11 August 2010

Are Charity and Philanthropy Modern Indulgences? (as Slavoj Žižek Sees It)

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a tweet from Trevor Mainza suggesting that I check out this video of Slavoj Zizek discussing charity:

You can see the full 30 minutes of the talk (which I highly suggest if you have the time) to get a more complete picture of what Zizek is arguing.  However, the animation and shortened version make it more enjoyable and get across the point.  Plus, Zizek is not a great speaker to watch as he rocks side to side with firm double hand motions and constant brushing of his hair or clearing his nose.  On second thought, at least watch him speak for 2 minutes as it is enjoyable to physically see what it takes for the man to think.  There has to be something tied to his manner of thought and physical gestures.

I am not entirely sure what conversation that I was having that inspired Trevor to send me the tweet, but I watched the video.  After watching, I found the full version and watched that.  I then went on to learn more about Zizek throughout the day as I considered his ideas on charity.  It would take up far too much space to try to sum up what Zizek said in his talk and I would do it incorrectly.  However, for this purpose I will bring up two points.

First, he makes the claim that charity is essentially demeaning to the recipient.  Second, the image of Soros destroying with one hand and building with the other.  The best illustration of Zizek’s first claim comes when he discusses Starbucks, Tom’s Shoes and organic apples.  All fall under what he calls “cultural capitalism;” consumers buy into an idea that still engages in capitalism but leaves them with a greater sense of responsible action (ie. fair trade, giving to the needy and helping the environment, respectively).  He sees it as a combination for those who reject and accept capitalism.  To him, there is no difference other than the feeling that is created when participating in a form of capitalism that has a relation to social justice.  In the end, he does not see this as a solution; then goes further to say that charity acts in a similar way.  People feel better about what they have done, but it is not making things better since the person is still in the same situation.  To relate it to my Pedals for Pets discussion, Zizek is saying that it is nice to give people bikes, but they just end up being poor people who now have a bike.  The circumstances that created and continues the poverty remains.  For him, the changes have to be systemic.  Based on the premise that charity is an inherent part of capitalism, the Communist Zizek sees that it is unable and unwilling to create real change since it is a part of an inherently unequal system.

This leads to the second part I want to point out: the image of Soros.  He basically says it is disingenuous to be a person who makes massive amounts of money through the capitalist system and once the wealth is acquired, give away large sums because it does not really affect the wealthy person.  By name, he pulls Gates into this group.  In short, Zizek claims that the act of destruction and building accomplished at the same time by these kind of people.

This leads me to ask what you all think.  Is Zizek right?  Or maybe a bit misguided?  One thing that I struggle with is the idea of the intent of an individual.  Are Gates and Soros to be celebrated for their achievements or condemned for their participation in a system that creates and perpetuates extreme poverty? Are the actions of charity and philanthropy simply modern indulgences? I would like to add some more comments as I continue to process this and also get feedback from some readers (if you are out there).

Update: I read this post by Joe Turner when it came out that was influenced by his coming across Zizek.  Although he does not really focus on Zizek, I believe that some of my thoughts after hearing his talk had in some way been influenced by Joe.  So, since I am not really sure how I cannot point to something specific, but I think that the correlation to indulgences is there and I would be remiss to not give him his due credit and citation.