It started long ago but was suddenly propelled forward after the 2008 financial crash and the bailout of some of the financial market’s worst offenders. It gathered speed during a decade of quantitative easing (QE). The wealth gap is now a permanent part of our landscape and keeps growing in a global economy increasingly dominated by financialized capitalism.
QE was very simply a way of gifting unlimited quantities of money to the wealthy. Money is profitable in ways that labor and capital can never rival. They both require considerable effort to invent, produce and sell. Money produces more money just by being there. Warren Buffett has never failed to express the metaphysical awe he feels when pondering the greatest mystery in the universe: the power of compound interest.
Over the past 15 years, the world has witnessed an unprecedented growth in the class of billionaires and multimillionaires. These are people who don’t have to work very hard, but they do have to think strategically. Having accumulated the kind of wealth that keeps producing more wealth, they discover two precious opportunities no one concerned with survival will ever have the leisure to think about.
The first derives from their awareness that that the rest of humanity doesn’t have it quite so easy. The logic of the capitalist system tells them that to help the struggling masses they can spend some of their money on activities that create jobs. But that can’t meet all of humanity’s needs and it certainly can’t take precedence over playing with money itself.
The second less talked about opportunity relates to responding to a far more significant problem in our Age of Information: that being too ostentatiously wealthy can look bad from a public relations (PR) point of view. When you have cash to play with, there can be no better investment than PR.
Image management has become a top priority for the hyper-rich. Wealth turns individuals into brands. Brands must be managed, ideally with a sense of military discipline. Any respectable wealthy person will constitute a general staff consisting of a group of advisers dedicated to defending the brand. This will include an asset manager, one or more very expensive lawyers and the various people whose job it is to manage the brand.
A century ago the greatest PR geniuses provided the goose that lays literally golden eggs. Its name is philanthropy. In today’s age of virtue signalling, philanthropy appears to signal the two most admired virtues in theory, if not in practice: empathy and generosity. The corporate media will unhesitatingly lap it up because it sends the message that even if, contrary to Gordon Gekko’s credo, greed is not good, the outcome of greed will always be deemed good. The heroic generosity of the most active and public philanthropists will always provide the kind of feel-good story people want to hear.
But some who work in the philanthropy business itself – though not the billionaires themselves – have stopped feeling so good about their own activity. The Guardian reports that one philanthropic organization has decided to “abolish itself” because it now realizes that philanthropy has become “a function of colonial capitalism.” It has announced its intention to close its doors and distribute its wealth estimated at £130 million.
“Lankelly Chase, which gives out about £13m a year in grants to hundreds of charities operating in areas such as social, racial and climate justice, said it wanted to find bold new alternatives to what it called philanthropy’s ‘cult of benevolence.’”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Literally, according to its Latin origin, wishing well or good will (bene = well, volo = wish). In current usage, a strategic attitude adopted by the wealthy to both excuse the illicit origins of their wealth and gain control of sectors of the economy.
Given its focus on “social, racial and climate justice,” this decision makes sense for the agents of philanthropy at Lankelly Chase. It reflects a recent annoying trend, the growing awareness of historical context. History might, after all, tell us a little about who we are and what our decisions are worth. This penchant for taking history into account represtents a trend that many are actively resisting. The propaganda around the Ukraine war illustrates this. Numerous politicians and pundits deem that even thinking about events that took place before February 2022 is an affront.
The reigning orthodoxy in the culture of industrial capitalism traditionally dismisses the facts of history as irrelevant. This ideology has consistently promoted the idea not just that the past is dead, but that pondering it is unproductive. Dwelling on history merely distracts us from the business of ensuring our future prosperity. We live for progress. No one, according to this mindset, has time for William Faulkner’s remark that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But Faulkner was right. As a society, we are structured by our past. It is always with us, even when we deny it. In the political economy, the same politicians and pundits who insist on the importance of maintaining a “rules-based order” are committed to keeping the momentum of the past alive. We must protect what the past has created, but we must not think about how it was created.
We can see another example of this phenomenon in the current debate concerning the global food security crisis. To explain it, the experts cite the damage done to supply chains by the pandemic and subsequently by the war in Ukraine. An attention to history, if anyone cared to pursue it, would reveal the deeper causes.
The economist Michael Hudson has consistently pointed out that the World Bank, one of the pillars of the vaunted rules-based order, sought from the very beginning “to make other countries dependent on American agriculture.” This policy was cleverly and rationally designed to prevent the nations of the developing world from feeding themselves. Instead, the World Bank funded the development of plantation crops for export. This served the interests of the West’s consumer society while export generated cash (dollars, of course) for the Third World, allowing those nations to purchase more expensive goods and services from the West.
The framers of the post-World War II world order believed this was the most rational way of decolonizing the formerly dependent nations of the Global South. It did the opposite. It refashioned and perpetuated the logic of extraction inherent in every European colonial program. But this time, instead of doing it through colonial control, it did so with the benediction of newly designed international institutions.
The majority of the world’s nations are only now beginning to articulate, with regard to the rules of the global economy, the same message Lankelly Chase’s has expressed concerning philanthropy.
During the Gilded Age in the late 19th and early 20th century, industrial capitalism fostered obscene levels of wealth for the families of successful capitalists. Critics contemporaneously referred to them as “Robber Barons,” a new aristocracy not of birth or of taste, but of wealth alone.
Aware of the risk, the robber barons initially sought to earn aristocratic credentials by buying up traditional Old World art and even architecture to put on display, at least to show that they too adhered to civilized values. But such displays of wealth failed to convince the average working citizen that these upstarts were capable of embodying the kind of public virtues aristocrats were formerly expected to embody as Europe’s ruling class. On the contrary, because this class of nouveaux riches grew their wealth by extracting maximum profit from the labor of the new working class, they projected an image of personal greed coupled with a cold indifference to the conditions in which their wealth was produced.
One dramatic incident in 1914 brought about a definitive change in strategy. Faced with the disastrous fallout from the Ludlow Massacre of striking miners in 1914 in which 20 people were killed, Standard Oil tycoon John D Rockefeller called in publicist Ivy Lee specifically to improve the public image of the Rockefeller family. The magical solution consisted of getting the media to celebrate John D’s philanthropic activities.
Rockefeller quickly earned the title of “the world’s greatest philanthropist” (NY Times). Pathé News described him as “deeply interested in his fellow men,” a “public benefactor devoting millions to science, education and philanthropy.” The shameless, bullying monopolist thus provided the template for future “rehabilitations” of people capable of turning careers that began as greedy bastards – the modern translation of “robber barons” – into heroes of do-gooding.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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