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The Hidden Problem of Charity
July 30, 2010 9:02 PM   Subscribe

"Charity degrades and demoralizes." The latest RSA Animate adapts a lecture by Slavoj Zizek. Previously. Previously.
posted by sunnichka (38 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've never seen such entertaining subtitles. Also, great post with thought-provoking content.
posted by edguardo at 9:20 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Awesome idea, loved the style, but I have to say that it was kind of hard to concentrate trying to follow both the drawings and the unusual way in which Zizek talks.
posted by Corduroy at 9:29 PM on July 30, 2010


Great method of illustrating a speaker's points, with the mixed blessing that it makes everything clearer, including the parts in which the speaker is full of shit.

No differentiation between the process of doing business ethically and trying to do no harm and the process of MARKETING IT AS SUCH? That ain't charity, just another business model.

And I always roll my eyes when somebody non-ironically quotes that "communism is socialism with a human face". I figured out in college 35 years ago that "communism is totalitarianism with an attempted human face". If there's a Single Glorious Leader With A Massive Ego at the top (Stalin, Mao, etc.), it's an organizational pyramid with a Pharaoh, not socialist system for the benefit of all AT ALL. It's at the core of why "socialism" is so unfairly derided. And the opposite of socialism is anti-socialism (as in "anti-social"). End of old rant.

I'm going to check out some of the other RSAnimations. There's one that uses the HIDEOUS term "Freakonomics" in its title. I may watch that one first just to get something else to rant at.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:13 PM on July 30, 2010 [7 favorites]


I liked the artwork, but the message, about 'ethical' consumerism, applies to only a particular sort of shopper. The "apples at twice the price" example refers to a small segment of my local (Canadian) grocery store, which includes attempts to buy into food trends varying from sugar free jams and whole wheat pasta, to alternative culture cuisines, to convenience foods and the whole segment of non-charitable but equally fluffy morality tinged food trends like diet yogurts and 100 calorie snack packs. Most of my grocery store is unfair trade, pesticide covered, waxed and wrapped in plastic.

Charity combined with products, such as the project red or the breast cancer pink campaigns seems to be very successful at getting people to buy stuff, but it's competing with the branding of things claiming it'll make you popular, healthy, slim, worldly, and so on. I imagine, as much as this is a waste of money, it's a natural side effect of all the choice we have in picking otherwise fundamentally identical products.

Otherwise this looks like a repeat of "Give a man a fish/Teach a man to fish", without considering the ramifications of trying to fix the problems of the poor. Talking about creating a society where poverty is basically impossible needs to have a plan to actually put it into action, otherwise you might as well talk about a society free from disease, or impact damage.

For example in the case of fixing people's harelips abroad, he's correct that malnutrition and grinding poverty don't go away because a child can now have a normal looking smile, but how do you feed all the third world mothers well enough to avoid this from happening in the next generation without niggling little problems like respecting the sovereignty of foreign governments?
posted by Phalene at 10:19 PM on July 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


Does charity really degrade and demoralize? I guess you could ask the kids who used to have cleft palates, if you can get them to stop smiling long enough to answer.
posted by Missiles K. Monster at 10:28 PM on July 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


David Harvey: The Crises of Capitalism
posted by homunculus at 11:20 PM on July 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


He's mainly focused on corporate social responsibility, cause marketing and top-down melioristic structures. As a professional NPO fundraiser, I am sympathetic to his complaints on those specific issues but I don't think it describes the charitable sector as a whole extremely well. If anything, the trend for the past two decades in what charities / NPOs do (especially orgs dealing with international development and social justice) has been towards empowering individuals, affinity groups and communities with money, information and assistance, rather than running their affairs.

My response as a radical to Zizek would be that charity and nonprofit institutions are going to be the core of any alternative social infrastructure put in place to replace capitalism. I personally favour the "dual power" idea current in anarchism, where the structures of future society must at least be initiated (and often more than that) in our current society, rather than just waiting for some far-off revolution to solve everything in an orgiastic burst of violence. Many grassroots NPOs provide a good model for demonstrating how a radical social system like Parecon's stakeholder based ownership model can actually be put into practice. They familiarise people with the operations and duties of autonomous organisation, both to ameliorate capitalism-induced problems in the here and now and in preparation for the autonomously organised society they may one day create and live in.

