Philanthropy is a scam

Bill Gates

In recent years, Bill Gates has become one of the world’s most high-profile philanthropists. Credit: Stephen Voss/Getty Images

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Philanthropy is a scam

by Julieta Caldas

[This article first appeared on the Tribune website on 9th October 2021. It is being reproduced here (exactly as it appeared originally) as it makes some important points about the hypocritical society we have become, with its veneration of so-called ‘celebrities’ and blinding ourselves to the patently obvious – the rich have always, are now and will in the future do anything and everything to ensure that they maintain their power and influence, whatever their actions might appear to be on the surface.]

Charitable giving among the super-rich has one goal, and it isn’t to change the world – it’s to keep it exactly the way it is.

Up until the turn of this century, the word Philanthropy might have called to mind old-money benefactors whose names are printed on walls of galleries, universities, and hospitals. According to a fresh generation of superrich entrepreneurs negotiating their own newfound charitable impulses, it can now refer to almost anything – from tiny peer donations towards medical bills to billionaires propping up foreign regimes. In recent years these new philanthropists, eager to remodel the charitable sector in the image of their business endeavours, have come to unequivocally dominate the field.

Where philanthropists of old felt compelled to selectively fund the arts and sciences to express their exalted taste as representatives of a cultured elite, it is this new generation’s track record of profitmaking which has, in its eyes, earned it the right—and the responsibility—to determine which social problems need solving. If they can invent technologies that uproot the ways we work and live, the logic goes, they can figure out world hunger. As more billionaires promise to donate larger swathes of their fortunes, Big Philanthropy continues to grow as an auxiliary industry – working more quietly and garnering infinitely more influence than the philanthropy of the gala circuit.

For these types, the philanthropic drive no longer seems to stem from public pressure. The congratulatory fervour that met Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s initial 2010 Giving Pledge has long since faded, and figures like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have more recently managed to fly under the radar and give away comparatively miniscule sums. The impetus, instead, is a desire to extend the logic of entrepreneurship out beyond the confines of the market. The key word, borrowed from the world of start-ups, is ‘disruption’.

Defined by ‘disruption guru’ Clayton Christensen as something that ‘displaces an existing market, industry or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile’, it is a force ‘at once destructive and creative’. The ambitious ‘philanthropreneur’ takes aim at the clunky, inconvenient elements of civic life and international governance and in doing so opens up new avenues for his business.

In the philanthropist’s view, the world is good—a world of growing wealth, a widening middle class, and lesser inequality—but suffers enduring problems which can, with enough money and the right approach, be solved at great scale. The governments and NGOs usually tasked with addressing these problems are beset by tradition, red tape, and bureaucratic sprawl. Their own brand of social justice, by contrast, follows only the imperative for ruthless innovation. While states often struggle to pursue long-term goals while responding to immediate crises, a billionaire’s foundation—far less regulated and with nearly infinite money—can easily do both.

Over the past few years, more and more philanthropists have been producing manifestos, treatises and apologias to make this case. Lisa Greer’s Philanthropy Revolution (2020), Jacqueline Novogratz’s Manifesto for a Moral Revolution (2020), and Alexandre Mars’s Giving: Purpose is the New Currency (2018) each offer a blend of anecdotal praise for their own philanthropic efforts and visions for the future of the field.

These writers overwhelmingly refer to the act of philanthropy using the euphemistic term ‘giving’, which both obviates the need to concretely mention money and stresses the generosity of donors. When it comes to the objectives of the giving, many state that it is not only a social obligation but potentially healthy for business (hence why profits never really suffer even when the billionaires give away large portions of their shares). That giving, therefore has the explicit dual aim of maximising social benefit and return on investment.

Novogratz offers a characteristically half-hearted summation of its altruistic impulses when she suggests that ‘impact investment is not only morally defensible but now also economically advantageous, even necessary’. Indeed, given that philanthropic programmes for change tend to centre around lower-controversy issues like hunger, disease and education access—while fair pay, labour rights, and affordable housing, which would meaningfully reduce poverty and thus are incompatible with the exploitative business models of large tech companies, sit more firmly within the remit of government—philanthropists generally stand to gain a lot more than they lose.

