Charity and Capitalism

Back when I used to answer the telephone and occasionally had to suffer calls exhorting me to purchase something or donate money to some cause, there was one call that prompted a bit of thought.  The caller was soliciting money to create a fund for the widows and families of fallen police officers and fire fighters.  Certainly, this seems like a good cause.  But, I wondered immediately:  is it?

Assuming that the situation was as dire as the person soliciting funds described — widows and families destitute and needing to sell their late bread earner’s medal to fend off starvation — it immediately occurred to me:  why is it this way?

In the abstract, I think we can all agree that public servants whose jobs put them in peril should have the benefit of sufficient life insurance or a special pension so that, should disaster occur, their survivors are not wanting for food or shelter.  In more practical, immediate terms, comes the question:  “How are you going to pay for that?”  In a culture where taxes are anathema, even essential services are run on tight budgets with analysts ever on the lookout for a way to cut costs.

Yet even those of us who’d grumble about increased taxes are likely to feel at least a little compulsion to contribute to a fund to protect the families of policemen and fire fighters if they die in the line of duty.  I felt that compulsion when I got that call.  I also wondered, contrarily, whether the existence of such a fund, sustained by contributions (and sapped to some extent by overhead), prevents the governments that employ police and firemen from doing the right thing and providing a benefit for the families of the fallen.

I was reminded of this as I read this article this morning.  It’s called “Against Charity” and its thesis is that making charitable contributions sustains the adverse effects of capitalism. Since capital insists on the commodification of everything — including necessities like water, food, shelter — the deprivation that occurs is an inevitable result of capitalist logic.  Moreover, capital sets the terms for the cost of pulling a child back from starvation or funding a desalination plant so some village can have water again.

On the one hand, if we can ease suffering we should surely do so.  On the other hand, what if our efforts to ease that suffering obscure the causes of the suffering and so sustain the conditions that make the suffering inevitable?  It’s very easy to consider abstract suffering — homeless people we don’t know on street corners, poverty and starvation in countries around the globe — and then adopt a “that’s just the way it is” attitude.  After all, there’s little most of us can do individually to make things better.

Charity makes us feel better and so enforces this sort of hopeless complacency that we use to blunt the sight of the suffering in the world.

In fact, capitalism has managed, to an extent, to commodify acts of giving themselves.  Slavoj Žižek has written about coffee shops that tout “fair trade coffee” giving the indication that the coffee they serve has been procured in less exploitative ways than other coffees.  Consequently, we don’t mind paying an extra dollar or so for this cup of comfort because it has been produced in a nicer way than other cups.  Charity and profit — merged. Capitalist logic.

It’s a complicated issue.  If we see no way to replace capitalism with an economic political system that operates more equitably for us all, shouldn’t we at least assuage the suffering that is capitalism’s inevitable result (capitalism serves capital, not people)?  Even if such kindness perpetuates the problem.



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