In 1889, opulent industrialist Andrew Carnegie penned the foundation statement of the modern philanthropic movement. Known as “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie made known his aversion to leaving large sums to one’s descendants. Neither was he inclined to dole out charity directly to the needy. He urged that it was those who, like himself, had amassed great fortunes — not a democratically elected government — who were best suited to determine how vast amounts of money should be disbursed. Tax exempt foundations and the sober trustees selected to run such enterprises would wisely choose where lavish streams of financial support should flow.
In the case of Carnegie, he sponsored worthy endeavors such as the proliferation of community libraries and other projects that would avail opportunities to citizens for recreation and self-improvement. Carnegie saw philanthropy as a moral imperative. However, this sense of humanitarian largesse did not prevent him and his manager Henry Clay Frick from putting down the strike at his steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892. The violent but brief revolt was sparked by wage cuts. Led by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the strike ended after the National Guard intervened and broke the union. Later, some communities in Pennsylvania would recall such anti-labor actions when they refused the offer of one of Carnegie’s libraries. They preferred fair and viable wages.
In 1901, after selling his substantial assets to financial titan J.P. Morgan, Carnegie set about his philanthropic work in earnest. One cartoon portrayed him as giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The late New York Times journalist William Serrin wrote that “these gifts and other practices were highly paternalistic and robbed the workers and the communities in which they lived of the ability to make decisions themselves, that is, to live democratically.”
In “Winners Take All,” Anand Giridharadas’ controversial look at contemporary philanthropy, there is a no-holds-barred critique of today’s crop of big-time givers who wish sincerely to improve the dismal lot of others as long as they themselves can retain what secure advantages they’ve already got — along with the tilted economic system that conferred their impressive gains. Giridharadas walked with ease in the corridors of far-reaching influence and privilege, a gold-plated surround he dubs “MarketWorld.”
He describes this intricate realm as “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government and think tanks. It has its own thinkers, whom it calls thought leaders, its own language and even its own territory — including a constantly shifting archipelago of conferences where its values are reinforced, disseminated and translated into action. MarketWorld is a network and community, but it is also a state of mind.” And, as Giridharadas found out, it does not take kindly to any interrogation that might call the legitimacy of its “win-win” ethos into question.
It was in 2015 at one such stop on the archipelago — the Aspen Institute — where Giridharadas took the plunge and held MarketWorld up to some discomfiting scrutiny. The institute is a forum where the rich and beautiful discuss global issues in a pleasant ambience. Those gathered are encouraged to see themselves as “self-appointed leaders of social change, taking on the problems people like them have been instrumental in creating or sustaining.” Having attended a number of such events in the past, Giridharadas admits he was rather frightened about the talk he was about to give. Surely he would be causing offense. While some claimed to appreciate his penetrating assessment of philanthropy’s contradictions, there were those present who were furious at his analysis and audacity. One man called him an asshole.
Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, two telling incidents occurred. Michael Dell, the eponymous founder of a successful computer company, made clear his opposition to higher taxes on the rich. He has his own philanthropic foundation and argued he should be able to do what he thinks is best with no government interference. He was countered by Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT, who recollected decades past when much higher tax rates on big business and the wealthy translated into good times economically for large swaths of the U.S. citizenry and people of other developed countries. Another forum attendee, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, stirred things up with a direct assertion that appropriate taxation by government is the fundamental way to address rampant inequality stifling much of the world’s struggling populations. He declaimed that addressing inequities honestly and practically requires “taxes, taxes, taxes, and all the rest is bullshit in my opinion.”
Echoing Bregman was Oxfam International’s Winnie Byanyima: “People across the globe are angry and frustrated. Governments must now deliver real change by ensuring corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share of tax and investing this money in free health care and education that meets the needs of everyone — including women and girls whose needs are so often overlooked. Governments can build a brighter future for everyone — not just a privileged few.” Presently, about eight individuals control as much wealth as half of humanity. Giridharadas’ cogent thesis demonstrates that philanthrocapitalism is not the answer to such glaring disparities.
Consider this from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Indeed, cutting to the core of the deep social, economic and political structures that generate so much discord and indigence is a more onerous task than attending a posh gala where moneyed patrons donate to a cause, no matter how noble that cause may be. “Conscience laundering” is what Peter Buffet calls it. The son of Warren Buffet, he said that “as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.”
Rutger Bregman may not be invited back to Davos next year. And it is unlikely that Giridharadas will get a call soon to return to Aspen. But their message is clear and must be given considerable thought by all who yearn for genuine change and economic justice. “Winners Take All” is a good place to begin this examination of sumptuous wealth in our tumultuous age.
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