Capitalism, Culture, Socialism, UK

Comic Relief is a bad joke; Make charity history!

There are many institutions in our culture and society that, for me, highlight the depth of our dysfunctionality and despair. Such institutions express the shocking degree to which a social system of artificially-created human misery has been so successfully naturalised that its universality and ubiquity has been rendered invisible. They also reveal how we are, wittingly or unwittingly, complicit in hiding truth, and how depressingly limited our collective imagination is. One such institution in the UK is the annual national do-something-silly-for-charity-shenanigan. We have two primary charitythons like this: Comic Relief and Children in Need. On both these occasions, Brits come together to dress up, do silly things, bake cakes, etc in order to raise money for the poor and needy at home and abroad. The fact that every year the poor and needy are still with us and that their poverty and need grows is barely questioned and is used merely to justify a redoubling of efforts.


Comic Relief is one of the UK’s largest overseas development charities. Its annual fund-raiser is called ‘Red Nose Day’ after the clown-inspired red noses that people all across the country wear. Alongside the money-raising fun and games of ordinary folk, the event is, inevitably, centred on celebrities and ‘big-hearted’ multi-national corporations. On Red Nose night, on TV, we are alternately entertained and then harrowed by comedians who travel among the world’s poorest to capture both their suffering and, of course, the hope that Comic Relief and our money bring. Big corporations – this year it seems to be PG Tips and Persil (Unilever-owned tea and washing powder brands – get in on the act, showing us how humane and generous they are, by pledging big money in return for us buying their products.

How can something so well-meaning, something that brings people together, something that has raised so many hundreds of millions of pounds for charity stir feelings of such anger and distress in me? I will answer this question by drawing on the work of Oscar Wilde, someone who understood precisely what charity constituted within capitalist society and who explained it with characteristic eloquence. For Wilde, it was quite ‘inevitable’ that people who found themselves ‘surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation’ would be ‘strongly moved by all this’. However, since, unfortunately, ‘the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence’, ‘with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.’ Thus, Wilde saw charity as an institution that ‘degrades and demoralises’ and ‘creates a multitude of sins’.


I stand with Oscar Wilde. Comic Relief constitutes merely the most degenerate expression of the spectacle-mediated, consumer-driven institution of contemporary charity. I would suggest that not only does today’s ‘spectacle charity’ serve as the eternal plaster over a gaping, festering social wound, it actually functions directly to sustain the system that injures us. First, spectacle charity does this by alleviating social pressure. Legitimate frustration and anger at blatant social injustice is channeled ‘productively’ into charitable activity. Second, spectacle charity serves to appease feelings of guilt among those who are, or at least feel, better off and luckier. It also tells those unlucky ones they should be grateful they’re not far worse off in some Third World urban slum. Third, spectacle charity reinforces capitalist social relations by asking us to help alleviate suffering by acting as consumers – buying cakes, red noses, corporate sponsors’ products. Fourth, spectacle charity serves to maintain the status quo by providing depoliticised depictions of human suffering. The political-economic root causes of, say, child poverty in the UK are not and cannot be confronted. Poverty is portrayed in technical terms as a mere lack of things: money, education, resources. Fifth, in this way, spectacle charity reinforces the status quo by reinforcing general thoughtlessness. ‘Don’t think, do!’ is the general message here. In all these ways Comic Relief, and charity in general, does more harm than good by serving to maintain the status quo economically, socially, and culturally. I shall offer some evidence for these claims.

Yesterday, I tried to find out where Comic Relief’s red noses were manufactured and what they were made from. Unfortunately, I was able to find out very little. With regard to labour, all I could establish was that Comic Relief had signed up, alongside other major charities and companies, to the ‘Ethical Trading Initiative’ (ETI) under which partner NGOs (non-government organisations) monitors the companies (presumably, predominantly in China) that manufacture their orders. I also found a mixed (albeit quite old) report on the ETI’s effects by Sussex University, found out that several major companies, including Boots, had subsequently left the ETI, and that Primark, the company whose Bangladeshi subcontractors were guilty of the Rana Plaza tragedy in which 1,129 people needlessly died, is an ETI member. With regard to the environment, I could find nothing except for the fact that red noses can be recycled at various outlets.

Whether the conditions in these factories had improved under ETI or not is, for me, secondary to the telling fact that I was not able to establish where Comic Relief’s red noses were made. This tells us everything we need to know about the hidden, alienated nature of capitalist social relations and the institutions of commodified, spectacle charity within it. Comic Relief, an organisation dedicated to alleviating poverty, is largely blind to and reliant on the structure of class exploitation that creates this poverty. Thus, even if conditions are somewhat better in red nose factories, they are still exploitative. Why? Because it is the human labour within these factories that generates the surplus value that allows Comic Relief to sell these things for a profit. If this was not the case, these red noses would simply be produced in the UK. In terms of the environment, I am none the wiser, but pessimistic, as to the ecological cost of mass-producing millions of plastic red noses.

Over a century ago, Oscar Wilde was acutely aware of the perversity of charity: ‘It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.’ His ultimate conclusion resounds to this day: ‘The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.‘ The only thing that gives me heart on days like Red Nose Day is that people undoubtedly care. But, no amount of silly tomfoolery or hard, cold cash will end poverty. Capitalism breeds it, capitalism needs it. The goal of socialists like me is to encourage well-meaning, big-hearted folk (i.e. most people) to go beyond doing and take some time to explore and think about the root causes of our bleak situation.

