Zizek’s critique of Starbucks is cutting: capitalism sells us, alongside the products destroying the world, products which claim to include in their consumption its repair and redemption. The truth to extract from this is deep and wide-spreading: the unjust society you live in sells you its own repair as a libidinal supplement, to subvert desires for political change into individualistic tokenistic capitalist actions. The way of formulating this principle in terms of capitalism consumption, however, is unduly narrow; ideological displacement of activity with the goal of resistance or reform is possible, perhaps common, in all facets of modern political and moral life. We must consider the implications of this critique not only on the topics of charity and eco-friendly consumption, but also for political activity more broadly.
Zizek’s critique of charity is based on an essentially simple idea: a genuine moral impulse to combat a real problem can be displaced towards an action which, although carefully constructed (or simply by happenstance) satisfies the impulse, fails to combat the problem which gave rise to the impulse. Thereby, the initial moral problem which gave rise to the impulse is rendered impotent – unable to engender motivational capacity which might have otherwise led to legitimate remedies. I do not mean, however, that every moral impulse is initially genuine and only thereafter becomes ideologically displaced – certainly some moral impulses are in the first instance highly ideologically motivated in their production (take, for instance, selective news coverage of a military conflict that portrays the crimes of the enemy and the heroic actions of “our side” – this might produce a moral impulse to give to a veterans charity). However, even highly moral impulses highly partisan in their creation can, as far as I understand, still be motivated by a genuine human value, i.e. helping a fellow countryman who has made a noble sacrifice in pursuit of a just cause.
They key is therefore the relation between the moral impulse’s creation and satisfaction and the real problem in relation to which it exists. That relation is one of understanding: desires are literally ways of emotionally understanding a situation. It is in terms of understanding that we should grasp the success or failure of moral motivation to deal with a situation – when an impulse is ideologically displaced, this both is an emotional way of misunderstanding a situation (e.g. liberal guilt), and at the same time an intellectual, or implicit intellectual mis understanding (i.e. “every little bit helps”). We should therefore consider education, both intellectual and emotional, to be the primary weapon against moral displacement.
But all this so far is pure theory – how can we actually tell in a real situation whether a moral impulse is being generated and/or satisfied ideologically? Zizek’s Starbucks example is cheap – obviously major corporations are going to sell you ethics as another product on the menu, and obviously the real positive effect of ethical consumption exists only to satisfy the customers moral impulse (and therefore the relative education of a corporations customers explains to what extent a firm deems it necessary to back up its green face with real improvements in the field – for instance compare Starbucks’ coffee and chocolate buying practices with Tim Hortans). The fact is, we can’t know in advance – we have to do the hard empirical and psycho-analytic work of determining the moral desires and consequences – both intended and unintended – of the actions those impulses engender. That said, we can perhaps draw some general formulations that might help any particular inquiry.
Leaving the issue of charity aside (Zizek’s own critique already deals with this), we might look at other political choices which involve consumption – such as vegetarianism, veganism, consumer boycotts of Israel, buy-nothing-day, etc… I do not think that there is a problem with asserting that all of these actions are based on a moral impulse which we should call genuine – we want to stop the suffering of animals, we don’t like the occupation and attacks on the Palestinian territories, we see that the consumer economy is needlessly destroying the environment and enslaving the population with debt, and so on. But each of these actions tends to presume its own success in the carrying out of the action itself. Take for example, vegetarianism – is there not a tendency to see your decision to stop your own consumption of animals as a personal sacrifice, as “doing your part”, and when you’ve succeeded in cutting yourself off from the omnipresent luxury of meat, you are “doing your part”? When of course, if one actually holds to the principle of ending the suffering and slaughter of animals to serve a contingent human need, the only value in becoming vegetarian is the value it derives from being effective towards that end. And yet – how many vegetarians are capable of imagining a world without meat production? And of those, how many are capable of an analysis which links where we are today to a world without meat production, and actually take part in forward-looking activities other than being vegetarian and talking to other vegetarians about how great it is to be vegetarian? The key is, I think is in the satisfaction of the moral impulse: if one’s moral impulse is satisfied, or satiated by the activity one takes up on the basis of it, then one is entrapped in an ideology of personal goodness (“Ideology” here means a way of grasping a problem which mystifies it, which renders one’s engagement with it a fantasy rather than reality). If, however, one constantly experiences the inadequacy of one’s attempt – and even the more strongly the more resolutely one engages in the attempt, then one might have freed oneself from ideological mystification.
We might, on this basis, attempt to extend Zizek’s charity analysis far beyond particular cases, and even draw up some rules based on universalizabilty by which we might evaluate particular political causes. First, any political project one engages in where the engagement satisfies the moral impulse rather than heightens it, is likely to be ideological. Second, any political project which necessarily excludes others, such as the attempt to extricate yourself from complicitness in the evils of current social and political systems, is ideological because it can not be universalized: even if you convince everyone you are right, only a small proportion of those people can actually participate. Third, any political project which while not necessarily excluding anyone, contingently excludes others on the basis of cultural beliefs and practices, should not be pursued as the centre, or at least not the only centre of one’s political engagement.