Manufactured Desire, Destructive Discontent

In one of my classes we have been reading Graham Ward’s “The Politics of Discipleship.” In the book he writes of manufactured desire.  He sets it in contrast to actual needs.  These latter are the stuff that daily occupies the so-called two-thirds world – that is to say, food, clothing, shelter, water, etc.  The former refer to “needs” created by clever capitalists etc.  Marx writes that after humans take care of real needs, they create needs to occupy themselves.  It seems that we are doing this in spades these days.


My students were intrigued by the idea that we are unwitting (although sometimes altogether too witting) slaves of desires that have been created for the benefit of shareholders who themselves have made obscene returns their very own desire.  Maybe “intrigued” isn’t quite the right word.  But hopefully you get what I mean.  A strange kind of feeling accompanies the realization that you have been putty in the hands of mad men, who are very happy to see us unhappy aside from the slick new (fill in the blank).  On the one hand, a kind of insane rage flashes in you, and on the other hand, a kind of perverse (to the market forces, anyways) pleasure  as the desire to usurp these manufactured desires arises and as the virtue of contentment contends against destructive discontent.  We discussed what it means to push beyond consumerism into citizenship as our primary way of engaging the world.  Of course, certain folk, politicians among them, rather prefer consumers over citizens; always happy to create a need that we can fill by buying the latest widget.


Ward also points out that, for those with more than they can keep in their gated fortresses, the market is only too happy to manufacture other kinds of needs: experiences that are generally exotic and thus both hard on the earth and vacuous in virtue: think of the littered trail up the mount called Everest for a moment.


We talked about what Christian discipleship means in a time and place such as ours.  We talked about how we are all implicated in the system (especially true for those of us with investments and hopes to retire some day), and we also discussed how insidious evil is.  And in our talking we discovered that talking is itself a cure:  in thinking these things through aloud we found a kind of solidarity that recognizes that small things matter.  Walking when possible, taking a coffee cup to displace another paper cup polluting Mother Earth, shutting off the computer, tablet and phone for a time.  These things were small, but they loomed large as we discussed them together ever mindful of that picture posed by that itinerant preacher of long ago: the Reign of God really is like a mustard seed.  Sometimes we need to start small because a crack is all that we have for planting.  Sometimes a crack is enough to remind us that enough is enough.

10 thoughts on “Manufactured Desire, Destructive Discontent

  1. Marie Taylor says:

    Desire seems to be born in the mind, and as along as we desire something the mind has continuity and purpose. Perhaps it is the real opium of the people. Thanks for giving us something to ponder.

  2. Michael Maniates in his article “Individualization: plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world?” takes aim at the most insidious form of consumerism – green consumerism, not bad in itself but too often an excuse for not yet exercising citizenship.He makes many of the same arguments as your excellent blog post.

  3. Terrific post!  I totally agree.


  4. jannatwrites says:

    Yes, it does seem there is a long list of things to ‘need’ brought to us by clever marketers. (Satan himself, is a clever marketer as well…) It’s easy to get caught in the trap of ‘more’ even though ‘less’ allows more fulfillment.

  5. shoreacres says:

    This is such an interesting topic. I confess, I often laugh at personal friends and people I read online who rail against the greedy corporatists and our consumer society, and then spend breathless hours waiting for the latest app or iGadget to hit the market. These are the same people who will criticize the mindlessness of our political discourse, but who will spend hours on Twitter or Facebook, simply reposting what has arrived in their timeline without one ounce of critical thought.

    Now, for a real swerve into something that caught my attention while reading. When I came to that phrase, ” manufactured desire”, the first thing that came to mind was Augustine’s famous phrase: “Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in thee.”

    Wouldn’t it be fun to explore the notion of God as the primal source of “manufactured desire”? The marketers of the world seek to create desire for something outside ourselves. God creates us with a desire that can only be satisfied by something inside ourselves — something which is, unfortunately, invisible and intangible. Hence, our willingness to substitute any little gewgaw which we can see and touch.

    • agjorgenson says:

      I like that very much, especially if you relate manufacture to its root: made by the hand. God, then has the divine hand in our lives. This works very nicely… our very desire for God is a gift from God. I think Martin would approve! It also has the happy result of blessing desire, so we need not worry about mixed motives (even though they are there), since desire for God simply is God working in us. Lots to think through there! Thanks.

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