First published in Socialist Review as Philanthropy: The Capitalist Art of Deception
Bill Gates is the world’s richest man, with a net worth of $80 billion (USD). In 1998, his company Microsoft was charged with illegal practices, and Gates was condemned as a ruthless monopolist. Four years later, after launching a charitable foundation, Gates was praised as a generous philanthropist.
Not everyone was taken in by this switcheroo. As the saying goes, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. But many workers would be confused – is Bill Gates a class enemy or one of the good guys? Confusion prevents workers from moving decisively against their enemies. Since the 19th century, thieving capitalists have used philanthropy to pose as social saints, shape society in their image, and create confusion about the nature of capitalism.
Nineteenth-century capitalism stood naked before its victims, its crimes on public display – slavery, the extermination of aboriginal peoples, pitiless exploitation, mass starvation, and war. Repulsed by this monster, the oppressed and exploited rebelled against it.
A minority cannot rule a majority by force alone; it must convince its victims to submit or confuse them into paralysis. To accomplish this feat, the capitalist class presents itself, not as the scourge of humanity, but as its benefactor, even its saviour. Philanthropy is the key to this transformation.
In The Gospel of Wealth (1889), American steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie argues that the wealthy can undermine social protest by donating to worthy causes. Carnegie rejected demands to raise wages and living standards because that would cut into profits. He preferred to create “opportunities for people to better themselves.” Of course these opportunities should be profitable or promote profit-making.
Instead of giving money to governments, Carnegie advised the rich to establish charitable foundations that would shape society in a pro-business direction. Oil magnate J.D. Rockefeller embraced this strategy, insisting that, “…the evils of society are not fundamentally economic but are physical and moral. They are to be cured by improvement in the public health and in the public morals…”
To that end, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research was founded in 1901, and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913. These investments paid off. At the height of public outrage over Rockefeller’s role in the 1914 Ludlow massacre of striking miners, New York newspapers applauded Rockefeller for his philanthropic work and recommended him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Rockefeller Medicine Men (1979), E. Richard Brown describes how American capitalists like Leland Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Andrew Carnegie, and J.D. Rockefeller employed philanthropy to ensure that institutes of education, science, and medicine would support capitalism.
The Rockefeller philanthropies insisted that medicine be “scientific” and place biology at the root of disease. Defining “scientific” as biological means that social factors can be dismissed as ideological, and therefore not scientific. A stressed parent is diagnosed as anxious, not oppressed. A worker with high blood pressure is given medication, not help to do her job safely. Medicine treats the symptom not the social conditions that cause the symptom.
Reducing social problems to biological defects embeds racism in medical research, education, and treatment. Medical statistics in the United States are commonly collected on the basis of “race.” Measuring infant mortality, disease rates, and life expectancy by race supports the myth that humanity is divided into races and that race is a valid biological category. Black Americans do suffer more health problems, not because they have different biology but because living in a racist society has biological consequences.
In the early 1900s, capitalist philanthropies backed academics from Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton to promote “race science” and ultimately eugenics to eliminate the “socially unfit.”
In 1910, the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Harriman philanthropies funded Charles Davenport, a professor of biology at Harvard University, to document the hereditary basis of poverty and inequality. Davenport’s Eugenics Records Office was instrumental in shaping the two arms of American eugenics policy: forced sterilization and racist immigration controls.
By 1935 more than 20,000 people in the United States had been forcibly sterilized for belonging to the “socially inadequate classes” which included delinquents, alcoholics, drug addicts, the sick and disabled, paupers, orphans, the unemployed, and those who scored low on an I.Q. test. The Rockefeller Foundation also funded the German eugenics project, and Davenport’s 1922 “model sterilization law” was used to craft Germany’s 1933 Nazi Act for Averting Descendants Afflicted with Hereditary Diseases.
In the 1960s – 1970s, when protest movements identified social conditions as a cause of poor health, the Rockefeller Foundation countered with a 1975 conference to set a “new direction” for health policy. Conference speakers condemned “irresponsible individuals”who indulge in “sickness-promoting behaviors” and burden “responsible” people with higher taxes.
