Philanthrocapitalism: Saving The System Or Saving The People?

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In his article titled The New Elite’s Phoney Crusade to Save the World Without Changing Anything Giridharadas argues it is becoming increasingly obvious that particularly within America, the capitalist system - otherwise the ‘service machine’ of human progress - is broken, with rising levels of global inequality and the exceedingly disproportionate distribution of global wealth increasingly recognised as symptomatic of a rigged system, designed to elevate and restore the wealth of already rich at the expense of others (Harvey, 2007, p. 19) (Dumenil & Levy, 2004). Often the same factors creating billionaires and the extravagantly wealthy are the very ones exacerbating social injustices and inequality (Ramadas, 2011) and true to form, 2018 saw the record number of global billionaires reach 2,208, who, in the same year, grew 12% wealthier as the bottom half of the global population grew 11% poorer [footnoteRef:1]. Many would thus argue the obligation for the super elites to philanthropically lead the charge of social reformation is greater than ever before, calling upon those ‘’awash in money they don’t know what to do with’’ (Bishop, 2013, p. 474) to embrace ‘’the creed of doing well by doing good’’ (Bishop, 2013, p. 477) – to deploy private means and successful market logic in an attempted bid to solve critical social issues manifesting as a result of deep structural global problems. However, Giridhas, amongst many others, are far more critical of such temporary ‘’repair services’’ and democratic ‘’work arounds’’ (Giridharadas, 2019) proffered by those profiting substantially from the modus operandi of the current system; proposing that big philanthropy is an instrumental mechanism of contemporary capitalism which serves to obfuscate the root causes of social inequalities while simultaneously cleansing the reputations of the super affluent as physical symbols of social inequality and allowing them to be recast as the ‘saviours’ of society (Giridharadas, 2019). This highlights the role that philanthrocapitalism plays in contributing to rising public mistrust in government, further contributing to undermining current democratic systems and institutions, while simultaneously revealing that often the great inequalities caused within society are ‘’caused by the nature of our economic system, and the inability of politics to change it’’ (Edwards, 2008, p. 25) [1:]

Deriving from the Greek philos (loving), and anthropos (human), philanthropy is traditionally defined as ‘’love for human-kind’’ (Edwards, 2008); as a manifestation of altruistic concern taking the shape of various private ventures, initiatives and individual actions focused upon the betterment of public good. While there is no doubt that such sentiment still rings true in some practices of modern-day philanthropists, big philanthropy has become an integral ideological aspect of a new immaterial, creative capitalism; intricately intertwined with and directly related to growing levels of extreme global inequality (Thorup, 2013). Recently, global inequality has been on the rise, aided in part by the new ‘creative’ capitalism offering enormous opportunities to a few, while the increasing majority of the population face diminishing prospects (Thorup, 2013). Such effects are felt strongly in America, where those at the bottom the income ladder currently hold a 35% chance of realising the American Dream, and elevating above their own parents’ social status, in comparison to those raised at the top of the ladder having double the chance (Giridharadas, 2019). Despite the American healthcare system paving the way in international medical reach and innovative development, this has failed to translate into equality of public health. With the average health of the individual American declining, rich American men can now expect to live up to two years longer than poor Americans – who have the same life expectancy as men from Sudan and Pakistan (Pavia, 2016). Furthermore, the same disparities are evident in quality of education, with 17% of American school leavers being categorised as ‘’functionally illiterate’’ (TeachingTimes , 2010). With the super-rich most at risk of attracting public dislike and resentment and facing more scrutiny in a period of great inequality, billionaires around the world are reacting by doing the honourable thing; they have been ‘’owning up to the problem’’ (Giridhas, 2019), resolving to funnel vast amounts of both their time and money in their commitment to instituting positive progressive social change – specifically promising to target issues of health and education through the application of philanthrocapitalist approach. In the vein of an optimistic philanthrocapitalism, promoted vigorously by Bishop (2013), the super-rich are recast into the roles ‘hyperagents’ which endows them with the ability of ‘’publishing their vison of what makes a good society’’ (Bishop, 2013 p. 483) without being subject to the restrictions and scrutiny faced by conventional loci of social change. Unburdened with the responsibilities of CEOs to shareholder values and free from the obligations of investing significant amounts of time in order to procure funds like most leaders of NGOs, it is true that there lies substantial benefits in philanthrocapitalism rapidly enabling the deployment of resources where they are most needed, when the situation requires it. Yet perhaps it is not such a good thing as Bishop and Green argue, that philanthrocapitalists ‘’do not have to face elections… like politicians do’’ (Bishop & Green, 2008, p. 12)and remain free – without the accountability or responsibility inherent in the socially powerful position of a politician and with tremendous amounts of both wealth and power at ready disposal – to influence social policies as they see fit; be it either in the spirit of true traditional philanthropy stemming from a love of humankind, or in accordance with ulterior individual, political and economic agendas. In the same way that we could expect a fox to guard hens (Giridhas 2019), can we really expect the few who profit from the system to encourage reform that suits the many, relying upon their charitable good will to do so?

