Charity: the Light Heart but Dark Soul of 21st Century Capitalism
Charity is a social disease. It constructs itself as a form of therapy, as an anecdote to a problem that our society itself has produced, in reality it merely prolongs the real issues we should be dealing with. Charity by is very definition is not a bad thing, of course it isn’t, however in this 21st century, neoliberal, capitalist run society, it has a very important function: to legitimise and to protect the ingrained systems of hierarchical capital. Something has happened over the past 10 – 15 years, charity has become big business, and in the process it has lost sight of its grass roots, becoming another corrupt tool of our materialistic society. Therefore we must discuss how this has happened and how we can get away from this rather than revelling in our self-indulgent guilt. This is not a communist fuelled rant, pitting the bourgeois against the proletariat, but rather a rethinking of charities position within our society and a critical repositioning of its need, especially within a capitalist social order.
In his 1891 essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde places charity at the forefront of his critical gaze. He states that “the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence”, especially in regards to the suffering of his fellow man. This is still the case in 2016. When we view the endless torrent of adverts, documentaries and photographs of suffering we experience a gut and uncritical reaction. This is merely human nature. Empathy is desired and encouraged in a civil society, however this has been grossly misused especially by charity advertising. We thus react to these images with blinkers on. Unlike the exchanging of goods for services binary, charitable giving is never put under any serious scrutiny. The images appear on our screens (usually with a personal story to tie us in emotionally), you buy into this, hand your money over and you go about you business feeling a sense of contribution, never questioning or following up where this money goes. It is this instant and emotional act which swerves our critical intelligence and goes straight to the heart. Modern charity constructs itself around these instant gut reactions that play with people and produce blind obedience. This process ultimately relies on a powerful social force within us all: Guilt.
Guilt is what modern mega charities trade in. Through their aggressive marketing campaigns and ties with many other political ideas, they produce within us a binary of active ethical consumerism. Žižek claims that this manifests itself best in the concept of fair-trade. This concept of fair-trade places itself in the area between the active consumer, only interested in their own fulfilment, and the need within us all to do something good, the guilt that comes to the forefront with this active consumerism. Therefore companies like Starbucks exploit this middle ground, selling the need to ‘do good’ with the usual blind act of consumerism. How is this a bad thing? If we consider the fact that fair-trade is still under question and presents a solution for a problem that should not be there in the first place, cracks in its ability to effect true change begin to be seen. They are thus able to charge more for this coffee and exploit your urge to be ethical, all within the single act. This manipulation is welcomed by the consumer, ourselves, as it appeases our guilt at living our lifestyles. We drink coffee in fancy places, we are bourgeois in this sense and we feel guilt for this, this is all repressed in this one act. However if we were to engage our intelligence more, we see that this is a false representation of ethical action.
Fair-trade is yet to show real results in the way that it operates. In her article Does Fair-trade Make a Difference?, Karla Utting-Chamorro states that there is “little evidence on the effectiveness of fair-trade as a development tool” (586). It is successful in getting farmers paid more, this is evident in its own data, however it does not deliver on its own promise to alleviate poverty and to develop an international ethical business model. Due to the “inconsistent data acting as a barrier” (586) we cannot be sure of the true extent of its failures, however we can know for sure that due to the corrupt lines of capital (bad governments, desperate poverty etc) that most of the money generated this way is either lost or embezzled in an inconsistent line of production. We naturally do not think of this at the point of purchase of the coffee. We can see that this is what Wilde was discussing when he stated that the emotions control us in this process, rather than our intellectual faculties, purchasing blindly to quell our own guilt. We are manipulated and as such are not able to make rational decisions. Charity, as a concept, is not the problem here, it is our whole approach to big charity and ethical consumption that needs to change. First we need to cure the need for this type of charity rather than to continually bandage up the wound. Money is the biggest hurdle to all of this.
Money, and the spectre of big business, haunts the majority of charities and this is especially evident in the big multinational foundations. According to the British Charity Commission, as of the 30th June 2014 there were over 8,302 charities that made takings of between £500,000 to £5,000,000 annually, resulting in an overall turnover of £12.502bn. This is completely blown out of the water in regards to charities that make >£5,000,000, which stood at 1,976, taking in a revenue of £44.165bn. This ultimately contributes to 69.6% of all money given to charities within a year and it is owned and manipulated by the very top percent. As well as this the number of charities that take in over £10million a year has increased two thirds since 1999. This is in part nothing to do with the charitable nature of the UK resident. New and aggressive marketing campaigns, whether door to door, on the street, by telephone or through the internet, have targeted more people in new ways. Our emotional guilt is being consistently exploited more and more each year and as our standard of life (symbolically) increases, so does this innate need to compensate this with emotional and uncritical responses. Charity is now just business.
We see this change especially in the way the boardrooms are structured within charities at the top of the charity wealth scale. According to the Telegraph over 30+ CEOs at the top of UK charities earn more than £100,000 a year. This is problematic in a few senses, altruism is almost nonexistent in these boardrooms and it becomes less about the charitable act of giving, than more about the act of giving in the first place. Anyone can see this when they take a walk around any major city centre where there will be undoubtedly charitable poachers trying to take advantage of any passer-by. I’m not for a second stating that some of these people are not acting out of sheer love for the cause, however they are paid, they have quotas and they use aggressive means to make you feel guilty and part with your cash. This is against the very heart of charity, it should result from a want to do something better personally and to fix problems, rather than to throw money at the situation. This level of activism and the gross amounts of money involved have not solved any problems, they have instead given us a fresh batch of problems to deal with.
All of this points to the fact that we need to rethink how charity is used within our society, we cannot however do what Wilde wishes us to do and to embrace communism and socialism, history teaches us otherwise. Instead we have to engage our collective intelligence and somehow dull our highly emotive reactions. This is obviously easier said than done, but we need to target and ask why we need charity in the first place. All of the figures point to charity becoming more and more perverted by business ethics, instead of functioning with the ethics of compassion and emotion and this needs to change. Two things need to happen, we need to displace mega charities who do not hold, as Wilde states, the “solution” but rather they provide “aggravation of the difficulty” and finally we must reveal to ourselves that “the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that [problems like] poverty will be impossible”. We must question why we need charity, how we can let society get away with this manipulation and finally criticise our active involvement in allowing the problems to be prolonged, instead of solved. Big charities need to become our target and need to be criticised openly and within as many public spheres as possible.
There is not enough space here to deconstruct how all of this is possible however, by just being critical, some would say cynical, when approaching and discussing this subject means that we will finally be switched on. The problem never was charity as an abstract concept, but rather how charity is used as a tool for covering up society’s flaws. Smaller, streamlined charities should be supported but every act of charitable giving needs to be first questioned before acted upon. We have gotten to the point of over saturation and maybe we can alleviate a tiny amount of suffering, but until we get to the heart of the problems nothing will be changed and it will be an uphill and futile struggle. Putting a bucket of ice over your head for your Facebook friends enjoyment does not help the situation, neither does donating the proceeds raised to an American based charity. In doing this we are merely taking part in a selfish act of both perverted egotism and of guilt repression. We need to fully engage, not with the awareness of one problem, but of a deconstruction and restructuration of the whole problematic situation. It is only when we start to question amongst ourselves how charity has allowed to become an underhanded means of capitalist oppression, can we get to the source of the problem, rather than merely patching it up? We need cures not band aids.
 Utting- Chamorro, Karla. 2005. Does Fair-trade make a difference?. Development in Practice. Vol. 15. no. 3/4. (June, 2005) pp. 584-599.