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There is a difference between changing the system and keeping it going.

When I was about to head off to university, my uncle sat me down all serious-like and warned me not to let it make me a communist. Typing this article on a macbook means that I probably didn’t become one.

That said, university courses can force you to really confront the structure of the world you live in. Particularly anything to do with sociology or politics. Or any course that taught Marx.

Slavoj Žižek, as philosophers go, is not someone whose work is to be whipped out at parties – unless the party in question is for postgraduate philosophers with a radical bent. But his ideas about capitalism and consumerism in particular are pretty fascinating.

In his lecture First as tragedy, then as farce, he points out – using the sexy examples of Starbucks and Tom’s shoes – how we are now able to buy our charitable redemption with little extra effort as consumers. The ability to help a coffee grower earn a better wage, or send shoes to some shoeless child in ‘Africa’ no longer requires actual thought and dedication. It’s part of the price of your latte.

What this conceals – and this is what my uncle perhaps feared – was the fact that the very system of modern consumerism that allows you to do this easy good, is the system that helps produce and maintain the inequality and poverty in the first place. Giving a few cents extra for coffee to some abstract Colombian grower does absolutely nothing to enable them to live a life equal in material terms to yours. There are larger, structural reasons why that grower and folk like him are trapped in an agricultural/resource economy, while you reap the benefits of a higher value economy centered on services, macbooks and lattes.

The act of all-included charity, in the end, does little more but work to sustain the coffee grower’s unequal place in the grand order of human economics. It’s better than nothing, to be sure, but it’s a long way short of truly helping anyone to a life like yours.

Activism + Politics


About The Author

Richard Stupart

Richard lives and works in South Africa, exploring as often as possible the strange and unknown places that his continent is so rich in. What stories of far flung places and mischief he is able to trap and bring home are mounted on his blog. Where the Road Goes.

  • Chandni Singh

    Very interesting talk. This ‘feel good feeling’ generated by Starbucks and the like that cushion our conscience IS disturbing because it allows us to believe that we are doing something although we are doing nothing. The animation was particularly inspiring! 

    Nice post!

    • Richard

      I’m glad you like it! Yeah – it’s pretty thoroughly soured me to the idea of buying things for reasons of incidental charity.

  • Guy Incognito

    This is an interesting article indeed. The implications are probably far to intricate to be properly debated in the comments section of a website but it’s good for thought. Another good question might be, does everyone in the world WANT a life like mine?

    • Richard

      That’s a really good point. We could probably mostly agree that certain quality-of-life fundamentals are something that might be universally wanted (health, enough to eat, education). But beyond that? By what criteria do we say that a life with a playstation and facebook is better than one spent differently?

      • Sarah Davitt

         Super late to the party :  There was an interesting article in a super old (but super radical) Culture magazine, that asked the question :  “Is human rights a western concept?”  I mean, at the core of any of this, do we really, really, value life in the same way?  and if not, what is the end-result in that shift in value?

  • Kevin

    What amazes me about this video is that it exposes the sort-of feel good charity that is completely divorced from the reality of mankind. Mankind is corrupt at the heart level- morally, ethically, economically, personally, etc. Yet, this sugary, feel-good charity coats over those faults, masking the problem. Thanks for the post!

  • Lauren Quinn

    This is really interesting stuff, and I’m glad to see it up here.

    Like others have said, way too much to comment on in this format, but do have to say that the point the video ends on reminds me a lot of the “orphanages” in Cambodia that primarily funded by Western donors, and are mostly comprised on kids that aren’t orphans. Real, lasting solutions to problems created by poverty and globalization require systemic changes; otherwise, we’re just treating the symptoms and not the problem. But it’s a tall effing order, without a clear path or direction….

    Anyone else notice the irony of the ad on the sidebar: “Millions are suffering in Somalia, Save one life today”?

  • Exosus Areus

    I was going to quip “Which is why I never give to charity” but I decided to take this seriously and say that this is absolute bullshit. There is absolutely no reason I should feel guilty about my lifestyle. I’m not going to say “I worked hard for what I have” because I didn’t, but the world is made up of people acting in their rational self-interest. Those who choose to live for others do so because it makes them happy – if it didn’t, it would never occur to them in the first place. Selfishness is the inherent human condition, and to deny that is the TRUE hypocrisy.

