The holidays are upon us. ’Tis the season of altruistic volunteers in Santa Claus hats ringing bells outside local Walmarts and synagogues hosting food drives. Toys for Tots bins will overflow with trinkets and teddy bears, and Christmas carols blaring from shopping mall speakers will extol the virtues of giving to the deserving poor.
This all seems perfectly appropriate. We are bombarded with images of starving children and pleas to help those who can’t afford to heat their homes in the winter. As Oscar Wilde remarks in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” it is “inevitable that we be strongly moved” by the plight of our fellow humans, and feel compelled to take immediate action against poverty and suffering. A dollar in the Salvation Army’s bucket or a monthly pledge to OxFam seems to be the least we can do when we’re surrounded by so much unnecessary human misery.
But, as Wilde notes, “this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty.” Charity, if it soothes the soul and provides a degree of sustenance the economy denies, buttresses the same system responsible for that immiseration. Homeless shelters and breadlines do not challenge the existing social order; the philanthropic sentiment behind them has always been a corollary of capitalism.
Figures as ideologically diverse as George Bush and George Soros pronounce their faith in the ability of private charity to eradicate poverty. Bill Gates and Bono donate fortunes to their respective foundations, while everyday Americans prepare to give record amounts to their favorite philanthropic organizations.
Yet charity salves a wound it fundamentally cannot heal. Neither the dollar you give to your local Habitat for Humanity nor the Gates Foundation’s grant to private housing projects will help your neighbors down the street who lost their home because of a subprime mortgage — much less curb the financial speculation that helps drive the housing crisis. So-called “food rescue” programs, which encourage corporate caterers and high-end restaurants to donate leftover scraps to the working poor, do not address the reason for such deprivation.
It is not enough to mitigate the worst aspects of poverty. If we have the generosity to give a stranger a hot meal or a bed for the night, we must also have the courage to ask why they were hungry and homeless in the first place.
Endemic poverty is not the inevitable state of human affairs. It is the result of a specific set of social relations: those of capitalism.
Capitalism’s genesis dates back to the sixteenth-century English countryside, when the common land of peasants was effectively privatized and, for the first time in human history, people were forced to rely on the market for subsistence.
Over the next two centuries, as land enclosures continued and workers were forced to sell their labor under threat of starvation, industrial capitalism emerged. This novel system created a material abundance the likes of which the world had never seen. Between the beginning and end of the nineteenth century, production per person increased exponentially.
But capitalism, left to its own devices, concentrated wealth in the hands of a small fraction of the population. Only when labor movements and socialist parties sprung up were workers able to wrest back some of the bounty they’d created.
At the same time England’s peasants were being transformed into an urban proletariat and children were losing their parents to coal-pit accidents and their arms to the gears of mechanical weavers, the bourgeoisie of London built the first orphanages and public hospitals. By the nineteenth century, poorhouses for the disabled and centers for the distribution of unused and spoiled food had been established in every major industrial city. But if these philanthropic ventures balmed the broken hearts of the bourgeoisie, they did nothing to alter the structural privation to which they were responding.
And they still haven’t, as the hideous poverty of today can attest.
As of last year, more than one in five American children did not have reliable access to food at home. Hundreds of thousands live under bridges and in makeshift camps or short-term shelters, with millions more one paycheck away from living in their cars. Worldwide, three billion people live on less than $2.50 per day. One in eight globally are slowly starving to death. While stock markets reach unprecedented heights, about 21,000 people perish every day because of hunger or malnutrition.
This grim state of affairs has not gone unnoticed by our generous impulses. In the US alone, there are more than two hundred thousand charitable organizations.
Yet even as Americans are set to donate a historic $400 billion to their favorite charities by the end of 2016 — and Feeding America boasts of having given away 3.7 billion meals in one year — poverty rates in the United States have spiked.
The intensification of both poverty and private aid is no coincidence. George W. Bush encouraged charitable giving at the same time he cut tax rates for top earners and reduced welfare spending. In Latin America, charitable NGOs serve as the auxiliary troops of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs, redirecting popular discontent over slashed public spending into apolitical, often US-funded relief.
