The facade of charity discreetly (yet blatantly) pervades the social form of the early 21st century. Charity has become ubiquitous in contemporary capitalism. It is an inculcated moral concept, a symbolic representation of 'the good', accepted without question. And yet charity as a social form is not a 'mode of existence' (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis 1992: xv) that exists in capitalist society, but rather a form of capitalism. There have been few attempts to understand and interpret the manifestation of the present-day social form of capitalist charity, but through an open Marxist approach, an alternative understanding of charity emerges. This piece advocates three nascent and interconnected narratives on charity: the first considers the state form; the second the commodification and fetishisation of charity; and the third looks at charity, volunteers and the wage labour relationship.
The form of charity is a plethora of interconnected practices, with no definite beginning and end, reaching well beyond the realms of this polemic. The intention here is to unsettle the accepted, taken-for-granted notions about charity in society through an exploratory, critical discussion. The critique that flows through this polemic considers how the social form of charity has become indelible within capitalist reproduction in the 21st century. Charity has become subsumed into the state form today as an extension of the welfare system. Today, charity forms relations in a way that is less threatening and less antagonistic towards capitalism. Charity is fetishised and consumed as part of the spectacle of capitalist reproduction, which may be considered to be more selfish rather than selfless 'altruism'. Charity itself, rather than struggling against capitalism in a transformative way succeeds only in a struggle that reproduces impoverishment and inequality. Charity reinforces our alienation: as the dispossessed, self-realisation and inherently, our own freedom, are denied to us. The alienating wage labour relationship is perpetuated through the form of charity, epitomised through the 'free' labour of volunteers. How charity separates and reinforces the very antagonisms it is reproducing against, as a subsumed and cosseted social form, is the basis of these three interrelated narratives.
The state form is a fragile mediator, enforcing capitalism's ongoing reproduction of separation in unity. It is also an enforcer of charity. Charity has become subsumed by the state; it is legitimised, embraced and promoted as a guiding social principle. In order to operate as charities, organisations must be registered and approved through the state in line with legislation, ticking all the prescribed boxes necessary for becoming a capitalist charity. Through capital's charity, the 'joy of giving' and 'helping others' is presented as a movement towards addressing social problems and improving the social form. The state, in this respect, is promoting the redistribution of impoverishment, as charity is formalised and inequality preserved. Although charity is a form of struggle, it is neither radical nor anti-establishment. In its present form, it doesn't negate capitalism but helps people to limit their creativity and acquiesce to the prevailing ideology. If charity did not exist, social problems could become worse, sparking dissent (in the form of theft, strikes and riots, for example), as the impoverished rally together and gather their voices. In such a situation, a response or rebuke would be necessary on the part of the state form, expressed through political and, no doubt, police action. The reproduction of charity transforms such action. Charity cannot prevent such things from happening, but can appease them, since anger and discontent can be channelled through charity into social action--action for capital, rather than against it. Charity appears as an alternative to, but is also a medium of the state. In discussing the history of capitalist accumulation, Roberts discusses how '"pauperism" was one means amongst many for the continual subordination of the working class to both the wage form and the rule of law' (2002: 108). The word 'pauperism' here could easily be substituted for that of charity.
Political perspectives on charities have altered significantly in the last thirty years, as they have become subsumed into governance as a medium of change. The financial position of the state is precarious, confined within 'the limits imposed by the contradictory form of accumulation of capital on world scale' (Bonefeld 1993: 3). However, the flow of financial capital through the state form cannot be easily disregarded, as today 'the total income of society passing through the hands of the state has reached levels much greater than income going directly to private capital as profits, interest and rent' (Harman 2009: 112). In recent years, charity illustrates one of the ways in which the state has attempted to displace the economic crisis. The current recession has seen the state rely more on the voluntary sector and charities...