Daniel M. BELL JR. The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. The Church and Postmodern Culture Series. Series edited by James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2012. 224 pages. $19.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-3573-9. Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560
The Church and Postmodern Culture series seeks to bring to light the effects of recent social and political movements upon the Church, or how “mainline Protestant churches, and Catholic parishes [are] all wrestling with the challenges of postmodernism and drawing on the culture of postmodernity as an opportunity for rethinking the shape of our churches” (7). However, author Daniel M. Bell Jr. is highly suspicious of postmodernism, professing that “the carnival that is postmodernity remains a parody of Christianity that uses rather than embraces religion” (18). Although the author tries to tackle too much in one sitting, his writing style is so compelling, honest, and effective, that the latest entry in this series should hit the reader with the force of a sledgehammer to the Berlin wall.
Beginning with the “carnival-like” atmosphere of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests at the end of 1999, Bell takes the reader on an odyssey that contrasts the American celebration of Mardi Gras to the prison-like conditions of the Chinese labor camps in Fuzhou, where female workers make the colorful plastic beads which satiate the appetites of the sinful revelers. It is here where Bell’s writing is extremely riveting, describing the plight of the Chinese slave laborers: “They must…be prepared to work their ten- to eighteen-hour shifts in silence, or face another fine of a day’s pay for talking, and work without extraneous thoughts, lest their concentration on their task falters and are therefore subject to more fines” (55). Bell also incorporates the teachings of such Marxist political philosophers as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze to examine the power of the state, and the politics of desire. Although the inclusion of Marxist philosophy may be deemed by some to be limited in scope, Bell does effectively use their ideology to show that power is not controlled by the state, per se, but that it flows out of humanity’s restless desires. Regarding the politics of desire, Bell, in echoing the thoughts of Foucault and Deleuze, advocates that “the political-economic forms of the modern world oppress and distort this most basic expressive power or desire by subjecting it to the ends of the capitalist order” (51).
Bell comes full circle in the chapter entitled “Is Another Economy Possible?” Here, he analyzes the monastic life as a method not of suppressing desire, but healing and rechanneling that desire, which has been warped throughout our history of mass consumption. His solution parallels that of Bernard of Clairvaux, in that we must focus upon Christ for greater restoration: “Jesus restores our desire, leading it on the path of virtue, wisdom, justice, holiness of life, and fruitfulness—which leads nicely to how the monastic discipline functioned as a gracious economy given to heal desire” (131). Add to these notions Series Editor Smith’s comments regarding our missing the fact “that the great tempter of our age is Wal-Mart” (10), and the reader will certainly have much to contemplate.
Bell’s latest publication builds upon concepts that first appeared in his book regarding Liberation Theology, and is admittedly a starting point for what could become a larger work aiming to shape our notions of desire, and the capitalist structures which enslave many. It would be interesting to see what direction this potentially larger work could become in the future. Suffice it to say, this work is highly recommended for its direct approach, and graduate students of Christian Ethics, Cultural Anthropology, and Moral Theology may find it useful as secondary source material.