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Philanthropy: Tool of the Capitalist System

Jeff Bezos is stepping down from Amazon to “focus on his passions,” including philanthropy — which is little more than a way for the mega-rich to bolster their reputations as they try to obfuscate the fact that they are pillars of a system responsible for society’s ills.

Sybil Davis

February 6, 2021
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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos holds up a lot of cash.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced this week that he is stepping down as CEO to focus on his “passions,” a noted one of which is philanthropy. This announcement has been met with praise from some sectors as Bezos attempts to follow in the footsteps of Bill Gates and dedicate himself to “humanitarianism.” However, just like Gates, Bezos’ actual goals for his philanthropy are not nearly as pure as he would have us believe. Indeed, Bezos, Gates, and other members of the mega-rich cynically use philanthropy as a means of salvaging their reputation in what has come to be known as “moral laundering.” They also often use philanthropy to influence public policy around the world and, at times, even turn a profit. 

For example, Bill Gates has become one of the most famous philanthropists. But his entire philanthropy act started in large part as a response to the bad publicity he got during the 90s during the Microsoft antitrust trial. Over the past few decades, Gates has been able to recast himself as a positive figure rather than a representative of all that is wrong with modern capitalism. Bezos is a deeply hated figure who is hoping to do the same thing as Gates. We cannot fall for it. 

Philanthropy is a Tool of the Capitalist System 

It also should be noted that the whole concept of philanthropy and charity more broadly are tools of capitalism. They place the onus of solving social problems on individuals and emphasize that the wealthiest are our allies in combating social problems. While, of course, there is nothing wrong with a working class person donating money to a soup kitchen or other such charity, the logic of charity absolves the state of the responsibility to care for its citizens. In addition, charity puts forward a purely individualist response to social ills. Not only does it exempt the state but also it doesn’t put forward a way for the working class to unite with its most disadvantaged members to organize for their collective liberation. In other words, the working class person who donates to a soup kitchen is trying to fight the social ill of hunger as an individual. If, by contrast, we were to organize a solidarity network that connects sectors of the working class with the very poor and then use that mutual aid network to organize grocery workers to go on strike to demand that their bosses feed the hungry, that is combating the issue of hunger as a class. 

In this we should be clear: our power against the ills of society resides in the power we wield as a class, not as individuals. Once we realize that we are all connected, from the grocery worker to the unemployed worker worrying about how to feed their family to the teacher to the transportation worker to the undocumented nanny working for less than minimum wage, then we can begin to understand the immense strategic power that we can wield. The capitalists and their allies in the media and organized religion put forward charity not only to exempt the state (and, by extension, the system of capitalism) from responsibility, but also as a means to divide the working class. 

Philanthropy, then, is an even more devilish perversion of the actual ways to address the problems. Capitalism presents the very people who are responsible for the ills of society as saviors from those same ills. We are expected to hail the uber-rich as heroes as they undemocratically decide how to spend their vast sums of money and then turn around and deduct that money from their taxes, taking money out of the coffers of the state that could have been used to fund education, health care, or any other vital social program. There is no process by which the working class gets to decide how this money is spent; it is all down to the whims of the billionaires. This leads to people like Bill Gates almost single-handedly bankrolling the charter school movement, which is a direct attack on working families and education workers

In the words of billionaire Peter Kramer, there has been a “bad transfer of power” so that it is no longer “the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich who decide.”  From a Marxist point of view, the idyllic time that Kramer imagines where the wishes of the rich and the actions of the state were disconnected never existed, but it is a dangerous phenomenon that the rich continue to find ways to increase their influence over society. 

Take the example of Bezos. Say, now that he has dedicated himself to philanthropy, that he takes up the issue of homelessness. Amazon has already pledged $2 billion to fight homelessness. He might dedicate a few million dollars to build homeless shelters and the media will applaud him. “Look,” they’ll tell us, “here is the good billionaire. He’s using his money to house people.” But what this narrative ignores is why those people were homeless in the first place.

The tech industry is a major cause of the spike in homelessness on the West Coast. Their relentless expansion in and gentrification of cities like San Francisco and Seattle have caused thousands of people to lose their homes as housing prices shot up and entire communities were decimated. In addition, under Bezos’ leadership, Amazon paid their warehouse employees so poorly that many faced homelessness and food insecurity. Amazon also operates as a monopoly that has driven numerous small businesses to bankruptcy, causing them to lay off their employees, thus increasing the rates of unemployment and homelessness.