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Philanthrocapitalism has therefore evolved as a mechanism of contemporary capitalism which acts to justify the extreme disparities of global wealth distribution, alongside playing a major role in the perpetuation of social injustices and inequality while painting the elite classes as continually partaking in the conquest to ‘save the world’. Furthermore, inevitably the attempts of the super elite at making real improvements naturally reflect ‘’an unjust status quo – and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win’’ (Giridhas 2019). This is strongly reflected in the demographic of affluent social groups, consisting majorly of white males with a spattering of some white women (Locker, 2018), it is perhaps of no surprise that little has been achieved in philanthropic efforts to tackle the prevalence of racism within the contemporary system, with a recent study discovering that only 8.8% of American grant money manages to find its way to communities of colour (Cohen, 2014). While the efforts of philanthrocapitalists are often genuine charitable expressions, in an age defined by an increasing rift between those with power and those without it, elites have effectively disseminated the idea that people may only be helped first and foremost through the deployment of market-friendly mechanisms which ultimately act to maintain and uphold fundamentally unequal power relations which perpetuate inequality. Thus, not only are efforts of the super elite in implementing positive social change are often misdirected, inadequate, and riddled with biases (Giridhas 2019); they fail from the outset in their attempts of addressing the significance and attacking the root causes of the most pressing global issues which demand sustainable and comprehensive economic and political solutions grounded in effective reform as opposed to temporary ‘quick-fixes’ which serve to obfuscate the true origins of inequality.

With contemporary philanthropy narrated by a rhetoric which glorifies the injection of a laser business-like focus in the belief that ‘’market methods will save the world – and make some of us a fortune along the way’’ (Edwards, 2008, p. 23), governments are increasingly willing to partake in philanthropic collaborations, to partner-up with these ‘private sector problem solvers’, whose actions are based upon the rational conclusion that they are effective tools in the fight against inequality, rather than acting upon a ‘’simplistic faith in capitalist ideology’’ (Bishop, 2013, p. 477). However, the faith of the super elite in a system which has served them so well can hardly be termed as ‘simplistic’ and the ‘‘pragmatic belief’’ (Bishop, 2013, p. 477) in the self-professed usefulness of philanthrocapitalists in aiding forms of conventional governance through unconventional means can less likely be relied upon as a driver and influence of stable, positive social progress. How can we truly expect not only the public but also fundamental democratic institutions to blindly rely upon those who live lives of extraordinary extravagance, completely at odds with the lived realities experienced by the majority of the population, to be in touch with critical social issues facing everyone but them? To echo Diane Ravitch, there seems to be something fundamentally wrong, something profoundly undemocratic about passively allowing the wealthiest of society to influence and preside over societal developments without much collective social consensus or input (Ravitch, 2010). Therefore, perhaps one of the greatest flaws characterising contemporary philanthrocapitalism lies within misguided faith that it places in translating the accomplishments of the triumphant successors of the capitalist system into a from of qualification that unreasonably certifies the super elite as perfectly capable of positively reforming the deeply troubled and unequal governing political and economic systems that the foundations of society rest upon. Yet while market advancements in the forms of medical developments and technological innovations are certainly vital to in the quest to end inequality, they can only hope to contribute somewhat superficially to efforts combatting systemic insecurities perpetuated by the often violently dysfunctional relations between varying social and increasingly political groups. Thus, despite many admirable intentions, it would appear that the current version of philanthropy is ill-fitted when it comes to tacking some of the world’s most deeply rooted issues of inequality (Ramadas, 2011), which can often be located in the incapability of politics to influence and address the inequalities pervading the economic system.

Bill Clinton maintains that the single solution to furthering the quest towards social prosperity and stability is the formation of ‘’an aggressive, creative partnership involving all levels of government, the private sector and nongovernment organisation to make it better’’ (Giridharadas, 2019). This view of approaching social change lies far out with traditional means; and would effectively throw collective consensus out the window, ‘’with the political representatives of humankind as one input among several, and corporations having the big say’’ (Giridharadas, 2019) in allocating the support of any given proposal. The pure and simple minded pursual of profit is a chase that has characterised triumphant society and is one that is systemically designed to favour the already wealthy. Rather than single-mindedly focusing upon developing and adding to the influences of business upon civil society, philanthrocapitalism should instead turn its attentions to the influences of civil society upon all things business. ‘’Far too deeply embedded in the current economic and political status quo of global capitalism’’ (Ramadas, 2011, p. 393), philanthrocapitalism should instead occupy itself with looking to stimulate social co-operation rather than competition, and should be seeking to move away from practices promoting individualisation as the surest step forward social reform toward collective action. In short, while philanthrocapitalism is fighting to secure the safety and legitimation of the current broken system in an age of increasing inequality, it should contrastingly fight to validate the incorporation of legitimate social needs of civil society, redirecting both political and economic resources rather than busing itself with the detrimental, roundabout chase of democratic short-cuts effective only as temporary, ‘fix-it-quick’ remedies for a strongly insidious sickness of pervasive social inequality. Afterall, what hangs in the balance is only democratic purpose (Giridharadas, 2019), and what it all boils down to in the end is whether we are willing to literally hand over such democratic purpose to extremely wealthy individual hyperagents, bandying about their significant political and economic influence, claiming to closely observe the best social interests of the public system that they claim to observe, while simultaneously also likely to prioritise the protection of their own hides, their own beliefs and their own amassed fortunes before protecting the many from the system.


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  13. TeachingTimes , 2010. 17% of School Leavers 'Functionally Illiterate'. [Online] Available at:
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