#ethicalcapitalism and Why It Fails to “Change the World”

Oscar Wilde’s assertions on the degradation of man under capitalism remain as relevant today as it did over a century ago. His essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” tackles the inherent demoralizing nature of charity under capitalism in modern society. Wilde’s critique serves as a crucial starting point for the feel-good campaigns that are ubiquitous today.

While altruism itself is a practice based on selflessness, the fundamental issue is the way in which altruistic acts are carried out under capitalism – the very foundation of inequality remains unaddressed and unquestioned by many. Capitalism has created the problems that charity is attempting to rectify; it has created an unprecedented wake of destruction in its path. While charity tries to quell this destruction, it will never truly remedy of the evils of capitalism because it does not change the ruthless system itself.

Wilde writes,

The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them [ …] With admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

In modern capitalist societies, charity is inextricably linked to consumption and emotion. Charity today provides a temporary Band-Aid solution to a larger, deep-seated problem – the perverted economic system of capitalism has caused immense environmental degradation, mass displacement of peoples, socioeconomic inequality, internal civil strife, violence, and war, and further feeds on Machiavellian traits, including greed, deceit, manipulation and selfishness.

More often than not, people are persuaded into action based purely on emotion.

“The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence […] it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.”

Politicians, educators, activists and everyone in between use personal narratives as a form of persuasion. Personal narratives primarily appeal to emotions, creating either negative feelings of guilt or shame, or positive feelings such as compassion and understanding. All too often, humans forgo rationality and logic in exchange for emotion – and then proceed to make decisions based on their emotional state instead of rational thought. This is a form of manipulation used by charities in order to turn viewers into donors.

Philanthropic efforts that use emotion for persuasion are often largely ineffective at creating long-term change. The people that do not donate, whose logic has superseded their emotion, are often judged by their peers and seen as cold-hearted and callous – whereas the camp of donors, who fall into the emotional traps, are seen as philanthropic and empathetic.

These charities prevent the opportunity for systemic change – the donors keep the impoverished alive by donating the bare minimum, while the donors continue to enjoy living in excess and feel good while doing it. If donors are actually required to sacrifice their luxurious lifestyle for the greater good, then resistance will be inevitable. Yet that is what is needed most. Systemic change can only be possible if the wealthy are willing to give up their luxuries, not just breadcrumbs to the poor. Emotion drives donations, not logic.

There have been many ways to describe the act of engaging in philanthropic efforts under capitalism, some of the terms include: ethical capitalism, green capitalism, and cultural capitalism. The latter is coined by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s contemporary critique of charity. We cannot possibly “save the world” if society continues functioning under a capitalist paradigm. Philanthropy under capitalism is a façade; it will not offset the incredible devastation that has been perpetrated by neoliberal policies around the globe.

People may participate in ‘feel-good’ campaigns under the falsified notion that capitalism will lead to positive progress and social change, when in reality feel-good campaigns are dependent on structures that are inherently unequal; they only entrench deep-seated inequalities and they do not challenge dominant narratives.

Every act is an act of exhibition. It is counter-productive to reward consumers who purchase trendy products or engage in feel-good, popular campaigns – motivated by attention and desire – while telling them that they are changing the world through the act of consumption itself.

The following are just a few examples of the feel-good campaigns that are pervasive today. Some of these have already been replaced with other short-sighted viral campaigns.

Social media: where narcissism is routinely cloaked as philanthropy

Slacktivism is a term often used to refer to online campaigns and issues that require little to no participation and allows the individual to engage in activism from the convenience of their own homes. Slacktivists will gain satisfaction in the knowledge that they have “done something” while remaining primarily disengaged to the cause.

An oft-used example is the Kony 2012 campaign. While the campaign has since garnered widespread criticism, there continue to be similar trendy fads that attract the attention of millions of slacktivists around the globe.

One of the more recent (now irrelevant) viral campaigns, #BringBackOurGirls, allows for people in the West to jump on the bandwagon and tweet their awareness for the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls without having any in-depth knowledge of the issue, nor even having the willingness to research further. They simply post a tweet, revel in the attention and praise they receive for “raising awareness”, and move on to the next issue.

Nigeria has been wrought with corruption, disease, and environmental degradation for years. Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter, yet sixty percent of its population lives in extreme poverty. Yet the world only started paying attention to Nigeria’s plights since the terrorism theme has taken over the mainstream media.

