Another witty animation by the RSA, this time featuring everyone’s favourite misanthrope. Slavoj Žižek’s provocative thesis is that attempts to weave ethics into consumption – for instance with the Fairtrade label – merely serve to make the inbuilt injustices more durable: “The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible, and the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim.”

We can buy exploitative and corporate items, and the anti-exploitative anti-corporate antidote is already included in the product, like ethical coffee at Starbucks. We can increase our wealth while pursuing sustainability or equity, like SRI. We can lend money for profit and promote virtues like entrepreneurship or “financial inclusion”, as in microfinance.

Žižek’s attack on what he calls “cultural capitalism”, which seeks to assimilate rather than reject anti-capitalist sentiments like anti-consumerism, strikes at a central paradox: many products and services now offer us redemption from the harm we know (or at least suspect) we are doing, via our purchase, as part of the package. Yet this liberates us to go on just as before, questioning anything.

From past dreams of “socialism with a human face” in the Eastern bloc, Žižek says, we have moved on to similarly vain dreams of “capitalism with a human face” in the West. Is this moral rejection of charity and compassion really wise? Perhaps not, but it exposes a problematic – and very limiting – shift in our dreams and strategies for creating a better world.