“We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. […] Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.” (Oscar Wilde, 1891)
In a world of suffering, a basic human instinct to give to charity reflects a desire to do something and to connect. When charity workers appeal in supermarkets for donations to food banks, I feel that instinct and give readily. The statistics below from The Trussell Trust plainly illustrate just how critical such charity-giving has become to contemporary British society.
And yet there is a painful ambivalence to charity, which shouldn’t be ignored. We live in a world of suffering, and we live in a world of tremendous wealth. Charity alleviates the suffering of a limited some, for some limited time, and to some limited degree, while charity is captive to capitalism. Charity cannot eliminate the root causes of why people need charity, namely, inequality, poverty, and political power, which lies in the hands of a few, for the benefit of a few. Recognising this doesn’t mean shrugging one’s shoulders the next time someone asks for a donation to a food bank; ‘Alas, the problem is capitalism!’ Recognising this does mean that if one desires to live in a humane, equal, and fully democratic society, then one needs to engage in political struggles to change our existing world, whose political economy fuels (on the one hand) a limitless thirst for capital accumulation and causes (on the other hand) unequal, exploitative, and inhumane conditions of existence – all the while, charity soothes, a little.
There is a darker side to charity too. Take Cameron’s heralding of a Big Society in 2010 – “from state power to people power” – whose vision of charities running public services is a guise to the neoliberal dismantlement of the welfare state and the public sector in favour of market forces. Take as well the world’s most famous philanthropist, Bill Gates (who has a net worth of $80 billion). On the Gates Foundation’s approach to global health problems, the New Internationalist quotes, from 2008, the World Health Organisation’s Head of Malaria Research, Aarata Kochi, who calls the Gates Foundation a “cartel”, which suppresses the diversity of scientific opinion, and is “accountable to no-one other than itself”. The New Internationalist continues:
“Setting out his approach at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, [Bill Gates] said: ‘There are two great forces: self-interest and caring for others.’ To reconcile the two, the Foundation pursues partnerships in which, guided by NGOs, academics and assorted ‘stakeholders’, donor funds are used to overcome the ‘market failures’ which deny the poor access to medicine, by paying pharmaceutical companies to sell their products cheaper and pursue research projects they would otherwise ignore. […] The arrangements have, however, created concerns. As Tido von Schoen Angerer, Executive Director of the Access Campaign at Médecins Sans Frontières, explains, ‘The Foundation wants the private sector to do more on global health, and sets up partnerships with the private sector involved in governance. As these institutions are clearly also trying to influence policymaking, there are huge conflicts of interests… the companies should not play a role in setting the rules of the game.’ […] A study in the Lancet in 2009 showed only 1.4 per cent of the Foundation’s grants between 1998 and 2007 went to public-sector organizations, while of the 659 NGOs receiving grants, only 37 were headquartered in low- or middle-income countries. […] Research by Devi Sridhar at Oxford University warns that philanthropic interventions are ‘radically skewing public health programmes towards issues of the greatest concern to wealthy donors’. ‘Issues,’ she writes, ‘which are not necessarily top priority for people in the recipient country.’ […] [Dr David McCoy, a public health doctor and researcher at University College London] insists […] that it is important to mount a challenge: ‘Appealing to the megarich to be more charitable is not a solution to global health problems. We need a system that does not create so many billionaires and, until we do that, this kind of philanthropy is either a distraction or potentially harmful to the need for systemic change to the political economy.’”
To anyone dazzled by the idea of a marriage of capitalist self-interest and caring for others, the words of Friedrich Engels, from a piece called “To the House of Rothschild” in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung in 1847, are worth recollecting. Here Engels deconstructs Karl Beck’s poem “To the House of Rothschild” to construct a searing critique of philanthrophy. (The Rothschild dynasty established their banking business in the 1760s, and by the nineteenth century had accumulated the greatest private wealth in the world.)
Engels remarks of Beck’s poem:
“It is not the destruction of Rothschild’s real power, of the social conditions on which it is based, which the poet threatens; he merely desires it to be humanely applied. He laments that bankers are not socialist philanthropists, not enthusiasts for an ideal, not benefactors of mankind [sic], but just – bankers. Beck sings of the cowardly petty-bourgeois wretchedness, of the “poor man”, the pauvre honteux with his poor, pious and contradictory wishes of the “little man” in all his manifestations, and not of the proud, threatening, and revolutionary proletarian. The threats and reproaches which Beck showers on the house of Rothschild, sound, for all his good intentions, even more farcical to the reader than a Capuchin’s sermon. They are founded on the most infantile illusion about the power of the Rothschilds, on total ignorance of the connection between this power and existing conditions, and on a complete misapprehension about the means which the Rothschilds had to use to acquire power and to retain power.”
Engels continues, citing extracts from Beck’s poem:
“The rule of gold obeys your whims
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh, would your works could be as splendid
And your heart as great as is your power! (p. 4).
It is a pity that Rothschild has the power and our poet the heart.
You occupied in eloquence the teacher’s chair,
Attentively the rich sat as your pupils;
Your task: to lead them out into the world,
Your role: to he their conscience.
They have gone wild – and you looked on,
They are corrupted – and yours is the blame (p. 27).
So Lord Rothschild could have prevented the development of trade and industry, competition, the concentration of property, the national debt and agiotage, in short, the whole development of modern bourgeois society, if only he had had somewhat more conscience. It really requires toute la désolante naïveté de la poésie allemande [all the utterly depressing naivety of German poetry] for one to dare to publish such nursery tales. Rothschild is turned into a regular Aladdin.”