Slavoj Zizek: I want to develop a very simple, linear line of thought about one point; why in our economy charity is no longer just the idiosyncrasy of some good guys here and there but the basic constituent of our economy. I would like to start with the future of so-called cultural capitalism, today’s form of capitalism, and then develop how the same thing applies to economy in the narrower sense of the term.
If in the old times—by old times I mean something very precise, before this ’68 transformation of capitalism into as we call it, cultural capitalism, postmodern capitalism, caring for ecology, and all that. What changed? What changed is that if before this time there was a simple—morally simple—opposition between consummation—you buy, you speculate, and so on—then on the top of it it becomes what you do for a society, like Soros. He’s still the old type here, I claim. In the morning he grabs the money, if I simplify it; in the afternoon he gives half the money back to charities and supporting things and so on.
But I claim in today’s capitalism the tendency more and more is to bring the two dimensions together in one and the same gesture. That when you buy something, your anti-consumerist duty to do something for others, the environment and so on, is already included into it. If you think I'm exaggerating, you have them around the corner. Walk into any Starbucks Coffee, and you will see how they explicitly tell you, and I quote their campaign: it’s not just what you're buying, it’s what you're buying into. And then they describe it to you. Listen. When you buy Starbucks, whether you realize it or not, you are buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You are buying into a coffee ethics. Through our Starbucks Shared Planet program, we purchase more fair trade coffee than any company in the world, insuring that the farmers who grow the beans receive a fair price for their hard work. And we invest in and improve coffee growing practices around the globe. It’s good coffee karma. And a little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the place with comfortable chairs and so on and so on.
You see, this is what I call cultural capitalism at its purest. You don’t just buy a coffee. You buy, in the very consumerist act, you buy your redemption from being only a consumerist. You know, you do something for the environment, you do something to help starving children in Guatemala, you do something to restore the sense of community here, and so on and so on. And I could go on, the almost absurd example of these so-called Tom’s Shoes, an American company whose formula is one for one. They claim for every pair of shoes you buy with them, they give a pair of shoes to some African nation and so on and so on, so that you know one for one. One act of consumerism, but within it you pair for being redeemed for it, one act for the environment and so on and so on.
This generates almost a kind of—how should I put it—a semantic overinvestment or burden. You know it’s not just buying a cup of coffee. It’s at the same time, again, you fulfill a whole series of ethical duties, and so on and so on. And again, this logic is today almost universalized. Like, let’s be frank. When you go to a store, probably you prefer buying organic apples. Why? Look deep into yourself. I don’t think you really believe that those apples that cost double than those good genetically modified apples, that they are really any better. I believe we are cynics there, skeptics. But you know, it makes you feel warm, that I am doing something for our mother earth, I am doing something for our planet, and so on and so on. You get all that.
So my point is that this very interesting short circuit where the very as it were act of egotist consumption and so on already includes the price for its opposite.
Based on all of this, I think that we should return to good old Oscar Wilde, who still provided the best formulation against this logic of charity. Let me just quote a couple of lines from the beginning of his The Soul of Modern Man Under Socialism, where he points out, quote: It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. People find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected, intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease. They merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance by keeping the poor alive. Or in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
But this is not a solution. It is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try to reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible, and the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves. And so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it.
Charity degrades and demoralizes. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. I think these lines are more actual than ever. Nice as it sounds, basic income, or this kind of trade with the rich is not a solution.
There is for me another—because of a whole other series of problems—I see here another problem again, which is for me the last desperate attempt to make capitalism work for socialism. Let’s not discard the evil. Let’s make the evil itself work for the good. You remember? You are not old enough, I am. We were crazy 30 or 40 years ago, we were dreaming about socialism with a human face. It is like as if today the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face. We have the basic rules of the game. We make it a little bit more human, a little more tolerant, with a little more welfare, and so on and so on.
My attitude is here, let’s give to the devil what belongs to the devil, and let’s recognize that in the last decades at least, til recently, at least in the Western Europe—I mean, there is no bullshitting here. Let’s admit it. I don’t think that at any moment in human history such a relatively large percentage of population live in such relative freedom, welfare, security, and so on. I see this gradually but nonetheless seriously threatened.
When I gave the interview for Hard Talk yesterday the guy, Sackur, who is a bright guy, not just another sucker, he told me: But you are basically misanthropic. I told him: Yes! And they praise the British nation. You know very well that there is a certain type of misanthropy which is much better as a social attitude than this cheap, charitable optimism, and so on.
I think a mixture of the slight, not the hard-line apocalyptic vision, but let me call it like, like you know what we say, soft. Gianni Vattimo speaks about a soft thought. I don’t agree with him but I would say soft apocalypticism. It’s not 2012, we know, but we are approaching a certain zero point. Things are unfortunately, you may disagree. Ecologically. Socially. With new apartheids and so on. We are approaching a certain point. Biogenetics and so on. Where—I'm not saying, of course I'm not an idiot, that we will be returning to the old Leninist party, absolutely not. Again, I am equivocal here.
The twentieth century communist experience was a mega mega ethical, political, economic and so on catastrophe. I'm just saying if all the cherished values of liberalism—I love them. But the only way to save them is to do something more. You know what I'm saying. I'm not against charity, my god. In an abstract sense, of course. It’s better than nothing! Let’s be aware that there’s an element of hypocrisy there. In a way, you know, in a way like my argument. I don’t doubt people who tell me that Soros is an honest guy. But there is a paradox, you know, that he is repairing with the right hand what he ruined with the left hand, no? That’s all I'm saying.
For example, of course we should help the children, it’s horrible to see a child whose life is ruined because of an operation that costs twenty dollars. But in the long term you know, as Oscar Wilde would have said, if you just operate the child, they will live a little bit better, but in the same situation which produced them.