On Philanthrocapitalism – Part Five

At last, the finish line is in sight. Once this mammoth set of blog posts is out of the way I can get back to working my way through a list of things that I have been meaning to write about for some time. This will be the final post on the book Philanthrocapitalism and the topic. I promise.

So, where were we? Towards the end of the book. Chapter 11.

Once again Philanthrocapitalism continues its seduction of the large multinationals with more grovelling to Nike, Shell, Barclays, Pfizer, and Coca-Cola. Walmart is singled out for numerous pages of praise, despite the innumerable criticisms it has faced. Even with the text in the book, the criticisms still far out way the praise. Celebrities are then introduced and afforded a hefty pat on the back themselves. Bono, Angelina Jolie, and Madonna are just some of those who appear.

Even Tony Blair has some nice words said about him. Despite his near global reputation as a war criminal due to his leading role in the 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq, Blair is praised for launching a Foundation in 2008 which sought to promote peace between religious faiths. Much like his commitment to donate money from book sales, the Foundation is surely nothing more than a poor attempt at PR. If Blair truly wished to promote peace between religious faiths he would not have jumped aboard the War on Terror bandwagon alongside George W Bush, and instead he would have opposed the rhetoric and actions taken by the West against Muslims at that time.

Incidentally, Blair’s post-Prime Minister roles have read like a list of PR opportunities. From the establishing of a Foundation, to the book sales donations, and then on to the role as Middle East peace envoy, Blair has tried and failed to restore the reputation that he once had in the late 90s.

Many people decry the state that society has found itself in, but is it really any wonder that things are so bad when the public are motivated and encouraged to be like the businesses and people that litter the pages of Philanthrocapitalism? Religious texts have their saints offering words of wisdom and pearls of advice, and capitalism seems to have taken on the same structure. Their churches are the malls and shopping centres, their saints are the Gates’, the Buffets, and the Bransons.

Not to be found missing from any list of people who are likely to save the world and change society for the better, the UK Royal Family are also mentioned in Philanthrocapitalism. Now that the concept of a Royal bloodline and being ordained by God has been lost to sane reasoning, the Royals appear to have to work to get the public on side. Of course they do not do this by denouncing their privilege and vast wealth and power, nor do they do this by actually working, like the rest of us are forced to do. No, instead the Royals participate in the saving of the Earth through charitable donations. But if the Royals are funded through taxpayer money then surely this would mean that the charitable donations that they give away is public money anyway? Meaning that their “charity” is simply taking money out of the public’s pocket, without consent of course, and distributing it to causes which they deem appropriate. Actions which can hardly be considered praiseworthy.

Our capitalist society, or to borrow a more accurate phrase from bell hooks, our “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”, has its foundations and its life force in power. By and large this power derives from wealth and helps to explain why the wealthy people of the world are so opposed to high taxation. Through their loss of wealth, comes a loss of power and thus influence and importance. Money, and its accumulation, is a never-ending ego trip that the wealthy cannot get enough off. Nobody is willing to give up this power, and even if they are legally obligated to lose some of it through taxation, they will do everything they can to avoid it.

There are those who do seem to give up their power and their wealth, as we have seen. The likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Richard Branson to name a few. However, even this is a lesson in power dynamics. These billionaires do not cede their money and power on the terms of governmental laws, but instead decide to do it at a time, and an amount, of their choosing. Whilst taxation disempowers the super rich, donations do the opposite. They may lose some of their money, but they gain prestige. If they were to lose some of their money through taxation, this prestige would not exist.

Chapter 14 is a particularly nauseating piece where in an imagined future Branson, Gates and co all sit in a luxurious space mansion looking down at Earth and praising one another on what a good job they have done at saving it. Why they are the only ones in space and the rest of the mortals are on Earth I do not know. Why Branson, Gates and co have been elevated to this godlike status above the clouds I also don’t know.

A far more realistic rich-people-in-space-looking-down-at-Earth scenario would be the situation that can be seen in the film Elysium. Here Earth has been abandoned by the wealthy as they seek to escape the overpopulation, squalor, and the poverty. Earth’s residents are left to fight for their existence as the rich live in perpetual luxury, floating among the stars.

Not long after I started reading Philanthrocapitalism, I also got my hands on a copy of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century. Unsurprisingly, as I know incredibly little about economics, the majority of the book went over my head. However, from reading reviews and articles on Piketty’s book what I learnt was that the book proposed a global wealth tax in order to overcome widening inequality. This recommendation was made by one of the leading economic thinkers of our time and was the result of over 30 years of research and data analysis.

In stark contrast there is Philanthrocapitalism, which does not propose such a policy and instead suggests that the rich should be allowed to continue whatever actions they are conducting as, ultimately, they will be our saviours.

I know which side of the fence I sit on.

