Saturday 14 March 2015

Is Red Nose Day Secretly Subversive?

Asked nobody ever, but stay with me. I can just about remember the first Red Nose Day. In the build up there was a palpable sense of excitement among us kiddy-winks. What crazy capers could we get up to? Our school alas, while paying lip service to the possibility that the dull norms of classroom life could get breached, ruled out stunts like walking-backwards-for-a-day and clowning about on a pair of stilts. It was 'elf and safety gone mad before it, um, went mad. As with most things, the advance hype didn't match up to real life. A few kids wore their red noses to school (not all day, those bloody things hurt!) and one really got into the swing of things ... with a sponsored silence. The biggest deal at the time was watching the Comic Relief show on telly. It's difficult to countenance now, but it was very rare then for so many celebrities to share a billing. It was very novel. Remember, the celebfest of Band Aid had only topped the charts a few months previous.

Now, when it comes to charity I'm not too charitable. I occasionally patronise charity shops, use them to offload unwanted but otherwise functional gear, and will back someone's stunt if they present a sponsorship form at gunpoint. Oh yes, the occasional emergency appeal when something ghastly happens somewhere might get a contribution, but that's your lot. Like a lot of political people, my thoughts about charity are heavily conditioned by the critique of it. For the right, their argument can be taken as a rationale for I'm-alright-Jack selfishness. i.e. Giving to charities and supporting needy people renders them dependent, they don't look to their own agency to get themselves out of a pickle so why should I help? You can almost hear Scrooge snapping "so much the better to help reduce the surplus population." The left critique is superficially similar: charity dresses recipients up as a deserving poor fallen on hard times and erases the various structural configurations of power and resource ultimately responsible for this sorry state of affairs. The answer therefore is political activity, not hand outs.

Charity has its own political economy. As of September last year there were 164,097 registered charities with a combined income of £64bn. Just shy of 70% of this cash flows to the top 1,990 organisations with an annual take it excess of £5m. Examining this anatomy is a none-too-pleasant task. At the top of the tree the chief executives and big fundraisers can take home quite a packet. Some have proven more than happy to link up with businesses to provide a human face for an outsourcing arrangement or takeover of a former public asset. Pay for many workers in the charity sector is low and can be highly exploitative, as any of their "self-employed" contract fundraisers who go door-to-door or stand in high streets affecting faux bonhomie will tell you. And where there is a market, there is inevitably duplication of effort and much waste.

Not everyone is aware of the machinery behind the collection tin, but it is difficult to avoid charity's ubiquity. No town centre is complete without Shelter, Age UK, Scope, Douglas MacMillan, Sally Army stores, and the very local charity shops (my favourite is Stoke's own Iris's Cats in Need). Yet the shops and the chuggers, the telethons and conspicuous displays haven't put Britons off giving. As our institutions suffer a crisis in confidence (except for the Royals and the military), charitable giving goes from strength to strength. As does Red Nose Day. Since its 1985 debut, Comic Relief has hoovered up over a billion quid. Last night a further £70m was given/pledged, so how does it escape the the cynicism and the sneers so successfully, especially now it's very much an establishment fixture?

Part of Red Nose Day's early success was its very clear pledge that money raised would go to UK-based charitable concerns as well as needy people overseas (if my hazy memory of contemporary pie charts serves, at the outset some 20-25% would stay here). For miseries who'd grumble about sending cash abroad while not tackling poverty at home, their proto-UKIP consciences could rest easy. Also, riffing off the infamous Michael Buerk report from Ethiopia, from the start Comic Relief/the BBC parachuted celebrities into God-forsaken places to report how awful things were, and who for their part were clearly shaken by their experience. In subsequent years TV crews would return - as they still do - to see what difference donations have made. What Red Nose Day makes visible is what was previously taken on trust, the TV screen links the giver to the recipient. It also helps that - for most - Red Nose Day's televising is quite entertaining, as is Children in Need, the other BBC charity juggernaut. That probably helps explain why ITV's Telethon, which ran continuously for over 24 hours, was only repeated the once.

There is more to it than collapsing the distance between donor and recipient. Many a social theorist, particularly Bakhtin have been fascinated with the occasional eruption of the carnivalesque. Back in the days of serfs, squires, knights, and lords the carnival was more than a few days of feasting and debauchery. Social roles were also upended. Think of it as mediaeval cosplay, albeit an occasion when social relations were disinterred from the dressing up box. Peasants could strut about town like aristocrats, children could subvert the authority of their families, and where the local baron and his clique of high born hangers on would have a right larf pretending to be poor. This palaver had a purpose. Not only did it throw together locals and yocals in a rare display of social mixing across a highly stratified society, but reminded them of their interdependence. Red Nose Day is a very safe, modern analogue of the same. It appears it's virtually compulsory in schools for children to dress up and get down with the sanctified fun. Adults can regress to big kiddery too by going to work in fancy dress or doing something else really wacky. It doesn't serve to heighten a sense of interdependence a la our feudal predecessors, but it helps create affective bonds between participants. How many of yesterday's little kids who spent their school day reciting bad jokes, doing The Conga, and having a good laugh can draw on a nice convivial memory to look back on in future years? More widely though it's all being done for charidee the collective act of fundraising allows for a temporary suspension of self-seeking behaviours. Sure, if we want to be cynical we can point to celebrity participation as typical profile-raising, but not so for the hundreds of thousands who did something daft and raised a bit of cash.

In a primitive, half-formed and distorted way, Red Nose Day's carnivalesque prefigures a society in which instrumental relationships between people are kept in a box, and where affection, solidarity, mutual support are the hallmarks of what it means to be human. This, however, is but a glimpse of one pole of future possibility wrapped in all mass acts of popular charity. To work, charity has no choice but to play on summoning a particle of that in the here-and-now. That dependence on the very best of human feeling is harnessed and delivers social goods to those who need it. Yet at the same time it subsidises social problems that shouldn't be left to the beneficence of private individuals, and has the baleful consequence of reinforcing the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor or, in this case, recipients. The solidarity of charity therefore is solidarity in its lowest form. Any subversive potential is immediately recuperated. That glimpse, however, can lead some to politics and the struggle for a better world, but that has to take place outside of charity's confines.


Phil said...

I can just about remember the first Red Nose Day

Oh give over - I was 27. (Don't remember it, though.)

Speedy said...

BCFG said...

Interesting article.

The other thing that charity does is make people think, I am happy with my lot, by the grace of god...Look how bad their lives are.

So on one hand we have pity and on the other we have thank god that isn't me.

And I think this helps bind people to an imperialist mentality. People really will support a war or a ruling class if they think it will keep them in their relative prosperity.

This is the great hypocrisy of charity (or the great dilemma if you want to be charitable):

I am moved by the poverty of others but I would gladly blow their brains out if it means preserving my own relative wealth.