Frankly, between this and his "Violence" book, Zizek's been turning out some real garbage lately. He seems to just want to complain about the status quo without having to pay attention to what anyone other than a few limousine liberals in Western Europe and America are thinking and doing. He's like the David Brooks of the radical left.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:32 PM on July 30, 2010 [11 favorites]


We should definitely try to make a world where "poverty is impossible," can't argue with that. It's going to take a while, though, (like, a few generations, depending on just why poverty becomes impossible.) I don't see why we can't individually be charitable while we're at it. His Starbucks/Tom's/Organic rant is about not being led to feel that by consuming we are in any way contributing to such a world. If we can buy Donut Shop coffee for less than Starbucks, then theoretically we could buy Dunut Shop coffee and give the difference to "charity". Why not? Is Starbucks's claim of "social responsibility" disengenuous? Quite possibly. (After all, you don't know where they get those beans.) And if it is, and you can find a way to charitize the price differential, then buying Starbucks is one thing you can choose. The hope is to choose the Donut Shop coffee and spend the difference on world building, unless you really do like Starbucks better. Then, buying the cheaper coffee would be sacrificing, and that's a whole other rap. Generally, it's better to be profligate than led.
posted by carping demon at 12:18 AM on July 31, 2010


I figured out in college 35 years ago that "communism is totalitarianism with an attempted human face".

Christ, how do people get out of middle school without learning the difference between communism and Leninism-Stalinism?
posted by cthuljew at 12:25 AM on July 31, 2010 [7 favorites]


Marx intended it do be something else, but in Real Life, Communism is Leninism-Stalinism and was clearly so by the time I was in middle school in the '60s.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:34 AM on July 31, 2010


Perhaps Mr. Zizek believes that capitalism entails absolute poverty as a necessary component. Therefore, he concludes that people engaging in capitalistic enterprise as creating poverty, no matter their intentions. I understand that there will always be an underclass in any capitalist society, but I don't think that it's been proven that this underclass needs to be poor in an absolute sense. The idea that no one should live in abject poverty can co-exist with the idea that certain members of society should have more than others based on their value to society. So, why would one person not want to behave in such a way that they get what they want (a cup of coffee, say) while their fellow human beings also get what they deserve (a fair amount of money for growing that coffee)?

What we are seeing in the behavior of consumers choosing fair trade (arguably, I admit), organic, local, sweatshop-free, carbon-neutral, non-toxic, recycled, recyclable and/or compostable products is enlightenment. People are trying to do good. Granted, marketers are going to exploit people's desire to do something beneficial, cf. Bill Hicks. That's what they do. But, let's not become so cynical as to believe that members of capitalist cultures are merely being suckered again when they finally start reassessing and realigning their values. Some people haven't gotten it yet, they haven't woken up, and they're getting bamboozled by these trends for conscientiousness. Many others are saying, hey, we've found a better way, a way of doing things where everyone wins. Or, at least no one loses.

Muhammad Yunus, for one, has made the argument that capitalism is a marvelous, but decidedly incomplete economic system. It is incomplete because it depends on humans acting only as money-grubbers. So many of the myths of capitalism, with which we have been inculcated, reinforce and celebrate this idea of people as nothing more than bank account optimizers. Whether we take this as the result of societal pressure to "succeed" or some biological imperative to control more resources, we can easily see that it's simply not the case. In fact, it takes a lot of work, telling these myths and celebrating avarice, to get people to think in this way. People are not solely economic units fixated on earning wealth. We all want the world to be a better place, to do well by others, to lessen suffering and increase happiness. (The reasons behind this can be both altruistic and selfish, but that's beside the point.) If given the choice between maximizing the bottom line of profit and respecting a triple bottom line of profits, environmental impact and societal impact, a rational person (and any sentient, emotional creatures like ourselves) will choose the latter. This is human nature.

I believe that the opposition of my idea above with Mr. Zizek's idea that we are merely assuaging our guilt for our own participation in a corrupt system is what got him labeled a misanthrope. He doesn't think that people are misguided by marketing to pay a premium for "caring", he thinks that people don't actually care and wouldn't, if given the chance. I find that truly sad. For, while it may be a Sisyphean task, we have to believe that once we enlighten people on the impact of their actions, they will choose the right course. It is already heartbreaking to think of the enormity of this system that fetishizes commodities, exports pollution to other countries, oppresses the weak for the benefit of the rich and adds fuel to the fire of global warming. I simply cannot believe that all 6 billion of us are willingly and knowingly taking part in our mutual destruction like so many sociopathic masochists. No, I have to believe that we are incredibly, galactically foolish, but we are not evil.