The objectives of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign was convoluted and confusing. Nonetheless, one of the concrete results of this campaign was the unfortunate deepening of U.S. militarization and intervention in Africa. The campaign has sparked international outrage, yet merely weeks later and the campaign fizzled away into oblivion without having accomplished anything but further militarization. Since then, hundreds of women and girls have been slaughtered by Boko Haram and the mainstream media have completed ignored this.

The only winner in this campaign was Twitter – they are one of the few powerful tech companies that rely on the subscription of users to make money. In the end, it is always the corporations that come out as winners.

As many before have argued, the optimism and hype surrounding digital activism is a misleading, if not dangerous, way of thinking about achieving change. While the Internet is often seen as a democratizing platform, it is important to remain skeptical of the power of the Internet in creating change and to remain skeptical of the actual perceived successes. It is also useful to keep in mind as to who exactly controls the Internet. It is not you or I; it is a handful of tech companies who control the landscape and profit off of the rest of us.

The Iranian “Twitter Revolution” is a widely used example by cyber-utopians who discuss the power of social media. It is impossible to know how many Iranians were actually tweeting as they could change their ISP addresses, but a social media analysis company found that the actual number of Iranians who had Twitter accounts amounted to 19,235 – 0.027 percent of the population – on the eve of the 2009 Iranian elections. While there was a substantial amount of Iran-related tweets as writer Evgeny Morozov notes, the vast majority of tweets made were not authored or retweeted in Iran – they consisted of tweets made in North America.

When asked about Twitter’s role, many Iranians felt that Twitter was receiving far more attention than it deserved and it was incredibly overrated; it was immensely hyped up and was not deemed to be a critical tool in mobilizing Iranians during this time. Its role was over exaggerated and over emphasized.

From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to the now-trending Twizzler challenge, all of these campaigns revolve around the person engaging in the action, turning the attention onto them under the guise of raising awareness. Social media is obviously the web’s new viral fundraising method – it is a quick fund raising scheme, similar to how everything in society functions today. Everyone expects quick-fix results – including fundraising. But long-term progress and system change takes new ideas and new ways to move forward. It is misleading and naïve to assume that these methods will be the tool to rectify years of oppression and socioeconomic inequality. Ultimately, these campaigns seek to help a good cause, but the “challenges” themselves are absurd and misleading.

All of these challenges, or campaigns, always have the participant at the forefront – with the spotlight shining on them – while the challenge remains in the backdrop, simply used as a justification for validation and approval.

The Internet has, arguably, created more fragmentation, personalization and a greater disconnect between individuals, communities and states. It has detracted people from doing things on the physical level by engaging in online tactics such as petitions, tweets, and other digital “campaigns” that all promise to achieve change. It is the idea that the world will change as long as enough people tweet about it.

Pretending to be Poor

The physical realm has its own share of self-congratulatory and slacktivist components. These campaigns may require more physical effort but they still rely on individualist and narcissistic methods to reach their goal.

The 5-day “Live Below the Line” challenge is one such example. It aims at raising awareness and money for a myriad of sponsored organizations that work towards fighting extreme poverty.

The campaign challenges thousands of individuals and communities around the globe to eat and drink on less than $1.50 a day to experience what it’s really like to live in poverty; it is another romanticized campaign that allows privileged people to take a break from their comfortable lifestyle and live like a poor person would for 5 days.

It is unrealistic, if not insulting, to assume that someone from a middle- to upper-class upbringing will understand what it is like to eat like a poor person for 5 days, while continuing to live a comfortable lifestyle in every other way. Poverty is felt in every aspect of someone’s life – from their housing to their wages. This type of poverty smothers and confines someone on a daily basis. There is no escape from it. Further, it is not the short-term effects of poverty, but the long-term effects that create life-changing problems. Of course, people aren’t willing to participate in a long-term experiment, as that would actually inconvenience their comfortable lifestyle.

Once the challenge is completed, most of the participants concluded the obvious: how difficult it is live under the poverty line. Yet throughout the challenge, participants have access to resources online that provides them with tips, recipes, and advice on how to “live under the poverty line”. It is laughable that they are provided with online help to get them through 5 days of the challenge, yet every other person living in poverty is completely marginalized and forgotten.

