Friday, July 30, 2010

A Critique of Zizek on Charity

Hot on the heels of their animated David Harvey talk on capitalism, the RSA has animated a recent talk by Slavoj Zizek. They do quite a job of having some fun with controversial topics, this one being Zizek's critique of "the logic of charity."

Zizek, as one has come to expect, takes on the common sense (in the Gramscian sense) view of charity as obviously helpful by arguing that it perpetuates the system of inequality that it claims to transform. This 'simple' issue of charity that he discusses, in fact, blurs the distinction between two different activities. First, he's right to criticize the hypocrisy of 'charitable' capitalists who give to charity with one hand and perpetuate inequality with the other. As he says, drawing on Oscar Wilde, you can't solve the injustices of private property with private property.

However, he confounds this argument with another that isn't about charity, it's about conscientious consumerism. The idea is that the extent of activism of Western consumers is to purchase commodities that seem to make the world a better place. I don't have a problem with the critique that conscientious consumerism is not enough to change the world, and that it blocks a more radical, anti-capitalist response (this latter response requires not just a concept of the event, but also some degree of organization and class consciousness or, if you prefer, solidarity-consciousness...but we'll have to talk about this later).

My problem is that Zizek calls the egoism of conscientious consumerism a kind of charity. He's conflating marketing tactics, consumerism, and ideology with the reasons why capitalists as a class have had to switch to slightly less exploitative forms of capital accumulation. Let's follow his example of Starbucks and fair trade coffee for the sake of simplicity. Even the general framework of the movie Black Gold shows (if I remember argument doesn't rise and fall on the movie itself) that it's neither capitalist nor consumerist philanthropy that generates what we might call 'slightly more equitable commodities,' it's  some degree of organized social struggle and political pressure. By subsuming these changes under the "logic of charity," with only Western dramatis personae, Zizek misrepresents the subjectivity and collective action of the activists and workers who fought to implement fair trade practices through social struggle as a kind of passive acceptance of better conditions.

I don't want to fetishize fair trade products as the solution to exploitation, because they aren't; Starbucks uses its fair trading as a kind of battering ram to hammer on its Western competitors (namely local cafes). Might I also add that they offer health insurance as part of their benefits package (I know because I worked there for several years)-- again, not out of the kindness of their hearts but to stave off attempts to unionize.

In any case, we know from Capital, we must leave the "noisy sphere" of the market, "where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone," and follow the owners of money and of labor-power "into the hidden abode of production." There we will find the relationship between uneven geographical development, exploitation, and, most importantly, social struggle. What I gather from Zizek, especially because he's pushing this critique of "cultural capitalism" rather than a critique of neoliberalism, is that he's not willing to make that dialectical leap.

(Hat tip to Santi for bringing the RSA video to my attention).


santi said...

Here is the extended version of the talk he gave. sorry i did not post this to you as well. Had no idea it would end up here.

Devin Z. Shaw said...

Oh yeah, I see...I'm familiar with his arguments about economics, and he does extend them here.

I still don't think he should call the Western side of the equation a "logic of charity" nor is "cultural capitalism" an analytic step forward: didn't we already go through it with "postmodern capitalism?"

santi said...

I don't know much about the ideas of postmodern capitalism, as most of my studies on post-modernism had to do with art. I do know that anthropology loves to throw the term "culture of capitalism" around when referring to our ever beloved economic system. I could be wrong but my understanding is that when they refer to capitalism as culture they are referring to the fact that everything within our culture is tied one way or another to capitalism. The often used intro anthropology book "global problems and the culture of capitalism" states the case much better than I, but it has been about four years since i last read it.

I do agree with the idea that corporate use of charity has more to do with marketing, and social pressure than charity.

Jason R. B. Smith said...

I agree that he hasn't made a dialectical leap but I think their is an implicit critique of neoliberalism here to be sure.

Devin Z. Shaw said...

Jason: there is an implicit critique of neoliberalism, and I'm sure he explicitly says so somewhere else. So why does he go back to a less descriptive term like cultural capitalism?

Which leads me to what I wanted to say to Santi: the use of "cultural capitalism" implies the position that we can get insight into capitalism through its products, without necessarily looking at the means of production.

This is why Zizek's argument that accumulation and charity occur in 'one and the same act' is incorrect: perhaps only in the consumer's imaginary is this perahps correct, otherwise the purchase takes place in a much more complex network.

So even in Zizek's Lacanian terms we're jumping from imaginary to the real (I know he says somewhere that political economy is like the real) without mediation.

EchoesAlphaTango said...

There it is folks. The intellectual basis for all the purges,genocides, gulags, concentration camps etc we've endured for so long. The choice of medium for the animation is disarmingly neutral but I still found the part where he is refers to "those liberal documents",basically meaning the US constitution and we see the documents chained up, to be chilling. I don't buy that his rejection of Lenin,in fact,when I last saw him talking with Assange in London we has wearing a Lenin "Che style" tshirt.
Someone's poster somewhere in the net said Zizek fits into the category of communists who believe everyhing must be torn down in order to bring about a better world. It seems like some of his opinions in this video support that analysis.

Zizek must really dislike Bill Gates as his charity really does simply increase the masses of those in extreme poverty. Sometimes I think Gates and others do this because capitalism as practiced today needs a huge mass of humanity in order for people freely enslave themselves, lower the cost of labor to it's absolute bare minimum, and ensure that the 3rd world does not rise and become the consumers of thier own nations material wealth.
On the other hand, what makes us so different than Nazisbif we refuse this masses the right to life simply because we seek a more harmonious world?

Devin Z. Shaw said...

The post above, by Echoes Alpha Tango, is a pretty good example of what could fall foul of our comment policy. Not only is it a year late, it doesn't add anything to the discussion. I hesitated for a long time to publish it, but for some reason I have anyway. For anybody who stumbles across this post, if you feel you have something to contribute, don't do so by wildly overgeneralized and unsubstantiated claims about an author, which also do not reference the specific material that appears in a blog post or previous comments.