Arguments for socialism: Charity or justice?

[Green Left Weekly, #291, September 24, 1997]

At Princess Diana's funeral, representatives of some 100 charities she had worked with walked in the cortege. Charities are such an all-pervasive feature of modern society that we tend to take them for granted. However, they are decidedly a phenomenon of capitalist society and are essential to its functioning.

They look after groups of people who are not cared for by the state, or not cared for adequately. People with physical or intellectual disabilities, with particular medical conditions, or simply in poverty are often dependent to a greater or lesser degree on help from charities.

And while charities may receive some financial help from the state, by their very nature they depend on support from the wider community, through fundraising or volunteers or both.

Of course, voluntary work is much broader than charity. These days, for instance, parents and teachers are increasingly forced to put in great amounts of time raising funds and providing services to make up for grossly inadequate school budgets.

In fact, our society simply would not function without the gigantic amount of unpaid work performed by so many people — especially women through the family — looking after children, the sick and elderly, handicapped people and so on.

In the wake of the tragic 1996 fire at Melbourne's Kew Cottages for the intellectually disabled, some stark facts came to light. Less than 20% of those needing such assistance in Victoria (more than 24,000 people) were in any sort of state program.

The vast bulk are cared for by their families; parents are often forced to devote their whole lives to looking after their children. Without doubt this is a form of heroism, but what does it say about the society which exacts such sacrifices?

And in today's climate of accelerating "tough love" — the Orwellian term coined by anti-welfare right-wingers in the United States — the whole situation is getting rapidly worse.

The capitalist class and its politicians and ideologues love charities, especially religious-based ones that mix practical help with spiritual solace. People don't have any right to expect anything — let alone demand it. However, from time to time the rich and powerful display their generosity and concern and do "charity work" and make donations.

When the great reformer Jeff Kennett came to power in Victoria in 1992, he rapidly de-funded hundreds of community, self-help and advocacy groups. However limited the impact of these organisations, and despite the fact that the previous Labor government had used funding to bind an important layer of welfare and community professionals to its project and to the system, the Coalition had no use for them. Rights are out, charity is in.

The whole concept of charity is characteristic of an unjust society, a society with obscenely distorted priorities. That is the essence of capitalism: the needs of the overwhelming majority of people are sacrificed or come a distant second to the greed of millionaires who own our economy and run it to benefit themselves.

However, despite all the belt-tightening rhetoric of our leaders, we live in a society which is objectively rich enough to give everyone a decent, comfortable existence. We can afford such things as quality universal free health care and education; decent, affordable public transport and public housing; and comprehensive, quality low-cost child-care and aged care.

If the big corporations were nationalised and the banks, factories, mines and so on were owned by society and democratically run by society and the workers involved, we could afford all this and more.

But as long as we live under capitalism, we will continue to see revolting contrasts between “private affluence and public squalor”. In Victoria, for example, where Kennett specialises in closing schools and hospitals, Crown Casino has spent over $2 billion on its monstrous Yarra bank complex and is now the state's largest private employer.

In a different system, charity would be replaced by justice and human solidarity. In a socialist society, no-one would be abandoned, no-one would be left to rot if they became sick or old and not immediately "productive", as is so often the case today.

And the vast energy today absorbed by charity work would instead find its proper expression in the collective building of a just society.