Ten years ago, the major charities in the UK came together under the banner of ‘Make Poverty History‘. Remember the white plastic wristbands? In the UK and beyond, poverty has increased in the past ten years.1 Let us, instead, take an approach that is at once more radical and realistic. To make poverty history means to make charity history, and to make charity history we must make capitalism history. If we don’t, Oscar Wilde’s words will continue to resonate yet another century from now.

11 thoughts on “Comic Relief is a bad joke; Make charity history!”

  1. Cooperatives, Friendly Societies and Community Development Trusts are the best protection from poverty. Charities are the competition.

    1. Thanks for this, Franklin. I generally agree with this assertion, but the landscape is very complex. What I would emphasize is that within our own organisations to make time and space to consider the root causes of poverty and try to organise, alongside other organisations, in order to demand and create a world where we do more than just try to ‘protect’ ourselves from poverty.
      Thanks for taking the time to respond, Joel

  2. Great piece, Joel. Couldn’t agree more. I actually did my dissertation on Comic Relief as a case study for broader ways in which charities present themselves and the underlying moral arguments they make…though it probably doesn’t take a dissertation to recognise that charity of this nature assumes the status quo is ultimately just or at least unchangeable, that its motivating force is pity rather than justice, and that its starting and ending point is fixed around the charity-doer as opposed to the results of those actions.

    I always found that this Karl Pilkington skit and the way in which his views are ridiculed unwittingly highlights the arguments being made by Comic Reliefers really effectively:

    Great work, Joel.

    1. Thanks for this, James. Hugely appreciated. Brilliant skit and response.
      I think the fact that this blog piece had over a thousand views and several reposts and comments means that it struck a chord.
      The next step, after arguing the case that we cannot give, sing, dance, run, or even consume or invest our way to another, more just world, is to argue that we can do this only through collective political debate, organisation and develop alternatives based on non-commodified, communal principles and practices. In this area lots is going on, so hope is there and is growing.
      Thanks again

  3. From a Yank – – A proper response to you should start with an ‘ad hominem’ conjecture: You may be “the smartest guy in the room”. And you just may NOT be. Your use of compounding sesquipedalianisms obscures your message. And bores me. You call for the cessation of capitalism, while ignoring that it has enabled ‘first-world’ countries to be the envy of the rest of the world. You call for the ascendancy of socialism, – – while ignoring the fact that in most instances it turns into despotism.. Moreover, you have not yet thought-through a workable and fair transition from one to the other. People of good will cannot long gaze upon rank poverty or suffering of any type without averting their eyes. We “just can’t handle the truth” – – of poverty or suffering, (as Jack Nicholson snarled in “A Few Good Men”). And if our feet/eyes are held to the fire of such degradation and pain for too long, most of us will either cry or laugh. As we emerge from that crucible, most of us know that we have to do something that will help. And yes, perhaps assuage some guilt. And I’ll wager, thus was the concept of Comic Relief born. As you know, Joel, you can get more of almost anything using honey. And not vinegar. Comic Relief is the honey which extracts the maximum generosity from people. Vinegar won’t work! Keep your eyes on the prize, Joel. Do you want relief for the victims or don’t you? Pigpoppy

    1. Thanks for this, Torrey.
      I agree with your call for honey over vinegar. It’s a shame your post begins with vinegar with little trace of honey throughout. Thanks for teaching me a new word too!
      To address your charges, I do not ignore the developmental achievements of capitalism. It has been a most dynamic system, but I think that modernisation has come at a price of immeasurable violence. It is a system forged in slavery and violence. It is also no longer a dynamic system. Even the high priests of this religion cannot see growth. Instead they speak now of ‘secular stagnation’. See OECD, IMF, Treasury, Pentagon on this. We are modernised now. Now we must go beyond an economism that reduces all quality to quantity before it is too late.
      What you call socialism, I do not. It kind of turned out more like authoritarian state capitalism with, at its best, a stronger welfarist socialism. One of the main reasons for its disastrous, often barbaric failure was the near impossibility of having socialism within a global capitalist system and the immense pressure applied from without and within by capitalist governments from the very start. I don’t think these failures say anything deterministic about human nature at all. The possibility for socialism, the urgent need for socialism remains.
      I agree with you that Comic Relief was born from guilt and a sense of helplessness.
      As for Comic Relief ‘extracting the maximum generosity from people’, I agree. But could you imagine a society in which such generosity of spirit was the norm, in which every day people had the opportunity to serve each other, to work together as equals in creative fellowship? At the same time, only such a system could foster true individualism – the fulflilment of each individual’s potential. That’s what I am interested in. It is totally possible.
      As for ‘not yet thinking through a workable and fair transition’, surely it is for the defenders of this system to first defend its merits. Is it for me or any one individual to have the blueprint for social transformation? I think not. I have my ideas and could share them, but ultimately it is for people themselves to articulate and pursue this. I see my contribution as encouraging them to start to think about this, to tell them they can think about this, helping them believe that they are, we all are, part of the building of the future. That’s democracy.
      That said, check this out for some ideas of what it could look like…

      Finally, it’s interesting you label the ‘beneficiaries’ of Comic Relief as ‘victims’. Should any social system have victims and be considered just? Should we not strive to create a truly just social system without victims? The victims in your discourse are nameless, faceless, suffering a ‘truth’ that apparently us more fortunate types cannot even bear to even face for any period of time. What I’m interested in is working with these so-called nameless ‘victims’, recognising their humanity, recognising their knowledge, recognising their intellectuality, and seeking to create spaces within which all people can come together to rename and recreate this world. I’ve tried to pursue this through community education work. What I find is that in all such ‘victims’, the usual beneficiaries of both charity and demonisation, is a huge potential for individual and collective transformation.
      Towards a victimless world
      In solidarity

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