Lecture at the conference
Fashion Tales 2015
Milan, 18-20 June 2015
Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
Grounded in ethnographic fieldwork in Lucknow and New Delhi (2008, 2010-2011) among craftspeople, fashion designers and their business elite clientele, the paper critically engages with the rise of ethical fashion in India and with the problematic implications of ‘philanthrocapitalism’. During last five years or so, we have witnessed an unprecendented emergence of philanthrocapitalists, who have been recast as India’s national heroes and saviours, indeed heroes to be emulated by businessmen all around the country. Together with the global emergence of the ideology of corporate social responsibility that re-embeds morality back into the market, they have given rise to a refashioned ‘tribe’ of benevolent designers, who as part of their business plan run NGOs that claim to empower women, elevate the poor, do away with child labour, or be environment friendly. However, the question is not only what happens when ‘ethical business’ and CSR take over the state and its responsibilities, from education to social security and place it into private hands, but also what happens when the actual practices of benevolent capitalism in fact reproduce, and often even intensify, the very suffering that they claim to elevate? In the case of elitist fashion, the obvious fact that luxury depends both materially and ideologically on poverty and suffering becomes most pressing, and yet this dynamics is rarely explicitly explored. By way of ethnographic examples of interactions between elite clients, designers and largely impoverished craftspeople, framed through the narratives of ethical fashion that explore the dynamics of untouchability, benevolent patronage and hierarchy, I will propose a provocative thesis. Namely, that what the Indian elite is buying here is not, as for instance Slavoj Žižek has suggested, the feel good redemption from the baneful capitalist system, but rather the very reproduction of this system - there is a pleasure for the elite consumer derived from the very suffering that goes into the making of luxury fashion, and from knowing that the acts of patronage precisely do not change the system, the pleasure of maintained order (that keeps filth at bay). If there is anything that sustainable fashion sustains, it is the division between rich and poor. Theatrical displays of charitable benevolence are an instrument of power, a power to subject and make dependent. Charitable benevolence depends on relentless production of the weak, needy and vulnerable, the point is precisely that they are never to be ‘elevated’.