If you’re a fan of the Secret Millionaire TV programme, this post is for you. It’s a translation of a piece by the Comité Spinozista on how charity reproduces the inequality that characterises the established order.
‘Men are also gained over by liberality, especially such as have not the means to buy what is necessary to sustain life. However, to give aid to every poor man is far beyond the power and the advantage of any private person. For the riches of any private person are wholly inadequate to meet such a call. Again, an individual man’s resources of character are too limited for him to be able to make all men his friends. Hence providing for the poor is a duty, which falls on the State as a whole, and has regard only to the general advantage.’– Spinoza, Ethics, part IV, chapter XVII
I board the underground train [metro] in Madrid where a friendly woman opens the carriage door for me. As I sit down, I notice that the woman remains standing, and starts to speak, with tears in her eyes, about her desperate situation. She is unemployed and has two daughters, and is about to be evicted, and only asks for a little money to be able to give her daughters something to eat. This tragic situation is becoming normal in the carriages of the Madrid underground, and it is happening more and more. The image is even more awful if we perceive the feeling that there is a screen that surrounds her; young people with headphones, and well-dressed adults looking into their phones and chatting, remain detached from the scene. It feels as though the situation were some kind of spectacle, as if what is unfolding had nothing to do with us and were nothing more than another televisual unreality that has no bearing on our lives. Only a few people, the majority of them immigrants, seem to sympathise with the image and agree to make a small donation.
This image in itself expresses all the mechanisms that determine modern servitude. It expresses the extreme impotence of those who are dispossessed of any means of guaranteeing their subsistence, of those who are forced, therefore, to plead to others for their life. Thus a hierarchical structure is reproduced that is resolved by way of charity, where the dispossessed rely on the moral goodwill of their benefactors. But charity, far from altering the established order, functions as a mechanism for its maintenance. Whenever we have to plead to others for our life, whenever we find ourselves forced to guarantee our subsistence through the voluntary donation of a third party, we end up in a hierarchical relation that will be structurally reproduced each time this “beneficial act” [acto benefactor] takes place.
Let us now consider why this situation expresses all the mechanisms that determine modern servitude, as I said at the start. This “beneficial act”, consisting of “pleading for your life” [pedir tu vida] to the other on whom you depend, is what happens any time we apply to our kind bosses for a job, trailing our dignity along the floor each time we attend a job interview. This “beneficial act” also takes place when we seek a loan from the banks, or when a country seeks a loan from a bank or other political-financial institution, in exchange for the corresponding requirements (payment of interest, economic policies, etc). As such, the situation of the person who pleads to others in the metro for their life is not that far from being a generalised situation, and even with regard to the politically dominant role presently played by the banks. That is why it is surprising to see the indifference or the detachment with which citizens treat these situations. This is due, no doubt, to an ideological mystification that prevents us from seeing ourselves for what we are.
An example of the way in which this ideology is constructed can be found in the recent debates shown on Telecinco regarding the collective expropriation of basic foodstuffs carried out by members of SAT [Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores: Andalusian Workers’ Union] in certain supermarkets that hold a monopoly on the distribution of such products. SAT’s action radically breaks the rules of the charity game. Here the dispossessed do not resign themselves to their life being “given” to them, here they seize the reins of their destiny, and they take it. Ruling propaganda, the stout defender of the hierarchy that enjoins charity, was not long in launching a massive (and rather ridiculous) smear campaign against those who carried out these acts. Such was the extent of this that the Telecinco debate broadcast the night of the 11th of August, in which there was an attempt to roundly condemn all aspects of the SAT action, was followed by a report that showed the good example of the charitable actions of a Swedish family, who had helped an evicted Spanish family, having been moved by a TV report they had seen in their own country. Thus it becomes clear which action must not be held up as an example, and which one should. The just and the unjust, the lawful and the unlawful, which appear as attributes inherent in the actions themselves, are in reality extrinsic designations that emanate from the powers that be, which determine the rules of the game in which one may legitimately play.
The solution proposed to us in this way by the ruling ideology is a private, charitable, individual and passive solution, the expression of a marketised society in which every pact between individuals is mediated by the handover and exchange of a thing (be it a donation, a wage or a loan). Marx called the way in which the social body tends to be governed near exclusively by this principle ‘the commodification [cosificación] of human relations’, the basis of commodity fetishism. The SAT comrades’ solution, on the other hand, entails collective organisation, an active disposition, which calls into question the very rules of the game in which the situation of charity takes place. The first solution appeals to morality and the maintenance of the status quo of the inequality that forms the basis for charity. The second appeals to direct political action, and calls into question the order of existing things that enforces charity.
Therefore, we can measure the importance of an action by the level of condemnation levelled at it by the ruling powers. Because thanks to the action of Sánchez Gordillo and his SAT comrades we can envisage another way of confronting the crisis and of confronting the commodification and individualisation through which we are structurally constituted. We can realise that wealth is simply there, and that we merely have to organise ourselves collectively in order to take it and make use of it. We can realise that we do not need to sell ourselves to a boss, nor sell ourselves to a bank for any kind of loan if we opt, in a collective manner, to take and manage directly the wealth that is obscenely accumulated in private hands. Therefore, it would be a matter of shifting the sphere of the political away from the farce of parliaments and parties, and into the sphere of the real production of life and wealth itself, that is, our jobs, study, homes, etc. It would be a matter of building a framework in which social problems are not managed individually, in a private manner, among unequal parties conducting exchange, but collectively, politically, among equals who co-operate. Because if the so-called sphere of “the political” has any use in our modern capitalist societies, in so far as it is a separate and autonomous sphere, it is precisely to invalidate the pretense that, in any other sphere of society, what is truly political in terms of what is at stake, can be treated as separate and independent. Parliament and all institutions of ‘robbery’ of the political from the citizens exist precisely as a form of privatisation from all other social spheres, which are then presented as mere sites for the conduct of private individuals and their private property, within a framework of mere market exchange.
It stands to reason that building another kind of society that transforms individualised and forced charity into a political power in common (which seizes its existence, and does not seek it on loan); transforming the ruling moralistic ideology into the ethical power to build a new and more just frame of relations, is not an easy task that can be achieved from one day to the next. But we will have at least made a big step forward if we get over the paralysing pitfalls of the ruling ideology. Then we can deal with the question of whether we want a life of submission based on the unquestionable obligation to pay our debts to our ‘benefactors’, or whether we opt to put life and politics before the needs of the market’s games.
Exceptional acts of mobilisation, of protest, and of disobedience, allow us to become aware of a community beyond individualised rights that derive from the market economy, and from the usual channels through which our structural submissiveness must pass. They allow for the configuration of a new common stage where the signs and affections in circulation can make up a collective body of a greater political potency. They allow, ultimately, literally, to see beyond the ideological veils built into our everyday perception. Faced with the indignity and the impotence of beneficence and charity, which seeks its right to exist and to do from external parties, faced with the individualised moralism of private agents that have no common bond, what is needed is the construction of a common fabric of experiences that lay down the foundations for a stronger and more conscious collective action than that of separate individuals. Let us meet in the streets in these September days of mobilisation, and let us experience that what is most useful for a person is neither money nor possessions, nor is it that commodification of alienated power that we call the State, but plainly and simply, another person with whom to co-operate and agree with naturally, in such a way that together we can shape a new individual who is stronger, more rational, and happier.