Oxfam and the Fall of the Moral Monopoly

February 20, 2018

As institutional morality has advanced, personal morality has retreated. After all, who needs to work for grace when it’s already crowding the shelves of the consumer economy? Who needs to sacrifice their time and their desires when you can just get drunk at an Oxfam music festival? And the message of Haiti seems to be that grace is not merely to be acquired—it is to be expended, too. The increasingly strident global ambitions of social-justice organizations help drive such moral aggregation. A single Oxfam supporter can only quake before the thought of “ending poverty,” so must duly put their hand in their pocket. We are told Oxfam seeks to empower women (at least during office hours). But what does that actually mean? How are we to know it is not the same conflation between equality and sameness that now fills Western streets with vomiting bachelorette parties? Leaving children in paid care to advance your career may be the antithesis of morality for millions around the world. But that morality isn’t on the menu. Needless to say, neither is the central role played by capitalism in poverty reduction, which Oxfam instead denigrates on an annual basis. To access grace from a global NGO means checking dissent at the door. The tribalism is so acute that the political morass of Glastonbury Festival has already said it will “stand by” Oxfam. A prominent left-winger blogger has now accused The Times—which ran the original Haiti story—of trying to smear the organization’s anti-capitalist stance. The writ of #MeToo clearly stops at the gates of left-wing charities.

And so we arrive at the three pillars of the new Moral Monopolies: globalized goals, requiring highly resourced organizations; a non-dissenting approach to moral and political outcomes; and a supporter base safely disenfranchised from actual delivery or decision-making. The old notion of charity beginning at home is kryptonite to such monopolies. And lo, as pressure has increased for Western consumers to support them, so too have they been dissuaded from taking charity into their own, unqualified hands. It is now common for the simplest autonomous act—feeding the homeless—to be banned. Instead, the nascent virtue-consumer hurries home to slot some coins into the moral Laundromat of the charity sector. Their moral impulse is safely pooled, its messy implementation genteelly hidden. Yet this is a placebo that cannot take the place of human contact. Now has a jolt come back up the line from the distant regions of suffering. Time will tell its impact. A fracture in the moral monopoly may be the moment for us to reclaim our moral impulse—investing it how and where we see fit, rather than how we are told.

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