The recipes were the cherry on top of a self-serving task. Many of the meals were made based on the assumption that the ingredients were already in the participants’ home before they began the challenge. And the calculations done to stay under the $1.50 daily limit were based on the cost of each individual ingredient required. For example, eggs were calculated individually rather than by the dozen, or a half dozen carton. Grocery stores would not allow a consumer to purchase eggs individually. All other items were calculated similarly.

A Vancouver-based chef showed his utter lack of awareness and callousness to the very real struggles of people living in poverty. He suggested some budget-friendly recipes for participants in the campaign. One such recipe is a peanut butter and spinach breakfast smoothie which required owning a blender and a freezer (for ice cubes). This is one example of how incredibly oblivious people are to the very real struggles and uncertainty that people in poverty face every day. It is presumptuous to assume that people own blenders and have access to electricity. This is why these experiments are ineffective; they do not take into consideration the realities of poverty and they heavily oversimplify complex social and political issues.

His example was not an isolated incident. This is another challenge in the physical realm that encourages participants to place themselves as the protagonist, taking away attention from the people who live in poverty. Poverty is not something that you can simply “experience” for a week. It’s not a game; it’s peoples’ lives. To engage in such idiocy does not make you well rounded or cultured. It makes you a narcissist.

Saving the World by Turning Off the Lights

A similar romanticized concept is the “Earth Hour” campaign. It is a global movement organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which takes place on the last Saturday of every March. On that night, people across the globe are urged to turn off their lights for one hour. While it does not last as long as the anti-poverty campaign, it certainly receives just as much mainstream attention. It is another effective way to feel good about doing something for the environment without actually doing anything at all. The results are dismal at best.

Turning off light bulbs for one hour a year will not change much as energy consumption consists not only of light bulbs, but heating, cooking, transportation, etc. It is feel-good environmentalism at its finest. If it is only mildly inconvenient, people will blindly engage in the activity at hand, but since no one is urged to turn off all their energy sources, they take part – they do not take into account other methods of energy consumption such as television, heating, air-conditioning, computer, etc. It is done in vain and is the most convenient way of engaging in a cause without really doing anything.

Despite all this, there continues to be articles and reports citing which city has participated while shaming others who don’t. Finally, people are starting to realize the utter pointlessness of this task, arguing that it is simply not enough to stall the degradation of the environment. Much like the failed Kyoto Protocol, this is a challenge that simply exists for bragging rights for countries who participate in it.

We need reforms, not these trendy campaigns that feed into the ego of its participants.

One-for-One: For the price of $89.00 you too can save a child and look good doing it

Slavoj Zizek uses the company TOMS Shoes (founded in 2006) as an example of taking ethical capitalism to an extreme; it reinforces capitalism by allowing individuals to give in to their materialistic desires and follow current trends while allowing them to feel good about their purchase knowing they have provided a pair of shoes to a child in need in a developing country.

The motto “One for One” depicts the relationship between egotistic consumerism and altruistic charity. As Zizek noted, “The sin of consumerism is paid for and thereby erased by the awareness that someone who really needs shoes received a pair for free. The process thus reaches its climax: the very act of participating in consumerist activity is simultaneously presented as a participation in the struggle against the evils ultimately caused by capitalist consumerism.”

The misguidance of TOMS shoes in improving life conditions for children is twofold: it has the potential to create dependency and reliance (similar to other Western campaigns introduced in developing countries), and it has the possibility of harming local economies. By putting the working locals under economic strain, they are unable to compete with the American company and subsequently exacerbates poverty in the global south.

The TOMS ‘One-for-One’ campaign adheres to the capitalist model in more ways than one: not only is the concept embedded into consumerism and capitalism, but the entire premise functions on a complex that western countries take on the role of savior and reinforces the unequal power relations between the global north and the global south.

The Epitome of Self-Serving Philanthropist: Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is not shy about her charitable efforts; she joins the ranks of other wealthy figures such as Bill Gates and George Soros known for their generous philanthropic endeavors. The most recently publicized act of philanthropy by Oprah Winfrey was the debut of the “Oprah Chai Tea” at Starbucks and Teavana stores. The Oprah Chai Tea symbolizes the unrelenting narcissism and egotism of Oprah herself. Like many other wealthy philanthropists, Oprah Winfrey almost always has the need to attach her name to any act of philanthropy. While the amount of “giving” she has done is impressive, it comes at a price – the charitable act is only done when she is able to draw attention to herself while doing it, thereby gaining even more praise and admiration.