Meanwhile, in a surprisingly candid report on its Millennium Development Goals, the UN notes that though the work of its aid groups has brought down the proportion of people dying from hunger globally, growing economic inequality is stymying any further progress.
For capital, this isn’t especially troubling. Corporations regularly harness our altruistic instincts to boost their own share value. We are asked at the checkout line whether we would like to donate a dollar to fight HIV, and must choose between cruelty-free and regular shampoo at the grocery store. Target loudly announces that 5 percent of its profits will be donated back to the community while FedEx generously volunteers its employees’ free time to its favored local causes.
These acts of ostensible benevolence are insidious alternatives to public funding of housing, health, and education. They’re nothing more than opportunistic attempts to burnish the image of business at the same time public assistance is snatched away. No gesture of corporate kindness has ever ended, or even significantly mitigated, hunger, homelessness, or poverty.
At the individual level, conventional forms of charity also introduce a relational hierarchy that demeans its supposed beneficiaries. Instead of drawing on a welfare state that guarantees food and shelter as basic human rights, those without means must ask politely to obtain the rudiments of life. They’re left subject to the whims of the bestower of aid, who decides whether the impoverished may receive what should be theirs without qualification.
Whatever the shortcomings of the social-democratic welfare state, one of its signature achievements was to remove this discretion — to make state bureaucrats not the arbiters of “deserving” and “undeserving” but the providers of universal services.
Charity, by contrast, creates a relationship that compromises the humanity of both parties. It humiliates the recipient at the same time it gratifies the giver. One cannot fight shoulder-to-shoulder with someone while looking down at them. The proper response to the suffering around us is not sympathy but anger, and with it, a commitment to political solidarity.
What we need is a society that doesn’t force people to live on the streets or beg for a meal. Indigence is not a thing to be pitied, it is a condition to be organized against and abolished. The recipients of charity don’t need more pocket change — they need powerful working-class organizations.
We can be equally sure, however, that it will be some time before the Left is in a position to end poverty. Reactionaries rule the Beltway, and we can expect cuts in social spending for the next few years (longer if the Democrats fail to learn the lessons of the last election). Even in the most optimistic scenario, it will take years to assemble movements with the power to rebuild the gutted US welfare state and make health care and housing social rights.
So what should we do in the meantime?
The Left Alternative
The fact that charity is at best a Band-Aid on a festering wound doesn’t mean we should simply rip it off. I myself live and work at a Catholic Worker house that provides food to the city’s working poor and homeless.
But we can do better than can food drives and soup kitchens. History demonstrates that private charity, while shoring up capital in its conventional form, can become a vehicle for egalitarian change if it’s connected to left organizing.
The Black Panther Party terrified the FBI with their “survival programs,” which provided, among other things, free breakfast, free health clinics, and free clothing banks. While the more than sixty programs served the basic needs of the community, they also had an explicitly political purpose.
The aid was designed to “bring the people to . . . consciousness,” Panther leader Huey P. Newton explained, so that they might “deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.” The Panthers’ initiatives weren’t an ancillary activity of the party, a footnote in an otherwise gun-wielding history: they became a recruiting tool so effective that J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
More recently, the South African community organization Abahlali baseMjondolo (in Zulu, “people who live in shacks’’) has planted community gardens and coordinated soup kitchens to bolster its base while fighting the local government for municipal services. Homes Not Jails combines direct aid with direct action by breaking into abandoned buildings to house the homeless and near-homeless.
Last summer, the drop-in center where I work used its soup kitchen to help organize the city’s homeless against the government’s routine destruction of their camps. By engaging the people who use our services as fellow workers with common interests, we were able to transform a site of charity into a venue for political empowerment.
The Left, then, should not cede the terrain of charity to capitalist philanthropists and reactionary do-gooders. We should instead seek to harness the potential of direct aid to create organizations which aim to abolish the conditions which make that aid necessary.
A politicized charity, done in the spirit of the Black Panthers, which views its recipients as comrades rather than supplicants, has the power to transform suffering into political solidarity and swell the ranks of the Left.
So this holiday season, don’t just donate to OxFam or volunteer at a soup kitchen. Harden your heart and organize.