By Jomo Sanga Thomas*
(“Plain Talk”, Jan. 31, 2020)
(This piece was first published Oct. 26, 2016.)
“Philanthropic capitalism is the idea that capitalism is or can be charitable in and of itself. The claim is that capitalist mechanisms are superior to all others [especially the states] when it comes to not only creating economic but also human progress; that the market and market actors are or should be made the prime creators of the good society; that capitalism is not the problem but the solution to all the major problems in the world; that the best thing to do is to extend the market to hitherto private or state processes; and, finally, that there is no conflict between rich and poor, but that the rich is rather the poor’s best and possibly only friend.” — Danish Historian Mikkel Thorup, “It’s all part of Capitalism: How Philanthropy Perpetuates Inequality’.
Carnegie and Rockefeller formed foundations. Today Google, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Bill and Hillary Clinton, just to name a few, are into the foundation business. They all claim they want to give away money, to do good and make the lives of the poor better. Like Carnegie and Rockefeller before them, they made money by using their social positions, exploiting workers, doing enormous environmental damage, as is reflected in the poisoned air, rivers, waterways, and most prominently climate change.
In a world where an increasingly small percentage of the population controls a larger percentage of the world’s resources, income and wealth, where the income of workers have stagnated or reversed when checked against inflation, where increased borrowing and debt is the only explanation why some people survive, the moneyed philanthropists tell us that only their brand of benevolent capitalism can solve the problems facing the world.
They offer philanthropy as the cure for the world’s problems as they encourage people to support the fire sale of the assets of the people. In some countries schools, prisons, water as well as the security systems are now in private hands. Everything must be done with a profit motive in mind. The state must jettison its welfare policies and let the titans of business do their magic.
Therefore, when the Clinton Foundation partners with us in our effort to exploit our geothermal resources, we are told to drop our guard because foundations’ sole intent is to do good. When Bill Gates smiles his way to more billions and impact negatively on agriculture in Africa and Asia, we must turn a blind eye because the Gates Foundation says its mission is to eradicate illness and disease in the poorest regions on earth. When in 2014 the Indian Supreme Court raised questions about Gates Foundation practice of using rural Indians as guinea pigs for drugs made by big pharma, we are told to disregard all such claims as anti-rich bashing and conspiracy.
Another fallacy that has gained ground in the last 40 years is that government efforts to ameliorate poverty are bureaucratic, inefficient and ineffective. The flip side of this is that business, with its unwavering fixation on the bottom line, is the opposite, and that by applying market principles to social ills, society can be cured of what ails it. Indeed, this idea is repeated with such regularity that it is almost universally accepted throughout the Western Hemisphere.
As society adopts a more materialist culture, there is a mistaken belief that individual consumption can change the world. We are told to buy “green” and save the planet, buy “red” and help those with HIV/AIDS, wear pink and show solidarity with those suffering from breast cancer. While these campaigns are useful, if they are not kept in perspective we can become duped and miss the main reason for suffering on this planet.
People are not suffering and dying of preventable diseases because the well to do members of society has failed to consume enough products. People are not hungry because of a shortage of food. They starve and die because of the manner in which food is distributed. Central to our understanding is how we answer the following: Is the environment, and the climate, best served by ‘smarter’ consumption? Or would the planet be in better shape if we shopped less and conserved more?
We all get mesmerised by the “spectacle politics”. We are the world type of advocacy of celebrities such as Bono, Angelina Jolie and music producer Bob Geld. But we have to be cautious and sceptical, otherwise, we miss the reality of the world’s problems. These celebs may criticise inequality but are dependent upon it themselves. They may ally themselves with the poor in campaigns but their lives are spent rubbing shoulders with the rich and mighty.
We must keep our eyes on the prize. The world’s richest 85 individuals earn more than the bottom 50% of the world’s people. Philanthropy is not poised to do anything about this obscenity. It is here that community organisers and organisations, as well as government have a vital role to play. With its power to tax the rich, rein in corporate abuse and support the creation of necessary social and cultural institutions, government can work for the majority and enhance their lives.
As it stands now, governments across the world pander to corporations and the rich for money to build and maintain schools, endow museums and build housing for the poor. To bring or keep jobs in their areas state officials are forced to offer the parents of these philanthropic foundations millions in tax relief and abatements.
Kim Klein, author of Fundraising for Social Change says it should not be this way, “We have become a patronage society in which we depend on the largesse and generosity of the super-wealthy for way too much. If we agree with Kim Klien the clear conclusion is for us to look anew about the role of government, of taxes, of philanthropy, of what should be funded privately, what should be funded publicly, and how the people will benefit.
In conclusion, the objections to wealthy private corporations dedicated to doing good, as they see it, have remained the same since the early twentieth century when the first mega-foundations were created: they intervene in public life, but are not accountable to the public. They are privately governed, but publicly subsidized by being tax-exempt; and in a world where money translates into political power, they reinforce the problem of moneyed class: the exercise of power derived from wealth.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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