We can learn to do better. Some of us have learned to stop being imperialistic meliorists. We have come to realize that perhaps there is a better way to secure our daily bread than under the auspices of enormous agribusiness oligopolies. We have finally started to come around to the notion, quietly a-hum in the secret chambers of our hearts, that, despite the vapidity and carelessness with which we act all too often, we are compassionate, considerate and ineffably kind human beings.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 1:01 AM on July 31, 2010 [6 favorites]


I do kind-of-sort-of agree with Zizek on a lot of this, especially the idea of capitalism building up with one hand what it's tearing down with another. At the same time, though, the idea of the remedies being part of the disease because they hide the system's real ugliness - 'the worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves' - doesn't sit well at all. Surely that's just playing into another harmful view of how 'charity' should function, that we somehow need to see the poor act out some big Dickensian spectacle of grinding misery for our benefit before we can/should work on fixing the problem?
posted by Catseye at 1:03 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Catseye: I don't think he just meant that we need the spectacle, but that the poor are prevented from experiencing the full misery of their structural position by charity. As a result, the structure of capitalism is never actually challenged from below.
posted by mariokrat at 1:58 AM on July 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


Catseye: I think the point was more that masters who treat their slaves well prevent the slaves from working to fix the problem.
posted by cthuljew at 1:59 AM on July 31, 2010


For example in the case of fixing people's harelips abroad, he's correct that malnutrition and grinding poverty don't go away because a child can now have a normal looking smile, but how do you feed all the third world mothers well enough to avoid this from happening in the next generation without niggling little problems like respecting the sovereignty of foreign governments?

I think you've missed his central point here (the one which Mr Wilde and I are in agreement with him): the worst slave owners were the kind ones.

The reason you DON'T provide the charity is that you alleviate the conditions that are in place due to systemic inequality. By doing this you rob the masses of their revolutionary zeal. The homeless guy on the street should be on the barricades tearing down the system that puts him there. As long as the capitalists are able to get the working classes onside, feeding the poor, then the problem never comes to a head.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:26 AM on July 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


Do they, though? Again, it seems to be buying into a fairly simplified idea of human misty and happiness (which isn't a very Zizek-like thing to do, so I'm sure he's got more to say on that, but): that anything short of grinding, awful, merciless, here's your-starving-baby-being-watched-by-a-vulture misery is somehow short of the 'real' thing, if only through disguising it. If you're in a poor country being ripped to pieces by global capitalism, are you honestly going to shrug off the problem and not bother getting angry just because someone fixed your kid's cleft palate?

OTOH, I do totally agree that feeling better about this from our perspective in the Starbucks-buying world is something that's getting packaged and getting sold to us alongside our coffee. Which isn't to say Starbucks should stop selling fair-trade coffee, but, yeah. It's a tough one.
posted by Catseye at 3:34 AM on July 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


Marx intended it do be something else...
It pre-dates Marx (think of the vision of Winstanley) and contemporaries of the great analyst of capitalism offered their visions of communism too. It's one of the great tragedies of the 20th century to my mind that this most humane and necessary of our visions has become associated in the minds of many only with the bureaucratic Leninist states.
posted by Abiezer at 3:35 AM on July 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


I love these animations, thanks for sharing.

As for Zizek's points, it's an interesting look at how modern capitalism lets people alibi themselves by personal decisions. I think some of his points are slightly off (people should be going for organic fruit because of the question of pesticide content in non-organic fruit, not any kind of ethical dimension) but on the whole he's got some good ones.

The whole question of "communism is not Leninism/Stalinism" is off; I would say that Victor Serge expressed the bulk of my feelings (being myself a Trotskyist):

“It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?” – From Lenin to Stalin, 1937.
posted by graymouser at 3:54 AM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


The reason you DON'T provide the charity is that you alleviate the conditions that are in place due to systemic inequality. By doing this you rob the masses of their revolutionary zeal.

You do. On the other hand, telling someone they and their children must starve and/or be sick until they're angry enough to fight for the cause I think is best for them seems a bit paternalistic. As well as insanely cruel. Like the opposite of rice missionaries.

I think people know when the system is screwing them over and I don't think charity is the thing stopping them from fighting it. If you took the charity away, would they fight then? probably not. They'd be too busy trying not to starve to death - that sort of thing keeps you busy. The children with cleft palates - their parents weren't up in arms about it then mollified by a free surgery, they were living as best they could then got a free surgery then carried on living as best they could, slightly better off.

It isn't up to the poor to fight our revolutions for us, and they are our revolutions despite who we think they'd benefit the most. What is stopping us from buying fair trade and lobbying for change. I don't think I've solved any systemic inequality by buying at a reasonable price from one farmer, but I bet that farmer is relatively happy about it.

