It’s perfectly natural to feel sympathetic, even if the circumstances causing your sympathy aren’t under your control. You sympathize with the homeless guy that never seems to fail in making eye contact with you on your commute to work — after all, one of you is sitting in a leather-padded seat, and the other in a makeshift tent. You also sympathize with the citizens of nations undergoing terrorist attacks. You sympathize with those struggling over the COVID-19 pandemic; the dying, sick, and dirt-poor.
The common denominator behind these everyday moments and our gravitation towards sympathizing with them is that we aren’t directly in control of them. We can give the homeless guy a few dollars, which should afford him a sandwich or a pair of socks. We can donate to organizations that raise awareness for terrorist attacks. We can volunteer at a soup kitchen or provide our own facemasks. But, while these efforts are helpful in the short-term, they fail to provide a significant change for the lives of others in the long-term. And you know that. Unless, of course, you think the homeless man has the time and wherewithal to turn your $5 into $5,000 overnight.
So, why do we do it? It makes sense to presume that the homeless man already made a few bucks today; out of the hundreds of people that pass him by, at least *some* of those people have given him enough money for a meal. It also makes sense to presume that there are thousands of people donating to the same cause you are; so, while your donation isn’t moot, it certainly does feel like a waste of money if you’ve got bills to pay and they’ve already raised a million dollars. We do these deeds not because we know we’re making a tremendous difference — rather, we do them because they help us alleviate an inescapable sense of privilege that we never earned.
It makes sense, then, to understand why you and I are persuaded to buy fair trade coffee, organic fruit, and eco-conscious clothing. See, there’s a clear dichotomy between capitalist consumption and ethical living. When we buy a product, we support the exploitation of the workers who made the product. The product’s company increases its profits, and the workers who created the product don’t see a dime of your money. Undeniably, we all have purchased clothing from Nike, Adidas, Urban Outfitters, Tommy Hilfiger, etc. that use sweatshop labor to mass-produce cheap goods. We also buy produce knowing that the farmer who picked it is living hand-to-mouth somewhere far off. It seems impossible (because it is) to go through life making perfectly-ethical purchasing decisions. So when we finally do find the perfect product — the fair-trade pound of coffee beans that promises 5% of your purchase to Latin American farmers — we feel at ease, knowing we’re doing the right thing.
But the dichotomy between ethical choices and consumption under capitalism cannot be merged, since capitalism directly contradicts any ethical standards of living. In a 2009 lecture at the RSA, London, Philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains:
“In today’s capitalism, more and more the tendency is to bring the two dimensions together in one and the same cluster. So, when you buy something, your anti-consumerist duty to do something for others, for the environment, and so on, is already included into it… 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 the remedies do not cure the disease. They merely prolong it; indeed, the remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive… But this is not a solution, it is an aggravation of the difficulty.”
So, though our intentions are good, we are ultimately doing nothing more than giving a homeless man a few pennies (not even dollars — your purchase alone will not provide anything of value to the workers). Companies seek profit, and profit only. If providing “fair-trade” coffee can persuade more people to buy their coffee, which further extends their profit margin, they will do so. There’s also a sense of hypocrisy stemming from the consumer: the laborer’s struggle is a result of their being overworked and underfed by the company that exploits them — the company would be driven out of competition if they provided a truly fair standard of living. Do we really think anything will change?
Zizek refers to this merging of the dichotomy as cultural capitalism. The concept of consuming to help exploited laborers not only misses the point, but completely opposes it. That isn’t to say that you should avoid fair-trade products, given the only option is something even worse. But the root of the issue can’t be reached. The proper aim, as Zizek explains, is “to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible”, and our altruistic efforts are prolonging the carrying-out of this aim. A corporation providing charity is, to Zizek, not unlike a slave master that treats his slaves well, keeping them from realizing the core of the system. Therefore, it’s up to us to realize that the struggles of others under capitalism cannot be driven away by more capitalism. Instead, we have to dismantle the greed of corporations and restructure a society in which those struggles cannot happen in the first place.