Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Singer and the tragedy of charity

Singer, say what you will about him, is one of the most honest Capitalists left. He refuses to shut his eyes against the horrific suffering, poverty and economic injustice that plagues our world -- and he refuses to allow arguments about meritocratic entitlement and the virtue of selfishness to relieve us of our responsibility to fight for justice. None of this should be taken for granted or dismissed lightly. Among a liberal intelligentsia where most are inclined to follow the path of least resistance in pursuit of economic justice, Singer demands hard choices and difficult solutions; and more often than not, he practices what he preaches.

Nevertheless, Singer remains quite decidedly a Capitalist, voicing all of the usual liberal misgivings, only to conclude, as liberals do, that there's simply no better option. Because of this, he is ultimately unwilling to endorse class war, and can only insist on an unusually aggressive vision of class peace. Charity and democratic welfare, Singer argues, are the appropriate vehicles for humanitarian aid; the rich have a responsibility to use both in the fight against inequality, but that responsibility must be ethical, not political.

To be fair, Singer is generally willing to acknowledge the full weight of that responsibility. His standard argument, seemingly obvious but almost universally ignored, is that we should not spend money on luxuries while anyone lacks basic necessities. And this is not, moreover, an imperative that only kicks in when we find it convenient; we should all be willing to accept a significantly lower standard of living, and to give away the vast majority of our wealth and income, in order to provide for the poor.

There are, of course, some major problems with this.

First, Christ too instructs us to "sell all that we have and give it to the poor" -- and there's a reason why so many theologians call this a "counsel of perfection". It's an admirable ideal, but it's not one that many people are going to even come close to observing. Singer is advocating an ethic that, however internally consistent and hypothetically adequate it may be, is never even going to come close to solving the problems of poverty and inequality.

Moreover, even if Singer's program worked perfectly, it could not solve the problem of economic justice for a simple reason: the haves are still in control. "Why should [the poor] be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table?" Oscar Wilde asks; "They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it." Capitalism, even supplemented by exhaustive welfare and charity, is still Capitalism; it places all the power into the hands of those who control the means of production, and makes slaves of everyone else.

Additionally, as Zizek so often argues, charity cultivates all kinds of perverse outcomes: it alleviates guilt, relieves of us responsibly, and through self-perpetuation guarantees that we'll continue to rely on an inadequate solution. Whatever good it does accomplish must always be weighed against the suffering and injustice it will necessarily maintain.

For all of these reasons, Singer's project, on its face, must be regarded as a failure. This does not at all mean that charity and welfare are useless as stopgap approaches to damage control; their counterrevolutionary function has to be taken into account as well, but even Marx was willing to make tradeoffs for what he called a "minor Magna Carta" for workers, a better deal than they previously had. Ultimately, however, our priority must remain the abolition of Capitalism.

Generously, however, I think we can credit Singer with making unintentionally the same move that Marx often makes quite deliberately: by accepting Capitalism's assumptions, he exposes how it can't even work on its own terms. Singer's vision extends charity and welfare to their absolute extremes, but even its most liberal realization leaves billions in poverty, and billions in utter impotence.

Even the most honest Capitalist maintains that we can do no better; but if we are committed to justice, we must try.