Charities should not be expected to fill the gaps of poor governance
A stumbling block Russell Brand has come up against a number of times since he started talking about the need to reject our current political system is that he is himself reasonably wealthy. People question how he can speak about redistribution of wealth, presumably because he has not chosen to redistribute his own wealth. The situation seems to be that if he were poor then his ideas could be ignored because they are obviously the result of his self interest, but as he is rich his ideas should be ignored as he is obviously a hypocrite. Recently when speaking about on one topic a channel four journalist asked him about the price he pays for rent in London himself. When Russell told the reporter that his rent was not relevant to the issue he was discussing the reporter claimed that the cost of his rent was a valid point in a discussion of poverty.
Presumably those who make such assertions to undermine Brand are making the point that if poverty is such a concern then Brand should start the ball rolling by donating his money to the poor or by living in conditions as though he were himself poor. If it is the second of these two then he would not need his money anyway so should presumably donate it to the poor rather than hording it for no purpose.
However, it is not Brand’s position that the wealthy ought to be more charitable. Certainly a greater level of charity among the wealthy would be a good thing, not least for the good of their own positive self image. It is plainly obvious to anyone that has been paying the slightest bit of attention that Russell Brand has been calling out the political system for the past year. Admittedly he does seem to have a fondness for the idea of anarchy and that people would be able to manage society without governmental oversight, however, I believe he also recognises that in an anarchic system power would very quickly be grabbed by large organisations and the ideal anarchist utopia would not be achieved. Aside from this is the fact that if one man decides to redistribute his wealth according to charitable ideals but the rest of society carries on as they currently are, then that man may be even less wise than Russell is accused of being by his detractors.
Plainly the ideal that Russell must be striving for is a set of legislative measures to prevent abuse of power and to assist those who are driven into poverty by any failings in the system. Given the nature of the system that has provoked him to reject British democracy even this currently seems like a pipe dream. In any event, one of the issues with the current government is their disregard for those in poverty and need. Public services are rapidly being privatised in what many people believe to be a return to the system as it was before the last world war. Rather than the eradication of poverty that the last government aimed for the perception of the current government is that there is a grab for profit and advantage at the expense of the country, with the latest report being that aside from her work for charity David Cameron’s wife also secretly holds stock in a company that is being given the opportunity to build on a large amount of green belt land. Even if this had been declared along with the Camerons’ other interests it would still be shocking. Undeclared it is on a level with the sleaze that destroyed the last Conservative government.
The solution to poverty that has evidently been in the mind of the Prime Minister since before the general election is that wherever austerity cuts affect the public charities will be able to take up the slack. Looking back now it is obvious that ‘The Big Society’ as he called it, is society looking after itself. People may be shocked by the massive rise in the use of foodbanks, but it appears that the Conservative strategy to cope with their increased need is to distract attention until they have become such a fact of life that we have grown used to them. If there was only one person in Britain who thought that those complaining about poverty should start by giving their money to the poor, it would be David Cameron.
Whilst I am very much in favour of charity, and I am very much in favour of the people in society getting to know each other, and help each other out, I feel it should be done with an overall safety net provided by public services. At present those safety nets are being taken away and people are dying. The elderly who freeze to death because they can’t afford heating; the homeless who freeze to death because they can’t afford rent; the family whose children do not attain high academic results because they can’t afford plentiful nutritious food; the workers who have to work on zero hour contracts, who work in an unpleasant environment, who don’t earn enough to cover their costs; those who are falling further and further into debt despite living in modest surroundings and working hard; all these people are being let down by the current system. Where the slack is taken up by charities it may be portrayed as shameful in the press, but as far as those in the process of dismantling the welfare state, that is one more successful transition.
I do think it is important for everyone to give to charity as it is a beneficial act for everyone’s psyche. Without charitable acts being second nature the world gradually turns into the kind of uncaring environment that is modern capitalism. Everything has a value, and money is placed on a pedestal. It troubles me that the damage done to the state welfare system in the name of the austerity measures is being held back by charity. It is a stop gap measure like stopping up a hole in a dyke with a finger, it is not sustainable. There are fewer alive every year who can remember the system as it was before the changes brought about by Aneurin Bevin in the 50s but soon we may find ourselves back in that pre-50s system without the safeguards that have been allowed to disappear through the last half a century.
The individuality that allowed people freedom from stress in those days has been wiped out by the constant drive for profit and stream lining. Cost cutting and overwork drives people into illnesses of stress at subsistence levels of wages today; the next steps that lead to a reduced NHS and harder to obtain sickness benefits will not be able to support the modern worker who is expected to run like a machine. Charity will only go so far. Organisation on a societal level should not be left up to the chance that volunteers will be well co-ordinated enough to cope with preventing cultural collapse.
While I buy most of my clothes, books and other possessions from charity shops and give to collectors, and drop coins in boxes it worries me that people are starting to give chunks of money to fill the void left by poor governance in the public sector. Broad swathes of needs are not catered for by the specific aims of the handful of major charities and as more charities will be set up to cater for these needs as they arise they will be accompanied by crowds of people signing folk up to direct debits in the street, direct debits which will naturally skim a percentage off the top for the collecting professionals before donating to the charity. Donations that we already know go into the overheads of running the organisation before they even reach those in need.
I would advocate that people think about where they want their money to go. Charities at present, worthy though they are, are a middle man, separating giver from receiver. The humanity is taken out of the equation; it has become another soulless financial transaction. I am sure that people have recognised for centuries that charity is a way of buying one’s way out of guilt or feelings of obligation. In the modern era it has become so clinical and efficient that many people barely realise their money is going to charity. When someone buys a shirt or a book in a charity shop, how often do they register exactly which charitable cause they have supported. This is one reason that I think people should make their charitable giving more personal. A second reason is that when money goes to a large charity it is money that can be seen publicly. That is an area where a government minister can see less need to support that section of society. When there are cuts to be made isn’t it convenient if the cuts can be made where there is a back up money source.
In order that these areas of supported public services do not stand out as good places for the next austerity cut we should give our charity directly to the needy. I am not saying that people should not continue to shop in charity shops, these serve the secondary purpose of preventing the ecological damage done by constant consumption of new products. I am saying that if you want to prevent people from starving then try to find out who in your community is hungry, go to your neighbours and tell them that the multibuy deal at the supermarket has left you with too much bread, see who is grateful for the help. Tell the people in your street that your garden had a glut of fruit, you can’t possibly eat it all, who needs it? If you care about homelessness then see that the homeless guy in the doorway has a warm meal one night, or a chocolate bar full of calories. Rather than drop the coin of economic incentive for sitting in doorways into his lap, think about what he needs to stay alive and give him that. People should get to learn what the issues are, learn where their help is needed, the issues should stop sliding beneath our notice because they are affecting more people every day during this ridiculous austerity drive.