work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Žižek on fairtrade and charity

04.25.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

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…

7 Responses to “Žižek on fairtrade and charity”

  1. … Agreed, but you forgot to add- the pictures are the bit that will get people sucked into believing him and his nonsense. Interesting paper critiquing Zizek, will read that eagerly.

  2. Jonathan Glennie says:

    Well put! I think actually this piece adds a good deal to what I wrote. Jonathan

  3. Just briefly… I am assuming your some libertarian capitalist, maybe you just eat organic foods (warning I have a tendency to get into trouble for making assumptions)… But what Zizek is getting at in this video, in my view, is that the mechanisms we have in place to alleviate poverty of to empower the lives of those who suffer in impoverishment and whom are malnourished, wherever they may be, are clearly not working and if we continue at the current rate charity will be abolished on the grounds of its ‘un-affordability’. We have already seen the G20 targets quashed after the bubble burst, although the richest in society seem to be flourishing at such precarious time for the rest.

    With that in mind, if charity is not working Zizek suggest a radical re-evaluation on systemic relations, as striking with the status quo is not good enough.

    Yes there needs to be radical upheaval to change the contours of history. Or you could just go on buying ethically and giving to charity with the knowledge that, in reality, nothing much will change the system will remain the same, and not only that you can feel good about it. Or you can give to charity buy ethically and join a process which radically up-halls our systemic disease of cultural capitalism…

    What say you? 🙂

  4. if you read a bit of my work you’ll find that i’m no advocate of charity and fair trade *as a solution* – but i do object to the accusation it’s part of the problem and makes things worse (and zizek says precisely that), particularly when coming from someone whose idea of re-evaluation of systemic relations is informed by stalinist nostalgia (if only we had a systemic alternative… any will do).

    that i see fair trade but as one first (and inherently problematic) step in the right direction towards the elimination of global inequality is the gist of my first paper on the subject – see clickable link “there” in the post. you’ll find that especially the cultural limitations of fair trade aren’t new to me – but what zizek serves up here really is crude and simplistic.

    frankly i don’t care what you assume you can call me (i’ve been called all sorts of things from “orthodox marxist” to “postmodern euroneocon”) – but just to get to grips with terminology you may want to look up a definition of “libertarian capitalist” and then check whether it accommodates for my assertion that capitalism leads to inequality (an assumption a libertarian capitalist of course may happily share), and that “inequality translates into a denial of liberty” (which your libertarian capitalist may wish to contest – if you meet him/her and s/he does contradict – refer them to Gerry Cohen’s work… hard to beat) – my own (libertarian maybe, but capitalist?) take on marx can be found here:

    as to what i eat… i won’t give out any details on that (though i’m flattered that someone takes an interest). but it won’t surprise you that, like all carbon-based life forms, i indeed generally prefer organic over anorganic substances

  5. In response to your response. The point is that the institutions of fair trade and charity mechanisms which facilitate the fetishistic disavowal, in the capitalist. Therefore, the battle of minds has been won.

    Why would a capitalist be convinced by an argument which pertained to radically up-heave civilization in favor of a radical emancipatory non alienated global civility, providing for the all, when capitalists can continue with their lives unperturbed by global alienation and (net necessarily relative) inequality, and feel good about it because they can buy fair trade and eat organic produce?

    Here charity and fair trade are what is induces political apathy, or rather apathy is pure avocation of the ruling ideology, and so by riding the illusionary functioning of these mechanisms would serve as a universal principal used to emancipate all those who are oppressed by capitalism.

    I share this belief with Zizek as I feel the imminence of radical reformism is constantly upon human civility, regardless of whether you think Zizek is nostalgically Stalinist, although he has stated on many occasions that he thinks Stalin was worse than Hitler and that Stalinism was a catastrophe, and that he is a neo-communist, a part of the thought that we need to create new modes of social relations not yet realized and so on.

    Regardless, I do not share your pacifistic opinion that if we sit around long enough fair trade will eventually be an element leading to all trade being fair. That is a part of the same capitalist illusion Zizek is trying to dispel, its buying into the logic of the system. A much more radical approach is needed.

  6. two points: as i say in the post – i don’t think the assessment that fair trade induces political apathy is a fair one. there are people who are politically apathic (or is it “apathetic”?) and buy fair trade – but they weren’t activists to begin with. for the most part the promotion of fair trade goes hand in hand with political activism (to different degrees) – i completely agree with the need for a more radical approach, the disagreement is with the statement that fair trade prevents such an approach. also – since when is pacifism the same as quietism? if “pacificism” is the hope to change the world while avoiding the use of violence – i’ve got no problem with that. violent revolutionism has a track record of producing the opposite of the intended outcome.
    which leads me to the second point – the worst case of such an outcome: stalinism. now my charge of “stalinist nostalgia” is in full knowledge of zizek’s rhetorical assertion that stalinism was even worse than nazism. i’ve taken the liberty of ever so slightly exaggerating because i’m fed up with zizek’s frivolous double speak in which on the one hand he makes such assertions (and i would say he only does so in order to delegitimise israel and at the same time heroify communist self-sacrifice), but on the other still hankers after the existence of the stalinist hell on earth because it frightened the capitalists
    i quote
    “As Alain Badiou pointed out, in spite of its horrors and failures, the “really existing Socialism” was the only political force that — for some decades, at least — seemed to pose an effective threat to the global rule of capitalism, really scaring its representatives, driving them into paranoiac reaction. Since, today, capitalism defines and structures the totality of the human civilization, every “Communist” territory was and is — again, in spite of its horrors and failures — a kind of “liberated territory,” as Fred Jameson put it apropos of Cuba.”
    when i say that his idea of “re-evaluation” consists in stalinist nostalgia – i mean stuff like this. zizek thinks there is enough value in the stalinist – let’s call it “experiment” – to extract the system alternative to the current order of exploitation from there:
    “The difficult task is thus to confront the radical ambiguity of the Stalinist ideology which, even at its most “totalitarian,” still exudes an emancipatory potential.”

    finally (okay – so it’s three points): if you find me saying that i think capitalists are to be convinced by arguments – please point out to me where. the reason why they feel compelled to modify their practices (in an ever-so-insufficient way) is that the visibility created by movements like fair trade causes a loss of legitimacy and they have to react to that. the same loss of visibility makes the exploitation so addressed a possible issue for political contestation, manifestations of international solidarity etc. at least(you may and probably will disagree) it will contribute more to this than do zizek’s pronouncements.

  7. I stated that apathy is complicity with the ruling ideology – neo-liberal capitalism.

    If we have been reduced to the level of consuming one particular good as opposed to another then what it means to act politically has had a severe dose of neo-liberal capitalism. I would in a moment of rage go as far to say that that is a pathetic, pacifistic, apathetic, incident of bourgeois utopia. It almost suggest that in that instance of political ethicality only a well endowed member of civility may be privileged with a political act. Going on the well know assumption that fair trade costs more than the value goods on supermarket shelves.

    Another reason why I doubt fair trade on the basis of choice consuming is on the grounds that boycotting never really works. Choosing to buy fair trade is the same principal as boycotting just in a different way. Although I think that boycotting is more of a political act than buying fair trade… its pertains a more universalistic character, i.e. anyone can do it. Not that I do myself.

    On Stalinisim, two things:
    a) whether he is a Stalinist or not is not of my concern particularly, on the grounds that I myself am not one, I fundamentally believe in the principal; Discard what is useless and use what is useful.

    b) If you watch this cliphttp :// he explicitly states what I mentioned in my previous post. Here I am of the naive belief that all philosophers are capable of making U -turns…

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