9 Sep 2010
In this Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (RSA) animated video, Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, investigates the ethical implications of charitable giving, as suggested by big business. Zizek draws attention to an important debate while the creative genius of the RSA illustrators is enormously entertaining to watch.
Find an edited transcript of Zizek’s speech below courtesy of Alternet.
I want to develop a line of thought about one point: why, in our economy, charity is no longer just an idiosyncrasy of some good guys here and there, but the basic constituent of our economy.
In today's capitalism more and more the tendency is to bring [making money and charity] together in one and the same cluster, so that when you buy something, your anti-consumerist duty to do something for others, for the environment and so on, is already included into it.
If you think I'm exaggerating, you have them around the corner. Walk into any Starbucks Coffee, and you will see how they explicitly tell you -- I quote their campaign: "It's not just what you are buying, it's what you are buying into." And then they describe it to you. Listen: "When you buy Starbucks, whether you realize it or not you are buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You are buying into a coffee ethics. Through our Starbucks 'Shared Planet' program, we purchase more fair-trade coffee than any company in the world, ensuring that the farmers who grow the beans receive a fair price for their hard work. And we invest in and improve coffee growing practices and communities around the globe. It's a good coffee karma." And a little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the place with comfortable chairs, and so on..
This is what I call cultural capitalism at its purest. You don't just buy a coffee, you buy your redemption from being only a consumerist. You know, you do something for the environment, you do something to help starving children in Guatemala, you do something to restore the sense of community here.
I could go on -- like, the almost absurd example of this is so-called Tom's Shoes, an American company whose formula is "one-for-one." They claim for every pair of shoes you buy with them, they give a pair of shoes to some African nation. One act of consumerism, but included in it, you pay for doing something "[good]."
This generates a kind of -- how should I put it? A semantic over-investment or burden. You know that it's not just buying a cup of coffee. It's at the same time you fulfill a whole series of ethical duties. This logic is today almost universalized. ...
So my point is that this very interesting short-circuit where the very act of egotist consumption already includes the price for its opposite.
Based against all of this, I think that we should return good old Oscar Wilde, who still provided the best formulation against this logic of charity. Let me just quote a couple of lines from the beginning of his The Soul of Modern Men Under Socialism, where he points out that, a quote: "It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought."
[People] find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this .... Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected, intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim....The worst slave owners were those were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it....Charity degrades and demoralizes....It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.
I think these lines are more actual than ever. Nice as it sounds, basic income, or this kind of a trade with the rich, is not a solution.
There is, for me, another series of problems. This is for me the last desperate attempt to make capitalism work for socialism: let's not discard the evil, let's make the evil itself work for the good. 30, 40 years ago, we were dreaming about socialism with a human face. As it is today, the outmost, radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face. We have the basic rules of the game, we make it a little bit more human, more tolerant, with a little bit more welfare.
Let's give to the devil what belongs to the devil, and let's recognize that, in the last decades at least, until recently, at least in Western Europe. I don't think that in any moment in human history such a relatively large percentage of population live in such a relative freedom, welfare, security, and so on.
I see this gradually, but nonetheless seriously, threatened.
I'm just saying that the only way to save the [cherished values of liberalism] is to do something more. I'm not against charity in an abstract sense. Of course it's better than nothing. Just, let's be aware that there is an element of hypocrisy there. .For example, of course we should help the children. It's horrible to see a child whose life is ruined because of an operation which costs twenty dollars. But, in the long term, you know, as Oscar Wilde would have said, if you just operate on the child then they will live a little bit better, but in the same situation which produced them.
Slavoj Zizek is a philosopher and critical theorist, and author of many books.