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Governments and corporate leaders want us to think that capitalist philanthropy is the way forward, but Mikkel Thorup’s Pro Bono is right to disagree, argues Dulcinea Wilkes

Pro Bono

Mikkel Thorup, Pro Bono? (Zero Books 2015), 93pp.

Charities in the UK could be forgiven for thinking that the Tories don’t like them much. While on the one hand, the existence of the third sector allows ministers to argue that funding public services is unnecessary, because charitable organisations can do the job just as well, on the other hand, the sector has found itself under increasing attack.

Lord Wei, the then ‘Big Society Tsar’ set the tone in 2010 when he dubbed some large charities ‘overly competitive, bureaucratic and unresponsive’. This was followed in 2013 by the lobbying bill, which attempted to require charities campaigning on loosely-defined political issues in the year before an election to register with the Electoral Commission and comply with rules on expenditure limits and reporting designed for the political parties actually fighting the election. This would, as third sector organisationswarned, have a chilling effect on voluntary-sector organisations’ ability to campaign.

In the end, pressure from charitable groups forced the government to water down the bill’s provisions for charities specifically, although not for other campaigning organisations, before it became law in 2014. This did not mean that charities were in the clear for campaigning work, as the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust found earlier this year, when they came under fire for having previously given funding to Cage for their work highlighting human-rights abuses. The obvious conclusion is that, for the Tories, charities are fine if they are replacing public services (until the government abruptly pulls the funding plug, as recently with Kids Company), but that any organisations that might venture to have opinions on government policy are suspect.

From this, you might think that charitable organisations are essentially hotbeds of socialism, but as Mikkel Thorup points out, philanthropy is in fact an integral part of modern capitalism. Extremely wealthy individuals have been endowing charities since the medieval period, and the tradition of memorialising yourself with a charitable foundation, as with Bill Gates’ Gates Foundation, goes back at least to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century businessmen like Carnegie, who endowed six foundations with a total of around $300m.

The way in which using some of your vast wealth for charity helps deflect criticism of having amassed it in the first place is obvious. As Tom Holt put it:

‘If … you cause endless misery and disaster to the poor devils you leave floundering in your wake, you put aside a small percentage of the profits, set up a foundation and do good works to improve the lives of a lot of other people somewhere else. That’s called philanthropy. Just ask Bill Gates’ (The Good, The Bad and The Smug, Orbit 2015, p.280).

Businesses and even governments clearly use donations to charity in the same way: when the 5p mandatory payment for plastic carrier bags is introduced in England this October, the shops will have to donate the proceeds (less their ‘reasonable expenses’, naturally) to a DEFRA-approved list of ‘good causes’, thus enabling them to get some good publicity out of a policy which would otherwise set many of their customers grumbling.

Victorian and Edwardian philanthropy came with a healthy dose of Victorian paternalism, as Thorup points out. Just as social reformer Henrietta Barnett built her model village of Hampstead Garden Suburb without pubs because of the Evils of Drink (and George Cadbury did the same with Bournville, the model village built for his workers outside Birmingham), so philanthropists like Carnegie saw themselves as a ‘trustee for the poor’ whose ‘superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer’ was needed to overcome the workers’ poor judgement. It was for this reason that he preferred to endow social facilities like parks and libraries, rather than making donations which people could squander on unsuitable pleasures (Thorup, p.3).

Figures like Carnegie would probably always have agreed that the survival of their businesses was good for their countries; as the president of General Motors is supposed to have said in 1953, ‘What is good for General Motors is good for America’ (p.10). Lord Nuffield, the founder of Morris Motors, endowed his charitable foundation in 1943 with Morris Motors shares with the explicit statement that this was in the company’s and therefore in the national interest. Thorup argues however that we are now seeing the growth of philanthrocapitalism; the idea that businesses, acting philanthropically according to their own definition, are better equipped than any other to solve the world’s problems for it.

