‘First as tragedy, then as farce’ is how philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes charity. He believes it’s an idiosyncrasy – one that began with good intentions but has been battered into shape by capitalism and changed into something that perpetuates poverty, and his logic is surprisingly simple. Take TOMS for example, an American shoe company whose motto is ‘one for one’ – they give one free pair of shoes to those disadvantaged in Africa for every pair we buy from them in the west. What Zizek argues is that you can’t solve issues this large with such short term solutions. All this does is it allows people a small necessity in a country full of horrors (in this case clean feet, but no food or safety).
When we buy products, we buy into something that is much larger than the company itself. Zizek gives the example of Starbucks and how we don’t just buy into coffee, but ‘coffee ethics’. Starbucks claim to have a ‘shared planet programme’, in which they buy more Fairtrade coffee than any other chain in the world. Thus, he argues, you buy into ‘cultural capitalism’, whereby you do some good to absolve your guilt as a consumer. Zizek argues this is not as good as it’s made out to be. Of course we are moved by tragedies around the world and want to solve them, but even with the best intentions we often end up prolonging suffering. Our remedies are part of the disease. Rather controversially, he argues that the worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves, as they slowed down the process of the real horror of the system being exposed.
To this end, Zizek comes to the conclusion that “It is immoral to use private property in developing countries in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property there.” In other words, we can’t trade with the rich to help the poor. This process of trading with the rich has meant that large quantities of monetary aid actually ends up returning to MEDCs when money is spent on development. We repair with our left hand what we damage with our right.
Zizek believes we have come to the unspoken conclusion that it is best to keep the poor alive and perhaps even entertained. We believe that if people are happy in the moment, we’ve solved the issue. This is the worst way to help those in need. By doing this we systematically neglect to combat much larger problems. By being charitable and paying for operations that cost £20 for children in India, we haven’t solved the issue, we just prolong it. Doctors are still expensive, and as soon as we stop paying, the issue we’ve been lead to believe we solved is just as pertinent as it was 30 years ago. Zizek argues that the only way we can really stop people needing charity (which is the ultimate aim of charity) is to develop a system whereby poverty is impossible. It’s hard, but it’s better.
What’s even more interesting about Zizek is that although he is a Marxist, he doesn’t hope for a return of 20th Century communist ideologies, which he describes as an ‘ethical catastrophe’, but he believes we’re approaching a ‘zero point’ in our timeline as a world, and that without a fresh look on charity we are in danger of serious ecological and social disasters. In short, the only way to protect the such-loved, core values of liberalism is to do something more, something better and something that lasts much longer.