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.