Thursday, August 17, 2006

Against Philanthropy

The inestimable Lenin has been writing for the Socialist Worker this week, under his pseudonym "Richard Seymour" (I see through the disguise). It's a gather good piece touching on a generally undercommented phenomenon, billionaire philanthropy:

‘If class warfare is being waged in America,” Warren Buffett recently suggested, “my class is clearly winning.” But, he added, “they shouldn’t be”. Buffett is the second richest man in the world, behind only Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

Buffett recently made headlines when he gave $31 billion of his $44 billion fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the form of shares in Berkshire Hathaway, his enormous insurance company.


Of course, this is so brave of them, giving up their money and living off the last ten or twenty million or so. It's not new either, nor is it a measure of our overlords' social responsiblity:

Some of the most famous philanthropists have also been among the most combative class warriors for the rich. Andrew Carnegie used armed thugs to break a strike at his Homestead Mills in 1892, but he went on to donate $350 million to various charitable causes.

John D Rockefeller Junior suppressed a strike by 12,000 workers in coal mines using the National Guard, but also founded numerous institutions. Henry Ford’s strikebreakers killed workers at the Rouge River Bridge outside his car plant in Detroit, yet he engaged in many philanthropic enterprises.


And the grand tradition continues to this day:

The success of the Microsoft Corporation is in fact the result of a classic feat of enclosure. Technology that was devised largely in the public sector, and which was treated as a common good by developers, formed the basis for a minor innovation by Bill Gates which he was then able to sell the rights for.

MS DOS, the operating system licensed by Bill Gates to IBM, was in fact a rip-off version of the standard operating system CP/M. Microsoft simply bought the rights to this version, having contributed little or nothing to its development. Gates and his business partners led a crusade against the then prevalent model of open source technology and soon made the closed for-profit model ubiquitous.


Lenin finds the motivation for billionaire philanthropy in ideology:

Aside from human kindness, which even the best of us are prone to in weaker moments, the ideology of philanthropy functions as the natural complement to exploitation.

With its pieties of moral reform, self help and “reaching one’s potential”, it says that problems are individual rather than systemic and that with a little boost and a great deal of effort, anyone can succeed. It says that structural change is unnecessary, since the enterprising man will always step in and help. Capitalism has a heart, it says, and it bleeds for you.


There is another, perhaps more crucial dimension to this. Capitalists need a stable, unified, functioning society in order to make money.

Philanthopy, morality, charity etc serve as a social bind when traditional forms of solidarity, trade unions, political parties, tennants committees, credit unions and so on, things that have bound the working population together for years, have been weakened or destroyed.

In parts of the third world even the state has been on the retreat. The gap has been filled by a mixture of NGOs and religious organisations, taking over basic functions like welfare, transport and education.

This is why we see the unity of neo-liberalism (a primarily economic philosophy) and neo-conservatism (a social doctrine) in government policy. Economic policy creates dislocation in manufacturing, agriculture and housing. Close to ten million people descend on London to compete for jobs. What's the government's response?

Workers and their unions are assaulted. Rights are whittled away. Parliament is hollowed out. A new crime for every day in office.

While chuggers lie in wait on every street corner.

We must defend our values! Feeed Thuuh Worrrrld!

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