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The contradictions of charity

Written By: - Date published: 1:44 pm, September 14th, 2010 - 24 comments
Categories: capitalism - Tags:

Continental Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about ethical buying and charity and the contradictions they entail. I’m not sure I agree with him (I often don’t) but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

24 comments on “The contradictions of charity ”

  1. Fools Gold 1

    I was just thinking of this very concept today, while cleaning my girlfriends flat. I cleaned the bath room and shower, it was grimey and was unsightly. There was a little bit of mould. There was disgusting soap scum. I use that space I want it to be clean, because in my mind it should be clean.

    So I filled a bucket, I used her Eco-Store cleaning products to clean that bathroom. I used some recycled Earth Care paper towels to tidy up some mess I wanted to dry. When I was finished I threw away the paper towel into the bin, the bin was full so I took the plastic bag out, it is made from bio-degradable plastic and put it in the big bin, in there I put in a large trash sack of bio-degradable plastic. I looked at the shelf in the kitchen where the rest of the flat stores its stuff. The bin liners they had bought to replace that were the cheap nasty kinds, I looked at the cleaners they bought, again the cheap and nasty kind. I thought why? They are all well paid for what they do, they are not poor, they are in their early 30’s with good incomes and no dependants why does my partner buy these things? I fully support her in this decision. They can do this. I looked in the fridge, non free range eggs, non free range pork and chicken. I am disgusted and perplexed. I am privileged. I have this income this lifestyle and I want to make it clear that I want to keep it. I also want to fix what is wrong with it.

    I wish I could make drastic changes to affect those aspects but in my life I cannot. I cannot become totally removed from the capitalist system, it simply cannot happen. I do not buy these products to satiate my guilt of the cost of my life, I choose to do so because it is my movement towards a new life style. One which is more efficient and humane and which looks at the TRUE costs of my lifestyle. The benefit of buying from these guys http://www.ecostore.co.nz/index.html is not so I can sleep soundly that I have done my bit. The benefit is I show there is demand to live in a society where efficiency and impacting the least on the world is my preferred choice. Fuck Starbucks, but I will not say fuck you to the farmer. That farmer might be still stuck in the shit because I prop up the capitalist system, but a life is still a life. Making their lives a little better (by giving them fair wages for their product) is more human than choosing to boycott them.

    I feel this is the most complex issue surrounding ethical consumption and perhaps it is all bunk but answer me this in an age where people cannot be bothered to read the ingredients in their food where is this radical social change going to come from? If the market is truly strained or pushed and real changes happen wouldn’t we rather have the mass demand a change towards ethical consumption or refinement and continuation of our current devil may care market?

  2. rich 2

    Should I be seeing a link, or is Opera bugging out??

    [lprent: What version of opera and what OS? WordPress is using a new video embed system that I’m not a 100% confident in. ]

    • Blighty 2.1

      there’s a youtube embed

      • rich 2.1.1

        How ironic. You do know that embedded video uses a million times as much energy as is needed to convey the same information as text?

        • Lanthanide

          I find your claim of “a million times as much” to be unlikely. Citation, please.

          • Rich

            Ok, I’m out by a bit.

            A 5 minute video typically contains as much content as a 400 word text article. The latter uses about 2000 bytes, the former maybe 50M (10M a minute, depending on the codec). So a factor of 25,000. I’d suggest that the power requirements of server and network increase linearly with bandwidth, so videos use 25,000 times as much energy to impart the same information.

            If you want the actual figure in kw/h, this 2006 paper suggests 9-16kw/h per GB. For a 50M file, that’s 0.6kw/h. which seems very high (equivalent to running a 60w bulb all day). More recent numbers would be welcome.

        • NickS


          No, it wouldn’t, as it’s a static image, and thus the processing requirements to display it are rather low, on top of energy costs associated with powering your monitor/space heater CRT (*cough* my LCD’s stuffed *cough*). So really, even not bothering to calculate it I’d say with some serious conviction that your claim is off by 10^6 or for the non-maths people, it’s fractally wrong.

          • Ari

            Umm, Rich is talking purely about bandwidth and not display. Any extra energy on your monitor’s behalf to display the video as compared to the text would be in addition to the .6kw/h that the bandwidth necessitated.

    • Rich 2.2

      It was on my Android. I don’t have Flash enabled (I’m not sure that Opera Mini even supports it – the default browser does). I can’t afford video downloads over Vodafone!

  3. Bill 3

    I’m so sure that any contradiction is involved.

    Charity is and was only ever meant to deal with immediate situations and not ever meant to challenge underlying dynamics or assumptions. He does make it clear that he is not advocating the withdrawal of charity in preference for immiseration somehow prompting more fundamental action.

    Seems to me, Zizek is saying that there is this thing (charity) and that we need this plus more fundamental actions if we are serious about eradicating rather than merely temporarily or selectively alleviating want and poverty.

  4. B 4

    I have to say i’m over 30 something tossers who buy eco-products. Some suggestions for alleviating actual human suffering: volunteer at your local womens refuge, buy lots of cheap non-organic food and give it to the food bank, stop buying ecofriendly, freerange bullshit and sponsor a child with the money you save.

    • Lanthanide 4.1

      I agree, B.

      Also, the best thing you can do to save the planet is not have children. No amount of greenwashed products will save as much CO2 and other waste creation as avoiding creating an entire new human life.

      • Bill 4.1.1

        “Also, the best thing you can do to save the planet is not have children.”

        What complete and utter bullshit! How many Pakistani lives would it take to equate to just your carbon footprint? 5? 16? And how many Pakistanis or Cote de Ivory people would it take to equate to your or some frequent flyer’s carbon footprint? Or what about in relation to some super yacht cruising prick like Tiger Woods? Think about it.