Rockefeller policy papers formed the basis of the U.S. government’s report: Healthy People: The Surgeon General’s Report on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (1979). “Personal excesses” were blamed for “runaway health costs,” and the public was instructed to eat right, get active, stop smoking, drink responsibly, say no to drugs, abstain from sex, work safely, etc.
The capitalist class invented the concept of war as philanthropy, also known as “humanitarian intervention.” Expressing concern for those you attack and urging people to rally around that concern channel revulsion against war into activities that support war and those who profit from it.
The U.S. government ‘sold’ America’s entry into WWI by arguing that it was bringing democracy to Europe. During the U.S. war against Vietnam, villages were bombed “to save them from Communism.” While the United States was bombing Afghanistan, Americans were urged to donate money for Afghan refugees, and medical workers were sent to deliver humanitarian aid.
Philanthropy in the form of “international aid” hides imperial exploitation. Poor countries are typically described as under-developed (lacking opportunity) rather than over-exploited. The $130 billion that is donated annually for development is typically invested in opening or expanding markets for the donors. Moreover, $130 billion is just 6.5 percent of the wealth that flows in the opposite direction. Every year, corporations extract more than $900 billion from poor countries. An additional $600 billion is taken as debt payment. In total more than $2 trillion per year is siphoned from poor countries to rich countries.
Charitable foundations and sponsorships try to seduce us into believing that business cares about what we care about and that its interests are our interests – when none of this is true. Donating a portion of sales to charity attracts customers, builds customer loyalty, expands profits, makes individuals responsible for solving social problems, and hides the fact that capitalism is the problem.
As Frederick Engels explained 170 years ago, capitalists do not give; they take.
The English capitalist class is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter, makes a bargain with the poor, saying:
‘If I spend this much upon benevolent institutions, I thereby purchase the right not to be troubled any further, and you are bound thereby to stay in your dusky holes and not to irritate my tender nerves by exposing your misery. You shall despair as before, but you shall despair unseen, this I require, this I purchase with my subscription of twenty pounds for the infirmary!”
It is infamous, this charity of a Christian capitalist! As though they rendered the workers a service in first sucking out their very life-blood and then placing themselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when they give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!
In 2003, the world’s richest man went to Botswana to meet with some of the world’s poorest prostitutes to promote safe sex. The media praised Gates for his compassion. No one questioned why Gates’ fortune is four times larger than the entire GDP of Botswana. The $2 billion (USD) that the Gates Foundation distributes every year is a measly 2.5 percent of Gates’ fortune and provides him with hefty tax deductions.
Philanthropic foundations pay little or no taxes on their income, and most contributions are tax deductible. This practice removes billions from the public coffers. Even though foundation funds are largely subsidized by the public, it has no say in how the money is spent. Private philanthropies are accountable only to their business-dominated boards of directors. As a result, their projects never challenge class relations or interrupt the flow of profit.
Capitalists never give money away with no strings attached. Providing “a hand-up instead of a hand-out” promotes the belief that people are poor because they lack opportunity, not because the capitalist class hoards the surplus. Capitalists disdain “hand-outs.” Carnegie argued that giving people money encourages, “the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.” Of course, the capitalists take all the hand-outs they can get.
Workers are the only true philanthropists. The working class gives to the capitalist class in three ways: producing surplus that is taken by the employers instead of being used to meet human needs; paying taxes that support the wealthy instead of meeting human needs; and donating to charity, so the rich and powerful feel even less responsibility for the misery they create.
While workers give more to charities than corporations, our giving does not make life better. The more we donate to charity, the more governments cut social services and transfer the money to business.
Today, the richest 300 individuals in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion people (equivalent to the entire populations of India, China, Brazil and the United States). By 2016, just one percent of the world’s population will own more wealth than everyone else combined. As the rich get richer, our lives become more deprived, more difficult, and more desperate.
In a world of abundance, we need solidarity, not charity. We need to expose capitalist philanthropy for what it is — a means to deceive and confuse workers.