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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

The Charitable Society or 'How to Avoid the Poor and Perpetuate the Wealth Gap'

One of the most potent, propagandistic memes advanced by the corporate well-to-do in the United States today has been the projection of themselves as lovers of philanthropy and charity on behalf of the needy and less fortunate. In the past, such exercises in ersatz empathy were carried out by Henry Ford, Dale Carnegie, Howard Hughes and the robber baron John D. Rockefeller, who was infamous for throwing dimes to poor people. Today, the banner of charity is paraded by the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates, the Koch brothers, Warren Buffet, Michael Bloomberg and George Soros – all of whom are heralded and praised by the media or opportunistic politicians for their apparent generosity of spirit.

The super-wealthy of the world can undoubtedly feel good about their big-heartedness. Some might even see the private accumulation of massive wealth as morally justified, even in the face of profound inequality – that is, justified so long as they can somehow claim that their great individual wealth will inevitably “trickle down” to the have-nots. Of course, very few economists today would have the temerity to defend trickle-down economics. This is why the latter idea has to be reconfigured in more positive terms. Instead of trickle-down economics, we now have the rich speaking openly about “corporate social responsibility” and broadcasting their beneficence through charitable foundations.

In reality, corporations see charity as the perfect means through which they can get their foot in the door of public institutions, universities and other public agencies. In other words, their largesse has a price tag attached to it. Corporate charity typically cashes out for the rich and powerful in the form of decision-making power. Donors are given a seat on boards, advisory committees or commissions where they can influence and restructure public institutions along business lines. The exemplary opportunists here are private “charitable” foundations set up by the Koch brothers.

Their charitable contributions to universities, internships, think tanks and colleges are likely in the tens or hundreds of millions. In theory, this is money with “no strings attached.” In practice, however, one cannot imagine a more potent delivery system than a university or other educational institutions for promoting ideas of unregulated, “free-market” capitalism or the “privatize everything” agenda of the Koch brothers. Aside from providing an indirect means through which to advocate or promote corporate interests regarding social, economic and political policy, in some cases, the Kochs, through their “charitable foundations,” are able to directly control who gets hired for faculty positions.

What about Bill Gates? Well, from a Gates Foundation perspective there is charity and then there is a “smarter kind of charity.” Thus, whether it is health care in third-world countries or education in the United States, the operative principle behind the Gates Foundation is the expression of compassion for the poor through making market forces “work better.” Paradoxically, “smarter charity” turns private greed into a public good! As socially caring and responsible as the Gates approach may sound, it is a kind of “invisible-sleight-of-hand” that modern capitalists cheer on. In other words, this form of corporate charity becomes a kind of self-rewarding capitalist enterprise because it is able both to maximize profit through tax breaks, and subtly cement capitalist economic, social and political policies that reflect the interests of the super-rich – from monopolization to privatization of public goods and institutions. So, it turns out that much of the giving involved here is not giving for the sake of promoting the common welfare, but philanthropy for private profit and corporate self-interest at the expense of long-term public good.

To be sure, the Gates Foundation and other large-scale charitable foundations may not be involved in tax fraud or other illegitimate activities that have been associated with a great many charities. Moreover, there are many who might reasonably claim that some of these super-rich icons of philanthropy have genuinely altruistic motives for doing what they do. Perhaps some of them do. However, for the sake of elevating the discussion beyond mere name-calling, let me propose a more general way of distinguishing authentic from inauthentic charity by way of an analogy we can all readily grasp.

In a conversation, one way of keeping the person you’re speaking to at a distance is to act as if you are listening to them and then refuse to really hear what they are saying. This might be carried through by believing you know in advance what they will say, by constantly interrupting them, by finishing their sentences for them, by talking over them or by assuming that you know better than they do what needs to be said next.

This attitude turns the reciprocity of conversation into a monologue controlled by one person – Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh or Pat Buchanan may come to mind here. To authentically acknowledge the other in a conversation is to be willing to allow that what they say may not conform or agree with your perspective or opinion. This kind of fundamental openness to what another person is saying is difficult to achieve.

However, it is often practically and intellectually rewarding since it can introduce a new direction or possibility into the conversation – and perhaps alert participants to the insularity or narrow-mindedness of their own perspectives. In this sense, authentic conversations require a certain level of humility as well as a genuine desire to empower the other by listening closely and responding thoughtfully to what they say.

There is also an important sense of charity as empowering the other at the level of interpretation. This is exemplified in what are called “charitable readings,” where charity is thought of as a mode of openness and affirmation of the other’s argument or perspective – openness to the “otherness of the other” to put it philosophically – even when this otherness may confront or directly challenge one’s own views or opinions. An authentically charitable reading is actually beneficial for all concerned since it ensures that any further critique tells against the best interpretation of arguments on both sides. By contrast, an inauthentic charitable reading would be desultory and in some cases patronizing. In such a situation, readers or listeners would take only perfunctory interest in what was said, or look for ways to deflect or absorb the arguments or opinion of another into their own “superior” view.