In part, this is the view that the market is always the right mechanism to achieve any social goal, from treating children with preventable diseases to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. According to this, charities should approach potential donors as consumers, finding a way of attaching charitable donations to consumption. Thorup cites a TV charity show fronted by Oprah Winfrey, in which she presented various items which people could buy to benefit charities: ‘“by just buying a t-shirt, a pair of jeans, even a cell phone, you can actually begin to save lives”’ (p.23). The justification for this is that it is easier to reach people as consumers than as donors: individuals are encouraged to buy the products which promise a charitable gain by the ‘moral surplus value’ they come with, but they’re not asked to do anything difficult like sacrifice consumption in order to give money away. Indeed, the aim here is ‘buying smart and buying more’ (p.27).

The effect is to depoliticise the problems that these sorts of campaigns are supposed to be addressing. In a similar way to how lifestyle greenism reduces climate change to individual purchasing choices, world poverty, water rights, the plight of refugees and so on become matters of personal preference to be dealt with while shopping, rather than issues requiring a collective, democratic response. The proponents of philanthrocapitalism would undoubtedly agree that there is no such thing as society, only consumers and markets, but their doctrine goes beyond nudging consumer behaviour into charitable directions.

If you believe that the best or the only way to effect change is through changing consumer behaviour, it follows that the role of government is no longer actually to do anything, just to ‘support consumers in the choices they make’, as a Strategy Unit paper on food and climate change put it in 2008. David Cameron’s enthusiasm for the Behavioural Insights Unit (known as the Nudge Unit) shows that he has a similar view. The philanthrocapitalists, however, go even further than this. For them, governments are outmoded: slow, bureaucratic and utterly unable to respond to the problems of the twenty-first century world. As an employee of the Gates Foundation claimed: ‘We are sort of creating a post-UN world. People want to see quicker results’ (p.43). The 2008 philanthrocapitalist manifesto was subtitled ‘Why the rich can save the world, and why we should let them’ (p.68).

This is an ideology which not only credits the extremely wealthy with preternatural abilities and understanding, but which explicitly sets aside any pretence of democratic decision-making. If we were to allow the rich to save the world, our role would apparently be reduced to gratitude for their philanthropic efforts. It is, fortunately, not an ideology which is going unchallenged. The extent to which there has ever been automatic deference to paternalistic philanthropy can probably be overstated; after all, Oscar Wilde was writing in 1891 in The Soul of Man under Socialism that ‘the best among the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious’. So should we all be (p.77). Over a hundred years later, it’s worth noting that one of the most obvious representations of a wealthy philanthropist in current popular culture is Tony Stark, the ‘genius, billionaire, playboy and philanthropist’ of the Avengers and Iron Man films, whose undemocratic insistence on saving the world his way has nearly destroyed it at least once.

Ultimately, philanthropy is an inherent part of capitalism because it functions to ameliorate conditions for the working class and thus, as Thorup points out about Carnegie, ‘sustain inequality in a time of socialist and anarchist threat to private property’ (p.1). This does not mean that socialists should be anti-charity. In society as it is, the third sector can be an important, independent voice criticising government policy, an aspect of its work of which the Tories are undoubtedly well aware. The work that many charities do in place of social services is clearly also needed and many people suffer if they are abruptly removed, as demonstrated for example by the closureof Kids’ Company. As many charities themselves would point out, however, a model in which voluntary activity steps in for the failures of the state is not one to which we should aspire.

On 11th September 2015, the President of Médecins sans Frontières, whose ships have rescued 15,000 people from drowning in the Mediterranean since May, sent an open letter to the EU about the refugee crisis. MSF are clearly proud of their work to help save migrant lives and to improve conditions for them on dry land, but the point of the letter was not to drum up more donations or argue for more charitable work in the Med. Instead, it points out that‘all of our work amounts to filling the gaps left by states unwilling or unable to fulfil their responsibilities.’

We don’t have to support the billionaire playboy philanthropists to value the genuine good done by the charity sector, but undemocratic philanthropy is at best a stopgap, not a solution to the problems of capitalism. Ultimately as socialists we are fighting for a world in which charity is unnecessary, and in which no one is expected to be grateful.

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