Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bell on Capitalism And Desire

Chapter One of Liberation Theology after the End of History is entitled "The Infinite Undulations of the Snake: Capitalism, Desires, and the State-Form." In this chapter, Bell begins with the critique of capitalism made by Gilles Deleuze coupled with Michel Foucault's work on governmentality. Deleuze argues,
"Capitalism ... extends its dominion over humanity not merely through the extraction of labor and production of wealth, but by capturing and distorting the constitutive human power, desire" (9).
Bell, via Foucault, also connects Deleuze's account with the modern bureaucratic state. He states that contemporary capitalism is
"a discipline of desire... showing that the state-form encompasses much more than that ensemble of institutions called 'the state,' ... it encompasses a whole host of 'technologies of desire': technologies present in the social, cultural, and religious as well as political and economic registers that shape and form desire in particular ways" (9).
Following Augustine, Bell understands humans as constituted by their desire for God. However, sin corrupts this desire and reorients humanity towards other ends. Capitalism is a sin because it "captures and distorts human desire in accord with the golden rule of production in the market" (2). Turning again to Deleuze's critique, Bell declares,
"Capitalism disciplines desire ... by means of a pincer movement. The capitalist machine deterritorializes desire: it overruns all previous social formations and releases the flows of desire that these formations had organized and regulated. The capitalist machine also reterritorializes desire: it subjects desire to the axiomatic of production for the market. In the process capitalism relies on the state-form to prepare desire for participation in the capitalist order" (19).
Thus, capitalism, once spawned, moves quickly to explode any territorial boundaries that might hope to contain it. In recent years, this deterritorialization has become evident. Bell states,
"Capital assumes the form of the transnational corporation, the division of labor is internationalized, flexible manufacturing systems are advanced, a standardized market/global culture and consumption patterns expand, the informal sector of the economy grows, complex systems of credit and exchange are introduced, and so forth" (17).
Capitalism is not constrained but is indeed very flexible, "whatever it takes to ensure production for the market" (18). As capitalism's "victory" unfolds, individual nations begin to resemble neighborhoods. There is no need for homogeneity, capitalism can deal with difference to a point: as long as all people and nations agree that production is the end of life. However, capitalism commodifies difference, removes it from its tradition and narrative, and sells it to the highest bidder, thus destroying its very particularity.

It is at this point that the nation-state becomes necessary again to capitalism. The nation-states serve capitalism by "reterritorializing the flows of desire that capitalism unleashes" (19). Since teleological institutions stand in opposition to capitalism's market telos, these must be destroyed or co-opted. Once destroyed, the desire freely flows; however, this can be problematic, witness the longing in the U.S. for meaningful community life, for public morality, and for the good old days to return again. It is at this point the state is most necessary. Deleuze declares that the state is far from an "emancipatory agent" but is instead a "repressive instrument of the capitalist order" (19).

The remainder of the chapter richly plays out and critiques Foucault and Deleuze's critique of capitalism and the nation-state. I will turn to one aspect of the chapter that captures the heart of Bell's project. According to Foucault, the crisis of capitalism led to a shift from a strictly disciplinary society to one of control. Bell writes,
"Neoliberal government aggressively encourages and advocates the extension of economic reason into every fiber and cell of human life. Economic or market rationale controls all conduct. Capitalism has enveloped society, absorbing all the conditions of production and reproduction" (31).
According to Foucault, capitalism seizes control of all things: our games, our children, our churches, our schools. However, this control is exercised in a much different way. In the past, control was won via enclosures. The body was disciplined and made docile by being pushed through a series of enclosures that formed that body: schools, hospitals, factories, armies, prisons. It was modeled into a certain societal norm (31). However, these enclosures are deteriorating today, and are being replaced by a new norm of control. Bell states,
"In societies of control (capitalistic societies), the body is rendered pliable not by careful containment and conformity to a norm, but by a flexible, variable, modulation that is ubiquitous... The human being is no longer enclosed but in debt and unlike the enclosure, debt goes everywhere, all the time. The credit card has surpassed the time card as the dominant mechanism of insertion into the economy" (32).
Capitalism, then, completely restructures the world according to commodification, production, and consumption. It develops a grammar that powerfully structures life. Out of this grammar, a language emerges that supports and trains people to live in the capitalistic rendering of the world. The grave danger of the victory of capitalism is that it is anarchic, chaotic, even schizophrenic. There is a constant cycle of deterritorialization followed by reterritorialization. While global capitalism hints at catholicity, ultimately it is a cruel parody. The catholicity of capitalism is the constant state or threat of war. Bell states,
"Capitalist discipline distorts desire into a competitive force: competing for resources, for market share, for a living wage, for the time for friendship and family, for inclusion in the market, and so forth" (35).
By granting scarcity ontological purchase and forming societies governed by the logic of capitalism, the end of capitalism makes the end of history one of constant struggle and conflict. This will play out not just on the battlefield but on our streets, in our families, in our homes. The other becomes a potential threat. Augustine's "furnace of charity" is replaced by the furnace of distrust.

