1980s >> 1987 >> no-995-july-1987

Poverty of charity

Poverty in its various manifestations and intensity is a historically marked feature of capitalism. So great is the problem that charities publish month after month a stream of statistics from around the world, each more harrowing than the previous. In November last year we learned from the Child Poverty Action Group that since its formation twenty-one years ago there are now currently twice as many people dependent on Supplementary Benefit while one third of this country’s child population live either on or below the official poverty line.

Confronted with these statistics, there is a very real sense of impotency. It is difficult enough to help the thousands of destitute in this country let alone the millions elsewhere in the world. It is not as though there is a lack of compassion. Far from it. The money which is donated to charities each year bears witness to this fact. So too does the selfless effort of thousands of volunteers. But what is lacking is any realistic solution to the problem of poverty. The fact that we. as a class, do not control what is produced and have no say in how and where it is distributed means that the problem of poverty can never be tackled in a rational and global way.

Another problem lies with the nature of charities themselves. We do not doubt their sincerity or compassion but they foster the dangerous illusion that, either through increased donations or political pressure on governments, the problem of poverty can be solved within capitalism itself. Furthermore, because charities have not the faintest idea of how and why capitalism functions (they would not be charities if they did), they can only add to the problem.

By actively promoting the naive belief that poverty can be solved under capitalism they are doing both those they seek to help (and the socialist movement in particular) untold harm in wasted time and effort. Human suffering and poverty will not go away by appeals for charity. Poverty is part and parcel of a commodity producing economy. Where there is capitalism there is poverty.

Socialists are not indifferent to human suffering but we have pointed out to organisations such as CPAG and War on Want that the technical capability exists to solve the problems of starvation and poverty. What does not exist is the social structure in which technical production and distribution can be matched to people’s need. Capitalism is a world of deliberate scarcity, in order to pursue the aims of competition and profit.

In the face of decades of failure it is sheer futility for charities to appeal to governments, or to capitalist organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the hope that they are willing or indeed capable to help. Governments and the institutions through which capitalism functions are not there to solve social problems. They are there to serve the interests of capitalism.

Charities should admit that not only have they failed to stem the rise in poverty but they have been seen to fail. That for every one pound that went from organisations like Live Aid two pounds went out again to the IMF in debt repayments is irrefutable evidence that charities, despite their good intentions, have failed badly.

Aggressive competition and ruthless profit-making dictate the terms of trade — not politicians or government ministers. Their job is to administer capitalism in the best way they can. Organisations like CPAG and War on Want should face the fact that there can never be an “acceptable face” of capitalism. Charity is not sweet; it is cold deception.

Richard Lloyd