Charity: transferring the guilt of the rich onto the poor

Francis Maude

As a way of filling out the picture of what the Tories mean by the Big Society, Francis Maude proposes that we should be prompted to give to charity when we withdraw cash from a hole in the wall, fill in an official form, or win the lottery. The majority of commentators on the Guardian website seem to be demonstrating their excellent common sense. ‘Charitable giving should not replace taxation’ is the popular view, with which of course I agree. But the general context of charitable giving is more complex than that.

That charity is necessary is a symptom of a structural flaw in society. When a government such as ours, which takes evident public delight in inflicting withering blows on the poor, develops a cuts programme of such ruthlessness as the one we’re currently experiencing, the charitable need will grow. It is a natural human response to want to give what one can afford to alleviate the suffering of others and it would be cold-hearted to argue against charity altogether, but the left does need to complicate the picture a little.

The first concern is the element of volition. The cash machine, etc. will invite you to give to charity, and you can choose whether to act. The strong implication will be that you’re wicked and greedy if you don’t give at least some times, but you can choose not to. This establishes charitable giving in a favourable light next to taxation, which we cannot avoid paying (unless we earn too little to pay it: note the cruel cunning of the fact that that nobody is too poor to be asked by a cash machine to give to charity). In just this way, when Michael Gove, now schools minister but formerly a particularly grotesque columnist for the Times, wrote in 2003 in support of the idea of funding universities through student fees (a policy his government has now brought into force) he did so using the kind of language that enables the current cuts programme to meet with any approval at all.

We could guarantee far superior healthcare and schooling for our families if only the Government gave us back the money which it confiscates from us in taxes and then spends on the schools and hospitals which it runs so badly.

The message here is that privatization of everything, including the NHS (give the Tories time: there’s only so much wanton destruction they can achieve per year) gives freedom to the individual by cutting out the petty headmasterish ‘confiscation’ of money. But he also plays on a sense of natural justice, at first couched in unblushing Thatcherite selfish terms.

Why should the vast majority [of students], who go on to benefit financially from their degree, be subsidised by me?

Note the small but ideologically crucial change in the current mantra dominating government statements, media reports, and (inevitably, since they are shaped entirely by the public discourse in ways they do not realize) vox pops: rather than Gove’s selfish Thatcherite ‘me’, the new question is ‘why should the poor pay for the rich to go to university?’ It’s because of this trick of language – switching from the rage of a rich Tory who doesn’t want to help others to the understandable wish of the poor not to give what they can scarce afford to benefit others who are already more privileged – that so many millions of British citizens, many of whom are going to be severely disadvantaged by the effect of the cuts, generally declare themselves to be in support of them.

‘We have to cut the structural deficit’, say the vox pops, as we all suddenly feel ourselves to be expert in macroeconomic policy. The absurdity of the idea that the entire nation now seems to have a sophisticated grasp of economics is lost on virtually everyone, but this fantasy of empowerment – the sense that we understand our economic danger and are willingly supporting actions that will, ‘we know’, help us out of it – is an essential tool of government. So, we are ‘choosing’ to embrace the cuts, and although we might be aggrieved by the promptings of the cash machine, we can ‘choose’ to give to charity or not. Power to the people. But these choices are forced. How can we resist the cuts in our parliamentary democracy when not a single major party opposes the very idea rather than just the timing or scaling of those cuts? And in what sense is it really a choice for us when we are asked to give to charity knowing the consequences for others if we do not?

This brings us to a second and broader question. Charity might appear to give us a choice that taxation does not, but should we give to charitable causes? The answer seems obvious: those who can afford to give to charity should be strongly encouraged to do so; people who are withdrawing cash for a binge at the weekend should rightly be embarrassed by the cash machine into donating to their local hospital or whatever. Yes, Guardian readers might maunder on about getting the rich to pay more in taxes but surely (we’re encouraged to think) it’s still right to give to charity in the meantime, when there’s genuine need. Actually, as Žižek argues in the nicely animated talk below, the material relief that charity brings, both within our own country and internationally, is an essential support to the dysfunctional economic system. We give just enough charitable support to be able to reduce poverty and suffering to a more tolerable level – say to a level of obscenity that is just above one that would motivate every humane person to want to overthrow our economic system entirely. Seen from this perspective, it appears that – far from helping – charity is a way of sustaining an abusive economic system.

If charitable giving is simply a fantastic support for an everyday political and economic life that we know is intolerable yet we choose to act within, it is one of many. For many poor people, regular investment in the national lottery – a tax on the poor that people have lost interest in attacking – is related to the fantasy, on which the US is based, that a radical existential transformation can be brought about by an injection of money. A fourteen-million-to-one chance of a transformative win sustains millions in a pitifully false hope. It is a very useful opiate because it seems to promise a way out, however unlikely, and the underprivileged are willing to cling even to the remotest hope. But in Maude’s universe even lottery winners are to feel guilty: those who give some of their winnings to charity will be thanked publicly. So, a small part of the money taken from the poor in the form of lottery tickets is to be given back to the same poor as a way of soothing the conscience of the newly rich lottery winner – for having done what, exactly?

Sunny Hundal has been objecting recently to claims from the left (he associates them with the Socialist Workers’ Party, though they come also from people with no affiliation with them) that the current struggle against the cuts is all about class, and I agree with him insofar as the essential focus should always be in the broadest sense on the included/excluded binary, which takes many forms (racial, sexual, economic, etc.). But in this case, the problem raised by the Big Society really is class.

The ‘big’ bit of our society is the poor base of the economic pyramid, the 90-odd percent of people who have to make do with a tiny proportion of our national wealth. The privileged bit of society, the tiny pinnacle of the pyramid, does not want to give anything to the Big Society; it wants to keep more of its taxable income for itself, cut public spending, and become more remote than it already is from the rest of society. The Big Society can not only ‘choose’ to help itself, freed from the nasty burden of non-volitional taxation – it must help itself, or feel guilty if it does not. For understand this: if poverty increases it is the fault of the poor who refuse to give to charity, the greedy bastards, and not fault of the nice rich people like Bill Gates who are doing their best to eradicate polio and so on. If only, the Tory cry goes up, we can be freed from the burden of taxation we can focus our giving much more accurately on areas of greatest need. That’s what Gates is doing, and that’s what you should do too.

When capital offers what looks like a possibility for tenderness, be suspicious.

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One comment

  1. Excellent as always. There’s a lot here but I’m particularly struck by your point “that charity is necessary is a symptom of a structural flaw in society.”

    If capitalist society were a piece of software then charity would be described as a really ugly hack. It’s fine in the short term but as a long term strategy we need to rethink the fundamental design so that it is no longer necessary.

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