Illusion of Caring

I keep coming back to my failure to convince people we had to give up having personal automobiles if we were going to prevent the environmental catastrophe unfolding now. I was hoping the examples of those of us who refused to have cars combined with the warning signs about greenhouse gas emissions would make change happen.

I am similarly discouraged about the prospects of convincing people of the evils of capitalism, as I summarize here: The Evil of Capitalism.

But the global capitalist systems are collapsing now. The question is whether we will build alternatives before the worst happens.

when we join in a walkathon for the homeless or make an online donation for a food bank, we are relieved from the burden of confronting the underlying injustice of a society where great wealth exists alongside grinding poverty

Fran Quigley

My friend Fran Quigley has written Religious Socialism: Faith in Action for a Better World. One of the main premises of his book is “the grim, daily evidence of capitalism’s failures”. The following is from the Introduction of his book.

Rev. George Washington Woodbey is a member of a determined group of Americans who, over the course of 150 years, has insisted that there is an unbreakable connection between their religious values and the political and economic system of socialism. To make their case, they have pointed to the grim, daily evidence of capitalism’s failures. Today, the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in human history yet with far higher poverty rates than similar countries. The disparity reveals itself through health insurance company CEO’s making as much as $83 million per year, while tens of millions of the nation’s residents go without health care. It is shown by the richest Americans owning multiple homes, some worth as much as a quarter-billion dollars, while a half-million Americans are homeless. Three American men own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the nation’s population combined. At the same time, one of every six children in America—12 million overall—live below the poverty line.

Every faith tradition condemns this state of affairs. So does socialism. These faith traditions and socialism prescribe the same, straightforward remedy: all humans have the right to the necessities of life.

Note the word right. The capitalist U.S. system has survived its conflict with religious principles in significant part by projecting the illusion of caring about the suffering of the poor, while at the same time rejecting the recognition of any rights that would alleviate poverty. How is that tricky balancing act performed? By promising the U.S. public that the fortunate few will extend their charity to meet all the needs of the poor. If that promise is believed, massive concentrations of wealth do not seem so outrageous.

But that promise is a lie, demonstrated by the millions of American children going hungry while the wealthy luxuriate. Yet the false narrative persists, likely because it is so comforting to all of us who are not poor. In her 1998 book Sweet Charity, the sociologist Janet Poppendieck concludes that the American preference for charity over public welfare programs relieves the pressure for more fundamental solutions. Charity, she writes, acts as a “moral safety valve.”

From an individual perspective, that safety valve effect means that when we join in a walkathon for the homeless or make an online donation for a food bank, we are relieved from the burden of confronting the underlying injustice of a society where great wealth exists alongside grinding poverty. As for our political engagement, high-profile donations of plutocrats make us less likely to demand curbs on their lavish wealth. Charity may not be very effective at alleviating injustice, but it is quite good at relieving our sense of outrage about it.

Quigley, Fran. Religious Socialism: Faith in Action for a Better World (pp. 10-11). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

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