By Susan Rosenthal
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Philanthropy: the capitalist art of deception

This article is over 6 years, 8 months old
The rich like to promote their charitable work as a sign of their moral standing, but many of these donations are merely cover, writes Canadian socialist Susan Rosenthal.
Issue 402

Bill Gates is the world’s richest man, with a net worth of £55 billion. 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 so they could shape society in a pro-business direction. Oil magnate JD 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 him for his philanthropic work and recommended him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Rockefeller Medicine Men (1979)author E Richard Brown shows how US capitalists like Leland Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Andrew Carnegie and JD Rockefeller used philanthropy to ensure that institutes of education, science and medicine would support capitalism.

The Rockefeller philanthropic institutions 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 US 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 it 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 philanthropic foundations backed academics from top universities to promote “race science” and ultimately eugenics to eliminate the “socially unfit”. In 1910 the Rockefeller, Carnegie and Harriman philanthropic foundations 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 sterilisation and racist immigration controls.

By 1935 more than 20,000 people in the US had been forcibly sterilised 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 IQ test.
The Rockefeller Foundation also funded the German eugenics project, and Davenport’s 1922 “model sterilisation law” was used to craft the 1933 Nazi Act for Averting Descendants Afflicted with Hereditary Diseases.

In the 1960s and 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, condemning “irresponsible individuals” who indulge in “sickness-promoting behaviours” and burden “responsible” people with higher taxes.

Rockefeller policy papers formed the basis of the US 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 healthily, get active, stop smoking, drink responsibly, say no to drugs, abstain from sex, work safely, etc.

The capitalist class invented 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. Philanthropy in the form of “international aid” hides imperial exploitation. Poor countries are typically described as under-developed rather than over-exploited. The £89 billion that is donated annually for development is typically invested in opening or expanding markets for the donors.

Moreover, this represents just 6.5 percent of the wealth that flows in the opposite direction. Every year corporations extract more than £616 billion from poor countries. An additional £411 billion is taken as debt payment. In total more than £1.37 trillion per year is siphoned from poor countries to rich ones.

Charitable foundations and sponsorships try to seduce us into believing that business interests are our interests. 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 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 his fortune is four times larger than the entire GDP of Botswana. The £1.37 billion that the Gates Foundation distributes every year is a measly 2.5 percent of Gates’s fortune and provides him with hefty tax deductions.

Philanthropic foundations pay little or no tax on their income, and most contributions are tax deductible. Even though foundation funds are subsidised by the public, it has no say in how the money is spent. Private philanthropic institutions 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 without strings attached. Providing “a hand-up instead of a hand-out” promotes the belief that people are poor because they lack opportunity and social support, not because the capitalist class hoards the surplus. 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 a 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 do not have to pay for the misery they create. While workers give more to charities than corporations, our giving does not make life better. The more we give to charity, the more governments cut social services and transfer the money to businesses.

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 US). By 2016 just 1 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. We need to expose capitalist philanthropy for what it is — a means to deceive and confuse workers.

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