Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas is the time for giving

I’ve been commuting to London from Brighton since just before last Christmas. At this time of year – as coldness descends and darkness swallows every waking hour – delays, cancellations and unforeseen train mishaps become ever more frequent. Trains break down, frost freezes tracks and – as the festive season looms on the horizon – suicides increase. The whole unfortunate rigmarole becomes tedious, repetitive and tiring.

As Christmas approaches, strange creatures dressed in bright floppy hats garnished with shiny bells encroach from the dark and begin to occupy stations up and down the country. From first thing in the morning to last thing at night, flocks of carol singers ensconce themselves by ticket barriers or by platform edge. Their tuneful wails cut through the crisp air as they huddle together for warmth. Outriders patrol the perimeter of the pack shaking giant buckets adorned with images of their charitable master: Help For Heroes, the Salvation Army, or some local church.

Carol singers can smell a fiver – hidden deep in a leathery wallet – at fifty paces. Commuters are their prey and coinage is their bounty. You pull your scarf tight round your neck as a scout lurches over wearing a fake white beard and grasping his bucket tightly – like a festive harbinger from Middle Earth. “Spare any change sir? Christmas is the time for giving”.

Ignoring the increasing commercialisation of Christmas which suggests that if Christmas is “the time for giving” it’s actually for giving money to corporations and businesses, it’s wrong to suggest there is just one time for being generous. People should be generous all year, not just when they’re made to feel guilty.

But it also ignores a more serious point, that the need for charity is a symptom of a broken system. If people are sleeping rough, it’s because the government has failed to provide for its citizens. If people are dying of starvation in the developing world, it’s because international organisations and supranational bodies have not done enough to create a fair and redistributive system of trade. It is our global system of capitalism which creates inequality and poverty, and as long as this system survives, the problems will continue – no matter how much charity there is or how Big David Cameron’s Society becomes.

Whether guilt, empathy or sympathy drives people to donate, charity can only bring temporary solutions to problems which are universal and inherent. In addition, charity – because it works within a broken system – acts to reinforce systems of control and exploitation because it creates the illusion of dealing with a problem.

This animated video of a lecture by renowned philosopher Slavoj Zizek helps illustrate the argument:

The question of charity is a sensitive issue because it represents a potent mix of emotive power relations. We will only negate the need for charity when there are fundamental changes to our system, but there can’t be fundamental change whilst systems of control – including (arguably) charity – reinforce the system of oppression. As long as this continues there will be pain and suffering.

Understandably, most people would rather give to charity and help alleviate a small amount of suffering than let the horrors continue unabated. As Zizek says, “I’m not against charity in an abstract sense because it’s better than nothing – but let’s be aware that there is an element of hypocrisy”.  It’s a deeply depressing paradox – and a horrible moral dilemma – which testifies to capitalism’s incredible ability to survive. Capitalism – the cockroach of political systems.

Or maybe I need to lighten-up, stop being so curmudgeonly and get into the Christmas spirit. I eagerly await the nocturnal visitation of three spirits to show me the light...

1 comment:

Martin said...

Respectable topic dude. I highly appreciate whatever you wrote here that Christmas is the time for giving but we all also should remember that only not the day Christmas is time for giving but all the of the year is time for giving and taking also. Thanks mate.

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