Some Thoughts on Charity at Christmastime

30/11/2014 22:52 GMT | Updated 30/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Every year, as we approach Christmas, a privileged guilt sweeps over the more fortunate individuals in our society. This guilt is galvanized, of course, when we stare at the unnecessary items of indulgence that form a pile in our shopping trolleys in the final weeks of December. This pile consists of overpriced alcohol for our 11 am tipple on Christmas morning; unnecessary presents that will rest underneath an elaborate conifer dressed in garish decorations; free-range wild turkeys, organic vegetables and, of course, the utterly essential pigs-in-blankets for our mammoth chow-downs on Christmas afternoon. It's unsurprising, therefore, that these profligate bouts of unadulterated consumerism have us feeling a little guilty about those less fortunate than ourselves.

The guilt that encompasses the fortunate ones this time of year invites one of two different reactions. The first reaction is an immediate disregard for this accidental guilt. One attempts to turn a blind eye to the suffering that is far more evident this time of year - such as the surfeit of orphaned dog adverts, the multitude of snowed-in homeless folk outside Selfridges and that Godforsaken Band Aid medley. It might be difficult to ignore the suffering, but it's not impossible, especially if one utilizes the abundance of overpriced alcohol that is sure to be at one's disposal. Drinking always makes apathy easier. That's why drunks, for the most part, are such terrible listeners.

The second option is to relieve this guilt with a small, insignificant donation to a local or national charity. Some folks might go further and donate a large amount or, if they are feeling particularly generous, donate some of their free time. One might turn up at a soup kitchen or take some old clothes to a homeless shelter.

It would seem obvious that the latter of these choices - the donation of time and money - is immediately preferable to the former - alcohol-induced apathy. And yet a particularly influential Irishman would disagree. Oscar Wilde, in his brilliant essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, argues that charity is capitalist hypocrisy at its finest. For Wilde, those who attempt to obfuscate the prejudices of the capitalist system through small, meaningless donations are in actuality contradicting themselves. If they really cared, Wilde argues, they would attempt to overthrow capitalism in favour of a fairer system. Wilde, in essence, refused to support charity as he believed that fidelity to a more progressive political system could obliterate poverty and thus the necessity for charity. Charity, apparently, is selfish appeasement and nothing more.

Wilde famously claims that 'to live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.' Wilde is arguing that poverty condemns so many people to a standard of life that is incompatible with the grand, abstruse Wildean idea of 'living'. Far from alleviating the symptoms of capitalism - poverty, homelessness and so on - charity simply prolongs these symptoms to ensure that people 'exist' rather than 'live'. Charity alone is unable to fix the inherent problems of capitalism. In order to counter these issues, Wilde maintains, we need to 'reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.'

It's interesting, at this time of year, to consider Wilde's hypothesis. Right now, in Tory Britain, we have one in four children living in poverty. We have more homelessness, more people using food banks and an ever-increasing gap of inequality. Many people - democratically speaking the majority - support such a system. Many of these people - good, decent people - will donate money and will claim, however spuriously, to support those less fortunate. For Wilde, these folks are hypocrites and if they really cared, they would alter the system.

I, unlike Wilde, believe that charity is an earnest act of good nature. It's difficult to deny, however, that Wilde has a point. If we want to stamp out homelessness, and poverty, and starvation, and all of the other problems we are currently facing, the answer doesn't lie in a donation once a year. If we really want to challenge these social ills, we have to bond together and stand in solidarity with the less fortunate - all year round - and attempt, as Wilde so poignantly claims, to reconstruct a society in which 'poverty is impossible'. For now, however, before you start sharpening your pitchforks, if you've got a little something spare - time, money or clothes - try to ignore Oscar's wild ramblings and help someone less fortunate than yourself.