The Tragedy and Farce of Charity

The Tragedy and Farce of Charity

I watched, with interest, an RSA Animate Presentation featuring Slavoj Zizek about the role of charity. It was pretty provoking, although that in itself is not surprising considering Slavoj’s previous work. I first saw Slavoj on Q and A a while back, and remember being inspired not just by a man who was unashamedly Marxist in his beliefs and ideas, but also someone who was physically and mentally excited by the work he was doing – something that should be common amongst philosophers but unfortunately, is not.
Anyway, RSA Animate tries to take sophisticated ideas and package them in a fun, short and accessibly way. This one spoke about the way that our conceptions of charity have changed – and what effect that this is having on our world. I think that the talk was inspired by the Hungarian billionaire, George Soros, who is well known for his philanthropic mission work. I think he’s donated many millions of Euros over the years to particular causes.
According to Zizek, Soros is an old fashioned kind of charitable person – he takes with one hand, and gives with the other. In other words, the act of charity (of giving) is separated from his efforts to make a profit. This is the old form of philanthropy – in the modern age, as an effect of capitalism, perhaps, this separation of giving and taking has kind of become merged into one; that is, we give and take at the same time – which essentially means that we constantly take. Let me explain: Zizek uses as his example Starbucks Coffee, which is pretty much ubiquitous over the Western world now. According to Zizek, when we buy a cup of coffee, we are no longer simply buying a cup of coffee – which used to be an act of taking. Instead, we are buying into a whole belief system – not only do we get a cup of coffee, we get to feel good that by supporting Starbucks, we are in turn supporting struggling coffee farmers in the third world.
According to Zizek, though, it’s crap. That kind of charity achieves nothing more than making us feel better – sure, it saves people’s lives, and that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t address the fundamental, structural causes of injustice that lead to the need for charity in the first place. Sending food to the starving millions in Africa, for example, while noble in and of itself, actually works against the campaign to ensure that millions in the future do not starve at the hands of corrupt governments and ruthless exploitative corporations.
What I like about Zizek’s plan is that, at heart, he’s advocating revolution. To him, I think, the solution is not going to be found in refinements of the capitalist-democratic process that exist, but in an actual tearing down and reconstruction of the current system – the old communist revolution! Of course, Zizek acknowledges that what is commonly associated with communism – the totalitarian regimes of the USSR and China – were horrendous wastes of life, and he is right to do that.
Following his logic, though, and one is faced with an undeniable truth. Either we carry on in much the same way, with start inequalities between the haves and have nots, and we in the first world use charity as a crutch that both preserves our way of life as well as assuaging any feelings of guilt we may have – until capitalism itself collapses, when there is no more growth to be had, no more markets to be exploited, no more profits to be tapped, or we work towards a more meaningful construction of society, based along lines of equality. Either way, capitalism must fall. And our current way of life must change.