From the March 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
What do you do when someone comes to your door and say, It’s for the blind” or “I’m collecting for Cancer Research” or “we’re asking people to give to Oxfam”?
The easiest thing is to dip into your pocket, put a few coppers in their envelope and get back to whatever you were doing. That way you get rid of your unwanted caller and at the same time put at rest any conscience that may have been pricked. Harder by far is it to refuse those few coppers, and indeed few people do.
But does the money you’ve given really serve a useful purpose? Well first of all, although you may wonder how much of it actually gets to the unfortunates in whose name it was collected, you’re fairly sure that the benefit of your donation will be felt at least in some small way by a needy person somewhere. Secondly you’re reassured that the world isn’t such a bad place after all, that there are people doing something about its problems.
Not many people get further than this in their thoughts on charities, and very few indeed get as far as asking whether charities ever actually solve basic problems like hunger, homelessness and disease. In fact charities never do; think of any one you like and you’ll find that, despite the funds it’s collected in the past, its need for funds is greater-than ever. And although charities occasionally pack up, they hardly ever do so because the cause for which they were collecting has ceased to exist. On the contrary, new causes are springing up all the time.
The sad thing is that charities, despite the enormous amount of human energy and goodwill that go into them, can rarely do more than touch the surface of the problems they were set up to deal with. They can never get to the root of these problems. Only political action aimed at revolutionising the whole structure of society and abolishing its profit system can wipe out the problems that give rise to charities. Yet, in law, the benefits and privileges (like tax exemption) of a recognised charity are conditional upon its abstinence from political activity. In other words to be recognised as a charity you are forbidden to do anything which might conceivably tackle the problems of need and. suffering at their root.
Another irony is that, while for most people charity seems to be a sacred institution, the world we live in could not be more uncharitable. Apart from such large-scale horrors as food being dumped or left to rot in some parts of the world while people starve in others and human beings engaging in or turning a blind eye to the mass slaughter of other human beings, our day-to-day existence is based on the assumption that we will try to get as much as possible for as little as possible. So we will squeeze our employer for the highest wage or salary we think he can afford and he will squeeze us too, to produce as much for him as possible for as little money as he thinks we will to accept. When we go shopping we would never dream of paying double the marked price for the goods we need. On the contrary we usually try to find places where we can get the goods we need for as low a price as possible. And most of us spend time comparing prices and complaining about how little we get for our money. All this is the exact opposite of charity. None of it could be further from the ethic of “giving to help others”.
What it amounts to is that in a society which is bound to be overwhelmingly uncharitable because of the shortages and rivalries built into its buying and selling system, charity can never be more than a small closed compartment of life.
We want to persuade people of the severe limitations of organised charity and also of the unfortunate effect it has in wrongly suggesting to people that, by giving money, they are doing something about solving the world’s problems. What charities never suggest is the plain truth that the perpetual calamities and suffering they exist to cope with are due not to any inevitable defects in man’s capacity for organising the world but to a social system which puts profits-and armaments to guard these profits-before human welfare.
Charity will end when we get socialism. People won’t need it then. It’s something worth thinking about next time you slip those coppers into that envelope.