Capitalism, Radical Change, and Charity

I haven’t though carefully about the revolution against capitalism in a long time, but some very inquisitive friends of mine have provoked me to reconsider the issue again by sending me this video with Slavoj Zizek discussing the impulse to corporate charity or social responsibility. I think there’s a ton to say.

There are a lot of subtle points in this video, including a very timely observation about the commodification of helping people. We can buy coffee, tvs, and now, we can buy a feeling of good-will after we purchase fair trade coffee or shop at charitable boutiques. We buy our altruism pre-packaged as it were, and this worries people who think capitalism has a generally degenerative effect on human life.

There are more specific arguments, and one which is a constant theme in Zizek’s work, is that some things buy off resistance to capitalism as a system. If we can give charitably within capitalism, then we don’t feel so guilty about capitalism and we won’t have cause to sweep it away. Another example is environmental regulations. If we keep putting piecemeal reforms in place, we will never have to confront the fundamentally exploitative relationship we have with nature.

The problem I think with these types of arguments is that they are very nebulous. For example, Zizek says all these comments that sound pretty negative about charity but then says some words to the effect of “but of course I’m not opposed to charity, its terrible for people to suffer when it could be alleviated, I just think it’s important to keep in mind that when we engage in socially responsible consumerism, we are using the system that excluded these people in the first place to help them.” But what does “keep in mind” mean. Should we just be aware of it? Or should those thoughts effect our actions, and if yes, then what should the actions be? An answer will turn on the specifics of capitalism.

Anyway, I get kind of rankled by the vague utopianism proposed by many far left thinkers, especially Zizek.

First, Zizek talks about how commodified charity makes us less resistant to capitalism, because it makes capitalistic exploitation look friendlier. But the reverse can be said as well: opposition to capitalism as a system makes us more resistant to reforms of capitalism that benefit average people (even though Zizek says he’s of course “not opposed to charity.”) Many utopian leftists continually poo poo marginal changes because they quote “entrench the system.” Then it is supposed to be a contradiction or somehow illegitimate to believe that socially responsible capitalism can be the antidote to brutal industrial capitalism (or whatever), since they are both forms of capitalism.

But this is just a straight logical fallacy. There are many situations where adding more of the same factor that created a problem, actually removes the problem. Here’s a classic example. Adding a few UN peacekeepers to an unstable country may (in fact usually does) cause more instability because there is now a new faction and both sides can hide behind peacekeepers or blame them to increase outrage in their own faction. However, the fact that some UN troops caused problems does not show that adding A LOT MORE troops would be even worse. Sometimes all that’s needed is enough troops. The surge might be an example of this. Some troops = insurgent militias. Even more troops = largely calm Iraq (I hate using mathematical symbols in posts, sorry about that). So, because industrial capitalism is bad doesn’t mean that adding more capitalism in the form of commodifying more things (like altruism) will make things worse. In fact, it seems that as capitalism has expanded, the world has become calmer and more prosperous.

Also, I want to make two more broad points. First, we can make capitalism look better by merely making it LOOK better or by actually making it better (which in turn makes it look better) just like we can make a crappy car look better by just changing the paint or by adding better tires (which actually makes it better). Zizek seems to think that socially responsible consumerism is MERELY a cosmetic change to capitalism, but I think that’s just false. It’s true, charity makes capitalism looks better, but only because it actually DOES make capitalism better (as new tires make a beat-up car look better), and so we should favor it. Zizek may be right that we buy fair trade starbucks out of guilt, but what’s wrong with that? It seems that this guilt is what has been driving a fairer, wealthier society for many decades now.

Now my last point is one about the “essence” of capitalism. Is capitalism itself, no matter what form it takes, bad? Or are only some types of capitalism bad? Zizek seems to think that since capitalism itself is bad, no amount of reforms (such as free trade starbucks) can redeem it. But I find this to be a pretty incredible claim. What is the essence of capitalism? I think the answer is free exchange, and in this boiled down form, what could be the problem? Pretend in the utopian future, where there is no property, you want help learning to sail, and I say I’ll help you if you teach me to fly a plane. Here a bargain is struck that makes both of us better off. Ta da, capitalism! And what if we make this a standing agreement every friday and then what if i make this bargain with even more people so that all I do is help people learn to sail (fair disclosure: I’m actually terrible at sailing) in return for things I want.  Now Zizek might be right that some types of capitalism are bad (say, crony capitalism, or wall street capitalism, or gilded age capitalism, or industrial capitalism, or whatever), but if the essence of capitalism is unobjectionable (free trade) then some number of reforms (to sand out the rough edges) + capitalism will be unobjectionable as well.

And what I mean is this: given that capitalism in its essence, is so common sensibly good (trade increases net benefits for all people) any desirable social or political arrangement will be, to some degree, capitalistic. Now, there is a BIG question about how capitalistic things should be, and me, being a boringly moderate liberal, think that the role of capitalism should be fairly circumscribed by democratic institutions, but that’s much different than saying capitalism PER SE must go.

Anyway, on net, I think Zizek uses somewhat elusive language to make things like socially responsible consumerism seem much more sinister than they are. If some people buy lattes to think they are doing good, then fine: after all, they are doing some good, though they are fooling themselves if they think all their moral responsibilities are taken care of. Psychologically, such smugness might mean that these people don’t give to famine relief or vote for redistributive policies, which would be bad, but I don’t think that it works that way. I think most people buy fair trade because they, like most other people, are being more and more struck by the need to help others and work for the benefit of all people.


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