Žižek on fairtrade and charity

Sometimes you can’t not have an opinion, however hard you try. One thing you can’t not have an opinion on if you’ve written about ethical consumption is Žižek’s denunciation of it. I’ve tried, but got asked so often whether I’ve seen his talk and what do I think that I now have taken the five or so minutes to watch the animated version on the RSA blog.

Here’s what I think.

1) I like the artwork, but otherwise it’s very boring! This is a very old argument: Charity alleviates poverty but does not challenge its causes, and by alleviating their plight it saves the capitalist system from the revolutionary impulse of the oppressed, ultimately prolonging suffering. Marx often made that point – for example in the section on‘Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism’ in the Manifesto. (For a summary of Marx’s views on philanthropy, charity etc., see section 6 ‘The Rejection of Humanitarian-Philanthropic Elitism’ in Hal Draper’s 1971 article ‘The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels’–sums it up nicely.)

2) Žižek includes two disclaimers – I think both are deeply insincere and quite typical for his totalitarian/humanist double-speak.

2a) The first disclaimer is that of course he’s not against charity in principle and that of course it’s better to alleviate the symptoms (e.g. don’t let a child suffer from a preventable disease) than to do nothing at all. He only points out that charity leaves the symptoms in place, so wouldn’t it be better to change the situation rather than help some of the people who are in that situation? This is in direct contradiction to his point that charity drags out poverty by dampening revolutionary fervour (didn’t he just say it’s best if slaveholders are inhumane?). According to the logic of his argument we should let people starve and die from disease so that they take up arms sooner rather than later.

2b) Related to this revolutionism: He also admits that the current order of global capitalism has brought unknown freedom and wealth to a greater number of people than ever before and that of course he would like to preserve those freedoms. He also dissociates himself from 20th century style Bolshevism. In light of his theory of revolution I don’t buy either of these claims – I fully agree with Alan Johnson’s exposure of Žižek’s ‘wild Blanquism’ in his paper ‘Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Revolution: A Critique’ for the 2011 Political Studies Association Conference. He is not a democrat – come Revolution say goodbye to your freedom of speech -, and I agree with Johnson that his political writing amounts to a call for ‘putsch and educational dictatorship’ in a crudely Leninist manner. He is correct in pointing out that by producing social injustice and environmental disaster global capitalism might dig its own grave and there’s a real danger that affluence and freedom will be buried with it – but that is an argument for a democratic eco-socialist alternative which is conspicuously absent in Žižek’s obsession with the revolutionary moment.

3) The denunciation of fair trade as “charity” is, at least, partially wrong. Fair trade is an attempt to go beyond charity (“trade not aid”), employs trade and commerce not just to convey financial benefits but crucially also recognition. It is not fully successful in this endeavour – and I would argue it cannot be so under the present circumstances (as I have argued here and there). But it surely is the case that the fairtrade movement has created enough pressure to bring parts of the corporate world under the regulatory powers of non-governmental organisations (in particular the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation FLO). To present this as a story of corporations conjuring up yet another trick to maintain profits omits the fact that first there was activism, and then there was (partial) corporate compliance. That much of that compliance be driven by ulterior motives may or may not be the case – it doesn’t justify the assumption that it is just a ruse.

4) I fully agree that ethical consumption – not even the purest forms of fair trade – cannot be the solution to global inequality. But that it is not the solution does not mean it is the opposite of the solution: that it is a system-stabilising distracter and that hence its promoters are detractors of the quest for justice and equality. My own argument in ‘Consuming the Campesino’ (Cultural Studies, 22 (2008), 5, 654-79) – is that it is precisely the failure of fairtrade, its visible failure, that holds the underlying problem present, creates an urge for political action and cements its legitimacy.

The distraction argument was levelled, last year, by the Mark Littlewood of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Its refutation by Barbara Crowther (Fair Trade Foundation) holds as much for the Leninist version as it does for its neoliberal version (listen here – particular 4.33 onwards): Fairtrade organisations are also campaigning organisations which advocate political change and the practice of fairtrade promotes awareness for the injustice of the current international terms of trade.

update 26th april 2011

as so often I was a bit slow on this – turns out there already is a very good reply to this video on the Guardian’s PovertyMatters blog by Jonathan Glennie. Reading it before writing this post would have saved me some effort as I nearly entirely agree with Glennie – so I could have done with adding a few extras (such as the point about fair trade emphatically not being just charity) and leave it with that…

(for the comments section see my former blog at the University of Exeter http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/unfinishedbusiness/blog/2011/04/25/zizek-on-fairtrade-and-charity/)

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