Insidious Philanthropy

Photo by Maurizio Pesce | CC BY 2.0

A special twentieth anniversary issue of the slick magazine Fast Company, two years and some months ago, brilliantly clarified the purpose of the enterprise before us, the disempowered world public: “Zuk,” as hero-Zuckerberg is called, had explained that corporations managed efficiency while philanthropies managed humanitarian pursuits, but in the new order emerging, the distinction had become artificial. Corporations had already become the engines of humanitarianism they had always claimed to be, but directly rather than indirectly, and philanthropies would live within rather than alongside the corporate life world.

Perhaps this is an essentially semantic shift, but perhaps not. In the passage of two years, with the unexpected election of Trump—certainly the fast company of Fast Company were not expecting it—disrupting the anticipated Obama/Clinton transition to a higher managed neoliberalism, many of the basic mechanisms have also been disrupted. Threats (not only to them and their vast holdings but to all of us) have grown monstrously, and a new shame seems to have been placed, most remarkably, upon the divisions of rich and poor hitherto considered successfully normalized.

Enter authors Daniel Ravetos and Julia Wark, whose purpose is to lay bare the whole enterprise of philanthropy and cast grave doubt upon the philanthropic world today and its prospect for the future. If the present system is unsustainable, then why not a plan, an alternative, for the future. They mean to provide a working blueprint.

History, including Antiquity but also the conditions of Medieval class structure, then the rise of the bourgeoisie and the various subsequent consolidations of ruling class life, offers a framework but perhaps a series of metaphors for wider contemplation. Clearly, the Ancients already knew that “giving” was a way of  “keeping” and that charity never occurs without a price exacted from those accepting the charity. The Church, dominant force in large parts of Europe before the consolidation of global, merchant capital, knew itself to be bent upon self-preservation, even when various actors (Saint Francis, throwing off his wealthy background and literally embracing poverty, would surely be one) seemed to point in other directions.

If this is rather familiar—I have condensed the argument mercilessly—the thinking that goes into it has added dimensions and more than a few philosophical twists. Take the occasional, seemingly very occasional, use of government powers to actually alleviate suffering, way back to kings in the Indian subcontinent (and beyond, to what is now Sri Lanka) around the fourth century. “Justice” is not charity. At its best, it prefigures what the authors call “effective useful altruism.” But there’s a catch. Good intentions seem to get swallowed up in the familiar contradictions of what has in recent decades come to be called the “empathy economy.”

Philanthropy, as the authors explain, acquired a new size and shape with industrial capitalism. Nothing could be more cruel that the treatment of workers and blue collar community members of a factory. company town or mining camp owned by the Rockefellers or the Carnegies. Nothing could be more heartless than the manipulation of financial mechanisms to cheat and starve the victims of stock market schemes. And yet the public or university libraries, the museums and all the rest, by the thousands, bear these names. Rare is the advanced graduate student of the 1960s-80s who did not receive (or at least wish to receive) a Ford Foundation grant, and the multiplication of foundations based on other corporate riches populate the landscape of higher learning.

Readers less innocent than this reviewer will not be so amazed, as I am, at the sags of today’s billionaire philanthropists and the interwoven microcosm of celebrity and philanthropy. Local Republicans have for a few generations been as likely to meet at a Charity Golf event, at their favorite (private) gold course, as over a banquet table, but the sumptuousness of charity events has swelled to levels unimaginable even twenty years ago. It hurts to be reminded that Amal Clooney, the notable partner to the mostly progressive George Clooney, is heralded at an event for Yazidi human right activist Nadia Murad, for the Gucci dress she wore to said event. It is more satisfying to be reminded that Bill Gates’ projects to arm educators with computers is also a way to replace teachers, and that the affable Bill himself considers public health projects a “complete waste of money” (p.88). We’ve come to expect nothing less…or more.

The authors spend plenty of time, rather too much for my taste, arguing with Peter Singer and other philosopher/popularizers of new model charity. They are better at poking holes in the logic behind various claims, like the Gates-funded inBloom, Inc.  to help schoolchildren but actually offering vast data to for-profit corporations selling materials or hoping to see them, to the same schools. Likewise, to point to scandals like the Clinton Foundation work in Haiti, producing nothing but jobs for Clinton favorites and other operatives. The worst tragedies, as they observe, can produce the best opportunities for outright looting or its indirect cousin: vast tax benefits to the rich. Or recycles donations into pro-profit enterprises, which seems to be a Gates Foundation favorite.

Against Charity is in parts more grim than funny, describing the birth of “Charity Studies” as an academic zone, but perhaps it is better to deconstruct than avoid tricky discussions?  Actually, Raventos and Wark may be the best deconstructionists of all, sans academic appointments in emerging fields. They note that “the Zuk,” in writing a Facebook entry on “Building Global Networks” a few years back, employed the word “I” endlessly, to mean anything from himself to him and virtual “followers,” close to one hundred million in number. “Community” is used in the same fashion and with the same set of repetitions. Logically, if everyone were to “join” the “community,” wars would end around the world and perhaps also environmental degradation, species extinction and all manner of ills.

Henry Ford notoriously believed the same, at least the ending of war, would come with the universalization of the automobile: traveling would straighten out misconceptions. Ford factories, of course, were actually run like small fascist states, with thugs on hand to control potential trouble-makers, and the marvelous machinery of the car, like the plane, was most effectively used for advances in warfare—not to mention the automatization of society at large, with all its ill effects, not to mention the need for oil for cars, etc.

Henry Ford was sincere, strangely enough, and paid his beaten-down workers far more than other non-unionized factory hands. Google, Amazon, Facebook and such ventures do not have such relatively admirable records with lower-level employee pay, because the flexibility of the global workforce has so advanced. The altruism remains at the top.

Against Charity happily recalls the French Surrealists of 1932 with their pamphlet,”Murderous Humanitarianism,” addressing the realities of the day. Arundhati Roy, today’s global heroine, calls the same phenomenon “NGOization,” thus (to quote Roy) “part of the same loose, political formation that oversees the neoliberal project…” (p.145). Of all the alleged aid agencies in the US, perhaps the International Rescue Committee is the most historic, rooted in legitimate anti-fascist rescue activities in the 1930s-40s and then turned into what Patrick Daniel Moynihan once called an ideal “psywar” agency. Real services are provided, but only those which serve current US interests. After a repressive army supported by the US sweeps through a region destroying villages and slaughtering those who stand in the way—best recalled in the Contra Wars—IRC sweeps in with supplies and American propaganda messages. And this they call charity!

The IRC Board is crowded, these days, with the likes of Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. Chair and CEO, David Miliband, is a centrist Labour leader in exile, apparently awaiting the fall of the British Left so that he can propose himself for Prime Minister with the hated Tony Blair as his backer. Its analogue, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and its mate, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, could be described as neoliberalism incarnate. Blair’s partner, the Clinton Foundation, whose vast activities might be summed up in a single metaphor, a deal facilitating a Irish smartphone corporation to corner eighty percent of the Haitian market while free samples were provided—through Food for Peace, a part of USAID—with life-saving supplies. Who would be ungrateful enough to choose another company! Not that most ordinary Haitians were likely to be at the opening of the swanky Marriott, a special project of Bill Clinton, but at least they could be low-wage employees.

The alternatives offered up in Against Charity are bound to be less certain because they had not been much tried, which is to say been given a chance to succeed. The vision of the cooperative is an old one, but the authors have fresh ideas, and their proposed solutions are more than worth a look.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.