        The way to save our collective arse (not the planet..it doesn’t need saving) is to dump our stupid market dependent industrial b/s and all it’s attendant activities. But you can’t face that and so dump on the poorest of the poor instead and blame them for jeopardising your crap existence instead of acknowledging that your relative yet vacuous wealth is built on the back of, and the cause of, their absolute poverty.

        • Ari

          Bill- even rural agrarian communities emit CO2, so a complete reversion just to feeding ourselves wouldn’t completely eliminate the problem. There are four useful strategies for cutting down on greenhouse emissions:

          1) Efficiency, using less to do more on a purely mechanical level.

          2) Conservation, eliminating wasted energy and encouraging environmentally friendly behaviour.

          3) Demand reduction, by simplifying our lifestyles and delaying or simply not choosing parenthood.

          4) Addressing poverty, if we could find a good comprehensive way to reduce or eliminate poverty it would reduce status anxiety, improve social conditions, and reduce the birthrate globally, with the result of a great indirect demand reduction.

          None of them are the only way, and any of the four will have some effect if applied in the places where CO2 emission is highest per capita- like say, New Zealand or the USA. If you’re going to argue that one of them is more effective than the other, I want detailed modeling. 😛

    • Fools Gold 4.2

      Obviously didn’t watch the clip. He argues all charity is bad in essence and that conscious consumption is in that league. Firstly I don’t agree with you on 2 points:

      1) That is no value in buy a product that is friendlier to the environment. Well no shit using a cleaner is going to cause pollution but it causes less. Also and this is more important it tells producers people do give a toss about what goes in their products.

      2) That free range and organic are bullshit. Well tell that to the chickens, again if I could I would remove myself from the system but I can’t I live in a city and I like eggs. I don’t care about organic being healthier or tastier but I do care about companies like Monsanto patenting life. Besides industrialized food production is horrible when you think about it.

      Your dismissal speaks volumes though. I think there is value in both charity and ethical consumption not because it vindicates any guilt I have about consumption but because at the moment for me there is no third way.

      • B 4.2.1

        Firstly, if you are worried about the environment use baking soda and vinegar and put the money you save to some good use.
        Second – sure its sad for the chickens. But how much sadder is it that humans – who have the ability to fully appreciate the horrors of their situation – are subjected to hunger, abuse, torture and rape. And this is in New Zealand. There are some things more important than chickens.

    • Bill 4.3

      How is sponsoring a child any different to buying (say) buying fair trade coffee that gives a family an income that allows them to provide some basic necessities for their child/children? Apart from being ‘one step removed’ paternalism?

      How does volunteering at women’s refuge alleviate poverty ( a root of much suffering)?

      Maybe you’d advocate resurrecting the old 10% tithe but argue that it goes to ‘good deeds’ rather than the church?

      Everything you have advocated is exactly what Zizek is arguing is a complete waste of time and counter productive if those things are to be seen as the be all and end all.

      • B 4.3.1

        Its more cost effective and less hypocritical.

        Volunteering at a womens refuge helps women and their children leave homes in which they are suffering. There are never enough volunteers and there is never enough funding.

        I would advocate giving away everything above the level of a decent standard of living.

        Yes there obviously is a limit to what individuals can achieve given the selfishness of human nature.

        • Bill

          Putting aside the obvious gender issues that surround volunteering at women’s refuge…what do you consider it is that defines a ‘decent standard of living’?

          Is this an absolute measure or a relative measure?

          If the latter, then what of the billions who live elsewhere who could never even dream of approaching our relative poverty levels in absolute terms? And if the former, then how do you propose it be measured?

          And as for the selfishness of human nature, how do you measure that? And is it intrinsic and definable in terms independent of various relative cultural/political/religious norms or are it’s levels (both in intensity and importance) dependent upon and defined by particular cultural/political/religious norms?

          edit And what has ‘cost effectiveness’ got to do with anything outside of a market dominated discourse? You forgetting that our financial arrangements are a root cause of the things you want to see eliminated?

          • B

            Well to me having enough to eat, a roof over my head and being able to pay my bills constitutes a decent standard of living.

            I’m not sure why you think I need to measure the selfishness of human nature…

            And by cost effective I mean – when buying a fairtrade coffee -say $4 – how much of the price goes to the farmer?

            Whereas if you put that $4 directly towards sponsoring children (or the foodbank or womens refuge ) – all that money is going directly towards alleviating suffering- Its not just a feel good bonus you get with your latte which might translate to a few cents that trickle down to a coffee growing family somewhere .

            • Bill

              You have completely missed the point B.

              Running Zizek’s argument on women’s refuge, then we would say that supporting women’s refuge is a worthy, but ultimately pointless thing to do unless you aim to smash patriarchy.

              And that’s his point across all charity. That in and of itself it’s leading people nowhere and serves to excuse, and therefore preserve, the status quo that is giving rise to the need for charity in the first place.

              How you deliver that charity is kind of beside the point,no? The point is that if you are serious about getting rid of poverty then you need to look at charity as a necessary but insufficient action…n the same way that reform is necessary, but that reform in and of itself is incapable of delivering the environments we desire; ie that reform preserves and perpetuates the essential components of our contemporary environment and therefore must be supplemented by more fundamental action.

              • jbanks

                the status quo that is giving rise to the need for charity in the first place.

                No. Unstable governments/political systems are the main cause of starvation/poverty in third-world countries. It doesn’t matter what aid any developed nation gives, if that country can’t firstly help itself.

              • B

                @ Bill: Sure. But until that happens I think there is a clear moral obligation to share the surplus income we recieve as beneficiaries of the capitalist system with the victims of it.

                What do you suggest?

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