With the sale of each Oprah Chai product sold at Teavana or Starbucks, Starbucks will make a donation to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation.

Through donations made by Oprah Winfrey, the Foundation contributed more than $40 million towards the foundation of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls – a school founded in 2007 based in South Africa for gifted underprivileged girls from impoverished families. The schoolgirls’ uniforms fall in line with Oprah’s self-serving and egotistical personality: the color of the uniforms are green – which is Oprah’s favorite color, and they have the letter “O” embroidered on the pocket of each blazer.

Oprah’s good deeds rarely go unnoticed because they must be publicized and tied to her name, even in the most menial ways. For instance, every Oprah Chai Tea drink comes with its own personal quote by Oprah herself on the sleeve of the cup. Because who doesn’t want to be inspired by the great Oprah herself while drinking tea?

Oprah’s monthly magazine, O, is another, more apparent example of this. Since the conception of the magazine in 2000, Oprah has been on the cover of every single issue, with the exception of Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres gracing the cover. Everything that is tied to Oprah has to have the Oprah name branded to it. The egotism is staggering.

It is dangerous to indulge in idolization, and Oprah Winfrey is a figure that far too many people idolize without even questioning her motives or intentions. To engage in idolization is to blindly follow a figure without hesitation and renders the idolizer alienated and self-loathing. As Erich Fromm writes, “In idolatry man bows down and submits to the projection of one partial quality in himself. He does not experience himself as the center from which living acts of love and reason radiate. He becomes a thing, his neighbor becomes a thing, just as his god are things.”

The King of Hypocrisy: Anti-consumer Consumerism

Perhaps the most insidious form of consumerism is the anti-consumerist brand disguising itself as an “alternative” way to engage and mobilize people. The company brands itself as “anti-consumer” yet it engages in the same marketing ploys and strategies in order to sell products to unsuspecting consumers. At the end of the day, all companies need to make a profit. Adbusters, a self-proclaimed anti-consumer magazine, prides itself on being counterculture yet it has created its own exclusive culture, appealing to style rather than actually challenging dominant economic structures.

The Blackspot shoes campaign is one example of their attempt to appeal to the alternative crowd by selling expensive organic shoes that only people from middle- to upper-class households can afford (ranging from $95-$125) – it is about selling shoes so that people feel like they are a part of social change, yet they engage in the same marketing and consumer tactics that other profit-driven companies use. The description of the Blackspot sneakers encourages the consumer to “permanently re-structure the architecture of cool” – marketing to the anti-corporate individual. It is a far more insidious side of the same coin.

Adbusters‘ “Buy Nothing Day” campaign is no different. It is a day of protest where participants refrain from making purchases in order to protest consumption and commercialization. There is no real inconvenience in not engaging in consumerism for one day. It is no different from mainstream feel-good campaigns under capitalism that it criticizes so heavily. The hypocrisy is outstanding.

There is nothing wrong in engaging in altruistic acts, but when it requires one to consume in the process, the line becomes increasingly blurred – it is important to remain critical of the current campaigns that dominate the mainstream media outlets. Truth be told, for the majority of people, it is far more convenient to engage in charitable optimism rather than attempt to restructure a society that emphasizes and encourages capitalist values. It allows us to be indulgent, greedy and remain complacent. The effort it takes to actually change the world requires honest self-reflection and critical thinking– it is necessary to question these charitable practices and perhaps start entertaining other ways to create meaningful change.

As Oscar Wilde rightly stated, “Charity degrades and demoralizes […] Charity creates a multitude of sins.” The charitable endeavors listed above are only a few examples of the pervasive feel-good campaigns that exist today. It is not surprising that people are moved by the devastating poverty and starvation in the world, but the circumstances that created this immense inequality is the system itself, and change cannot occur in a system that is inherently unjust. Wilde states that this is a case of simply ‘keeping the poor alive’ – it is a way to amuse the poor without actually changing anything.

Rozali Telbis is an activist and writer living in Vancouver, Canada. She can be reached at: rtelbis@gmail.com. Read other articles by Rozali.