Conspicuous charity is one way of making great wealth seem respectable and even blessed in religious terms.
“An unconditional universal basic income would be a just and viable way of confronting the grave abuse of society’s less privileged members.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured authors are Daniel Raventósand Julie Wark. Raventós is the author of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom. He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso. Julie Wark, the author of The Human Rights Manifesto, is on the editorial board of Sin Permiso, and lives in Barcelona. Their book is Against Charity.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Daniel Raventós and Julie Wark: Among the most destructive features of social and political life today is an outrageous concentration of wealth in a few hands and, with that, a terrible loss of freedom for the great majority of the non-rich population. Immensely wealthy people can impress, buy and extort people in places where political decisions are made: Davos, for example, where celebrities like Sharon Stone and, worse, Bill Gates push economic and social agendas, and especially in poor countries whose populations are viewed as a problem (basically, a threat to the safety and comfort zones of the rich) rather than in human terms. This situation is evidently antidemocratic and one of the ways it’s covered up is conspicuous charity which, as we have shown through its history, is one way of making great wealth seem respectable and even blessed in religious terms. We criticize modern versions of charity in political economy, in its “altruism” facade, its celebrity guise, its highly corrupt institutional activity, and when practiced as humanitarianism and philanthrocapitalism. We criticize the fact that we’re in a system that manufactures a need for charity. But Against Charity isn’t just a critique of inhuman and dehumanizing social and political regimes. We also suggest an antidote, a policy which can combat today’s intolerable inequality in many areas, namely an unconditional universal basic income which, to begin with, could guarantee, on a universal scale, the basic human right without which no other human rights could exist: the right to material existence.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
We unmask the fact that institutionalized charity in all its forms—charities, NGOs, humanitarianism, and philanthropy, etcetera—underpins dangerous concentrations of wealth and furthers military-economic agendas when dressed up as humanitarianism. Distinguishing between kindness and charity, we show that charity is not a gift and that it belongs in the domain of political economy. Charity is, by definition, a highly unequal, arbitrary relationship in which recipients, unable to exercise citizen rights, are powerless and made to remain powerless. When this becomes the norm, whole rightless populations—for example, immigrants and refugees, or civilian populations bombed in perilous superpower games—enter sovereign power calculations as “redundant,” disposable. We hope the book makes people angry and encourages them to demand universal human rights. If rights aren’t universal they’re privileges of a few (often the ones doling out charity).
“Charity is a highly unequal, arbitrary relationship in which recipients are powerless and made to remain powerless.”
We offer normative arguments for basic income. It’s a matter of justice. We show that it can be financed by progressive taxation of the rich so the obstacles aren’t economic but political. There’s increasing interest in the measure today, among politicians, activists, academics and journalists and, as usual, the right is trying to appropriate it as a way, for example, of doing away with welfare measures. But basic income should entail more, not fewer solid social policies, as would be logical when people have the means to practice their rights and demand them. The conditional grants offered until now are insufficient and an assault on the dignity of recipients. Having a job doesn’t guarantee material and social existence, as the growing numbers of working poor testify. Millions of workers are being replaced by robotization. Things are getting worse. But this is a relatively simple measure and it can be achieved. It won’t be given to us by right-wing politicians and the rich. We’ll have to fight for it!
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
A recent article inThe Daily Mail informing us that Bill Gates and Angelina Jolie are the world’s most admired people is grist to our mill when we recall what Adam Smith long ago called the “disposition to admire the rich and powerful […] the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” We must unlearn this groveling fascination for the “beautiful ones”, these celebrities and billionaires, and understand that their wealth represents the impoverishment and dispossession of billions of people. We must relearn “moral sentiments”.
Generally used as justification, ideologies conceal and deform reality and they aren’t easy to combat with ideas alone. Wrangling with rival ideologies is a sterile exercise. The best way to dismantle false stories is to explain why they’re false and provide data to prove it. Science and technology tell us what can and can’t be done, but what we must and can’t have or do are political decisions, and the two spheres are conveniently confused. Truth exists. It can be twisted or hidden, but intellectual honor requires that we search for it. Rich people invade and influence centers of power. True or false? Inequality is worsening everywhere. True or false? Basic income can be financed with a major redistribution of wealth. True or false? If truth is “relative” we might as well forget about investigating and denouncing the world’s injustices and watch TV all day. Condemnation, if mere bombast, doesn’t help anyone and swings like a weathercock because it’s not tethered to facts. We’ve tried to demonstrate, with all the arguments and data possible, why we oppose the demeaning institution of charity and the unjust society it shores up, and why an unconditional universal basic income would be a just and viable way of confronting situations of grave abuse of society’s less privileged members.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Julie:I really admire the newishIndigenousXplatform in Australia and Aboriginal writers like Anita Heiss, Luke Pearson, Alexis Wright, Bruce Pascoe, Amy McQuire, Larissa Behrendt and others. They strive for excellence (X) in their work. James Baldwin is a constant reference. Many of my heroes are unsung rebels who never got much press. My academic background is anthropology, sociology and politics, majoring in Indonesian politics, which threw me in the deep end of human rights struggles against dreadful abuses. Human rights activists do hard yards and don’t get to publish much. The “failed” guerrilla leader Jakob Prai, who led the West Papuan resistance against Indonesia in very grueling conditions, never published a book. He’s now forgotten… He’s my “intellectual” hero because in his practice he epitomizes the philosophical value of moral integrity. And I’m with Daniel in the references he gives, especially in what principally unites us, which is the ancient tradition of republican freedom.
“Jakob Prai, who led the West Papuan resistance is my ‘intellectual’ hero.”
Daniel: Both oligarchic and democratic (our bunch) republicans understand that, without guaranteed material existence, there can be no freedom. Freedom and equality are not independent “objectives.” In the democratic republican tradition there are leaders of the poor like Ephialtes, Pericles and Aspasia, the great philosopher Aristotle, the much-denigrated Robespierre, Thomas Paine, and Marx (who we think is difficult to understand if not through the republican tradition), to cite just a few. Then we have Manuel Sacristán (one of the most original twentieth-century Marxists, but in the Spanish-speaking world) and, in particular, Antoni Domènech, who died in September 2017, to whom we dedicated the book. An intellectual prodigy, he is an essential reference for understanding the republican tradition. Unfortunately, he published very little in English because he wasn’t interested in academic conventions. Of special note is his extraordinary book El eclipse de la fraternidad (2003).
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
We’ve tried to imagine new worlds as we talk about some basic, horrible aspects of the real world now and, with our arguments for basic income, to offer normative (is it just?) and technical (can it be financed?) foundations. This is truly a ground-breaking idea because it would, at least statistically, abolish poverty as it must be above the poverty line (in whatever region it’s introduced) and it is universal, meaning that everyone, absolutely everyone, would have this basic human right of material existence guaranteed. On this basis, we can start thinking about other rights. A basic income would mean, for starters, greater freedom, better bargaining power for workers and women. We have avoided speculation but we know of persuasive studies about the positive effects of basic income pilot programs in places like Namibia, Kenya, India, Barcelona and Finland, and that it has a positive effect on women’s autonomy, school attendance, crime rates, and mental health, for example. These studies are suggestive and easy to find. Then again, it must be said that basic income isn’t a universal panacea for society’s ills, and neither is it an anti-capitalist proposal. It’s reformist, not revolutionary per se but in its effects it could bring in changes that might start looking revolutionary when people are given an essential means to express and exercise their rights.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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