Pro Bono Cover

The relationship of celebrity philanthropy to capitalism is explored by Mikkel Thorup in the first of two extracts from his book Pro Bono?

Pro Bono

Extract from Mikkel Thorup, Pro Bono? (Zero Books 2015) 100pp


Chapter 8: The world is watching: celebrity philanthropy

The American actor George Clooney has with private funds sponsored a satellite to monitor troop movements in the south of Sudan to help avoid another genocide in the region. Everyone can watch the movements on the website at whose motto is “The world is watching because you are watching.” This motto nicely summarizes the logic behind a fast growing trend of using celebrity status to generate attention on other issues than their marriage/divorce-cycles and to force action on pressing global issues. Clooney himself has been instrumental in securing the referendum which in January 2011 gave an overwhelming majority for secession of South-Sudan from the rest of the country (Avlon 2011). The world is watching because they are watching. And what the world is watching is not really poverty, disasters or disease but the celebrities watching (Hollar 2007; Barker 2013).

Celebrity culture is big business. Celebrities in the entertainment business earn massively (and their sales, salaries and expenditures are often news stories in themselves); their celebrity status help sell films, music, sport events; they have huge sponsorships and promote an endless variety of consumer goods; they sell news through the public nature of their lives; and they are themselves often flamboyant spenders. Everything connected with celebrities speak money, massive amounts of money. They are, as Leo Lowenthal said already in 1944, “idols of consumption” rather than the industrial and political “idols of production” (Lowenthal 1961). Celebrities are fully integrated into the capitalist system and their celebrity status and function reflect not only our seemingly inexhaustible demand for someone to admire from afar but also the present configurations of the economy. I want to suggest that celebrities are a most visual embodiment of capital as it exists and flows today.

A strong connection exists between the new immaterial capitalism and its valuation of brands, reputation, story-telling in the so-called ‘experience economy’ (Pine & Gilmore 1999; Kapoor 2013 19-20) and then the contemporary celebrity-culture. In both it seems the performative outweighs the qualitative, attention value versus use value. Where the economy was earlier connected to material production of ever more and ever cheaper and where the valuation of a commodity was somehow attached to its primary or immediate utility, now it seems both economy and valuation are defined by immaterial processes of attention. Celebrities not only embody capital, they are also brands personified. Partially liberated from the old ‘studio system’ or ‘star system’ where business executives and studio heads dictated their every move, the celebrities are now like Nike, a name, a brand, an image with no production system behind it, which it is the business of the celebrity to maintain, defend and expand. Their name, personal life, and not least their body are the investment. The countless mentions of box office figures, places on the chart list, and winnings in tournaments are nothing but the celebrity equivalent of the stock market news update on television. What is important is not really the amounts, just as the closing numbers on the stock market is not the real issue. What is at stake is the endless positioning of ups and downs. Is he moving up or down? Is she earning more or less than the co-actor? The celebrity-culture is symptomatic of a shift from criteria of qualification to ones of attention in and of itself as the gateway to celebrity (as evident in the reality-TV food chain of creating and forgetting ‘celebrities’). It is increasingly celebrity status itself which generates celebrity status, rather than any admirable or praiseworthy acts. They perform for the adoring viewing public hyper-individualism giving rise to the celebrity hero, the celebrity philanthropists talking truth to power or ‘just doing it’. Celebrities act out a neoliberal subjectivity by the very way the celebrity system operates, celebrating the performer, the self-entrepreneur, the one making his or her life a business enterprise. The celebrity culture is one of the new life forms in the immaterial economy, being played out on the red carpet and in reality TV-shows. What it does not offer is any justification of itself. It is there because we look, but it cannot answer why we should look and why they deserve our attention? Celebrity cannot answer why they should enjoy so extravagantly and why the rest of us should have a part in that luxury only as spectators. Again, we find philanthropy offering itself as one way to deal with the problem of legitimate inequality.

Philanthropy and celebrity were decisively united at the LiveAid-concert in 1985 where musician Bob Geldorf brought together a string of artists for the biggest TV-event of its time. Charity was thereafter an ever more integrated part of what is expected of a celebrity (Poniwozik 2005). It often takes on a slightly comic or embarrassing form when celebrities wander about in places and problems they do not understand (but, honestly, do we know more? And does it not equally condemn us for watching not the catastrophe but the celebrity watching the catastrophe?). Or it can take on a more ominous form, as when the pop star Madonna brought home a child after a trip to Malawi in 2006 (Finlay 2011). This is not the place to discuss or criticize the celebrity contribution to alleviating the world’s problems but what is of interest here is to look at celebrity philanthropy as yet another symptom of how the global attention-economy also needs an explicated moral dimension to be legitimate. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be just a celebrity enjoying the spotlight. The attention has to be redirected to something beyond oneself.

The Irish rock star Bono is probably the most famous of the celebrity philanthropists. He has cleverly used his rock star status to gain access to the halls of power from presidents to the Pope and he is a living advertisement of the initiative Product Red whose slogan is: “Buying (Red) Saves Lives” ( The Red brand is added to already existing products (showing in perfect form the immaterial economy) and part of the profits from buying Red products goes to a global fund combating HIV, AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. This expression of consumer philanthropy is sustained by the coolness factor of a rock star like Bono. A spiral of attention is created where celebrity status is exchanged for ‘philanthropic attention’ which is then fed back into greater celebrity status.

In a recent book on celebrity activism it is described as “the latest manifestation of the revised relationship between fame and achievement, whereby celebrities need to perform achievements (through activism and charity) in order to retain fame.” (Tsaliki, Frangonikolopoulos & Huilaras 2011, 10). Celebrities are now free-floating self-entrepreneurs in an attention market. The fierce global competition among consumer brands and stocks are mirrored by the highly competitive fight for celebrity attention. “In today’s rapidly changing world, celebrities feel pressure to keep their names in the news because it is a long time between movies or concert tours.” Like the endless quarter reports of firms, promoting “a charitable or political cause allows celebrities to remain in the public eye and garner appearances on talk and entertainment shows.” (West 2008, 78). Just like branching out into product endorsements, perfumes, clothing lines etc., celebrities need to get a foothold in the charity market in order to keep their name brand afloat. This is not to say that the charity work is pure self-promotion, far from it, but the connection between fame, attention, and charity is one no celebrity can afford to ignore.

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