The Case Against Philanthropy

Matthew Barad on 2019-11-28

Human dignity should never be conditional to the generosity of billionaires

Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

The wealth class would like us all to think that their charitable donations act as a counterbalance to inequality in ways that are fair and just.

Jeff Bezos became the latest to play into this mantra last week, when he donated $98.5 million to help combat homelessness. The total amounted to just a fraction of a fraction of both Bezos’ total wealth and annual income — wealth and income which he earned by working laborers to death and destroying market competition. He donated the sum to his own morally dubious charity, which heavily emphasizes charter schooling, bootstrapping, and myriad other policies that are as ineffective as they are ideologically charged.

Predictably, conservatives fired back at critics on Twitter, accusing leftists of “never being satisfied.” In part, this comes from a fundamental (perhaps intentional) misunderstanding of leftism by the right — many conservatives have told me they believe leftists want a world where everyone chooses to be charitable. The reality is we want a world without charity.

The core of the problem is power. Conservatives like philanthropy because it keeps power in the hands of the powerful. But we should want a world where nobody’s human dignity and inherent value is made conditional to the generosity of billionaires. Leftists should stand against philanthropy — not because helping people is wrong, but because maintaining permanent classes of “philanthropists” and the “less fortunate” does nothing more than guarantee the persistence of poverty and a moral ambiguity around men who steal from billions, feed hundreds, and claim moral superiority because of it.

Etymologically, the word “lord” is derived literally from the phrase “bread keeper.” Medieval societies evolved from a simple social contract: The lord has the weapons and the soldiers to protect the land, and peasants had the labor to work it. In theory, “bread keepers” might have been just that — ethical protectors of community resources. Unfortunately, the social, political, and ultimately, physical power which lords held over the peasantry inevitably grew into oppression. The lords began to protect the bread from the peasantry rather than for them, forcing an entire caste of people into dependency.

And yet, in spite of its obvious injustice, this system survived for centuries. Serfs, an oppressed class with no land, few rights, and no recourse when those rights were violated, were often the most virulent defenders of the feudal order. In times of famine and strife, it was the lord who opened his granaries and distributed a fraction of the bounty he had stolen. He was the face of generosity in times of scarcity, and ultimately, the only (organized) political force that could save the peasants from starvation.

We don’t want a world where a handful of “self made” kings decide who deserves to eat and who deserves to starve.

Even up unto the day that Tsar Nicholas II was executed, the peasantry still believed he was a fundamentally moral man who had been the victim of a collection of corrupt advisors. The tale of Rasputin is popular in part because it explains how a generous and divinely selected monarch could be as completely incompetent and pathetically inbred as his majesty the tsar. To Russia’s peasantry, it was beyond comprehension that a tsar could be evil, much less that the feudal structure itself could be rotten.

The great irony of feudalism is that the very families who had survived for generations by stealing from peasant classes were beloved by the peasantry for their generosity. The theft of trillions of dollars worth of grain, goods, and human labor was forgiven, even celebrated, for centuries. Why did such an obviously morally bankrupt system persist? Because every few years, in times of war or famine, the lord would hand back some fraction of a fraction of his stolen wealth, and the peasants would rejoice.

Of course, feudalism didn’t last forever. Eventually, economic and social changes made the lower classes aware of their own oppression. In the case of Tsar Nicholas II, his promises of liberalization and justice became meaningless. The people were no longer interested in the tsar’s hand-me-downs. They didn’t want the scraps of whatever resources, rights, and social innovations were left after the tsar had his pick. They wanted the power to prepare their own tables, distribute their own resources, and govern their own labor.

In feudal Russia, and as is today, it’s about power. Conservatives are right when they say Bezos can never give away enough of his wealth to satisfy us. That’s the point. We don’t want a world where a handful of “self made” kings decide who deserves to eat and who deserves to starve. We don’t want the tsar’s dinner scraps.

We want to fill our own tables. We want justice. We want democracy. We want to make philanthropy obsolete. At the end of the day, we aren’t starving for lack of food. Nobody is homeless for lack of housing. We are producing enough. We are deserving enough.

The fault is not in ourselves, but in our tsars.