While Bezos, Amazon, and other tech companies may performatively throw money at the problems that they themselves caused, they aren’t doing anything to actually fix the root causes. Amazon isn’t going to pay their employees more, they aren’t going to allow their workers to unionize, and Bezos certainly won’t redistribute all of his wealth to the workers who made it for him, nor will he donate to any causes that actually challenge the methods through which he has enriched himself. 

The same goes for philanthropy abroad. Bill Gates and others have begun philanthropic projects around the world, but we should be very clear that the economic devastation of the Global South has been spearheaded by giant multinational corporations that show no signs of stopping. When Elon Musk tweeted that “we will coup whoever we want,” he gave the whole game away. U.S. corporations and the billionaires who head them have amassed their wealth through the prolonged and intentional exploitation of the global working class. Throwing a miniscule percentage of their loot at the problems that they created after they retire, only to turn around deduct it from their taxes, doesn’t make them heroes.

Money Laundering by Any Other Name

Perhaps the greatest insult of all of the philanthropy theatre is that, in fact, many of these billionaires are actually getting richer. This is due to a variety of factors, most notably that they still hold control over the means of production. In other words, they are continuing to hold on to the very mechanisms that caused all of these societal problems and continue to profit off of them. Bezos and Gates may no longer be managing day-to-day operations at the companies they founded, but they do still profit off of their work by retaining their shares in the company. The money that they are giving away is being returned to them through the exploited labor of their workers. In addition, many of their philanthropic donations are tax deductible, which allows them to lower their tax burdens which, in turn, helps them protect their wealth. In this sense, philanthropy is both an act of “moral laundering” and of more traditional money laundering. They are giving away some of their money so that they can get it back in more “reputable” forms of capital such as tax refunds. This process also taxes away tax revenue, meaning that to a certain extent, the average taxpayer is actually subsidizing the so-called charitable work of these billionaires. 

For example, in an article written by Forbes about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to donate 99 percent of his stock to a “charitable” entity that he and his wife led, they note: “Donating appreciated stock is a much better tax move than selling it and donating the sales proceeds. After all, by donating the stock, the gain he would have experienced on selling it is never taxed. The donee organization can either hold or sell the stock. But since it is a tax-qualified charity, if it sells the stock it pays no tax regardless of how big the gain. And since Mr. Zuckerberg will get credit on his tax return for the market value of what he donates, he can use that to shelter billions of other income.” 

Zuckerberg is no exception in this. Gates’ wealth has only increased since he started “giving” it all away. In an investigation of Gates’ philanthropy, the Nation remarked that “Bill Gates’s outsize charitable giving—​$36 billion to date—has created a blinding halo effect around his philanthropic work, as many of the institutions best placed to scrutinize his foundation are now funded by Gates, including academic think tanks that churn out uncritical reviews of its charitable efforts and news outlets that praise its giving or pass on investigating its influence.”

In addition, it should also be noted how laughably small the scale of this “philanthropy” actually is. Gates and Warren Buffet, for example, have pledged to give away at least half of their wealth (a pledge that has not come even close to being met in the 11 years since they made it). Even if they were serious about this (and, again, Gates is now richer than he was when he started), it would still leave Bill Gates with $60 billion and Buffett with $40 billion. When thinking about this, one is reminded of the famous Malcolm X quote about progress: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.” The uber-rich becoming slightly less rich is not progress. Progress is expropriating the rich and giving their wealth back to the people who created it: their workers. That is how we will solve the ills of society, by directly attacking the system that created them. 

There is no solution to hunger, homelessness, disease, and all the other things that plague society as long as capitalism continues to rule. All of our work in combating these ills must keep that as the goal because feeding a few hungry people doesn’t solve hunger any more than housing a few unhoused people solves homelessness. We should, of course, work to protect, feed, and house members of our communities, but that isn’t enough. We can’t just fight for things to get a little bit better; we must fight for the systems that oppress, starve, imprison, exploit, and kill us to fall. Jeff Bezos and his ilk are our sworn enemies in that fight and we should not let their theatrics fool us. Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy is rotten to the core, just like the whole system of philanthropy. We must reject him and all of our other fake benefactors who give with one hand and take twice over with the other.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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