Conor Burns, a backbench Tory MP, has attacked the charity Oxfam for being too “political” its criticism of government austerity policies and the poverty they have created. Ben Gliniecki looks at the contradiction of charities, which on the one hand were to be a vital part of the Coalition’s “Big Society”, but which on the other hand are being pushed to draw radical conclusions due to the conditions in society.
Conor Burns, the backbench MP for West Bournemouth, can only be described as a caricature of a head-banging Tory with a hatred for working class people. Having strongly supported cuts to welfare across the board and been fiercely opposed to increased taxes on bonuses and the super-rich, Burns has now outdone himself once again by attacking a charity for tackling poverty.
Burns and other Tories are calling for an investigation into the charity Oxfam, which has been increasingly vocal with its observations that government policy is causing extreme hardship and poverty for a growing number of people in Britain. Oxfam have recently produced an advert that points to benefit cuts, precarious employment and rising prices as a cause of poverty in Britain. Burns claims that, as a charity, Oxfam is legally prohibited from engaging in political campaigning and that, by highlighting the impact of government policy in terms of growing poverty levels, Oxfam is contravening this legal restriction.
It would be hard to imagine more stereotypical Tory behaviour than threatening legal action against a charity for trying to alleviate poverty. As well as highlighting the vicious mentality of the Conservatives, this raises a number of points about the role of charities under capitalism.
‘Big Society’ and privatised welfare
David Cameron’s 2010 election campaign centred on an idea of a “Big Society” in which government would step back from providing services for people while voluntary organisations and charities would step in to fill the void. Following the election this policy was shown to be what it really was: a feeble attempt to put a positive spin on the promise to cut government spending, and therefore living standards, to the bone. Needless to say, the ‘Big Society’ brand has now been quietly dropped as the promised explosion in volunteers to do the government’s job for it has failed to materialise.
The idea of charities picking up the slack created by cuts to government services illustrates the role of charity under capitalism. It is essentially privatised welfare – its existence is used as a tool by the bourgeoisie to cushion the crushing impact of their assault on working class people, particularly in a time of crisis.
Thus it is charities which house people who have lost their homes, which establish food banks to feed people who can’t afford to eat, and which provide health services for seriously ill people. In short, it carries out the functions and provides the services that government and tax-funded public services should. And when viewed in that way, the idea that charity is somehow separate from politics is completely absurd.
The politics of charity
Charities by their very nature play a political role in society by ameliorating the worst effects of draconian right wing government policies. Without charities to soften the edges of austerity, social conditions would be intolerable for thousands more – such as the one million who are now reliant on food banks – and the government would be faced by many more protests from those who affected by their attacks.
Legally, charities are not allowed to have any political aims or functions; but drawing a line between what is political and charitable is extremely artificial, as this case proves. If a charity like Oxfam, which is committed to alleviating poverty, is serious about pursuing that aim then the logic of such a programme can only point to a political solution – the overthrow of capitalism and the struggle to build a socialist society.
While Oxfam is not calling for socialist revolution, it is being forced to point out that the Coalition’s austerity policies are creating poverty, demonstrating that even those who don’t consider themselves political, or even left-wing, are increasingly coming to terms with the logic of capitalism. The fact that charities are being pushed into making such criticism of the government’s austerity programme is yet another reflection of the intense contradictions building up within bourgeois society due to the harsh conditions created by the crisis of capitalism.
It is ironic that the very same institutions that the Tories hoped to rely on to cover all the axed government services are now pointing out that the scale of the poverty caused by austerity is more than they can cope with. The Tories see charities like Oxfam as donkeys onto which they can offload the job of welfare and service provision, thus freeing up their time to cavort with the super-rich. Now the donkey has started kicking back against the unbearable strain and the Tories are getting upset.
Facts are stubborn things
What makes the backbench Tory MPs reaction to Oxfam so absurd is that everyone knows that Oxfam is right. It’s blindingly obvious that the reason for increasing reliance on food banks; worsening conditions at work; a greater number of people forced to claim housing and other benefits etc. etc. is thanks entirely to the government’s programme of vicious cuts.
By attacking Oxfam for pointing this out, and using the artificial charity laws to do so, it’s not clear what Burns and others are trying to achieve. They’re certainly not going to change the fact that Tory austerity is causing poverty, and they’re not going to change the fact that everyone knows this to be true.
In fact, the only thing this attack is likely to do is draw attention to the point that Oxfam is making, and simultaneously publicise the fact that the Tories are taking legal action against a charity for trying to tackle poverty. All in all, this seems to be something of an own goal on the part of the Tories.
Burns has suggested that Oxfam should stick to charity work overseas where it can deal with natural disasters like floods and famines. No doubt Burns wouldn’t have a problem with Oxfam criticising the government of Zimbabwe for creating hunger on a vast scale, and yet criticism of the British government for the same thing is not permitted.
This narrow-minded hypocrisy is typical of Tories like Burns who represent the most reactionary layers of Tory voters. It also fails to recognise that, in today’s world, floods and famines are not entirely “natural” disasters, but are problems artificially created humans. The quantity of food capable of being produced in the world today is more than enough to feed every person on the planet. The only reason this doesn’t happen is because it is not profitable to do so. We would be able to slow global warming and the rising of sea levels in a dramatic way through renewable energy, and the cash exists to invest in proper flood defences for high-risk countries, and yet this is not done because no-one can make a profit out of it. Poverty, hunger, hardship and disaster today are all products of capitalism – caused by a system that values greed and private profit over human lives.
Thus for Burns to suggest that Oxfam should stick to these ‘apolitical’ issues is equally absurd, for they require a political solution as much as poverty in Britain does. To think that a solution can be found to global poverty and disaster relief without also finding a solution to these problems in Britain is ridiculous. It highlights the hypocrisy of those politicians who are willing, at the drop of a hat, to sign up to support all manner of charity work while at the same time being the only ones really capable of doing something about the problems and yet refusing to do so.
What is the political solution?
Marxists do not see charity as the solution to society’s ills. We view it as little more than a sticking plaster on the gaping wounds suffered by the working class at the hands of capitalism, and a symptom of the poisonous idea that governments should not provide welfare and public services for the people they are supposed to represent.
Burns’ reaction to Oxfam’s advert explaining the causes of poverty demonstrates the limits of charitable work under capitalism. As soon as a charity comes anywhere close to highlighting the real cause of poverty and hardship the ruling class and its lackeys in government weigh in heavily against it.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Oxfam’s point that austerity is causing poverty can only mean that poverty is inevitable under capitalism, since it is thanks to the global crisis of capitalism that austerity is required – austerity demanded by the bankers and bosses to prop up their rotten system. This means that the only solution to poverty and hardship, both in Britain and internationally, is to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a socialist system based on need and not profit.
This is not something that can be achieved through lobbying, petitioning or reliance on the sympathy and goodwill of philanthropists and do-gooders. It requires working class organisation, militant action by the labour movement and proletarian revolution. If Burns and co. are worried by Oxfam now, they’ll be positively trembling in the face of a socialist revolution.