The grandaddy of philanthropy books, Matthew Bishop’s 2008 Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, outlines the capitalist motives of Big Philanthropy far more brazenly than any of its more recent counterparts. Closing out with a comprehensive ‘Good Billionaire’s Guide’, Bishop’s contention is that, ‘if philanthrocapitalists are to be a legitimate part of the solution to the world’s problems, a new “social contract” is needed’ to delineate their role. The reasoning behind this is predictable but surprising to see expressed aloud: ‘if the rich do not take on this responsibility, they risk provoking the public into a political backlash against the economic system that allowed them to become so wealthy’.

The fear, then, is not of being falsely accused, but of being found out. Even when taking a category as large and broad as ‘the poor’ as the desired recipient of their aid, it is clear that the philanthropic system depends upon them remaining splintered and isolated as subjects. It represents, at best, a capitalism generously willing to help alleviate the problems it causes.

In their manifestos, however, philanthropists are eager to argue for the field’s transformative potential. A number of the books either have the word ‘revolution’ in the title or repeatedly highlight the need to ‘revolutionise’ the world of giving, and by extension, the way the world works. If ‘revolution’ evokes the overthrow of an oppressive or unworkable regime, the philanthropists seem to take as their target nothing less than the entire apparatus by which states are organised. The inefficiency and stasis of governments, nonprofits, multilateral governing bodies, and the like is—to them—intractable.

While they take pride in their ability to influence government policy on issues they deem important, they are also eager to prove the efficacy of their working above and around politics. In his foreword to Philanthrocapitalism, Bill Clinton states that, at the time of writing, members of his Clinton Global Initiative had made ‘more than 1,400 commitments valued at $46 billion that have already improved the lives of more than 200 million people in 150 countries’.

A new crop of books billed as practical guides to philanthropy—including Lisa Greer’s Philanthropy Revolution and Phil Buchanan’s Giving Done Right—has also recently sought to make the flexible, nebulous concept of philanthropy more appealing at the ground level. The obvious question that the publication of these books begs is: how many people are wealthy enough to be able to be considered philanthropists, as opposed to people who donate money to charity? Surely less than the number of people who would be expected to buy a mass-market paperback. The question—in the eyes of many philanthropists—resolves itself through a radical democratisation of the category.

In the future, they argue, anyone will be able to be a philanthropist. Bishop points to peer-to-peer microfinance platforms like JustGiving as a form of ‘popular philanthrocapitalism’, offering a degree of transparency and feedback that previously was reserved for superrich donors. Alexandre Mars suggests that charitable donation might eventually be woven into the fabric of everyday life, with a few cents tacked onto the cost of a coffee when you tap your card, and so on.

What is shared among all these thinkers is the sense that, whether ordinary people involve themselves in it or not, the power of philanthropy is inexorable, as billionaires continue to get richer and their money begets more influence. Of generations Y and Z, Mars writes: ‘They are not stupid—they can see that political and economic power no longer reside solely in religions and governments’ – and their new appreciation of the workings of power does not, in his account, take the form of a political consciousness, but a recognition of the new supreme power of business. The philanthropists appear to see the implication of corporations in social life as a rising tide which we may be able to divert or quell, but not fully control.

And while they duly acknowledge the potential dangers of the superrich circumventing democracy and buying seats at decision-making tables, they remain optimistic – in both the superior judgement of entrepreneurs and in the market’s ability to develop the best solutions to the world’s problems. In a brief moment of soul-searching, Bishop asks: ‘Should we worry about the growing ambition and ability of the rich to influence political decisions? Will this coming golden age of philanthropy also be an age of plutocracy?’ Perhaps, but the important follow-up is this: ‘and if so, can anything be done to make this prospect less worrying for the public?’

