In his book, The Economy of Desire, Daniel Bell claims that “capitalism is an economy of desire that works against the created end of humanity, which is to share in the communion of the divine life of the blessed Trinity” (p. 93).
He fleshes this out by analyzing capitalism’s implicit theology, especially its anthropology.
One feature that Bell explicates is something that’s bothered me over the last few years—that is, the unquestioned goodness of “economic growth.” It’s a worthwhile task to question this assumption. Is it rhetoric that masks destructive dynamics? The unquestioned goodness of growth also infects and affects our imaginations regarding other aspects of life (i.e., relationships, church life, the upwardly-mobile trajectories of our lives, etc.).
Notions that are so widely accepted that their goodness becomes given can easily become enslaving and oppressive ideologies. Bell’s analysis is at least worth considering.
The interest-maximizing character of the capitalist individual is closely related to the way in which human desire is construed by capitalism as fundamentally insatiable . . . The problem that drives the entire economic enterprise is rooted in the unquenchable, infinite nature of human desire. Thus Adam Smith speaks of that desire in humanity “which cannot be satisfied, but seem[s] to be altogether endless.” Homo economicus is a being of unlimited wants. Because human desires are unlimited, economics, as the allocation of limited material resources, is necessary.
In this regard, consider how the health of the economy is measured. When we listen to the daily business news, what are we told is a sign of economic health? Growth. When retail companies evaluate the health of a particular store, what do they look at? Growth over the same period as last year. When a labor forces is evaluated, what is the standard? Increased productivity. When politicians want us to vote for them, what do they ask us? Are we better off (i.e., do we have more) now than before? Growth is the benchmark of well-being, the measure of good and evil. More is better. Consider, as well, the notion of “opportunity cost.” In teaching us to weigh not just the out-of-pocket cost of a choice but to consider as well the “cost” of all the opportunities foregone by making that particular choice, we are in effect being taught that we rightly desire everything. After all, one must desire everything for not choosing something to be regarded as a cost.
All of this is to say that capitalism deforms and corrupts human desire into an insatiable drive for more that today is celebrated as the aggressive, creative, entrepreneurial energy that distinguishes homo economicus (pp. 102-103).
Is there anything wrong with such a vision? Does it run against the grain of a Scriptural conception of desire or of what constitutes “well-being?”