In both these cases, what is important is that real conversation and authentically charitable readings are empowering because they are forms of recognition of the other person or opposing point of view as persons or perspectives worthy of respect. In order for such recognition to take place it is necessary that we not attempt to control outcomes, gain advantage or egotistically seek attention or praise. This notion of respect and recognition in conversation or interpretation can be constructively compared to inauthentic and authentic forms of charity. When charity is inauthentic it is because it is controlling and self-interested rather than concerned with the on-the-ground, long-term good of the other. Hence, in many cases, beneath a supposed generosity of spirit, there is an unarticulated desire by the mega-wealthy to unilaterally and paternalistically direct those who have been marginalized or underprivileged in such a way that the status quo world of structured disparities in wealth and income, or unjust applications of the rule of law, are never fundamentally challenged or questioned.

Under this set of circumstances charity becomes a rather “one-sided conversation.” It is one-sided because in a self-aggrandizing, hyper-capitalist competitive society where the many have little and the few have unimaginable wealth, charity can be a way of keeping those whom one is ostensibly helping at a safe distance, so that one never really has to take the time to perceive their real-life situation, hear their cry for help or contemplate the specific economic, historical, political, legal and social structures that gave rise to those profoundly unjust wealth disparities in the first place. Thus, instead of empowering the powerless from the ground up, the charity of the super-wealthy often imposes preconditions, stipulations and qualifications from the top down – conditions that insure the wealth gap is perpetuated, the system of injustice is secured and the magnanimity of their “gift” is ostentatiously cheered and commended. In reality, they are like the monological speaker in a conversation: They risk nothing and they control the conversation by controlling the rules of the “conversational game.”

The relation between inauthentic forms of charity and one-sided conversation is meant to illuminate the paternalist and self-serving structure of certain forms of charitable giving. It does not, however, speak to a crucial ethical, social, legal and political element situated in between authentic charity and authentic conversation: namely, “consultation” (This point was brought to my attention by Wayne Turner, philosopher, janitor, good friend and conversation partner). One of the regulatory prerequisites of any well-functioning democratic society is to first consult those who are most affected by decisions and policies of powerful institutions, corporations or governments. In cases of large-scale charitable donations that are allegedly intended to help those in need, surely the first order of business is to honestly consult those affected in order to seek their input about what they believe might be in their best interest, or what kind of on-the-ground help, recognition or attention is specifically called for.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a “well-functioning” democracy. As a result, even such minimal forms of consultation are rarely pursued by the above-mentioned charitable foundations. Of course, it is also clear that in a genuine democracy where economic and social health and well-being are considered inherent rights, rather than incidental entitlements, the proliferation of charities, food banks and soup kitchens would likely be viewed as a sign of collective, institutional and political failure. In a plutocracy, however, corporate charity functions to deflect attention from on-the-ground suffering and the real causes of poverty and injustice, and is then praised as a great and selfless gift.

So, given all this, what would the virtue of charity look like in an authentic democracy that refused to perpetuate grotesque forms of inequality? Well, it would not be measured in terms of the economic or financial munificence of the few, but perhaps understood as closer to the kind of generosity of spirit that is presupposed in good conversation – a kind of generosity that is at the heart of friendship and political solidarity. One does not help a friend in order to get something back – as if friendship were merely a quid pro quo relation. Rather, I wish good things for my friend – I want them to do well for their sake, not for mine. At an existential or lived-experience level, I can have friends because I can recognize the mutuality of human vulnerability in the face of unpredictable turns of fortune, grievous loss or crisis. It may be that the tragedy of those who have accumulated immense wealth or power is that they inevitably become immunized from recognizing or undergoing the experience of mutual vulnerability. Nevertheless, it is this notion of charity as symbolic of friendship, love, justice and solidarity that captures the essence of authentic forms of giving, whether this is understood as volunteering one’s time or giving in the form of money or food contributions to those who are in desperate need.

It seems fairly obvious that in the face of such an authentic form of care for the other, much of the “generosity” of the super-rich in a plutocratic society is instantly exposed as a complete and utter sham. By comparison, a society that honors fairness, solidarity and equality – that genuinely cares for the health and well-being of its citizens – has little need for manufactured top-down charity. This is because such a society, from the ground up, builds economic institutions, consultative forums and political frameworks that democratically enable all citizens to be participants in a shared commons, where each person is encouraged to develop their particular talents and no one need suffer the indignity of gross injustice, burdensome debt or soul-destroying poverty.

Now perhaps the high-minded talk of charity based on friendship, or the advocacy of economic and political justice over corporate charity will sound rather fanciful and, in the end, not very practical. Fair enough. However, while we are arguing about whether such fanciful hopes will ever come to pass, we might spend some time thinking practically about how to close tax loopholes that put private and corporate profit over people, how to prevent the super-wealthy from using charities to undermine public goods and institutions in order to advance private interests, or simply how to go about building a reasonable and fair tax system so that our most vulnerable public institutions and people do not have to rely so much on the idle rich to secure their present and future well-being.

(This article originally appeared in Truthout:

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