.
I am convinced that there can be no effective Catholic ‘new evangelisation’ until the church more widely understands this and incorporates this understanding at a deep level into its culture, its structure and its formation system. The forecast pending attempt in Ireland to replace all perceived dangerous ‘isms’ – materialism, secularism, relativism – with an elaborate beneficent ‘ism’ – the Catechism – will also surely disappoint in the absence of a change of church structure and culture. It is a mistake to attribute spiritual power and permanence to a complex body of knowledge, when our younger generations and our own experience have already proven that complex bodies of knowledge flow in and out of our heads almost as freely as water flows through our bodies.
Properly understood and interpreted the simplest formulations of our faith – the Creeds – convey to us the simplest truth: Our Father understands completely our inability to believe in our complete equality of value, a value given by him at conception. ‘The world’ denies and conceals it. He gave us the Son to prove our value to us, by descending to the very base of the social pyramid. The Son’s wisest followers have always understood this, and by their lifestyle as well as their words critiqued all social pyramids, even the ecclesiastical and intellectual ones. We don’t need to acquire any iconic object, or any ‘rank’ in any institution, to achieve a greater value. Even the desiring of a bigger cathedral, a cappa magna, or a papal coronet – or a theological doctorate from a more prestigious Catholic university – can be examples of covetousness – mimetic desire – and proof of our deepest spiritual need and weakness.
Our magisterium needs to realise also that its adherence to a status pyramid within the church – especially one that defies easy communication between base and summit – actually subverts the meaning of the Creeds – to the extent that this meaning is now totally invisible to many who recite them. For far too many Christians all hope has been transferred into the next life, in defiance of the obvious truth that the kingdom of God – the full consciousness of God’s love and respect – existed for Jesus in this earthly life also.
‘Materialism’ therefore surely totally misses the mark, misdirecting us from the real problem. The fundamental human need that drives surplus material acquisition is a need for something entirely non-material. It is a need for reassurance as to our own inherent value and importance, the very desire that drives clericalism also. At its very best, Christian love has always met that need, but the ecclesiastical summits very seldom have done so.
Are there any homilists, theologians or church historians out there willing to take this on board? Who will explain to us in detail how the multinational L’Oréal came to a sharper understanding of what really motivates our unnecessary spending than those who claim to be our only magisterium?