Thou Shalt not Politicize: On the Relationship between Politics & Philanthropy

Thou Shalt not Politicize: On the Relationship between Politics & Philanthropy

In an insightful article on the current state of politicization of large donors in political affairs worldwide, Benjamin Soskis of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute explores critical themes surrounding politics and philanthropy that it is very important that we as a society confront and think clearly about. It is this latter point, that of thinking clearly that Soskis’s article makes a good effort at, and to which I’d like to add, as well as share a few minor differences of perspective. Namely, I would like to turn the popular interdiction against the politicization of philanthropy on it head. I propose that once we've done so, a fertile ground of discussion and practice can finally open up where now there is merely political evasion and an intellectual barrenness.[1]

Counter Conspiracy

“Conspiracy theories about Soros obscure the real concerns about how large-scale giving works today”. - B. Soskis

One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century will be that of navigating belief where the proliferation of mediums of deception and self-deception[2] have exploded in a way that is unprecedented. The issue of deception and knowledge of course has always been a challenge. Some of the earliest surviving quotes and writings from civilizations spanning ancient Greece, ancient China, and Babylonians and Vedic texts deal explicitly with the omnipresence of deceptive forces and agents in the lives of those societies. We learn from these tales and admonitions to be wary of those that would divide our in-groups, that seek to corrupt them, to be wary of those that take one off of "righteous" paths, or that do not share collectively agreed upon interests. We also hear and learn of deception as a tool related to social and individual strategy (e.g. Thucydides, various Chinese works from Ban Gu to Zuo Qiuming, or even folk traditions invoking tricksters from the Upper Volta or Guro). In both it's passive and active aspects, we only see a reduction in concern for deception in constructed environments and negotiated arrangements that control either contractually or normatively (and always only to the extents possible), the variety of risks, and even then the outright appearance of troubling deceptive forces is reduced in terms of frequency.

We, like our ancestors, live in a world in which we are surrounded by potential deception. Thus, the reminder from Soskis is important because, like our ancestors, we so easily forget without such constant reminders, that the potential for deception and threat never disappears. The question framed as such becomes one of adequately managing belief and what one feels one knows.

The digital age both provides us with near unlimited “information” but also a sense of overload/overwhelm, to which the response of many has become a passive generalized half-trust/distrust of all information. The conditions of the conspiratorial response are now general and omnipresent. For many, when ones’ request commands for truth bring murky results, the response becomes one of antipathy for the idea of “truth”. This isn’t actually surprising when we again ground this phenomenon in history. In modern history, we’ve taken great steps to inculcate understanding and appreciation of disciplines the likes of logic, epistemology, and the scientific method undergirding the study of the sciences --by which I refer to the bases of the acts of analyzing and sorting through epistemological garbage and noise-- but it must be understood that these are projects for the creation of cultures with these understandings and appreciations, not characteristics of our modern societies that have ever reached very far beyond academia.

Conspiracy is and has always been a very prevalent norm, made immanently noticeable in absence of the consolidation of the various types of collective authority (religious, political, or cultural) that could historically influence belief broadly across major swaths of our societies. I say all of this, not to normalize it but in an attempt to dispel the notion that this phenomenon and threat to methods of deriving and recognizing facts, is either temporary or new. The impulse serves a positive function, as it has for our species for many millennia. Our key problem is to work this positive impulse into something that can benefit from the powers and capacities of strategic engagement with the world afforded by things like logical methods/heuristics, scientific methods, mathematical reasoning and productive forms of skeptical empiricism.

Politics and Politicization

Many talented authors and scholars write today about various aspects of the “truths” of philanthropists and their ideas of their philanthropic endeavors, such as Soskis does with the case of Soros, even if I disagree with the framing of much of them, but because of this oversaturation of discussion, I will not concern myself with those truths here, but rather the pressing issues of deception, legitimacy and politics. These three different areas —1) concern for deception; 2) concern for legitimacy; and 3) politics— which I note as pillars of concern Soskis’s article on the politization of the philanthropy of Soros, happen to also be key, but non-exclusive elements of social co-existence in general, each of which circle around the others as mutually intertwining factors of social behavior and conditions of cooperation.[3]

As introduced in the article, the first pertains to the acts of intentional deception either on the part of the philanthropist as to his or her aims and objectives, the nature and outcomes of their efforts or conversely on the part of forces of counter-power in reaction to the project of the philanthropist (henceforth, for purposes of distinguishing my sense from the colloquial use of this term, "philanthropic actor"). Deception is a power or capacity of any type of complex organism with the capacity for adaptation in a social aggregate. And just as it exists as a means of survival, the weaponization of deception is and has always been a means of damaging or preying on targets and enemies. In the realm of giving, deception takes on fertile ground, not because the act of the giving itself is questionable, but because it leads us to re-evaluate the nature of our relationship to the giver or the implications of that which is given to the giver. Or if it's between third parties, we question the nature of those relations, between the parties and what that means for us. If, as Hume demonstrates in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, relations precede and define their terms, then actions designed to transform relations has implications for what the terms ("givers" and "receivers") actually become. Deception bothers and disturbs us to our core because it hinders our ability to fix threat from non-threat. Terms are forever in movement. But it also signals our own powers to deceive and our recognition of the threat of others being held parallalel to our capacity to be a threat to them.

