More such philanthrocapitalism and we shall be utterly undone


Justin, I'm as worried as anyone about the metastasization of the neoliberal "governance" paradigm, the way that NGOs are assuming quasi-state authority in areas where the state is weak, and the role of philanthrocapitalists in asserting control over this process. In fact, if Arab countries ever stop having popular revolutions, I am planning to follow up on the role of microfinance in all of this.

But, to me the basic point is still that capitalism doesn't literally require that billions die while we eat and drink. Eradicating AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, preventing avoidable blindness, and so on make huge contributions to the welfare of human beings without having to rock the system in any meaningful way. Why would I want billionaires mucking about in politics even more than they are doing qua your suggestions rather than helping the most wretched people on the planet, even if they do take more credit for that than they strictly deserve?

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The big problem isn't what billionaires choose to do with their money. Once we've conceded that it's okay for there to be billionaires, that, in other words:

1. There are moral or productivity justifications for that kind of inequality
2. Super-wealth should allow you to choose how you contribute to society rather than pay taxes like everyone else

Then, fine, it's better that billionaires give to good causes than to bad ones. But I'm not willing to concede those points.

It's the decision we've made as a society to arrange ourselves for the maximum benefit of the super-wealthy at the expense of any kind of democratically decided priorities that gets me. For them to celebrate themselves and how wonderful they are at the end of it is surely adding insult to a socially injurious arrangement.

Philanthrocapitalism, a book by Bishop and Green, argues that philanthropy will help the public accept a new age of plutocracy (the rule by wealth). The rich are giving their money away so effectively, they say, that the public won't mind increasing inequality. At one point the authors of reference Slavoj Zizek, who criticizes philanthrocapitalists and calls them "liberal communists" in an essay called Nobody Has To be Vile and it's available for free at the LRB, which isn't the norm (I am still trying to figure out how to get Jackson Lears's review of Nader's "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us" without subscribing, which wouldn't be worth it for me).

Zizek is lots of fun. He identifies a real problem, which is a turn to the rich for solutions to the problems they create. Zizek helps clarify the problem in his description of Soros and Gates. Soros:

"...stands for ruthless financial exploitation combined with its counter-agent, humanitarian worry about the catastrophic social consequences of the unbridled market economy. Soros’s daily routine is a lie embodied: half of his working time is devoted to financial speculation, the other half to ‘humanitarian’ activities (financing cultural and democratic activities in post-Communist countries, writing essays and books) which work against the effects of his own speculations. The two faces of Bill Gates are exactly like the two faces of Soros: on the one hand, a cruel businessman, destroying or buying out competitors, aiming at a virtual monopoly; on the other, the great philanthropist who makes a point of saying: ‘What does it serve to have computers if people do not have enough to eat?’"


"is already the single greatest benefactor in the history of humanity, displaying his love for his neighbours by giving hundreds of millions of dollars for education, the fight against hunger and malaria etc. The catch is that before you can give all this away you have to take it (or, as the liberal communists would put it, create it)."

Zizek's conclusion, quoted by the authors of philanthrocapitalism, is:

"We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies – religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies – depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system. It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it’s important to remember exactly what they are up to...They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence. The same Soros who gives millions to fund education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and in doing so created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces."

Where Zizek's essay is incomplete is in the answer to the pragmatic argument. People are turning to money - or, to use Zizek's term, to 'liberal communists' - as a matter of urgency. In this system, problems can't be solved without money. Governments are captured by money. So, where to turn for help, if you need to solve a problem right now? People with money. In doing so, we make things worse, we strengthen the 'structural violence' of the system. But if we want to support and be a part of 'true progressive struggle', what can we offer to counter their patronage power other than structural critique? The democratic/social movement idea is that mobilized and organized people can counter elites even if elites have much more money, whether in social contests or even in solving social problems like health, education, or environmental problems. It seems like that idea is the one that is weakened the most by this philanthrocapitalistic movement, especially added to all the other demobilizing elements in society (propaganda, infrastructure, etc.).

Zizek writes this as if the counter-argument is self-evident - indeed, so self-evident that his description of their ideology is mocking.

"Liberal communists are pragmatic; they hate a doctrinaire approach. There is no exploited working class today, only concrete problems to be solved: starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa (liberal communists love a humanitarian crisis; it brings out the best in them), instead of engaging in anti-imperialist rhetoric, we should get together and work out the best way of solving the problem, engage people, governments and business in a common enterprise, start moving things instead of relying on centralised state help, approach the crisis in a creative and unconventional way."