What appears to critics of philanthrocapitalists as a blind spot in their vision of the world (namely, their own implication in the social ills they seek to remedy) is, quite consciously, their point. While the more recent books attempt to cast philanthrocapitalism as a method of more efficiently serving the charitable sector, or less generously of stimulating global economic prosperity in a way that also benefits laypeople, Bishop shows it for what it is: a new window-dressing for the creation of extreme wealth and the expansion of corporate influence over politics and private life.

He articulates the neatly perverse logic of philanthrocapitalism when he anticipates the aftermath of the 2008 crash: ‘The world still has plenty of superrich people. Indeed, overall, the superrich are likely to emerge from the crisis in better financial shape than anyone else.’ Therefore, crucially, ‘the reservoir of wealth to fund philanthrocapitalism is still there.’ This self-fulfilling cycle—capitalism creates wealth, and thereby inequality, and thereby the conditions for the rich to spend surplus money on helping the poor, without ever alleviating poverty—dates back (Bishop points out) to the Renaissance, when both capitalism and philanthropy were born.

Aiming as they do to uphold the class divide that brought about philanthropy in the first place, the philanthrocapitalists’ true enemy is not inequality but populism. Their version of politics, a kind of anti-politics, is endlessly self-obfuscating, but the vast majority of them essentially describe the kind of market-friendly, ‘socially progressive’ politics of the Clinton Third Way. Rather than trickle-down economics as such, they propound the idea that well-informed and benevolent billionaires will consciously pour their money into the right places. Their justifications are cloaked in the language of collaboration and listening, but their guiding principles are nakedly technocratic.

The World Economic Forum, a hotbed for philanthropreneurs like Gates and Buffet, offers a model for the much-vaunted collaboration between public and private sectors in the form of ‘stakeholder governance’, wherein corporations recruit consultants from government, civil society and academia to create their own versions of multilateral organisations. As Ivan Wecke reported for OpenDemocracy, there are now more than 45 multi-stakeholder groups in operation that set policy agendas and establish industry guidelines globally. In 2019, an agreement signed between the WEF and the UN cemented the privileged position afforded to corporations and entrepreneurs on the global stage.

By way of visions for the future of philanthropy, many of the milder books offer up either a promise of greater accountability for foundations, or a reinvention of the concept of taxation. At the end of The Givers, his survey of contemporary philanthropy, David Callahan concludes: ‘None of the reforms I’ve suggested will substantially limit the influence of wealthy philanthropy over public life. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that funders bring greater self-restraint and mindfulness to giving that affects the lives of their fellow citizens’. The neoliberal imagination is nothing if not humble; all it can ask of us is to share its faith that a culture of moderation and transparency could in theory keep the philanthropists’ sprawling networks of influence in check. Accordingly, the purpose of these books is not to imagine a changed world but to foster trust that the billionaires will get us there.

At the end of Novogratz’s book she is at Riyadh Airport, coming back from a trip with fellows from her impact investment fund, when her bubble is burst with the intrusion of a ‘surly worker’ who ‘harasses’ her for unnamed reasons. Her response to the affront is stoic—‘I focused again on holding my composure, reminding myself not to allow his disrespect to inform my actions’—but the sour taste left by the unaccommodating worker lingers on. And here, the paradox inherent to Bishop’s neologism is laid bare: what would a capitalism be that loved its subjects?

About the Author

Julieta Caldas is a writer based in London. Her essays appear in Voiceworks and The Line of Best Fit, among others.

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Food banks – the biggest growing business in Britain after charity shops

No more beans for the foodbanks!

Baked beans are still the main contribution to foodbanks

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Food banks – the biggest growing business in Britain after charity shops

Foodbanks are becoming a feature of British society as the ‘austerity’ measure bite. The nation should prepare itself for a great deal more hot air as more and more people become dependent upon charity.

Earlier in the year, during and after my trip to Catalonia, I posted a couple of articles about how people in Spain and Catalonia were dealing with the austerity measures that were having such a dramatic impact upon an increasing number of people. What I wanted to stress there was the fact of people taking direct action. People weren’t just sitting back and suffering without a fight.

