Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity by Ilan Kapoor

Ilan Kapoor is a Professor of Environmental Studies at York University, Canada. Ilan’s research interests include post-colonial politics, social/environmental movements and celebrity humanitarianism. This week, Ilan Kapoor introduces his new book on Celebrity Humanitarianism.

In the last two decades especially, we have witnessed the rise of ‘celebrity’ forms of global humanitarianism and charity work, spearheaded by entertainment ‘stars’, billionaires, and activist NGOs (e.g. Bono, Angelina Jolie, Bill Gates, Save Darfur). My new book, Celebrity Humanitarianism: The ideology of global charity (published by Routledge), examines this new phenomenon, arguing that celebrity humanitarianism legitimates, and indeed promotes, neoliberal capitalism and global inequality.

Drawing on Slavoj Žižek’s work, the book shows how celebrity humanitarianism, far from being altruistic, is significantly contaminated and ideological: it is most often self-serving, helping to promote institutional aggrandizement and the celebrity ‘brand’; it advances consumerism and corporate capitalism, and rationalizes the very global inequality it seeks to redress; it is fundamentally depoliticizing, despite its pretensions to ‘activism’; and it contributes to a ‘postdemocratic’ political landscape, which appears outwardly open and consensual, but is in fact managed by unaccountable elites.

This book focuses on three contemporary types of celebrity humanitarianisms:

  • the global charity work of entertainment stars such as Bono, Geldof, Jolie, and Madonna;
  • the corporate philanthropy of billionaires (Gates, Soros) and big business — for example, in the form of celebrity-endorsed charity products such as Product (RED), which raises funds for AIDS; and
  • the humanitarian work of ‘spectacular’ NGOs (Save Darfur, Médeçins Sans Frontières), which not only pursue celebrity endorsements for their programs, but are increasingly able to achieve celebrity status themselves to boost fundraising and reach.

I attempt an ideology critique of all three types, showing how each strives to ignore, mystify, or disavow the dirty underside of the neoliberal global order, including the latter’s tendencies towards depoliticization, imperialism, and inequality.

According to Žižek, ideology critique consists in uncovering the unsaid implied in what is said, in detecting the absences in what is in plain view. This is the case when, for example, Jolie’s transnational adoptions are presented as benevolent, masking how this ‘kind’ act also helps improve her brand, or when Bill Gates, the ‘world’s greatest humanitarian’, gives away spectacular sums of money, but sidelines how such enormous wealth was accumulated in the first place. This is also the case when celebrities disavow their significant economic investment in charity work (e.g. royalties, product endorsements, corporate partnerships), or when the ‘spectacle’ of humanitarian relief focuses only on the immediate and outward crisis, not its broader politics. My ideology critique in this book consists, therefore, in trying to uncover the unconscious of celebrity humanitarianism, to represent its absences.

What is significant about such an ideological landscape is that the contradictions of celebrity humanitarianism are in plain sight for all to behold, yet are so easily rationalized. In my book, I refer to this phenomenon as ‘decaf capitalism’ — a sort of humanized capitalism that manages to hold together both enormous wealth accumulation and significant global inequality by attending to the worst manifestations of such inequality through charity. Thus, ruthless business practices stand alongside corporate ‘social responsibility’; sweatshops and denuded forests alongside ‘ethical’ and ‘green’ shopping; and social havoc and financial crisis alongside celebrity ‘caring’. The important implication — one that I emphasize throughout the book — is that it is celebrity humanitarianism that helps decaffeinate capitalism, doing the bare minimum to stabilize the system, preventing it from spinning out of control. Celebrity charity work, in this sense, is integral to the neoliberal global order: it helps cover over the latter’s grimy foundations, acting as a safeguard so that capitalism can prosper.

Also noteworthy are the depoliticizing tendencies of celebrity humanitarianism (another theme I return to frequently in the book). By ‘depoliticization’ I mean the removal of public scrutiny and debate, with the result that issues of social justice are transformed into technocratic matters to be resolved by managers, ‘experts’, or in this case, humanitarian celebrities. Thus, when celebrities speak for the “Third World” on issues of debt or poverty, or NGOs act as ‘witnesses’ on behalf of disaster ‘victims’, they reduce the Other into passive bystander, unilaterally representing her/his needs and desires. Similarly, when the spectacle of humanitarian relief focuses on the ‘show’, as it most often does, it ends up valuing the crisis’s outwardly visible and photogenic aspects, diverting public attention away from the latter’s long-term and structural causes. All such instances are depoliticizing because they tend to eliminate public deliberation, disagreement, and conflict, thereby upholding both a top-down politics and the status quo.

Celebrity humanitarianism, in this sense, conforms well to what has been called our ‘postdemocratic’ liberal politics, in which largely unaccountable elites (technocrats, business tycoons, expert scientists or economists — and now celebrities) govern. This implies that celebrities increasingly have a powerful say on such significant global policy issues as debt, trade, famine, health, poverty reduction, or emergency relief. It also implies that mostly unelected, private individuals and organizations have, for all intents and purposes, taken over what should primarily be state/public functions, which is itself revealing of the increasing current trend towards the neoliberalization of politics and economy.

Note that while I sometimes focus on particular celebrities/humanitarian organizations such as Bono or Save Darfur, my purpose is to not to emphasize their personal/institutional motives, idiosyncrasies, or failures, but to examine how their humanitarian work helps illuminate key structural characteristics of our contemporary global economic and political system. In other words, my contention is that the production of ‘humanitarian celebrities’ says something important about both global capitalism and its accompanying political arrangement — liberal democracy.

Moreover, my purpose in the book is not to hold celebrities solely responsible for the ideological manoeuvrings of contemporary celebrity humanitarianism. On the contrary, as I make clear throughout the book, we, the audience, are integral to, and complicit in, the process — through our fandom, our enjoyment of the celebrity spectacle, our consumption of charity products. We help prop up celebrities as powerful political figures through our beliefs and political passivity, which ultimately acquiesce to global neoliberalism. Re-orienting these beliefs and re-invigorating our politics, as I  argue in the Conclusion to my book, is crucial if we are to begin to meaningfully scrutinize and dismantle the political economy of celebrity culture.

Finally, my purpose in arguing against celebrity humanitarianism is not to suggest that we should refrain from helping ‘poor’ and marginalized people, or abstain from ‘rescuing’ those affected by disasters. Of course we should come to their assistance! My point, rather, is that by focusing attention and resources on the immediate crisis and short-term emergency, the overwhelming tendency is to tackle the symptoms rather than the causes, the quick and efficient managerial fixes rather than more complex political struggles, the media-friendly ‘personal stories’ rather than the wider and recurring patterns of inequality and dispossession. In other words, humanitarianism, if it is to be meaningful (and meaningfully destabilized), needs to move away from the domain of unilateral and moralizing solutions such as those offered by celebrities, towards the much broader, long-term, and necessarily messy, terrain of politics.

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