Charity Capitalism and Citizenship

Charity Capitalism – not a new idea, but certainly generating big buzz this year. From TOMS, to Starbucks, to the awful Five Hour Energy – everyone is trying to “do right by doing good”. Well as the saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”…

As much as the media leads us to believe that we can “vote with our wallet” and “make a difference” by confronting complex global issues with small consumerist actions, the whole concept of Charity + Capitalism subverts power, dilutes critical reasoning and most importantly, normalizes Whiteness. Charity Capitalism is nothing but White Privilege with a price tag attached. You get something for giving something – not your time or skills, but your money. And where does that money actually go? I doubt many can answer that. You feel good about helping a child or a starving farmer, but what do they get? Do they have a say? Not really. They aren’t the agents, here – it’s YOU (You, the one with the money and power, not them). This is what White Privilege is all about – validating the subject (who is in this case the donor, not the receiver), because they carry the power, the words, the money, the fame (Hello, Live 8, or Charity:Water, or, ugh, KONY2012).

I like what Phil Baumann wrote on the subject: consumerism and capitalism don’t lead to good citizenship. He’s right, for many obvious reasons, one which I mention in my piece on the White Savior Industrial Complex (the core of which comes from Teju Cole‘s piece in the Atlantic, which is a must read).

It’s about privilege. Not just economic – it’s white privilege. Why white? Because those in power are predominantly Western and white (this is apparent across pretty much all of international development agencies – the IMF, the World Bank, USAID, NGOs, etc). How do children in Peru feel about their TOMS shoes, which wear out after about one week of walking across dusty, rainy and snowy terrain in the Andes? We don’t know –  all we see are smiling kids with their brand new shoes. Sure, some kids don’t have shoes, and having an extra pair can’t hurt. However, I doubt they feel empowered because they got new shoes from China. (And by the way, the leather sandals they usually wear, despite being open to cold weather, are much more durable, and not to mention, locally made.)  But to the consumer, it’s a great feeling – “I made a difference!” “I am a good person!”. (Full disclosure: I own 2 pairs of TOMS shoes, and they are very comfortable, but I don’t agree with their model). Charity Capitalism distorts this whole idea in many new and perverse ways because it plays on people’s emotions, and when you add money to the mix, it’s extremely volatile.

While Charity Capitalism desensitizes citzenry and erodes capitalism, as Baumann suggests, it also disempowers those at the receiving end, especially in the “developing world”. How do Colombian farmers feel about the fair trade $4 Starbucks cup you’re drinking? It’s not important, remember – it’s all about YOU and your empowerment, your agency, your voice (otherwise, you won’t care – it’s interest convergence, exemplified). Digital whiteness, and the continuous majoritarian form of storytelling that suppresses those in need while validating privilege, is what makes Charity Capitalism even more pernicious and threatening. It’s largely invisible, and rarely talked about.

Read Cole’s piece (and mine 🙂 ), watch Zizek’s RSA animate video, and you’ll soon see why humanitarism + social media + Western capitalism = a recipe for disaster.