Charity, Compassionate Capitalism and the Alms Race

The 7th of March marks the end of fair trade fortnight; and what a noble campaign it is too, not simply serving to allow indifferent middle class westerners to drop a couple of coins in a pot, but actually a way of addressing some of the pitfalls of our trade system in a way that promotes fair remuneration for hard work in the world’s most impoverished countries.

But the sort of indifferent charity that the fair trade campaign seeks to undercut is very much an ongoing, prevalent part of our society that despite all of its pretences must be challenged in a very particular way.

A rather simplified version of its history is as follows; somewhere in the middle of the yuppie revolution and the bursting of the housing bubble/financial meltdown of September 2008, began a trend within cohorts of very wealthy white men that pursued philanthropy rather than fast cars and girls (perhaps, given the type of the people these were, it had something to do with their age).

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek, whose book Violence (2008) mentions a great deal the new age philanthropists or, as they are most ill-fittingly called in some circles the “liberal communists”. Proponents include Bill Gates and George Soros the Chief Executives of Google, IBM, Intel and eBay. What is so unique about these characters is that they perceive themselves as philanthropists first and businessmen second, who advocate social responsibility and the breakdown of bureaucratisation, set up humanitarian programs and wax lyrical about the environment, and, sure, if they make a little money in the running what is the harm (in the words of Ted Turner, the largest individual landowner in North America, “its how you use [wealth]. So you have to say I can do better, and I will feel better by giving this up, than I’ll do if I just keep it”).

We can see Žižek’s logic here; of course these billionaires can give up their cash for world hunger, it’s no skin off their backs. But Žižek’s particular critique is much more than that. Whether certain figureheads for capitalism have a conscience or not is quite beside the point, what is important here, for Žižek, is that capitalism still has its underlying logic, and that is the ruthless pursuit of profit. The charity element is a way to conceal the truth, a way to appease guilt, or at least to be perceived as appeasing guilt.

No way is Žižek the first to notice such a peculiar function of the logic of charity, the English utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick also had a sneaky suspicion about the ego massaging, smug co-ordinates of charity when he mentioned “the old and eminent virtue of charity”, which, as freelance historian journalist Jonathan Rée has recently pointed out, ‘he thought, encouraged “indiscriminate almsgiving” of a kind that did more to cheer the giver than to alleviate inequality or help the poor’.

The phenomenon has not been lost on our literary canon either. The 1897 novel Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling follows the fifteen-year-old, rich-kid son of a railroad tycoon, Harvey Cheyne Jr. whose perversions take him to regain vitality by brief periods of intimacy with poor folk in what, at first, seems like compassion but is really a kind of “vampiric exploitation”.

Michael Edwards, who is the distinguished senior fellow at Demos in New York, and the author of Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World also worries about what effect the new “philanthro-capitalists” will have on future modes of mass movements against poverty. He said on CiF recently:

The philanthro-capitalists’ desire for data and control also directs the lion’s share of resources to the biggest and most accessible NGOs that can absorb large amounts of foreign funding, not the social movements that can pressure their own governments to perform in the public interest and mobilise large numbers of people to defend their rights

Though cynically we can take a sound guess that charity is often used as a way of deflecting guilt, it also maintains the existing systematic gap between rich nations and poor nations. Though fair trade operates at roughly the same logic (rich corporations paying a poor producer an arbitrary sum now known as a fair wage) it is a way of taking farmers out of their poverty that relies on the mobilisation of interest groups and people, not the guilt-ridden exploration by fat cats, engaged in what we can safely say is now an alms race.

Charity may well be the means by which the rich West pretends to do something in order to sleep at night, but that doesn’t mean it should stop because as a consequence some change is made. Simply giving money isn’t enough, so until the systemic inequality between nations has ended (no date has yet been decided), people-motivated initiatives like fair trade are the only means we have, just let us not get too surprised when odious corporations like Nestle jump on the bandwagon (it’s called compassionate capitalism now).