What does this mean for the church?
1) Realizing that capitalism is not Christian.
2) Realizing just how deeply capitalism has structured our bodies and eveen our church bodies.
3) Realizing that capitalism is an anti-liturgy, even an anti-Eucharist.
4) Confessing our complicity in the victory of capitalism.
5) Lamenting the effects of capitalist discipline.
6) Submitting to Christian grammar and discipline.
7) Learning Christian language.
8) Believing again that worship and prayer of the Triune God is the center and end of all living things.


Blogger Et al said...

Hi there. I've been reading along with your posts and am often quite befuddled ... but still I read.

Please excuse my ignorance as I ask about what might be obvious to everyone else. The posts on capitalism struck a deep note for me. Often I wonder - how do we coexist in this world? How do we do basic surviving in a consumption driven world?

If we do not provide adequately for our family, they suffer greatly, plus one is deemed less than 'okay'.
Provision of food clothing and shelter have become beyond the means of many. Where do they fit in to society - and the church? Sadly, the humiliation of poverty causes church to feel too expensive to attend. Being 'challenged' to give more ... Here I admit I resented tithing (when I belonged to a church) because all the latest and best technology displayed songs onto large screens, staff drove new cars and my children were hungry and poorly clothed. I felt any money I earned was supporting unnecessary indulgence when I tithed, yet still I struggle to justify the reluctance to tithe because I WANT to offer our God the first fruits of my labour. But not to offer support for affluence when my kids are malnourished.

Sorry, I just get so lost in what's right and wrong. What does God want and what's manipulative abuse of power. Be it state or church.

November 23, 2005 5:25 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I think you raise some very interesting questions.

1) Capitalism penetrates every facet of our lives by commodifying everything. Everything is valued on some scale- i.e. what is my time worth?

2) The megachurch movement is essentially beholden to capitalism. If you read Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Church, you will see that for him the purpose of the church is to develop a marketing strategy that targets a certain type of person and then gears worship and community life to their self-defined needs and interests. Thus, a church like this must have cutting edge technology, expensive sound systems, etc. in order to be able to compete with the megachurch down the street.

Behind Bell's critique of capitalism is a call for an ecclesiology capable of resisting capitalism. That is where my posts will focus for the rest of the week.

Grace and Peace,

November 23, 2005 6:56 AM  
Blogger Eric Lee said...

Great post, Scott. I am only sad that I have not read this book yet, let alone a long time ago. I've heard it's one of the best in the RO series.



November 23, 2005 12:04 PM  
Blogger Scott said...


I am with you on that one. I met Dan Bell at the Ekklesia Project conference several years ago, and I was much more impressed by Hauerwas, Long, Cavanaugh, and Cartwright. I did not read the book because it seemed tangential to my theological interests at the time. I am blown away by this book. His account of forgiveness as a therapy of desire seems to me to begin a move towards the counterethic of forgiveness called for by Milbank in Theology and Social Theory.


November 23, 2005 12:32 PM  
Blogger Eric Lee said...

Hah. My friend Charlie has met Dan Bell as well and describes him as "one buff pacifist." :)



November 23, 2005 1:45 PM  
Blogger Et al said...

Thank you so much for responding Scott. I am grateful for your time & effort. The Rick Warren book you referred to was akin to the Bible where I live - "everyone's read it ..." Thankyou for validating what I struggle with by responding - The Megachurch is a phrase I've not heard before but it resonates with my experience.

I shall continue to read your posts and hopefully, gradually, get a better sense of what this is all about. I do go away and look up verses and dictionaries - one day I hope to join in in a contributing way :)

November 26, 2005 7:14 PM  

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