Shaping debate on religion in public life.

The Spectacle of Poverty

2 Jun 2016

Dr Charles Pemberton recently finished his PhD at the University of Manchester, on Christian socialism, neoliberalism and civil society. He is now based at Durham University, where he volunteers, tweets (#feast_famine) and is preparing a manuscript on the foodbank network of the north-east.

Three main accusations have been levied at those who use images of the poor to promote their charitable causes. Charity advertising has been critiqued for: depending on and propagating dehumanising stereotypes (individualising, feminising, and racialising poverty), for offending public decency (a nebulous concept legislated by the Advertising Standards Authority), and for inefficiency (causing or failing to overcome ‘compassion fatigue’). There is a forth issue that needs to be further discussed: these adverts tend to harmonise the contradictions of our current predicament. What do I mean by this?

I was 28 years old and travelling on an Overground train from central London to Wandsworth to visit my uncle and aunt and I saw, by the carriage doors, an instantly recognisable image of a young homeless person. I’ve found that shabby clothes and melancholic eyes combined with a static and submissive posture are the signs written onto the body by poverty, compounded by self-neglect, which characterise these images. Next to this picture the caption read ‘look into my eyes and tell me that you don’t care’. It struck me that this advert synthesised a series of responses, expectations and actions. It asked me to engage with the young homeless man, but I was aware that by giving to this homeless person I’d never have to meet him, be bored or moved or offended by this individual’s life. The advert offered me encounter and non-encounter at the same moment. What’s more, the advert held out to me the possibility of recognising and acting out the value of this person while also comforting myself with the sense that I do care, that I’m not an apathetic or indifferent person. So not only did this advert mediate a kind of (non)encounter, it also drew on a narrative I tell to myself about myself. The advert showed him in his need, I thought, but it was also all about me and my being ‘good’.

Of course this isn’t necessarily problematic, as our shared understanding of altruism as selfless, or requiring some loss to the self, is hopelessly misrepresentative (as Phoebe tried to teach Joey in ‘Friends’ and Simon May points at length in his recent book Love, A History).

Theodor Adorno, the twentieth century German critical theorist said that ‘mass culture is not to be reproached for contradiction, any more than for its objective or non-objective character, but rather on account of the reconciliation which bars it from unfolding the contradiction into its truth.’ In this instance, thinking with the grain of Adorno’s suggestion, the problem with these images is the contrived way in which they make uniform (homogenise) those things which should be kept distinct. Briefly, here, I’m going to suggest that what Adorno calls (false) ‘reconciliation’ is at work in a number of ways in these images and how we see them. Namely: charity’s position as an aspect of ‘civil society’ and the economy (as a sphere that prepares people for labour); in the elision of charity and the good, or the citizen and the volunteer; and, finally, in our dangerous tendency to identify with our ideal images of ourselves. To understand this, a little more on the growth of the British charities sector and its recent innovations needs to be laid out.

The growth of the British charity sector has driven the recent proliferation of representations of those in need. ‘The total income of all charities has risen from around £12 Billion in 1970 to over £50 Billion today’ says the charities historian, Frank Prochaska. Furthermore, general assets holdings have tripled in 30 years, from ‘just over £30 Billion in 1980 to one of around £100 Billion’ in 2012. This growth continues, the Charity Commission’s website, from September, 2015, lists the combined assets and liabilities of the charitable sector at just under £200 Billion.

In the last few years consciousness raising/brand awareness have become even more important for the charity industry. Following the 2008 great crash, state donations have been reduced and individual giving has become more and more important. Internationally ‘the net decline [in income] between 2007 and 2011 across 146 countries was almost two percentage points (from 29.8% to 28.0%)’, according to the Charities Aid Foundation and individual donations are needed to fill this gap.

The charity sector has both grown and changed. During the period of New Labour, according to a 2011 Church Urban Fund report, homelessness charities were encouraged to be ‘places of change’ that operate with ‘interventionist’ attitudes which ‘[focused] on re-integrating their service users into mainstream society rather than supporting them in homeless lifestyles’. The housing specialist and academic Susannah Fitzpatrick says that ‘this interventionist thinking is now mainstream within homelessness services.’

What Fitzpatrick’s observations suggest is that charities have been incorporated, in various ways (and never quite totally), into the works and pensions system. Along with the benefits system, as Julie MacLeavy has recently argued, which prioritises identifying ‘the client’s personal barriers to the labour market’, civil society and the state are in harmony establishing ‘the inculcation of a series of values such as individualism, responsibility, flexibility and adaptability in policy subjects’. For MacLeavy, these practices are a conscious ‘privileging of a certain type of citizen, whose economic productivity symbolises their value to society’.

A number of points follow on from this: first, there is an apparatus at work in society which ties the value of the person to their contribution to the economy (a central point of Katherine Tanner’s recent Gifford lectures in Edinburgh on Christianity and capitalism). Second, that charities have been encouraged to internalise this metric and apply it to their work with homeless people. The third point to make is that this disciplinary apparatus imposed on the impoverished bubbles up through all the classes of society and effects not just what charities show us but how we all see.

The image of the homeless beggar both elicits our sympathy and yet also surreptitiously reminds us of the consequences of dropping out of ‘mainstream society’, it plays a disciplinary role or has a disciplinary function. Without work I’d be a beggar too; if I don’t work that could be me. What’s more, the possibility of donating is itself predicated on the excess I earn through labour. Without work I wouldn’t be able to give and would not be able to demonstrate that I do, in fact, care. In the current context, charity adverts synthesise and propagate both fear of poverty and love for the poor. It seems unlikely to me that these complex overlapping aspects can be easily disentangled.

So, what’s to be said? I think the task now, as Adorno suggests, is to dwell a little longer with the contradictions of our current predicament. To take seriously the fact that we chastise those who don’t work while also living in an economy working (we are told) at ‘full employment’. To ask why we think charity is a better way of redressing poverty than tax when charities and the government share many of the same aims. And, finally, to ask whether being good (according to this society’s understanding of the good) is worth having when its prerequisite is desperate, dehumanising and life shortening need.


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