This included a number of raids on supermarkets (where activists would take basic foodstuffs without paying in order to highlight the desperate situation of many people) and that movement spread, during late August, to cover a number of areas of the country. I must admit that since returning to the UK I haven’t kept up to date with any subsequent developments but, at least, people are still angry as can be seen by the activity on the streets of the likes of Madrid and Barcelona.

At the same time there were statements being made by Spanish judges and rich politicians that what the poor and hungry should do is go, cap in hand, asking ‘Can I have a little more, Sir’, Oliver Twist wise. Just be servile and perhaps a few crumbs will fall from the rich man’s (and woman’s) table and survival might be possible.

This after years of so-called ‘prosperity’ when everything was possible, when deprivation was to be a thing of the past. But these false promises, based upon the spending of money that did not exist, did not take into account the periodic crises of capitalism that occur, have occurred and will occur, at (irregular but normally decade long) intervals for as long as capitalism exists. The ‘Third Way’ promised by Blair was nothing more than new wine in old bottles.

In my post about Reus I wrote about the Cruz Roja (Red Cross) distributing monies to the poor and then went on to discuss the issue of collection of food for distribution to the poor and needy. I was surprised to learn that this was happening in Spain, which is not, on the world scale of things, a poor country but even more surprised to learn that foodbanks were common in the US (and had been since 1967!) and becoming common in the UK.

A few days ago I read that a new foodbank is about to open in Warrington, just a few miles down the road. This prompted me to check if they existed in Liverpool and was ‘shocked’ to discover that they do, and are spreading. I was even more shocked to read the statement from one of the biggest ‘providers’ of these foodbanks:

“The Trussell Trust partners with churches and communities to open new foodbanks nationwide. With over 250 foodbanks currently launched, our goal is for every town to have one.”

‘Our goal’, it seems, is to perpetuate poverty and charity, not do something about it so that people can live in dignity and security.

In the intervening days there have been more references to foodbanks, even being the topic of an edition of the Food Programme on Radio 4. Mostly run by churches, of all denominations, this seems to be a way that religion (‘the opium of the masses’) is trying to inveigle its way back into society after being effectively rejected and marginalised in recent times.

And there doesn’t seem to be an end of the demand for these charity outlets. Each year since the crash occurred in 2008 we have been told that next year will see improvements. Such statements have obviously been lies or (at best) wishful thinking. Now the UK government is saying that austerity is with us for – at least – another 5 years. And what happens on the streets of Britain? Nothing!

That nothing in the past has prompted the present coalition of Tories to attack even more aspects of the welfare state that was sold to the country in the immediate post-WWII period to ward off and potentially revolutionary activity on behalf of the working class. As the descendants of those who fought against fascism are prepared to do nothing then it should be no surprise that the ruling class continues its attacks. When ‘austerity’ eventually ends there will be nothing left but the dog eat dog, care nothing for anyone else, selfish society that was the dream of Thatcher and Blair. If anyone thinks that what we once had would return with the ‘good times’ they are deluding themselves.

What was gained in the past by struggle and which is being taken away due to acquiescence will not reappear without an even greater struggle in the future.

When even the departing Governor of the Bank of England has said, on a number of occasions, that he is surprised that the people of Britain have not taken to the streets in reaction to what has taken place in the last 4 or 5 years; when the trade unions in this country don’t make an effort to show a modicum of support for fellow workers in the rest of Europe when they take to the streets to express their anger at the wholesale robbery of a nation’s resources, through privatisation, and the removal of hard-won terms and conditions of employment; when the people of the UK revert to a situation more akin to that at the end of the 19th century with imperialist pretensions and support for foreign wars (already there is UK army involvement in Syria and it’s only a matter of time before something kicks off in Iran); when billions of pounds are being spent, and many more billions being committed, for more modern and sophisticated weapons to ensure that ‘we’ can kill more of ‘them’ with less and less risk to ‘our boys (and girls)’; when a nation effectively sticks its head in the sand and hopes that all the problems will just go quietly away then the people of this country better get a liking for baked beans.