But I am pretty sure that they would read that description and say, yes, and?

My attempt at an answer to that question ("yes, and?") would be that even philanthrocapitalism's proponents concede that the billions they give are peanuts compared to what taxpayers provide. And what they don't concede is that a lot of hype conceals a huge gap between what is pledged and what is actually delivered. The result is that all this philanthropy seems to provide the wealthy with control over public systems by virtue of giving a small portion of the total money to a program. Through that small portion of a contribution, they buy control over a whole system (like New York's public education system, university priorities, or public health systems in various African countries). Linda McQuaig's book "The Trouble With Billionaires" argues the crazy idea that the wealthy should pay taxes.

Another attempt at an answer might be to identify certain things that billionaires won't ever do. Call this my challenge to the philanthrocapitalists. They can call leftists doctrinaire and trapped in the old ways all day, and I will celebrate their innovation, if they do the following:

1. Pay the $25 billion France owes Haiti, and then use international legal means to get the money back from France.

2. Pay Rwanda off to stop its de facto occupation of the eastern DRC, which Rwanda is doing for the hundreds of millions in minerals it gets from the enterprise. Philanthrocapitalists could make a major contribution to peace in one of the worst human conflicts by creating an endowment that will give Rwanda an annual subsidy equaling what it would earn from plundered DRC minerals, in exchange for Rwanda's complete withdrawal of all militias and Rwandan military presence in the DRC. A similar arrangement could be made with Uganda.

3. Here I'm inspired by one of Ralph Nader's proposals in "Only the Super-Rich..." and JK Galbraith's novel, "A Tenured Professor". For every politician who gets private campaign funding, give a matching amount to a politician opposing them automatically. Neutralize the effects of money in elections, creating a disincentive for all lobbying activity. When the super-rich character in Galbraith's novel tried this, the system was able to mobilize quickly to change the laws and take away his fortune. I suspect the same would happen to the billionaires if they tried it for real.

4. Inspired by the various anti-Israeli-apartheid organizations in Toronto and elsewhere (Queers Against Israeli Apartheid QUAIA, Students Against Israeli Apartheid SAIA, etc.), form Billionaires Against Israeli Apartheid BAIA. Give the government elected by Palestinians funds matching what the US gives Israel. Offer Israel funds matching what the US gives if they end the occupation, allows the refugees to return, and give equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel. If BAIA wants to attach all sorts of conditions to this, fine - for example, if BAIA says that Palestinians and Israelis can only receive their funds if they renounce violence, that is ok. Conditions must apply to both sides, however. To smooth things, BAIA could also match funds the US gives to Egypt if it abandons those funds and provides Gaza with a normal border that people can cross normally (ie., if it stops helping Israel with the siege).

The point is not to encourage billionaires to adopt my own favourite causes, in effect saying - stop fighting malaria and AIDS and follow what I think you should do. The point is, instead, to show that billionaires are not above politics. Their taking and their giving has a definite political bias, and will either reject or are not strong enough to win even reform-oriented, very money-oriented proposals (none of my 4 proposals are revolutionary, they don't ask for overthrowing the system) if they run against the system.

Philanthrocapitalists might have two possible counterarguments. 1), my causes are too obscure and low priority or 2), no billionaires are interested in these particular causes. To one, I would say there was plenty of philanthropic interest in Haiti after the earthquake, just no mention of the stolen billions; that the DRC is probably the worst conflict in the world in absolute terms; that neutralizing money in politics is an old favourite of liberals (it comes from Galbraith and Nader!); and that Israel/Palestine is one of the longest-running and most attended-to conflicts in the world, it's just that all the billions are going to making things worse for the Palestinians now and for everybody eventually. To 2), I would say this proves my point. With more billionaires all the time, why isn't there support for any of these problems that might be solved if the right billionaire came along to throw money at it? Perhaps because there's some kind of selection process for becoming, and staying, a billionaire. And that these hyperagents (that's what philanthropists call them because they are able to do so much more good than ordinary people) can only exercise their hyperagency in ways that reinforce the system.

For the rest of us agents (not hyperagents), we are going to have to try to convince large numbers of people to do things using non monetary methods. That's my hypothesis, and until billionaires have fulfilled my simple, 4 item list, I won't drop it.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.