Altruism in the Midst of a Global Epidemic of Economic Exploitation

Remember those commercials which used to be on TV in the 90s that played depressing montages of languid sub-Saharan African children with swollen bellies? Then some white lady would come on the screen and promise that for only fifty cents a day you could help solve poverty? Chances are you probably never signed up to save one of these sorrowful African children from hunger. Why is it that?

Under the assumption that you’re still a decent human being that possesses some level of altruism, you were probably experiencing some combination of absorbed in your own meandering problems to be able to research and consciously act, or your budget was restricted, or maybe it was merely the limit of your human capacity to feel empathy towards these faces on your TV screen that kept you from picking up your phone and calling that 1-800 number on behalf of someone thousands of miles away.

The media does not help us here. It depicts Africa as one continentally homogenous blob and simultaneously preserves this us-and-them dynamic that desensitizes us and dehumanizes them. This message serves the purpose of masking the current material reality of poverty that many of us are currently facing and more are falling into in the United States every day, by lulling us with this narrative that at least we don’t have it that bad, at least a speck of our shrinking incomes could change this African child’s whole life around. The message tells us that, through our consumption power, we can offer salvation.

Although it might have seemed like it at the time, this message did none of us, in America or Africa, any favors. The reality is that economic exploitation happens to everyone within our current free market capitalist system. These commercials served to obscure the actual systematic feedback loop of economic exploitation on both sides of the Atlantic. Here at home, we often lack of time and money to exercise our agency effectively, due to own increasingly exploitative labor relations, and because of the minimal impacts of exercising conscious consumption patterns. Abroad, ways of life are being destroyed due to the production of outsourced commodities and, with it, the drain of the natural resource base.

A more modern and arguably less obtuse version of the example above can be found in campaigns like Fair Trade. In this system, we are beginning to acknowledge the relationship between us and them: that those in the global South who are suffering are in that position because of our ravenous consumption patterns. With Fair Trade, if we are able, we can spend a little extra to ensure that we can continue purchasing our favorite imported specialty products, under the assurance that no people were harmed in the process. In some cases, Fair Trade products even boast to be helping peasant farmers – by integrating farmers into what Marx would call the same system of exploitative wage labor that we ourselves are in. Thus, it is questionable whether we are making a longstanding difference through consumption, even if it is done in a more conscious manner.

These examples play on this us-and-them concept, where we are meant to believe that we can help them by pushing a little more cash their way — even though the cash flow existing in our current economic system is one of the biggest factors exacerbating this cycle of poverty. It is hard to say where the money we send is even going, and how it is spent. Either way, continuing to attempt solutions through commerce rather than systematic change are a band-aid at best because our very commercially-oriented system is clearly a huge part of the problem. The second point is that our capitalist system creates an assuring sense of hierarchy in the minds of Western consumers, making us feel pragmatic because of our so-called consumption power.  Third, these solutions facilitate the neoliberal capitalist system that is currently dominating the globe by creating more demand and chances for consumption on the backs of those living in the global South. Fourth, this current world order has been shaped through a system of economic exploitation that is undeniably racialized and has been for centuries. This is largely because the social construct of race has always been used to justify this economic hierarchy and as one of the most clear ways of defining who gets to be “us” and who is forced into being “them.”

To understand the full breadth of this situation, it’s important to note that the global North dominates the use and flow of the natural resource base in most countries in the global South. It creates a huge drain of wealth and resources in these countries, largely to satisfy our apparent consumption needs. This structure takes priority over their cultural sovereignty in the use and cultivation of resources for the people actually living in proximity to them. This causes a whole slew of problems from cultural erasure to extinction of species to starvation. What is worse is that on top of this, many of us living in the global North don’t have the time to gain knowledge, economic means, or locational access to buy the most ethical, locally sourced products that are not contributing as deeply to this problem. Our lack of time, economic means, and access to goods and services near our homes is largely the result of our own labor arrangements, which are increasingly unstable and inadequate in allowing us the autonomy to fulfill our needs. Many of us must buy products from multinational corporations like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, or Monsanto because we aren’t given much of a choice, whether this fact is conscious or not.

Instead of the culpability resting on us as individuals in the global North, we ought to consider the ways in which multinational corporations are facilitating this systematic dependence on commodities that were created and exported from the global South, causing poverty as a byproduct. What’s worse is that commercials like the one mentioned above or products that have stamps on them like  Fair Trade, are largely a demonstration of the ways that our senses of altruism and personal responsibility are used as market bases for the sale and consumption of yet more commodities. For what small amount of good it may seem that we are doing, we are still consuming the resource base of the global South, whether it be in their foodstuffs (in the case of the Fair Trade example) or in the plight of their people’s poverty, as seen in the UNICEF commercials (poverty which was largely created by the same capitalist system).

In other words, it’s the system of capitalism that’s at fault. There isn’t any remedy that can sustainably and significantly eradicate racism, poverty, inequality, cultural erasure, and hunger under our current global economic system. Western consumers throwing money at the issue doesn’t seem to help the global South because money cannot buy egalitarian social structures.

Cover Photo:
Spokeswoman from a well-intentioned UNICEF commercial. Source: http://bit.ly/1EaQyRU.

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