Philanthrocapitalism does have a notable and very appropriate inclusion of Peter Singer in the final chapter of the book. The Australian philosopher wrote for The New York Times on December 17th, 2006, and Bill Gates featured heavily in the article. Gates did receive some praise for his philanthropy, but as is ever the case with Singer it was questioned whether enough was being done. Though questions are always necessary, Philanthrocapitalism raises the point that perhaps Singer’s attention should be focused on the billionaires who do not donate money, rather than those that do, but perhaps not quite enough.

To quote from Philanthrocapitalism at some length:

“Singer also makes the case that the rich should give away most of their money on the grounds that most of the credit for their wealth-creation belongs to society. The tycoon who says, “I created this wealth, it is my property, therefore it is entirely up to me to decide how much of it, if any, to give away” is wrong, argues Singer. Gates and other wealthy people have been able to earn their vast fortunes only because they live in favourable social circumstances, with abundant “social capital”. As “they don’t create those circumstances by themselves”, says Singer. Society has a strong claim on much of their fortune, especially if the estimate he cites by economist Herbert Simon is right, that at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies is a product of “social capital””

Singer does admit that taxation on such a level – the 90 percent noted by Simon – is not normal or likely now because people “can afford the best accountants and bankers to move their money around the world”. Though this is probably true, that does not make it right. I would not advocate such a high tax, but I would certainly support a higher taxation level than what is currently placed on the wealthy in society. Laws should be dictated by what is just and moral, not by what is most practical at the time. If indeed people are able to avoid paying taxation, something we have seen far too frequently recently, then such schemes and loopholes should be shut down.

Slavoj Zizek is another philosopher who has attacked philanthrocapitalists such as Gates. Speaking specifically about the Microsoft co-founder, Zizek said that his philanthropy was simply a “humanitarian mark hiding the underlying economic exploitation”.

Despite the interviews and anecdotes, Philanthrocapitalism has done nothing to convince me that the future of this planet and the future of the human race is to be safely nurtured by the world’s wealthy elite. If the book did not contain the sprinkling of criticism that it does, it would consist of nothing more than pro-capitalist propaganda.

It is naive to think that the wealthiest members of society will at some point feel content with their hoarding and yacht purchases and suddenly develop a conscience. It is dangerous to believe that it is those who have exploited the rest of society for so long will suddenly become its saviours. It is ludicrous to wait for such an event to occur.

Austin Robinson was a close associate of John Maynard Keynes before the outbreak of the Second World War. His words, though often misattributed to his more famous colleague, sum up my feelings on the topic of philanthrocapitalism perfectly:

“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most nastiest of men will do the most nastiest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”

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4 thoughts on “On Philanthrocapitalism – Part Five

  1. You’re criticizing the wrong people. You should be criticizing billionaires who don’t give away their money. There will always be people who gives more than other people, entities that do more good than other entities. Instead of criticizing the 80-90% percentile on the do-gooders scale, you should criticize the bottom 25%. But that would be too obvious, wouldn’t it?

    1. Unless someone is the “right people” then all criticism is justified. I agree that billionaires who don’t donate any money or do anything for society are worse than those that do, hence why I included people such as Roman Abramovich because he is essentially a parasite. But, the people in the multiple articles on my page are no saints either, and they are included precisely because they portray themselves as such heavenly celestial beings. Gates, Buffet, Branson and co are by no means the saviours of humanity and creating PR that suggests that they are is essentially nothing short of pro-capitalist propaganda. That is why it needs to be addressed and challenged.

      1. There’s no proof that ‘Gates’ portrays himself as being highly altruistic. That’s simply journalists pandering to his brand. Certainly Branson wants that stuff. But Gates could afford a billion PR stunts that are cheaper and more effective than risking his name over something as risky as the Common Core. If Gates wanted the publicity, he wouldn’t have tried recruiting 2,000+ billionaires as part of the Pledge, rendering himself just one of many. If you look through the Wealth X website, it explains that one of the reasons billionaires refuse to sign the pledge is the negative publicity it might attract. What the world needs is more pressure on billionaires to pledge their money away, not criticism that scares them into remaining anonymous, thereby not making it part of the conversation, and not an option.

      2. There have been numerous criticisms levelled against Gates for his “altruism”. Peter Singer and Slavoj Zizek are just two names that spring to mind. And whilst I agree with you that negative publicity may affect some individuals, as you clearly state, these people have billions of dollars with which to run a PR campaign so using negative publicity as a reason as to why billionaires don’t do more for charity is a non-starter. I agree that the world does need more pressure on billionaires to pledge their money away, but what the world needs more than that is a massive redistribution of wealth. Billionaires should not exist when more than three billion people live on about $2 a day, we have the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, and we continue to destroy our planet. There are more pressing concerns than the bank balance of a few thousand incredibly wealthy individuals.

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