The Tension Between Philanthropy and Unfettered Capitalism


SANTA MONICA, California — Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian Marxist philosopher and cultural critic, is not one to shy away from speaking his mind — in fact, he relishes in it. A common thread in Zizek’s philosophy is his utter disdain for capitalism. According to Zizek, one notable by-product of living in a globalized capitalist world is the “feel-good” campaigns that are so evident in the West.

“Cultural Capitalism”

Zizek argues that “feel-good’” campaigns operate under “cultural capitalism” where people feel more inclined to do a good deed only when they are rewarded in return with material things. While one may have sincere intentions, they cannot truly do something good when that good deed is dependent on a structure that is inherently unequal, and that only exacerbates global poverty. People buy organic or fair trade products to feel good about themselves, if only temporarily. Zizek argues that humanity is trying to compensate for the outstanding destruction that has been caused by the implementation of neoliberal policies around the globe.

Integrating philanthropy into the act of consumption allows for consumers to “feel good” about their purchase because they have changed someone’s life for the better while consuming a desirable, trendy product — it’s a win-win. But this is exactly where the problem resides, Zizek claims. It is completely contradictory to reward consumers who purchase goods — on the premise of greed and desire — while telling them that they are changing the world through that act of consumption itself.

TOMS Campaign

American TOMS Shoes Company is based on the “One-for-One” business model, where TOMS Company provides a pair of free shoes to a child in need for every single purchase made on a pair of TOMS shoes. The countries that TOMS provides free shoes to include Argentina, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti and South Africa. The TOMS campaign, Zizek argues, reinforces capitalism and allows individuals to feel warm and satisfied about their purchase, while at the same time, giving into their materialistic desires. The very act of doing a good deed is entrenched within capitalism itself, and Zizek argues that this may remedy the evil but it does not cure the disease itself.

The delivery of TOMS shoes could harm the local economies in developing countries, rendering the working locals paralyzed and unable to compete with the American company, further worsening conditions and exacerbating poverty in the global south. The TOMS One-for-One campaign adheres to the capitalist model in more ways than one: not only is the concept embedded into consumerism and capitalism, but the entire premise functions on a complex that Western countries take on the role of savior and reinforces the unequal power relations between the global north and the global south. The main issue is that TOMS is part of this system that rewards greed and creates a false sense of satisfaction.

Changing Lives for the Better

Regardless of one’s ideological standing, as of September 2010, TOMS customers have given away 1,000,000 pairs of shoes to impoverished people in developing countries. TOMS establishes partnerships with humanitarian organizations worldwide in order to determine where shoes are needed most — taking into account the economic, health and educational needs, and further ensuring that local businesses will not be negatively impacted. Further, children who are given TOMS shoes also receive health and educational programs run by the partner organizations — so not only are children receiving free shoes, but they are also granted an opportunity for an education. The aid is given holistically — where the impoverished are given the appropriate tools to sustain themselves in the long-term. As outlined in the report, TOMS emphasizes that all of the shoes are manufactured in factories in Argentina, Ethiopia and China, and are overseen by a regulatory body that ensures workers are paid fair wages.

Zizek may not advocate for capitalism, but even he cannot deny that some form of philanthropy is always better than none. While for-profit companies may not change the system itself, it is nonetheless admirable that these companies consciously make an effort to aid those in the developing world.

Sources: TOMS, GreenFudge, TruthDig, The RSA
Photo: Alex Rister


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