(Pete Suechting)— Why are charity and environmental conscientiousness so widespread, even fashionable, in today’s society? Back in the 1960’s and even earlier than that, these attitudes were anomalies, only practiced by societal outliers. Before Rachel Carson’s landmark work, Silent Spring, most Americans were unaware that humans could have an adverse and discernible impact on the environment. So, how and why have these attitudes become so prevalent today? Slavoj Zizek, along with the excellent whiteboard animations of the RSAnimate team, attacks the source of this societal transformation with his usual critical, yet deeply perceptive, approach. He arrives at an answer that is surprising: we feel that awareness of our basic societal problems is enough.
Zizek characterizes today’s form of capitalism as “global capitalism with a human face”, or more generally, cultural capitalism. Cultural capitalism sells an attitude, or lifestyle, as the direct result of its products.For example, think of Nike, which advertises a culture of physical achievement (“Just do it”), or the clothing line Northface, which sells clothing under the slogan “never stop exploring”. Starbucks was a leader in this field, promoting “fair-trade” coffee as more than just coffee: “You are buying into something bigger than yourself. You are buying into coffee ethics….It’s good coffee karma,” says one of their campaigns. This is cultural capitalism at its purest, where consumers buy their own “redemption” from being only consumers. They become environmentalists, social activists, and philanthropists, a whole “culture”, all expressed in one consumerist act.
Zizek points to Toms as the most “absurd example” of cultural capitalism. Toms is famous for its “one-for-one” business model, in which the company will donate one pair of Toms to a third-world farmer for every pair of Toms bought. In this model, one consumerist act literally equals one charitable act. Consumers can buy a pair of shoes for themselves, and feel morally and ethically satisfied while doing it because they have fulfilled their “ethical duties” of charity, kindness, etc.
Learning of inequality or injustice in the world causes an emotional response. Whether its sadness or anger, the emotional response prompts us to donate money and/or effort to ending those injustices. If you remove the emotional response, however, you remove people’s desire to act. This is what Zizek believes cultural capitalism does; it “short-circuits” the emotional process by including the charitable act in the price of the consumerist act.
Now, this short-circuit would not be a problem if the charitable act that companies include within their products were real, effective programs. In fact, it could even be an effective and efficient way to aid people. However, the current manifestation of cultural capitalism is actually detrimental to the people they claim to support. It only holds the symptoms of poverty at bay, and does not seek to address the original cause of poverty. No real, viable solutions are ever offered, but are, in fact, discouraged by the belief that one is already in place. In this way, the first-world countries can feel morally satisfied and continue to exploit the cheap labor and products of undeveloped third-world countries; “The worst slave owners were the ones who were kind to their slaves”, Zizek says.
So, how do we address this problem? The proper action begins with thinking. And it is important to realize that thinking is, in itself, an action. Too often, when confronted with inequality and injustice, blind, immediate action is applauded, while thinking is condemned as cold, calculating or unfeeling. But it is blind action, not thinking, that is the problem here. We don’t think about the real implications of our actions when we buy Starbucks or Toms, we just short-circuit from buying, directly to charity. The thinking is what needs to be restored to our system. We need to move from cultural capitalism to conscious capitalism. This is not “capitalism with a human face”, but “capitalism with a human mind”. From the basis of thought and nowhere else can we move into a truly just and sustainable capitalist society.
I think it is important to confess that I am just as guilty as every other consumer participating in the cultural capitalist lifestyle. Denying my involvement in this farce would be just as destructive, and even more immoral, than the short-circuit itself. No; If you, the reader (assuming you are persuaded by my argument), and I, accept our guilt, it will be the first step to ending our involvement. And our involvement in cultural capitalism is, in fact, the most maddening of all its injustices: It involves every one of us in its immorality, making every one of us guilty, without our knowledge or explicit approval, just through naive participation.
Now, let us think about some more concrete solutions. The next time you go shopping, ask yourself what the product is selling beyond itself. When you buy that Northface jacket, are you also trying to buy into the outdoorsy, independent explorer persona? Do you even need Northface to sell you that persona, or could you create it yourself, through personal means? Or, when you next go to buy a coffee, from Starbucks or anywhere else, take the passion that you used to satisfy with their fair-trade coffee and do something real with it.