When Marx wrote in 1848 that capitalism has “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation… it has resolved personal worth into exchange value” I don’t suppose he had any idea how literal this might become in 2014.
The latest trend on social media has been the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ where citizens and celebrities alike pour ice water over the head after nominating their friends to repeat the gesture and encouraging others to donate money to charity (such as the ALS Association and Macmillian). Many philanthropic corporate owners and generous celebrities have already taken the plunge, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who adds the interesting caveat that if their nominees fail to take the challenge within 24 hours they will have to donate $100 themselves. Could anything further highlight the moral implications of taking the challenge? If this wasn’t simply a narcissistic practice – and is in fact an act of selfless charity – then surely the truly ethical thing would be to fail the challenge rather than deny charity $100?
Of course, like many people, I have empathy for people suffering from illnesses such as Motor-Neurone disease. Furthermore, I also live in precarious fear at the risk of contracting a disease in contemporary society such as Ebola or Cancer. It is our helplessness that propels us to do something – anything – to at least feel as if we are partaking in the battle against it. We participate in memes (anyone remember Kony 2012?) or we take part in sponsored fun runs (sometimes even to the point of death). We throw money at charitable corporations or buy ‘ethical’ produce, all in the name of taking action and covering over our true passivity.
Of course charity isn’t in-itself a bad thing. But the form that it takes in contemporary capitalism becomes morally questionable when the injunction to do something for someone else is rolled into a self-serving consumption, identity-performance or project of belonging. For instance, we buy fair trade products so that we can appear as a caring and considerate person; we eat organically so that we can appear healthy (and perhaps, given the inflated price of such products, so we can also appear wealthy); we take part in sponsored activities so we can appear committed and determined to help others at our own sacrifice and expense (simultaneously reaping the social status that this awards).
The real challenge is to create a society where equality and provision is structurally facilitated rather than relying on the pseudo-activity or generosity of its wealthier counterparts: a society where charity is unneccesary. For instance, if we really wanted to increase the provision made to disease; shouldn’t we instead be doing more to stop the government from destroying the NHS? You often hear the argument that ‘something is better than nothing’. Of course! But we could equally say: ‘everything is better than something’. At what cost does the ‘something-over-nothing’ come? Does it prevent the consideration of an ‘everything-over-something’?
Finally, I argue that in making these points I am not being cynical but critical. On the one hand, cynicism – as Sloterdijk suggests – is the ‘enlightened false consciousness’ of the subject of modernity, always convinced that there is something behind the surface appearance, a ‘deeper’ essential truth that forever retreats as we get closer. On the other hand, what I have attempted to do above is to take the ice bucket challenge at face value and question its appearance (to take a ‘look awry’ in order to reveal something we already know but choose not to know). Admittedly, it is a thin line between the two, but I argue that while cynicism is a contrarian reaction that maintains the status quo; critical thinking is an inherently ethical, moral and political practice.