    • Brandon Scott Niece

      Well, Exosus, taking your sentiment to its rational conclusion, that poor Colombian farmer would be fully justified to take advantage of you through whatever means–including terrorism or formal economic exploitation–as long as he views it as being in his “self-interest.” That’s precisely the description Marlow gives of imperialism in Heart of Darkness. At any rate, you gave a very poor justification for your (and to a degree, my) privilege: I can have it because I want it! Well, yes, for now, some of us. Our grandchildren may be in a very different place, though.

    • Gabriela

      It’s not about change the lifestyle you either earn it or were lucky enough to have, is about making concious decisions about what you consume, you’ll give more to your society going once a week to a local market than buying a starbucks coffee on a daily basis, at least is simplier to understand said concept on my country (México) which is so rich on primary activities.
      (I know I’m 2 years late but this happens to be a perfect article for my essay and it seems to be a persistent topic on big corporations because capitalism is having a hard time at least evolving)

  • Abc

    Yes the thing that prevents them from living a life like ours is a government that doesn’t recognize private property and the time it takes for a modern economy to develop.

  • Orlandoinberg

    Wait. I’m sustaing somebody’s living? I’m sustaining some guy growing coffee? STFU! Where are the presses and the net on this business? I’m going stop this destructive behavior right now. What kind of world would allow me to do this?

  • Muammilsattar

    Thanks for turning me onto Zizek. He appears to be a most interesting character! By the way, where in South Africa are you based? I was born and raised in Cape Town, but now live in Germany. I often take a few weeks off every six months to head down to my homeland, however.

    • Richard

      Hey! I’m based in Grahamstown at the moment, up in the Eastern Cape. I hope you are heading to CT in the summer months. :)

  • Cesar

    Okay, wait, what am I missing?  Isn’t there a difference between Tom’s making shoes in Chinese sweatshops for nothing and then donating one pair of this apparently valueless product to the country of Africa (possibly dutch-dooring two economies, as it harms the local shoe manufacturing there too!) and Starbucks buying beans at an ostensibly fair price from their growers, and thus beginning the process of integrating them into a global economy?

    Just because you pay a premium to feel better about your role in a consumerist society doesn’t a) necessarily and wholly invalidate the ethos you’re paying that premium for or b) necessarily mean that has to be the only thing you’re doing to rethink that role.  Yeah, I get that he’s saying that part of the issue is the idea that we think we’re doing more by simply changing our buying habits, but buying un-Fair trade coffee or not buying any coffee (to use this example) would seem to hurt the coffee growers more, unless this global power overthrow is really going to happen.

    I get bummed out by Zizek ’cause he always winds up making me defend things like Starbucks.

  • Kaitie Newman

    I’m a Communist and I’m typing this on a MacBook. Life is complex. We are products of capitalism even as we work to smash it. I was very turned off by the generalizations you made in this article and find it to be an irresponsible way of actually talking about diverse political ideologies.

    • Griffin Sowards

      Communism is a system of control & has a history of lacking diversity in business as well as personal expression. Have you lived in China or Russia, or do you get your Communist experience from textbooks?

  • John McWilliams

    Is it really better than “nothing”, as you claim in your final paragraph?

    The Starbucks approach conceals the fundamental inequalities and unfairness hidden even in many aspects of so-called “fair trade”. Someone who buys a coffee at Starbucks might get the impression that he has “done his duty” when in fact the 1-2 extra cents that the coffee grower gets do nothing to change the fundamentally destructive nature of center-periphery relations in world economics. The consumer feels absolved, he’s paid his indulgences, to use the metaphor of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. He will likely do nothing more to protest/change the fundamentals.

  • hermanojuancito

    This is not just what some would call “neo-Marxist” thought – but what some Christian (Catholic) thinkers have said:

    “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.” — Saint Augustine

    “Charity will never be true charity unless it takes justice into account…Let no one attempt with small gifts of charity to exempt themselves from the great duties imposed by justice.”
    Pope Pius XI

  • Gabriela Martinez

    It’s not about change the lifestyle you either earn it or were lucky enough to have, is about making conscious decisions about what you consume, you’ll give more to your society going once a week to a local market than buying a starbucks coffee on a daily basis, at least is simplier to understand said concept on my country (México) which is so rich on primary activities (I know I’m 2 years late but this happens to be a perfect article for an essay and it seems to be a persistent topic on big corporations, capitalism should be at least evolving)

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