This week I have found myself feeling like the Smash robots observing the more bizarre aspects of human behaviour. The Ice Bucket Challenge has reportedly now raised over £48M. Whilst this is undoubtedly a partial testament to human generosity it is also a testament to a herd-like mentality that lacks either a political or economic analysis of how charity works in a capitalist society. For example, how many of the people taking the IBC would make the effort to campaign to save the NHS or oppose benefit sanctions – both of which would have a greater positive impact on more people than tipping a bucket of water over your head. How many of those taking the challenge in the US will actively oppose the concept of universal healthcare. How many even know, globally speaking, what a rare privilege and luxury it is to be able to waste bucketloads of water by tipping it over your head while the majority of the world don’t have a clean water supply – and increasingly this applies to people in the so-called developed world too – where the CEO of Nestle can quite brazenly declare that he doesn’t consider access to drinking water to be a basic human right and water companies can actually seek to prevent people from even collecting rain-water! Meanwhile other companies are lined up to make a profit from the privatisation of the NHS and are pressing for governments to sign up to the TTIP agreement which effectively makes such acts irreversible. Campaigning against any of these things would benefit more people than the IBC – and indeed would actually benefit the same people more than tipping an ice bucket over your head.
But to even question the IBC immediately invites accusations of being uncharitable, of not caring for your fellow humans or (most tellingly of all) being a spoil-sport. The public pressure put on people nominated is tantamount to a challenge to them to dare not to give. It is the same mob-morality that sees people bullied for not wearing a poppy or questioning a war rather than “supporting the troops” (two concepts that I have always seen as complimentary rather than in opposition in any case). If charity is about anything it should be about the willing choice to give up time or money to help others. Bullying people into giving isn’t charity. It is just bullying – and a sad reflection on the state of charity in the 21st Century. Where fundraising has been professionalised, making it just another arm of the marketing industry.
Maybe you could argue, as many participants and the charities themselves do, that this is all worth it if it raises awareness or raises funds and in so doing helps to ease the suffering – but it doesn’t. The evidence for that is all around. Awareness does not solve anything – only action changes things. Awareness might be a first step towards action – but if it is seen as an end in itself it is pointless. So awareness raising has to be a step towards change. Fundraising is similarly pointless if it does not lead to action – and there are many charities where it does not lead to much, if any. Of course it is legitimate for charities to employ people to carry out work that cannot be done by volunteers. But is it legitimate for them to employ senior managers on six-figure salaries while utilising low paid and unpaid workers, both volunteers and workfare slave labour? Once again some might respond with the argument that if it generates greater funds and awareness then it is all justified. Even if it did this would be a flawed argument as it is a form of cannibal charity that exploits its workers and forces them to rely on handouts from elsewhere to survive. In its very structure it sees some people as having more worth than others. In adopting such notions does this improve the position of the people the charity is supposedly working on behalf of or legitimise the thinking that saw them needing to call on charity in he first place?
Faced with all this people might still argue that we are living in a capitalist society and cannot change everything once so raising money for charity is still legitimate if it improves the condition of those in need, despite all the flaws listed above. But it doesn’t. All too often charity does not raise money for those in need but instead raises money for those who exploit those in need. This might be uncomfortable but it is true – and sticking your head in a bucket doesn’t change that.