Philanthropic capitalism, or the pretty face of ruthless violence

Is Bill Gates a good guy? He used to just be the man who was richer than God. Then he became “the one who gave back,” when he created the largest philanthropic institution in the world, commanding 38 billion dollars in capital, with stated goals such as eradicating diseases or alleviating hunger.

But are we really to believe that because he went from insanely rich to *still* insanely rich, but gave away a few billion in the transition, he is the beautiful face of a new world order, a capitalist utopia where people care, where the rich will solve problems, where the poor sweatshopers can rely on the barons of profit to undo the very structures that created inequality?

Or, on the contrary, is it just a way for the rich to feel a little better about their exorbitant luxury in a world where most are famished, enslaved by industry, malnourished, oppressed, or miserable? We can imagine how the rich slave-owners of the antebellum south might have patted themselves on the back for serving a Christmas dinner to their slaves. Feeling particularly philanthropic, they might have added, out of their own pocket, some molasses for dessert. Oh how noble. Oh how magnamimous. Oh how…philanthropic.

Philanthropic like a kind slave-owner. Philanthropic like Bill Gates. Philanthropic like the American middle-class. Let’s all pat ourselves on the back as we donate to Red Cross or Doctors without borders.

Yes, we’re so making the world a better place, aren’t we? Why don’t we donate to save the whales and sign the “no animal fur” petitions as well. Then look in the mirror and give ourselves a nice, big smile. Eat an extra helping of Ben and Jerry’s for dessert. Buy a new pair of shoes as a reward for all the do-gooding.

I have often found myself arguing that this is the new face of a capitalist society unable to shield itself from the visions of the suffering. Modern media streams to our desktops the visions of the sick, the starving, the desperate developing world. Unable to insulate ourselves from these visions, we respond with uninformed compassion. Unable to see that we contribute daily to the global structures that create these conditions, we compensate for our pity and compassion by donating, by buying “green,” by recycling or buying fair-trade chocolate.

Convinced this is the utmost we can do to help the world, we ignore the glaring ineffectiveness of our actions, like tossing a breath-mint to a starving man. Refusing to think through the situations we are embedded in, we toss these breath-mints and smile at our magnanimity, our generous benevolence, we’ve chosen to do the right thing, God smiles down at us for sure, and the proof is our own opulent life-style.

But to truly help the world, to truly help other human beings, we would need to do more than toss breath-mints. We would need to ask and respond to more difficult questions, such as: why is this man starving? What can I do to undo the relationships that have cornered him in this situation? What can I do to challenge illegitimate forces keeping him, or others like him, in cycles of poverty?

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