For that will become their basic diet if they are forced to rely on charity. Despite all the years of campaigning about a balanced diet and the experience from the Miners Strike of 1984-5 it’s tins of baked beans that predominate in donations to foodbanks.

2019 Update

This post was first published in 2012. Then I said food banks were one of the biggest growth areas in the fifth most richest economies in the world. But in place of making efforts to see the elimination of such obscenities the people of Britain have been quite happy to see the need for such locations expand. A recent article about the number of people in Scotland who depend upon these centres (and the disinterest of government ministers) demonstrates that the growth in this area is becoming almost unstoppable. A civilised country would consider the existence of such places a disgrace – but too many of those who are unfortunate enough to live in Britain don’t seem to see that.

The food bank juggernaut continues to forge ahead

In Britain – at the end of 2019 – there are few days when food banks aren’t in the news for one reason or another. And we are sure to see that continue with the success of the Tories in the December election. Even some of the ‘patrons’ of food banks came out as Tory supporters so there’s little chance of them (the food banks not the ‘patrons’) disappearing in the near future.

As the governments of the last nine years and the government for the next five – unless British workers wake up to the disaster that is unfolding around them – have and will continue to create a situation where food banks are necessary then stories about them are likely to become even more bizarre.

Many new Tory MPs probably didn’t really think they would win and now that they have been pushed into the public eye revelations of how they have benefited from the policies of the past will start to come to light. One such is how a new Tory MP has been making money out of the food banks – which is quite clever if you think about it. Support a system that creates a need and then make a profit out of the structure created to alleviate the problem. It’s a win win, as they say.

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Scottish Independence or Unite and Fight

workers of the world unite

workers of the world unite

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Scottish Independence or Unite and Fight

I hope it doesn’t sound hypocritical for someone who has nothing but the utmost contempt for the system of bourgeois Parliamentary ‘democracy’ but it was good to hear that the idea of Scottish Independence had been kicked out by the Scottish people in the referendum of 18th September 2014.

Nationalism without Socialism is on the road to fascism. The argument that people are as one merely because they happen to inhabit a small piece of land takes us back to the thinking of hunter gatherers, desperate to protect their source of food. At its core nationalism asks, and expects, people of a particular country to ignore the fundamental contradiction that exists everywhere, and that’s the question of who is in really in control of the country, that is, which class actually rules.

It comes as no surprise that the matter of class never came up in the debates and discussions that preceded the vote. On either side. Scottish nationalism had its roots in petty bourgeois aspirations of being big fish in a little pond and certainly didn’t arise as a groundswell of working class opposition to ‘rule from Westminster’.

Those arguing for independence ignored any differences between those living in millionaire mansions and the people living in the schemes that surround cities like Glasgow, council housing estates with some of the worse conditions in Europe. As far as the nationalists are concerned their ‘Scottishness’ unites all, the laird in his palace and the homeless on the freezing streets of many Scottish towns.

Those opposing independence made a similar argument only on a slightly bigger scale. For them the rich and the poor of ALL the United Kingdom should be as one. This is no surprise when the British people have allowed to be elected a government which has more millionaires in positions of power than at any time since the 19th century.

An aspect of parliamentary ‘democracy’ which is always there in the background was highlighted during the run up to the referendum of the 18th. That is, the system basically depends upon bribes. If those supporting independence did so because they believed in some sort of Scottishness – whatever that might be – or an identity that comes from having been born, or living, in a particular place, at least they’re attempting to base their ideas on a principle. However, what the argument came down to, on both sides, was which one could offer the most cash in hand.

The nationalists put forward the idea, which they have tried to use as their best card for decades, that revenue from North Sea oil could all be kept for the 6 million or so people in the island of Britain which was closest to the oil fields. Now that argument in itself just displays the petty mindedness and selfish attitude of nationalism. An extension of this would mean that the only people who have the right to the riches from the world’s resources are those who live over them and we would then head back to a situation of city states.

