Make Poverty History: the politics of charitable consumption

In solidarity with the U.K.-based Make Poverty History Campaign (part of the Global Campaign Against Poverty), which is holding a mass rally today in protest of the G8 meeting in Edinburgh, I've added a link to their website (at the foot of the page). In so doing, I don't want to endorse the Campaign without reservation: for while they correctly diagnose the problem of poverty as a political phenomenon, they seem to place inordinate faith in the power of the existing social system (with some fairly minor structural modifications) to eliminate this phenomenon. The campaign consists in raising public awareness and stimulating public discussion about poverty (both good things) and pressuring politicians (especially Tony Blair, and the British government) to "make poverty history" by living up to commitments to cancel third-world debt, to increase international aid, and to regulate trade. All good policy suggestions, to be sure. But will they make poverty history? Doubtful. If poverty - and structural material inequality more generally - is a symptom of private property, only the elimination of private property will translate into the eradication of poverty. And this will require more than a few concerned e-mails to Tony Blair.

Which brings me to the second objection I have: throughout their manifesto and their eponymous publication, Make Poverty History continually emphasize how easy it is for citizens to participate in social transformation. A strategic misrepresentation, I expect, but a problematic one, nonetheless. I'm all for making mass politics accessible to most people, who have little leisure time or psychic energy - and I have a distaste for the activist who defines political practice as an ascetic devotion, such that only the privileged few have time or resources to participate; such martyrdom is really about self-glorification, not social change. But is making poverty history as effortless as Make Poverty History seems to suggest? According to them, it seems that all that's standing between human flourishing and the dismal present are five simple steps. We "buy the book" ("brilliantly simple, but life-saving", the website gloats) and/or the underpants (designed with the young in mind, apparently). We wear the branded bracelet. We advertise the campaign on our website. We write earnest appeals to Tony Blair to help him see how "simple" eliminating poverty really is. We show up to a "spectacular" rally once (today). And we all do it by ourselves, but as we've been told, and at the same time; (buy) now, now, now. Now - is this political participation, or is it consumerism?

P.S. (03-07-05): My friend V.M. told me that she's seen ersatz charity-branded bracelets, in the style of the Make Poverty History bracelet, for sale in Toronto's Chinatown. They say "love" and "peace" but the proceeds don't go to a charity or political coalition - they go to the store-owner. But this is precisely what the commodification of politics leads to: depoliticization. The claim is that Live 8 and Make Poverty History aren't about charity, they are about justice: but the connection between buying a bracelet and fighting for justice is tenuous, at best. Which doesn't mean that people shouldn't wear their politics on their sleeve or enjoy politicized cultural events - but surely the struggle doesn't end there, and it's doubtful that it productively begins there, either.

P.S. 2 (04-07-05): Thanks to Victor Serge, for leaving a comment directing me to Lenin's Tomb for more dirt on Make Poverty History. See also the critique of the MPH/Live 8 "mobilization" against the G8 by the Committee for a Workers' International.
P.S. 3 (08-07-05): The G8 summit is over, and (surprise!) its final proclamations will ensure that poverty remains very much a thing of the present. I'm removing the Make Poverty History banner, not least of all because of its conciliatory response to the G8 aid, trade, and debt relief program:
"Make Poverty History has become an unprecedented movement of passion, energy and solidarity. Never before have so many people in the world come together, fully united in demanding action to end poverty, with a roar for justice that they felt was impossible to ignore. Today the G8 have chosen not to do all that campaigners insist is necessary to free people trapped in the prison of poverty. Important steps have been taken - steps that will bring hope to millions. But more action is urgently needed if they are to play their role in bringing about real change for the world's poorest people and consigning extreme poverty to the history books. To secure a deserved place in history, the G8 must go a lot further and secure real change by working with other world leaders at the UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals and talks around the World Trade Organisation. The people of the world are already on the road to justice. They expect their leaders to be with them. Today's announcement has shown that the G8 need to run much faster to catch up."
The MPH campaign an "unprecedented movement"? Hardly. The G8 bringing "hope to millions"? Cynicism, drudgery, suffering, and hunger, is more likely. And since when are we only interested in "consigning extreme poverty to the history books"? What about "moderate" poverty? Relative poverty? Those are acceptable? The G8 needing to "run much faster to catch up?" Isn't it unbearably clear that the G8 are proceeding in precisely the opposite direction?! I've had it with MPH's lukewarm admonitions, timid proposals and general G8-ass-licking!


Blogger Victor Serge said...

Right on. I also think there's a sinister side to the well-meaning liberalism: MPH have deliberately shut out radicals from participating in their events:


4:57 PM  

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