Normally, it is governments that are tasked to look out for the common good and battling the general societal ills, but that is increasingly less true. The philanthrocapitalists, people who would lose the most from genuine social change have, using the weight of their extreme wealth, placed themselves in charge of social change, altering how we think about everything concerning our personal and societal well-being.
Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 seminal essay on the topic called “Wealth” (popularly called “Gospel of Wealth”) has provided the intellectual fuel, which can be summarised as “The rich need freedom as they are the best at what they do, and ensure progress. Inequality is unavoidable. By the end, I will give away my wealth, just don’t question me how the wealth has been obtained”. This is a wildly ideological, but also influential doctrine. Sometimes, it inspires redemption: Chuck Feeney has collected $8 billion by inventing duty free shopping of cigarettes and alcohol (so, that would be the business model of mass tax avoidance on selling toxic, addictive substances), but inspired by Carnegie’s gospel, gave away all that by his late years. His giving will never counter the damage done by his business model, but it is something. Other times, the gospel brought not so much redemption, but enabling: today, Purdue Pharma may continue to kill a tens of thousands per year and keep millions in addiction with the wildly addictive and profitable product OxyContin, but the Sackler founders are toast of the philanthropical world because they give a portion of the profits back.
I have no doubt Carnegie wrote what he believed. It doesn’t matter that now we know it was manifestly wrong, and can suspect his beliefs were subconsciously shaped by the benefits they brought to him — at least he was honest. But today, those that subscribe to the Wealth Gospel aren’t so naïve or open. The big picture emerging is that some in the top classes of elites have realised that to keep the party going, they will need to strategically spend some, and the only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question methods of gain and distribution of money and power (i.e. the only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens). For this purpose, the Gospel Wealth fitted like a glove.
The resulting answer has been narrow ideological philanthropy that aims to stabilise the system to a minimum required degree and at the same time takes the edge off the public anger and improves their image.
In 140 years, the methods became a lot more sophisticated, as they need to in democracies. Luckily for us, there are some clearly recognisable traits. Learn to recognise them and rise above the murky manipulations affecting politics, the economy, and our society. If you come across messages that contain some of the twelve ideas and tactics listed below, do your research — who is behind it?
12 methods of ideological and manipulative philanthropy
- Not changing the system, not naming perpetrators. “The world is what it is”, “Be glad with what you have”. Recognise those inspirational quotes from your social media feed? Where do they come from?
- Can’t say “social justice” — have to say “fairness”. Among other things, it makes the system that produces the problem more abstract. So subtle.
- If responding to a problem unavoidably involves organisation outside one’s sphere, always propose organisation from bottom-up, definitely never top-down
- Using anecdotes involving one person or one family. Due to limitations of the human brain, helping one identifiable victim beats thousand nameless and ignored cases
- Only treat symptoms, never causes. For example, finance the unsteady incomes of gig-economy workers with a whizz-bang business model of temporary lending, but don’t mention the need for better industrial relations
- Affirming the “Responsibility is always firmly private, opt-in and personal, never public or general societal” mantra. That’s like gambling companies asking you to “gamble responsibly”, or UberEats to “please don’t litter”, and ignoring that their whole business models are based on addiction and litter…actually, hang on…that is exactly what they are saying…
- Popularise this mantra: You can only do good for others by doing well for yourself first
- Talking disparagingly of “win-lose” solutions, and look for “win-win” situations at all costs — in essence, saying that you shouldn’t look for a moral obligation; enlightened self-interest is enough. Leaders of tech and business in near absolute power cast themselves falsely as renegades, claiming what is best for them is also best for the poor and uneducated (in an interesting twist, Trump managed to be at once an exposer, an exploiter and an embodiment of this cult)
- Appeal to our built-in optimism bias. Firmly hold that “The same tools that created the problem can also fix them, we just need a bigger dose of them”, even if it sounds very much like a popular definition of insanity
- Leaders of technology and business who hold their own tools of technology and business the key to solving problems. Social enterprise for social problems. Never get the government to do things — invent an app. If you have a huge hammer, all problems look like nails. And once the question has been framed in business terms, the battle is all but won — who can question the mastery of the business titans in matters of business?
- Once everything is done to render governments impotent and dysfunctional (lobby power, tax evasion, PR drive), point out the resultant parlous public sphere and legitimize workarounds of our troubled democracy that will make it more troubled, thus creating a vicious circle
- Market ideas like everything else. Dominate the distribution channels (social media, centers at universities, Ted talks, NGOs, the PR of charitable foundations) and there will not be opposition to the ideas. In this MarketWorld, potential thought leaders (used to be called thinkers or intellectuals) can choose to shape their speeches to fit in, thereby gain access to funding, audiences, the influence of the elite. Alternatively, they can remain big picture thinkers, use all tools at their disposal, willing to criticise and where need be, propose systematic change, even “win-lose” ones — but they will never reach anyone, nor have funding for their work.