“A part of the bourgeoisie wants to redress social grievances in order to assure the maintenance of bourgeois society.
Included in it are economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, do-gooders for the working classes, charity organisers, animal welfare enthusiasts, temperance union workers, two-a-penny reformers of multifarious kinds.”
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels — The Communist Manifesto
Mackenzie Bezos, whose recent divorce to her ex husband multi-billionaire and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos landed her a $37 billion (£29 billion) fortune, thus making her the wealthiest women in the world. Now, she is feeling generous and has pledged to donate half of her new founded wealth. Crucial to this public charitable gesture she signed up to ‘The Giving Pledge’ which is an exclusive billionaires club founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that claims to call for the richest and wealthiest to ‘give back’ the majority of their wealth to charitable causes. Other signatories include Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner, Lord Ashcroft and Mark Zuckerberg.
“I have a disproportionate amount of money to share,” MacKenzie, a novelist, wrote in a letter announcing her decision to join the Giving Pledge. She then frankly declares: “My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”
There is no doubt that this is a significant story simply because of the huge amount of money involved and the curiosity as to what particular ‘causes’ she will donate to. We all know that Billionaires sometimes use their philanthropy in a particular and sometimes political direction such as George Soros or the Koch Brothers who donate to liberal and conservative causes respectively. No doubt sections of the chattering classes will heap praise on Mackenzie for her ‘generosity’ and ‘doing the right thing’. Even Jeff Bezos congratulated her on Twitter for her decision and said she “would be amazing and thoughtful and effective at philanthropy, and I’m proud of her,”
It is ironic that Jeff Bezos would pipe up about this since he has been criticised for being among the few mega billionaires not to sign up to the Giving Pledge, and for penny pinching in his philanthropic duties. Last year, he announced he would spend just $2 billion of his $150 billion fortune on charity. Moreover, his company Amazon are known for tax dodging, grossly exploiting their workers, making them work in heinous and suffocating conditions and grossly underpaying them. Amazon workers could have their wages doubled and it would barely make a dint in his profits. But of course, that wouldn’t be in his ‘interests’.
The problem with philanthropy, similar to charity, is that at best it addresses the symptoms of inequality and injustice (it often doesn’t even do that effectively), not the causes. Despite the ‘good intentions’ of the seemingly benign capitalist humanitarians who may wish to do good and do their part to soften the inequality and injustice that exists in society and the world more generally, as Oscar Wilde cogently wrote in his infamous critique of charity in The Soul of Man Under Socialism “their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.” Wilde goes on to say that the solution to this predicament is “to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible”. Wilde’s essay may have been written in 1891 and while parts of it may feel rather antique now in 2019, these words have never been more true and valuable — it still remains one my favourite socialist essays ever.
It does nothing more than keeping the poor on life support and perhaps even amuse them. It treats the poor as meek children who need to be ‘saved’ by rich do gooders, who one the one hand feel a certain level of guilt by their immense wealth, and the fact that they are beneficiaries of the injustice and objective violence of capitalism, but on the other hand feel they have a duty to the lesser orders by ‘giving back to the community’. It is no surprise then that the rich and famous (or the 1% as they’re referred to nowadays) from fifth rate celebrities to billionaire tycoon has their own personal ‘foundation’. It is expected that they should have one, partially as a PR exercise to demonstrate to the world that they are fulfilling their duty as a public figure and not act like greedy and vulgar decadent ‘fat cats’ who hoard their wealth for their selfish end.
One of the most sickly things about the philanthropy, which is basically the rich man’s charity, is that it often operates as a way of maintaining and stabilising the unequal and unjust power relations that capitalism produces and making the poor dependent, devoid them of agency and fracturing their political and social consciousness. You may amend it slightly, by attempting to repair with left hand what you destroy with your right hand, but in the best scenario this means those you seek to help live marginally better in the same conditions that produced their predicament in the first place. In the very process of dealing with the symptoms of inequality it leaves intact the rotten core of the system that is producing the very inequality that provokes their moral fury. This is global capitalism with a human face. The same exploitative and violent tendencies but with a shiny glittery gloss painted over it.
Ultimately, the only path forward for humanity, to echo Oscar Wilde again, is to eradicate poverty from the face of the earth and throw in into the dustbin of history once and for all. This won’t be achieved by the ‘social responsibility’ of our benevolent ‘wealth creators’, which at best tinkers around the edges and at worst aggravates the problem, but by confronting the capitalist system that creates the stark inequality that stains our world. We need to create an alternative economic system that moves all of human society beyond scarcity and into abundance, or as Engels put it from “the kingdom of necessity into the kingdom of freedom”, where philanthropy and charity won’t be necessary as there won’t be a need for it and no one will be dependent upon another in order to live a life of comfort. All I am saying is philanthropy, and other forms of charity cannot be the alternative to what really has to be done to truly free humanity from need and want.