The Benevolent Slave-Master: Capitalism Meets Charity

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With what seemed the aim of bringing some life to politics, a couple of years ago the RSA made a series of animations illustrating a number of political ideas. One of these was a cleverly put together filmed drawing of a lecture by the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ Marxist political philosopher Slovaj Zizek in which he discusses his topic: ‘cultural capitalism’ an alleged mutation of capitalism that has seemingly worked its way into our everyday lives. But what exactly is said ‘cultural capitalism’? Does it mark a step forward for capitalism? And is this new form of capitalism truly as charitable as it seems?

‘Global capitalism with a human face’ as Zizek puts it [1]. Charity is no longer a couple of good-guys helping the poor, it has, according to Zizek, become ‘the basic constituent of our economy’, in which consumption and anti-consumerism have been brought together. You don’t just buy a product, increasingly now you buy into a life-style – an ethics. Zizek is critical of this. When we buy Sainsbury’s ethically sourced food, our Toms shoes or free-trade Starbucks skinny macchiato, we are not always helping anyone. Quoting Oscar Wilde’s from his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, Zizek argues that charity does not cure the disease of poverty, but merely prolongs it: ‘The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible’. Cultural capitalism is an extremely clever ploy, again illustrating the momentous robustness of capitalism to reinvent itself and adapt to its environment. It tricks us into buying products by latching onto our inherent sentimentality and care for humanity with the promise that we can now all feel good about buying these products. Walk into any high-street shop today and you will see it. Cereal packets adorned with smiley faces, hands held out full of clean fresh water, or the number of tree you will save when you take your yearly holiday in the Med. It is not that capitalism cares about the greenness of the environment, the clearness of the air or the water quality of the Zambezi river, but that you care, or at least you think you should care about these things. By fusing charity and free enterprise, this new form of capitalism is even more potent. It adds another veneer to the face of capitalism, making it more acceptable.

Linked to cultural-capitalism is what has been termed ‘philanthrocapitalism’ – philanthropy funded by capitalism. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has over 850 staff, projects all over the world and billions to be given away. It has been considerably successful in areas such as alleviating the spread of disease, particularly in regards to AIDS/HIV. However, it has also received criticism of lacking transparency and being completely independent of government [2]. There is also the question of whether charitable individuals and organizations built on the backs of hyper-capitalism are to be trusted with solving the world’s ills. Not to mention the ethnocentric and imperialist scent of it all: set up in the West by white males, dictating the future of people in developing nations.

One person who is deeply sceptical of philanthrocapitalism is the author Michael Edwards who recently wrote a book on the subject entitled, ‘Just Another Emperor? The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism’. Part of his critique is that it is simply a symptom of our unequal world and has yet demonstrated that it can deliver a cure [3]. To stick one’s head out a little, I posit that cultural capitalism and philanthrocapitalism will fail in their professed task of solving the worlds ills, and I have some reservations about the exact intentions of capitalism’s moral foray. Businesses and the global elite will continue to throw money at social programmes and they will resultantly fail because they lack the ability (and desire) to solve the deep- rooted structural, historical problems that cause poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and the like. Many people, such as George Soros and Bill Gates and global companies like McDonalds and Starbucks are undoubtedly acting with good intentions in their charitable endeavours. However, they are the problem not the solution. The project of trying to get capitalism to work for the world is in no way a new thing. Billions of dollars have been thrown to the poor in past decades, yet despite this half the world’s population continue to live on less than $2.50 a day, which surely illustrates a flaw in the aforementioned ‘project’[4].

To go to the logical extreme of Oscar Wilde’s argument, to stop ‘amusing the poor’ [5] as he puts it, is inhumane, but people should be aware that when they contribute, in whichever small way to a philanthro-cultural-capitalist project, they may be contributing rather than alleviating a problem. So, perhaps next time you are queuing in Starbucks, look at that sign adorned with ethically sourced coffee beans and think, ‘am I helping them or merely prolonging their economic situation?’

Article by George Richards. Edited by Simon Renwick.

Further Reading:

[1] Zizek, S. ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ –

[2] Beckett, A. ‘Inside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’ – http://

[3] Edwards, M. ‘Philanthrocapitalism: After the Goldrush’ – http://

[4] Poverty Facts and Statistics –

[5] Wilde, O. ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ –

  • Tom Randall

    Very thought-provoking article. I for one was not completely aware of the disadvantages of philanthrocapitalism, and it’s an interesting new perspective to acknowledge.

    From what I can tell, this article was more of a critique. But it left me craving solutions. How do we systematically go about reconstructing the structural problems of society realistically, and how do we prevent these structural problems reemerging in this new society we like to envision? Can we ever escape structural problems in any societal arrangement?