Devil’s Advocate: Why charity is wrong

William Foley explores why charity is good in practice, but not good enough in theory.

The first thing that struck me about Dublin, having left the one-cinema town of my youth behind, was that it is a place in which a great amount of wealth is concentrated. A gawk into the boutique department stores, luxury soap vendors and designer eateries of Grafton, Wicklow and Henry Streets underscored my impression that rare aul Dublin town is a city of extraordinary riches. Indeed, the affluence is literally set in stone: the vast excesses of power and privilege are crystallised in the alternately elegant and imposing Georgian and neo-classical architecture of the British Empire, as well as the sleek glass and chrome high rises erected during the boom.

And yet, like every city, Dublin is a place of extremes. Never before had I been confronted with such obvious poverty.  It is not possible to avoid it: the woman with the pram outside Walter Mitty’s begging for money to feed her baby; the figures wrapped in sleeping bags huddled in the door of Brown Thomas; the man crouched by a phonebox on Stephen’s Green, an empty coffee cup filled with a few pennies jingling in his shaking hands.

But these ostensible signs of poverty conceal a deeper problem. According to the CSO’s most recent Survey of Income and Living Conditions, a quarter of the population is living in “deprivation” (defined as not having “the money to afford at least two goods and services which are generally considered the norm for other people in society”). More frighteningly, without social welfare payments, half the country would be at risk of poverty. The latest austerity budget will hardly improve matters.

In this light, the most natural response from a sensitive young student is to join VDP, or volunteer with the Simon community, or to donate their time and money to any of the vast amount of charitable organisations active in Ireland. Such a student should be praised: a charitable act is surely one of the most morally commendable actions any person can perform. Anyone who freely gives up their evenings to go on a soup run, places a few euro in a beggar’s lap or who donates items to charity shops is committing an indisputably good act. Charity, as a principle, represents everything that is best about humanity; selflessness, solidarity, altruism and good will. And yet, as a strategy for eliminating poverty, it is utterly wrong.

During the negotiation of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Garret Fitzgerald quipped that a certain proposal “sounds great in practice but how will it work in theory?” We must ask a similar question of the notion of institutional charity. In his essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde attacked those who tried to defeat poverty “by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.” Wilde makes the point that, by not taking account of the structural causes of poverty, the best people among us, those overflowing with altruistic feeling and good will, are those of us who, consequentially, do the worst deeds, “just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it”. Wilde lays the blame for poverty at the gilded feet of the capitalist system and concludes that “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”

“Charities themselves employ such dubious marketing tactics. Subscribers are regularly sent out fabulously produced glossy booklets replete with artfully composed pictures of starving Africans gratefully gobbling down packets of Plumpy’nut.”

The function of charity, ultimately, is to alleviate the symptoms of a monstrously diseased system. All it does is lance the boils and patch up the weeping sores. It never questions what rotten metabolic processes, what structural genetic defects, what imbalanced circulatory distributions generate the sweaty pallor, the nightly shakes, and the recurrent bouts of vomiting. Charity is a vital component of bourgeois ideology. Implicitly, it propagates the notion that the underlying structures of our political and economic systems are sound; that, perhaps, with a small bit of redistribution here, a wee aid package there, we can End Poverty in Our Lifetime. It is a message that spills from a thousand lips, be they those of self-flattering, ego-tripping clowns like Bono and Geldof, self-serious policy wonkers such as Jeffrey Sachs or genuine, well-meaning and selfless men and women such as your local SVP or Trócaire organiser.

Let me spell this out in simple figures. In a report released earlier this year, Oxfam calculated that “The top 100 billionaires added $240 billion to their wealth in 2012 – enough to end world poverty four times over.” The report indicated that inequality had worsened significantly in the last number of decades. Indeed, the aftermath of the financial crisis saw this trend accelerate “with the top 1% further increasing their share of income”. This is not an accident, this is not some contingent lapse in an otherwise functioning system; growing inequality has been an inevitable feature of capitalism since the Satanic Mills first burst forth blight-like across Yorkshire and the rest of northern England.

The only time when this yawning gap between economic classes was pulled ever so slightly in, was in the few decades following the interwar years when the organised working class flexed its muscles in the trade union movement and when the spectre of Communism leaned menacingly over the Berlin wall. Whatever gains were made for human decency in those years were subsequently pulverised by Reagan, the dearly departed Mrs Thatcher and neo-liberal goons such as Pinochet and Suharto.

Even worse, charity not only obscures the true causes of the maladies which it attacks, it encourages people to buy into this fundamentally unequal   system.  Just like the sexual revolution and Che Guevara, charity has been commodified. Slavoj Zizek, in his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Zizek strips bare the “logic of charity”. Companies such as Starbucks offer to make a negligible donation, say five cents, to charity every time you buy one of their overpriced products. Thus, people can indulge their inculcated consumer drives and, at the same time, erase the “consumer guilt” that is supposed to be the price of such indulgence. The consumer literally buys into a manipulative feedback loop of material and ethical satisfaction and is duly blinded to the role that multinationals such as Starbucks really play in the global economy.

Charities themselves employ such dubious marketing tactics. Subscribers are regularly sent out fabulously produced glossy booklets replete with artfully composed pictures of starving Africans gratefully gobbling down packets of Plumpy’nut. Charity has become a magic word whose very invocation can ward off criticism and bad press. Wealthy socialites justify their extravagant balls and feasts by holding them in support of the charitable cause du jour. Billionaire tax dodgers such as Denis O’Brien and the chivalrous Sir Anthony O’Reilly make ostentatious donations to the deserving poor. And so on.

What lies at the root of the problem with charity as an institution, is that it discourages critical thought. We are encouraged not to think about what actually causes poverty. Instead, we are urged to simply dip our hand in our pocket and shell out the cash. At best, we participate in the mass myopia of organised charity.

This fundamentally wrongheaded approach is illustrated by an anecdote told by Irish “intellectual” John Waters. Apparently, Waters once challenged Bob Geldof on whether the kind of charity being promoted by the Boomtown Rats frontman merely encouraged dependency and fed corruption. Geldof responded brusquely: “Give me a pound. Your useless, meandering philosophizing achieves nothing.” Much as the reader might sympathise with Geldof’s impatience with the insufferably smug Waters, the singer was fundamentally wrong in his approach. What is precisely needed when it comes to the problem of poverty is not a pound, but critical thinking. And not just general critical thinking, but critical thinking about capitalism. The philosopher Max Horkheimer once said that ‘Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.’ Today, we should adapt that line; if you are not willing to talk about capitalism, then remain silent about poverty. We live in a world where we could eliminate poverty in an instant by appropriating a mere fraction of the wealth of the hundred richest persons. And yet we live in a system where that is impossible. I will leave the last words with Oscar Wilde: “With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”