Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Cold Look at Charity (1966)

From the December 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are a few people who successfully ignore Christmas. How they do it is a mystery. For who can ignore the bright lights, the oceans of alcohol, the deafening clangour of the cash registers, the stifling weight of hypocrisy? And who can ignore the appeals for charity which at this time of year come floating down all around us, like the snow which, in the eye of the imaginative greetings cards artists, always falls on Christmas Eve?

There are the stickers which come to us through the post, with a request that we either buy them or send them, politely, back where they came from. There is not very subtle pressure at work on us here; “If I were to throw these in the waste paper basket I should feel like a thief; if I were to return them without payment I should feel like a niggard” ran a letter in the press a few years back. Which is exactly the effect the senders of the seals are aiming at.

There are the special collection boxes, the Christmas stockings heavy with pennies in the pubs, the cards and the wrapping paper anyone can buy in aid of what he decides is a good cause. Or, of course, in an overflow of seasonal goodwill, he can simply send cash. Christmas is the time for giving, isn’t it? The time we’re all supposed to try to be better than we are the rest of the year? When we think of others before ourselves? The charities do their best to convince us on the point.

It is apparent that the organised charities, like Carnaby Street and the Communist Party, are with the Trend. Their Christmas cards and seals usually look like the better designed London Transport posters, all colour and abstraction and message. Some appeals—especially the Spastics Society—run lucrative football competitions. They have slick, streamlined titles like War on Want and Oxfam, which encourages a mental picture of earnest undergraduates with a conscience wrapped away under their multi-coloured scarves. These names are a significant move away from the established, cumbersome favourites like the National Council for the Welfare of Spastics, the Homes for Aged and Infirm Clergymen, the Distressed Gentlework Aid Association and so on.

Slicker titles are not a coincidence, They are part of the charities' efforts to sell themselves like breakfast cereals. They all have a message, which some of them hammer home with the same persuasive skill we see used in television commercials. The Spastics Society bangs away at the fact that anyone can have a spastic child. The National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children emphasise the tragedy of the afflicted child and, believing that there are few things less appealing than a grown-up mental defective, play down the fact that they also help adults.

Perhaps there are some doubts among the charities about these methods. It is no surprise to learn that the advertising profession has a hand in it, that one of the founders of the Spastics Society was an advertising copywriter and that the appeals officer for Oxfam was also once with an advertising agency. 

The new charity men assert that they have built efficient organisations, that they have transformed fund-raising from a chancy, flag day and fete affair into a more scientific and predictable business. Perhaps they have. The Spastics Society has a yearly income of over £3 million, some of which it diverts into other charities. At the same time the Earl Haig Fund, which sticks doggedly to its sombre image of a chilly November service at the Cenotaph and the flowers made by the broken remnants of Servicemen, raises nearly all its income—about £1 million a year—from Poppy Day.

The fashionable, big names exist among something like three thousand active charities in this country. Anyone with cash to spare can give it to the relief of needy builders’ clerks, shipbrokers, Southern Irish loyalists, ex-members of the Stock Exchange or commercial travellers. He can help a charity which exists to suppress professional begging, or one which provides “. . . moral, spiritual and physical treatment of gentlewomen who have fallen into intemperate habits through the misuse of drugs and alcohol.” He can even help to provide trusses for impoverished sufferers from rupture.

There is no lack of opportunity to donate to charity. The question is—should we?

Charity is a well-established business. A Statute of 1601 gave the first legal definition and most of the causes mentioned there—". . . sick and maimed soldiers . . . the education and preferment of orphans . . . the relief and redemption of prisoners and captives . . .” still brandish the begging bowl today.

Many of the appeals seem irresistible. Who could say no to a starving child? If one were dumped on our doorstep— and the charities aim at making us react as if there were one there—there could be only one answer. But this argument has its limits. To start off, what would we say if one of the respected, well heeled patrons of charity were to appear on our doorsteps asking us, as Lord Rank did in one advertisement, to “Please remember there is still much that each of us could do to see that those who still stand in need are not neglected”?

And what about other appeals to our pity? Could we say no to an unemployed man? Or to a salesman who is falling behind in the rat race? Or to a working class mother driven to despair by the pressures of looking after the kids, keeping home and making ends meet? These are all needy cases and they could all be helped by money.

The first question to ask is why charities exist. Most people accept that orphans need help but never stop to wonder why; never stop to question a social system where children are the legal responsibility of their parents so that if the parents die the child is left without protection. The same system produces the wars—Korea, Vietnam, Kashmir— which make more orphans as well as more homeless and more refugees, all of them suitable subjects for charity.

Disease creates problems for people for the simple reason that it can make them unemployable, in other words can make them unable to earn a wage. Few people, as they contribute to a charity to help the incapacitated, question a social system which makes the majority of its people rely so heavily on the sale of their working abilities. Few of them question the poverty which affects all workers, and which sometimes intensifies upon one person, or one group of people, and forces them out of capitalism’s mainstream.

These problems—and many, many more—are what the charities say they are tackling. Are they succeeding?

It is not curmudgeonly to point out that the lack of charity’s success is demonstrated by the very continuance of charity. There are still millions of people who are deprived, or maimed, or homeless, or hungry. The smoothest charity organiser will not pretend that he has the answer to it all; yet the fact is that most of the problems are avoidable.

The problems which the charities battle against are not a matter of mischance. It is not some personal quirk which makes an unmarried mother add another burden to the orphans’ home; she does it because it takes more courage than she possesses to face the economic and social pressures of capitalist society with a child which is known as a bastard. Oxfam repeats that two-thirds of the world’s people are hungry but this is not mischance; they also say that sixpence would save a child’s life in India, Nigeria, Hong Kong, yet in some countries food is destroyed when the market is not right and in others governments devote a large part of their resources to the production of armaments.

Modern society does not lack resources. Only it has a structure which ensures that those resources are used to deprive and destroy rather than to feed and build. It is the economy of capitalism—its basis of private ownership— which produces the flood of misery in the world and against that the charities battle with little hope.

It is not with any desire to be cruel that we say charity is a delusion. It persuades people who have a burden of their own to carry that they can solve the world’s problems by distributing a little of their poverty over someone else. It promotes the idea that there is nothing much wrong with the world which cannot be put right with a change of heart. With his problems staring him in his face, charity encourages the worker to turn his back. At best, it persuades him to look only briefly at the world and its ailments before he closes his mind by the act of dropping his coin in the box. At worst it fosters the meanest of docility and the blind acceptance of a very inadequate existence.

We can do better than this. Leaving aside the smooth organisers, many charities function on the efforts of sincere and generous workers. It is a wicked tragedy that such sincerity and energy should be misused to perpetuate the very conditions they are trying to do something about. But, as the charities would agree, capitalism is full of tragedies.

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