The recent “Ice Bucket Challenge” internet campaign had an impressive number of people taking part.
Participants video themselves tipping a bucket of cold water on their head and nominate others to do the same; if they refuse they have to donate to charity. Often those that take part still donate. Celebrities and political figures from Unite union leader Len McCluskey to George Bush have taken part.
This phenomenon shows us that if the conditions are right, people will be urged to act for the benefit of others whom they have never met. It reveals a fundamentally positive side of human nature.
But this trend also tells us something about the neo-liberal society we live in.
For something like this to “go viral” and earn endorsement across the class divide, it must have a degree of social acceptability that makes it non-threatening to the hegemony of ruling class ideas. In this case the fact it is not a collective form of action gives it a certain popularity; it reflects the ideological surroundings and doesn’t create friction against dominant norms and values.
Also, posting a video of oneself in a vulnerable and mildly humiliating position for a good cause inevitably generates some social dividends for the person doing it. This ties a public act of charity to a personal reward, and cements the notion that good deeds are only worth doing if you get the credit. Again, a culturally permissible belief, rooted in the ideological makeup of a system that rewards selfishness and cultivates individualism. The rampant self-interest inherent in this craze is shown by an Independent report which states one third of people participated “to get attention”.
ALSA, the charity that is the main beneficiary of the donations, pays its chief executive over £300,000. It also made a move to patent the phrase “ice bucket challenge”, meaning that other charities would have to pay to use it — the barmy consequence of social need being administered by capitalist bureaucracy. The monolithic profiteers Tesco dug deep and found £20,000 from ice sales to donate. Imagine how much more we could find for good causes if workers controlled the wealth they create, instead of bosses.
Collective action is a more potent force for social change. While fads come and go, the work of socialists and trade unionists will reverberate into the future. Fight for genuine change; don’t get caught up in bourgeois forms of social action.