We insist the burden of change is on the people least able to do anything about it. Or that ameliorating harm is a bad thing in any case. Sure we buy into a lifestyle and some of us will consider our work done, but that's the problem, not the charity.
posted by shinybaum at 6:21 AM on July 31, 2010 [9 favorites]


Er... hadn't Lenin been dead for thirteen years in 1937? ... oh, the book is called From Lenin to Stalin. Sorry, carry on.
posted by XMLicious at 6:25 AM on July 31, 2010


"It is sad when people who give to the needy feel estranged from the objects of their generosity. They can take little, if any, relish from their acts of charity; therefore, are generous our of their duty rather than delight." - Maya Angelou
posted by lysdexic at 6:45 AM on July 31, 2010


oneswellfoop: "And I always roll my eyes when somebody non-ironically quotes that "communism is socialism with a human face"

Did you actually listen to what he's saying before jumping in and rolling your eyes and hating THE COMMUNISM? Here, I'll write it down for you:

"...you remember - you are not old enough, I am - 30-40 years ago how we were crazy. We were dreamingk about 'socialism with a human face'".

One of the problems we face in this discussion is that people are so entrenched in their reactions to some WORDS that we can't even talk rationally about these issues. Which are, I suggest, kind of important.
posted by sneebler at 7:24 AM on July 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


I liked his point about the worst slave owners being the ones who were nicest to their slaves. By being nice to them, they prevented the slaves from rising up as quickly as they should have to such an unfair system. Being nice to them made them think that things weren't really that bad, and it prevented the real changes that needed to occur from happening.

Similarly, we are doing the same thing today by treating people with HIV. By being nice to those people who have contracted that disease, we are prolonging suffering overall and preventing the real changes from occurring which need to occur. Namely, by treating people with HIV, we are encouraging them to keep having unprotected sex and sharing needles. If we would stop treating them medically, then people would be quicker to address causes of the problem in the first place.
posted by flarbuse at 7:57 AM on July 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


That point, about the worst slave owners being the kind ones, is basically just not true. Immiseration alone doesn't cause revolutionary or radical sentiments, it causes conditioned helplessness.

Even Lenin, who thought immiseration was an important part of creating socialism in Russia, knew that it wasn't enough - he went out and created / seized control of counter-institutions like the Bolshevik party and alternative institutions like the soviets. Arguably, control of these kinds of institutions and the power they can gather is far more important for social change, since they can be effective even in the absence of widespread immiseration.,
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 8:29 AM on July 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Does charity really degrade and demoralize? I guess you could ask the kids who used to have cleft palates, if you can get them to stop smiling long enough to answer."

If you listened to the entire video Zizek explicitly mentions the value of charity. However, his point is that it's not good enough and stunts true solutions to the problem.

Okay, the child get's his cleft palate fixed. He's smiling while still digging through the garbage heaps of the slums that he was born in. That's better than digging through the garbage heaps with your community treating you like a monster. Then he grows older, has a child with a cleft palate and has to go looking for more chartity (which may or may not be available) so his child can go digging through the garbage heaps of the same slums with a smile on his face. If I'm that child's father you bet I'm degraded and demoralized by charity because charity is a crapshoot that won't break a seeming endless cycle of poverty and suffering I see unfolding beneath me. I'll still take chartity and be happy for what I get but the social inertia of what is sadly looked upon as the gold standard solution for suffering at the hands of poverty is getting in the way of better answers.

Zizek's point is not that he loves seeing children with cleft palates suffer. His point is that we have to change the source of the problem (the greater economic system) and not just the symptoms of the problem with a patchwork of handouts.
posted by En0rm0 at 9:35 AM on July 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


A lot of developmental charities already seem to know this. There's a group of ex-child prostitutes working towards freeing other child prostitutes in Nepal, there are several groups of ex-child labourers working towards improving the conditions of current child labourers in South Asia. How did they get to that position? charity. If charities had left them to it they'd still be child labourers too poor to take control, too busy to get educated and presumably too oppressed to get as angry as they'd need to be to fight for their cause.

There are problems with charitable giving but social inertia hasn't been one of them for many charities for a long time. As for the side issue of cleft palates, I can see how it doesn't do much to change the world but that isn't their aim, that's just simple relief of individual human suffering. Yes in the long run it isn't great strategy, but the people already in the short run are better off for it.

I don't see how this is an either or situation. I'd really like to participate in getting that garbage heap family off the garbage heap, but if I wait until the world is perfectly fair to do it that kid won't be smiling for a long time. Especially if I'm waiting for Coke or McDonalds to decide that cute kids with smiles aren't as big a priority for them as destroying capitalism is.
posted by shinybaum at 10:01 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


These videos are great! Thanks!
posted by painquale at 10:20 AM on July 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


That point, about the worst slave owners being the kind ones, is basically just not true. Immiseration alone doesn't cause revolutionary or radical sentiments, it causes conditioned helplessness.