An extension of this could mean that the Welsh would control the water resources in their hills and hold the rest of Britain to ransom – after all if recent wars have been fought over oil the wars in the future are more than likely to be fought over water. This is merely a return to a situation that existed during the early days of agriculture and clashes between tribes, a situation which still exists in some parts of the world (it should be remembered that one of the roots of sharia law is related to control of water resources). If the people in the Lake District took umbrage at the Mancunians they could cut off the water supply at Thirlmere. These sort of attitudes are tribal in the worst sense of the word and deny, and challenge, any developments that have been made in the past of our social being.

And where in the world, at any time in the past, has the working population really gained from the exploitation of such valuable resources? The lion’s share goes in profits to the mineral companies, a little bit gets into the coffers of the treasury by way of minimal tax, but never has it been a windfall for the people. In some of the Arab countries with tiny indigenous populations there are many people with millions but that’s at the expense of almost slave conditions for immigrant labour which do the work so that these parasites live in luxury. Even in Venezuela, with the much hyped policy of Chavez, only a trickle really came down to the poor of the country. Are we really supposed to accept that the situation would be any different in Scotland in the event of independence?

Added to that, if the referendum had gone the other way, what sort of ‘independence’ would it have been anyway. The nationalists wanted: to keep the pound sterling – even though no one in the Westminster Parliament said they could; keep the Queen – there would have been a conflict here on the National Anthem. The current national song of Scotland is bordering on a xenophobic rant, with lines that refer to the defeat of an English army in 1314. As, in theory (but only in theory as the royal line in Britain has been broken many times and some substitute found in another country) the present Queen is descended from the feudal upstart of the 14th century that would have made for awkward moments on State visits; stay in the European Union – although even the EU seemed reluctant to take them in, without the country first going through a long drawn out procedure for new members, and Spain (even though it said otherwise) would have done their utmost to prevent such a precedent with Catalonia and the Basque Country wanting similar.

Now the vote has been lost the nationalists are already saying that it really wasn’t important for the people ‘to have their say’ as they will try to establish independence through other means, thereby ignoring the wishes of the majority of the country in a referendum that was pushed for by these very nationalists. If they had won they would have argued that the decision had been made and should stand forever, as they have lost they look for ways to circumvent the ‘democratic choice’. I have no problem them rejecting such a choice but at least bring with it some consistency.

Another aspect of recent bourgeois elections was also demonstrated a few days after the defeat for the nationalists – the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) resigned. This personalisation of politics has been going on for sometime now, not just in the UK. I believe there are two reasons for such ‘self-sacrifice’. First it perpetuates the ‘cult of the personality’ (of nonentities) in the political environment where individuals are more important than the collective. And, secondly, it attempts to deflect criticism away from the ideas and policies by giving the impression that it was the individual who failed, not that the group which was peddling failed policies.

Unfortunately the decision of the 18th hasn’t confined the issue to the dustbin of history. Because the minority of one of the small constituent parts of the United Kingdom had a hissy fit over independence now the majority of that population who had, and still have, little wish for such moves are having unforeseen changes forced upon them.

During the whole of this process, that seems to have gone on forever, the one part of the UK that has a valid claim for independence has been completely forgotten. Since the time of the Norman invasion the Irish have been fighting against the British (the Scots spent much of that period fighting FOR the British in its colonial and expansionist wars). That struggle was, and still is, deep-rooted in the Irish identity.

But on top of all the tragedies that Ireland has had to suffer under the British yoke for centuries they now have to deal with betrayal of the present day Sinn Fein and Irish Republican Army (IRA) who have turned their back on the leadership of the past, of the likes of Robert Emmet and James Connolly, and are now seen kowtowing to the British monarch.

Such diversions deflect people from looking at the picture as a whole and in that respect Scottish Nationalism has played a pivotal role in perpetuating and maintaining the divisions between the working class of Britain (already having to deal with racism, membership of the European Union, a seemingly endless stream of wars in the Middle East, and a lack of long-term perspective). It would be good to think that now Scottish Independence has been decidedly thrown out in a ‘democratic’ vote the workers of Britain would unite and fight together for a common goal. Unfortunately, at the moment, we are still some way from seeing that reach fruition.

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