What does the audience watching this talk learn about why the majority of the people of Malawi are poor?
They certainly seem to enjoy it, which must be a relief as they have paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of attending hundreds of ‘persuasive, courageous, ingenious, fascinating, inspiring and beautiful’ talks by figures such as Malcolm Gladwell and Steve Jobs on themes like design, business, science and global issues. The slogan of the conference is ‘ideas worth spreading’.
This focus on technology and innovative thinking as the keys to the world’s problems means that the audience is not confronted with anything that might make them feel uncomfortable – the question of changes resulting from collective action by the victims of global crises is not on the agenda, and the nature and consequences of the economic and political system which governs our lives, in the context of the relatively recent surrender by governments all over the world to the global market, is not up for discussion. For all the talk of technical innovation, the framework that the conference represents is deeply conservative, and what the audience pays to hear is a series of fables about how entrepreneurial innovations and philanthropy (the spirit of Bill Gates hangs over the event) will deal with global poverty and climate change.
Given that the talks themselves are sponsored by corporations, this is inevitable. There are a number of themes and interesting questions raised but always within the limited possibilities offered by the global market. Also nobody ever seems angry; anger is clearly not productive, and noone is visibly poor, but then as the clip demonstrates poverty is just a temporary state of mind. Over the weekend in London a much wider and more radical set of discussions took place under the umbrella of Historical Materialism. This is an academic conference open to non-academics which is becoming a regular and significant feature on the international calendar for socialists and Marxists.
What is the connection with TED? The video linked to above was used in one session at HM on the theme of the Big Society. Marina Kaneti from Columbia University School of Social Work used it to illustrate her tentative thesis that social entrepreneurship of the kind praised in the video presents a challenge to global capitalism in that it offers a non-market approach to solving social problems and lifting people out of desparate poverty.
Myself and several others found this highly questionable, and a useful debate which followed served to focus my mind on just what it was that made me feel so uncomfortable watching the video.
To return to my original question, what the video makes clear is that the reason why the people of countries like Malawi are poor is that they are, unlike the shining example of the guy who built the windmill, insufficiently entrepreneurial. It also associates his innovation with that of the company which created the Blackberry mobile phone, whose logo opens the clip as they were generous enough to support this kind of innovative thinking.
Why would a corporation go out of its way to support what appears to be social change in action? As I mentioned earlier, the spirit of Bill Gates serves to inspire an event such as TED. If what is asked of the world’s poor is innovative thinking at the level of coming up with ingenious solutions to the problems they face, the role of corporations if to help them with this, so what we also learn from the clip is that the central driving force of capitalism is social entrepreneurship, and the raison d’etre of the system which governs our lives is a kind of altruism.
There are countless examples of this ideology in action today. Walking past Pret-a-Manger on my way to the conference I noticed once again that the company now seems to primarily exist to address the issue of homelessness. Pret-a-Manger is of course owned by McDonalds, which few would associate with philanthropy. Adverts for Starbucks exhort us to ‘help’ the company in its mission to ensure coffee farmers receive a far price for their products. And although it has recently been taken to task by protestors for dodging billions in tax, Vodafone sponsors hundreds of people to work fulltime for UK charities and NGOs for two months. All of this chimes perfectly of course with the specious doctrine of the ‘Big Society’: a smaller state with those in need dependent on the munificent whims of wealthy individuals and companies who donate their time and money in aid of the common good.
So with all this beneficience and promotion of social need over profit, where have all the capitalists gone? To Hollywood, where as Zizek points out countless films depict evil corporations dedicated to accumulating capital with no regard for the social or environmental consequences. Watching these films one starts to get the sense that the ideology of capitalism is increasingly “anti-capitalist”. Films such as Wall-E, Blood Diamonds, Syriana, etc. actually “exemplify what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film[s] perform our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.” One might also mention films such as The Corporation, Wall-Mart – the high cost of low price and Black Gold which portray what might be seen as an enormous conspiracy to cheat consumers and the world’s poor.
Laudable as a lot of these attempts to expose the iniquities of global capitalism may be, they share a common failing in portraying the system as an anti-social plot by evil men. This is the other side of the coin of the idea that a few well-meaning individuals and corporations can turn capitalism into a system works for the benefit of all. Both notions rest upon a set of implicit assumptions which are conservative in nature. As Hugo Blanco recently remarked, there is no global conspiracy between evil capitalists to destroy human life on this planet; the destruction is driven by the logic of the system, outside the control of any individual or organisation.
The famous quote of Frederic Jameson asserts that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’. This is certainly true in Hollywood, with countless other movies depicting our imminent demise. There are, however, very few mainstream films that tell stories of people coming together and collectively challenging the logic of accumulation for accumulation’s sake and creating a better kind of society (which could make for a happy ending). Just as in fact there is no-one at TED who draws attention to collective solutions, to trade union or political organisations, to the Zapatistas, to grass-roots struggles in defence of the environment or of jobs or working conditions, to a different kind of world. These kinds of initiatives are a greater mechanism for meaningful, radical changes in society than social entrepeneurship and the generosity of individual capitalists and corporations.
The ideology of charity and self-sacrifice no longer plays a merely peripheral role in the doctrine of neoliberalism. Capitalism increasingly disavows its own central mechanism of capital accumulation and proposes instead that its innovations are designed to take care of social need and deal with global crises. Few people are rationally fooled by this, of course; but to challenge these specious ideas and insist on the need for a society genuinely based on taking care of social need it is necessary to engage in organised political struggle. The belief that capitalism is capable of dealing with the challenges that face humanity is pure utopianism.