Come The Glorious Day?

This post was written by Salman Shaheen on February 24, 2009
Posted Under: Capitalism,Charity,Revolution

Reuben’s post On being nicer to Christians got me thinking. Not about the hostility he might once have held towards Christians in public places or the things he might have said to them (for some reason something about a lion feeding springs to mind!), but about the other groups stopping him in the street for which he’s traditionally expressed antipathy. I’m talking here about the charity fundraisers, charity muggers as they’re often pejoratively termed , or simply, and harshly - chuggers. Having once worked as a street fundraiser for Amnesty International, braving torrents of daily abuse for the minimum wage and the naive hope that I might be doing just the slightest bit of good in this world, I have a lot of sympathy for these much maligned people. Reuben’s distaste for them, as I believe he’s expressed in the past, runs along similar lines to his past distaste for street preachers, and it’s not an uncommon phenomenon. That is, the intrusion they make into one’s daily routine and, moreover in the case of chuggers, the fact that this intrusion will not just give you a viewpoint, but try to sell it to you via direct debit. Once upon a time, I would remind people that for just two pints a month (having since spent four years as a student, I’ve come to better appreciate the value of two pints a month!), they could help provide a voice for torture victims in repressive regimes around the world. This seemed an inherently sensible, fundamentally humane argument to me and as a budding socialist with his heart in the right place and his head in the clouds, I couldn’t for the life of me see why anyone on the left might disagree.

It was only in 2005, at the height of the Make Poverty History campaign, that I began to see arguments from the left that did not take issue with charity at the logistical level, as Reuben did, but at the ideological level. A fine example of this is Tina Becker writing in the Weekly Worker, who argues that charity, in treating the symptoms of poverty and neglecting the cause (capitalism[of course]), serves to entrench existing inequalities by giving the illusion of a fair world without the revolutionary dismantling of the global bourgeois apparatus. Essentially, she has reduced charity to false consciousness – in my opinion not simply a gross oversimplification, but a grave injustice. Whilst the socialist in me finds it easy to agree that we should be bringing the causes of poverty and injustice to light, the human in me finds the argument that we should eschew charity in favour of sitting around waiting for the revolution and the perfect society to render charity obsolete, an extremely uncomfortable one. Of course, poverty is an esstential component of globalised capitalism. Not only does capitalist exploitation create poverty, it depends on it. These arguments have been well established. But if capitalism is a cancer, then charity a pain killer. Even if it cannot cure the underlying condition, it is essential to ease the suffering of the millions most in need. The argument that we should not support charitable initiatives – be they backed by politicians or pop stars or even the humble chugger – in order to promote a global class consciousness that will have the oppressed masses throwing off their sweat-shop manufactured chains, is a harsh one. Of course we should build solidarity, of course we should try to empower the powerless in societies around the globe, of course we should try to envisage a day when charity is no longer necessary – but that should not blind us to everyday hardships and the much smaller, much simpler things we can do to help. All I am saying, is give chuggers a chance. Come the glorious day, perhaps they’ll be out of a job, but until then, comrades, they’re doing a very good one…

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Reader Comments

Dave

As a fellow gap-year chugger myself I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of this piece. But what I felt we were doing a lot of the time was selling charity just like any other product. Not only does this miss the point somewhat, but as ‘chugging’(?) has become more and more prevalent I know longer believe that it even has the redeeming feature of being in the best financial interests of the charities in the long run.

#1 
Written By Dave on February 25th, 2009 @ 1:44 am
Helen Ridsdale

I can’t say I have first hand experience of being a chugger but I do know several people who’ve done it and told me about it – perhaps it varies according to who you work for.

From what I’ve heard chugging seems much less like doing something nice for a cause you believe in and much more similar to same old private sector, hard push, target based sales with commission based pay. It is most certainly not minimum wage, usually fetching between 8 and 9 pounds an hour. Furthermore people are employed by chugging agencies rather than the charities themselves – I don’t know exactly how much choice people get in which charity they want to be fundraising for, but it seems like what people are serving is a more general idea of the goodness of charity, rather than its content or any specific beliefs about what they’re doing. Basically, they are there to manipulate people’s sense of guilt, working there because of their own sense or guilt, and both parties (donator and chugger) are simply engaging in a symbolic action to make them feel better about themselves which is exactly the kind of ‘false consciousness’ which stops people from actually bothering to change anything, or unite and channel their guilt into something more thought out and worthwhile.

so what I would say is, ignore the chuggers. They’re just part of general middle class culture who like to wear symbols of right-on leftiness without thinking at all about whether it’s the best way to achieve their aims (an issue I have with fair trade, among other things).

It’s the people who are working directly for charities because they believe in what they are doing who deserve our attention, not agency staff though I suppose it isn’t always easy to tell. And if you happen to believe in the charity in question I suppose there’s no harm done, but seriously I think agency chuggers a much more of a bane of our culture than a boon.

#2 
Written By Helen Ridsdale on February 27th, 2009 @ 12:50 pm
Reuben

‘Basically, they are there to manipulate people’s sense of guilt, working there because of their own sense or guilt, and both parties (donator and chugger) are simply engaging in a symbolic action to make them feel better about themselves which is exactly the kind of ‘false consciousness’ which stops people from actually bothering to change anything, or unite and channel their guilt into something more thought out and worthwhile.’

In what sense is it a symbolic action. What do you mean by this. It is an action that brings about a material transfer of resources. Or is symbolic jjust a curse word for any action short of full on systematic change.

‘They’re just part of general middle class culture who like to wear symbols of right-on leftiness without thinking at all about whether it’s the best way to achieve their aims.’

‘It’s the people who are working directly for charities because they believe in what they are doing who deserve our attention, not agency staff though I suppose it isn’t always easy to tell.’

What if it is the ase that a greater amount of money can be collected at a relatively lower cost through using agencies. After all this fits with what we know about the impact of specialisation on efficacy and efficiency. And charities are not stupid: they would not make use of general bodies that soecialised in the process of collection if this was not a particulary effective means of collecting money from a particular section of society. Or do you think that it is wotrth charities sacrificing donations by bringing all collection in house. If it makes sense for charities to collect in this way – and their own choices suggest it does – then surely we should offer support for Chuggers, who do work for charities in the way the charities themselves think it is best done.

I think the best way to approach this is to recognise that most social and political activity is characterised by some kind of contradiction. Yes on the one hand the whole notion of charit seems – in some people’s minds – the notion that one can answer all the ethical questions capitalism throws up simply by transferring money. On the other hand the act itself runs counter to the notion that the prevailing distribution of resources is just, and that transfers of resources should only take place through the sale of commodities (including labour) and through individuals and organisations maximising their self interest.

Yes, when you xconstruct people as caricatures and cartoon characters they are indeed very easy to lampoon.

#3 
Written By Reuben on February 27th, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

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