He's not claiming that charity prevents revolution. He's saying that kind slave owners provide ideological justification for the elite slave-holding class, as in the claim that slaves benefit from slavery, or colonial subjects benefit from colonialism. Often we think that oppression is sustained by ideological right-wing beliefs that oppressed people deserve their oppression, the point here is that it is also sustained by even sentimental ideology that nominally acknowledges the humanity of the oppressed.

Charity is bad in that it promotes capitalist ideology in the West, because they are forced to claim that whatever concrete problems they're working on are solvable, if only we generously open our wallets. "For just $2 a day, you could send a child to a school, etc." And how charities and nonprofits are under pressure to demonstrate how effective they are, they create heart-warming newsletters illustrating how much progress is being made. These are necessary because if we didn't believe that charity could solve the problems of capitalism, we wouldn't give. So the exchange is very direct: we give money to charity, and in return, they provide us with the illusion that nothing really needs to change.

This is what Zizek calls "post-ideological" ideology. We no longer believe in big political causes, there are only concrete problems to be solved through charity and integrating the poor into global capitalism through developmental aid. He points this out not to discourage people from giving to charity, but to encourage a return to revolutionary Leftist political though, although he admits that Socialism as practiced in the 20th century was a political and ethical catastrophe, even more so than Nazism.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:03 AM on July 31, 2010 [8 favorites]


Similarly, we are doing the same thing today by treating people with HIV. By being nice to those people who have contracted that disease, we are prolonging suffering overall and preventing the real changes from occurring which need to occur. Namely, by treating people with HIV, we are encouraging them to keep having unprotected sex and sharing needles. If we would stop treating them medically, then people would be quicker to address causes of the problem in the first place.

This is either Swiftian satire or Randian idiocy. It's amazing how fine the line is between those two.
posted by quakerjono at 11:41 AM on July 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is what Zizek calls "post-ideological" ideology. We no longer believe in big political causes, there are only concrete problems to be solved through charity and integrating the poor into global capitalism through developmental aid.

Except that developmental aid is just a small fraction of what is actually integrating the poor into global capitalism. Much more of this is being done through plain old international trade. The cultural capitalism he's talking about (Starbucks et al) is a thin patina on top of the the massive flows of goods and services in and out of the developing world.
posted by storybored at 1:51 PM on July 31, 2010


I like Zizek, but I think he's a sophist. And his communist bromides would be far less palatable to American audiences without his adorable Eastern European accent.
posted by thescientificmethhead at 2:17 PM on July 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


Slavoj Zizek has many interesting ideas. Sadly, most of them are wrong.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:23 PM on July 31, 2010


Slavoj Zizek - We're Only Human
posted by AlsoMike at 6:17 PM on July 31, 2010


Exactly what AlsoMike said. Exactly.
posted by cthuljew at 7:35 PM on July 31, 2010


To keep it short, "Charity cheapens and degrades" sounds like an excuse for privilege to feel good about exploiting, or to ignore without regret, the misery of others.

Along the same lines, I'm reminded of a pithy remark posted to the net a year or so ago: "We made work our safety net. There's no work."

Recently a US congressman - resorting typically for his party with ridicule because he had no cogent argument - referred to US long-term unemployed as 'hobos'. IMO that kind of disconnect in so-called leadership deserves swift retribution.
posted by Twang at 4:48 AM on August 1, 2010


Living in the End Times According to Slavoj Žižek.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:51 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


I will be very upfront about my lack of knowledge regarding communism, charity, or capitalism in our current global scale. There are many others here that can most likely put me to shame, but I still liked this piece and I think I get what he's going for.

I'll use his examples of Starbucks and Tom's Shoes. My understand is that buying the products these companies sell isn't a bad thing, but it's not helping remedy the situations that exist that caused them to use their particular business model. Buying some shoes from them will get a pair of shoes to some shoeless kids, but it's not doing anything to change the system that caused them to be shoeless in the first place.

Personally, I have some friends that cause a similar reaction in me. There are various positive or right things that they do like buying organic, recycling, or being a vegetarian. They all think they are helping, but I just don't think they are. Of course, they can live their live as they see fit, but I don't think their actions are doing anything to change society for the better.
posted by damionbroadaway at 12:42 PM on August 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


To Hell With Good Intentions
Here's another article along the same lines. It's a speech that was given in the sixties to a group from the United States volunteering in Mexico.
posted by sunnichka at 8:06 PM on August 3, 2010


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