The Church's Alternative Currency | Sojourners

The Church's Alternative Currency

"The Economy for Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World"

DANIEL BELL'SThe Economy of Desire juxtaposes Christianity and capitalism, situating both in the context of postmodernity. The main argument of the book is that performing works of mercy—both corporal and spiritual—constitutes an alternative economy that can resist capitalism. Capitalism, in Bell's construal, is an economic system founded on voluntary contracts, private property, and an ideological regime where the rule of the market transcends the rule of law and disregards the reign of God in Christ.

The author draws on the work of philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze to set up a philosophical framework for talking about power and desire. His treatment of Foucaultian insights on the ubiquity of power is meant to decenter the state as the primary engine of social change. Deleuze's work builds on Foucault's argument by conceptualizing people—and society at large—as flows of desire. Taken together, the claim is potentially but not necessarily democratic: Social structures organize desire in particular ways and are malleable due to the fact that power resides not only in the state or market but in the relational networks of everyday people. Under this account, for instance, the typical presidential election is not simply about securing votes, but about directing the aspirations and actions of the electorate toward a collective passion for growing the economy, expanding the middle class, and so on. Capitalism, for Bell, secures our loyalty because it shapes what we do as well as what we desire.

A few strengths of the book stand out. It contains a lucid discussion of the difference between commutative (fair contracts) and distributive (fair proportion of wealth, power, and other goods) justice within society. The scope of the author's analysis is also impressive. Bell substantively engages the arguments of diverse figures from Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich von Hayek to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther. Moreover, Bell's contention that proponents of capitalism effectively deny the possibility of social holiness is worth the price of the book.

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