Images, those others have of us and those we have or confer on others, are "political". We do not generally speaking give them this label however until they meet the specific criteria of disturbing a given social order --even if the extent of a given "order" is limited to ones' own mental ecosystem, a social grouping, or grupuscule. Images, as the name for the endless flow of impressions we receive about the objects and constituents that make up worlds, affect what we call to mind when we hear the name of someone labeled "philanthropist" or when we see or read of someone engaging in philanthropic acts. One image is associated with endless others, bringing to mind impressions, sometimes vague, other times quite distinct. Equally complicating the nature of images are enunciative associations that tie an image with varying levels of legitimacy or authority (these two never quite being synonymous) depending on the nature of the source to us or quantity of distinct sources as recipients of the impression. The legitimacy itself of an action, project, or philanthropic actor him or herself is thus dependent on images over which no one ever has complete control of the final "say". But, one could object in typical Aristotelian fashion, that for every image received, there are underlying "facts" and "truths" that one could defend. Perhaps, but these facts and truths will compete equally as images. They will be impressions either received or not received by the multitude, who if such images and impressions stick, take said impressions as a basis from which their decisions are made and lives are led. In short, there is a soft battle occurring in each instant, to leave impressions, to undermine them, to challenge them.

What exactly does it mean for philanthropy to be politicized?

It might be tempting to state that the politicization of philanthropy means we are speaking frankly about stakes involved in its practice, but that is not necessarily the case. Most often, the tendency is to focus on and weaponize subtracted, partial images for the sake of a position on the subtracted images perceived as being favorable to us or disfavorable to a perceived threat or enemy. Whether one perceives Soros as a threat to the hegemony of certain old world powers, whether one perceived the more secretive giving by the Mercer family or Peter Thiel to be a threat to democracy or whether one perceives social justice philanthropy as being a threat to ones’ hegemonic social privileges, the idea is all the same. In these particular types of cases, a perception may have degrees of accuracy or no, but the presentation of holistic image is not really the goal with these types of snapshots. In fact, there is a difference in kind of the transmittal of images that we may outline below.

Both partial and englobing images present types of politicking that may take place in a given field, whether one calls them alternatives like revisionist vs revolutionary, deconstructing vs reconstructing, or judgment (in its Nietzschean sense) vs creation. Both types may represent efforts to shake a given social order by challenging the legitimacy of some thing or in the act of promoting the legitimacy of something else. The former attempts to push without oneself moving, the other pushes and re-sees itself simultaneously or pushes precisely though the re-seeing of the space.

Democracy / The Realities of Strings & Power

At any rate, what binds any such critique for our purposes here is the presence of this particular type of figure of philanthropy characterized by a monetary wealth. It's a figure that has taken over the word despite often dubious connection with an idea of a philanthropic outcome. There is in this type always a use of capital for the purpose of mobilizing specific social outcomes instead of the direct reproduction of monetary capital. In some instances, it can serve as counter-power --meaning attempting to shift specific power dynamics in a social setting-- in other instances it can be merely neutral --as when one gives ineffectively, or with no intention of changing anything in any earnestness--, or pro-power --attempting to reinforce ones’ basis of power or capital. Pro-power acts misjudged as "philanthropic" can often jump spheres of capital: e.g. C - M - G - C2,C3, where G = a “giving” that plays a role nearly synonymous with that of P (production) except that a surplus value isn't generated from the realization of an exchange value, and Cn may be forms of social or symbolic capital (in Bourdieu's sense of the word) and social legitimacy covertable back to C'. While one commonly distinguishes "the philanthropist" from "she who does good" by level of monetary wealth, the reality is that such distinctions serve only to mystify the qualitative differences in kind in what is being created and destroyed in what may be perceived as "philanthropic" acts. It also creates the appearance that only larger-scale and molar giving has tangible impact. But just as large-scale giving can fail to create any persisting and transisting change, so too can the seemingly imperceptible persist and transist. Until one addresses the issue of conditions of distinctions in kind between representationally similar acts of "charitability", noteworthy differentiations will remain covered over by mystifying language. An example of this mystification surrounds what specifically constitutes a philanthropic act, as distinct from an act of the reproduction of means of production, circulation and consumption under capital's command and in terms of informational and attention based economic activity, the production and reproduction of the production of subjectivity and subjectivation.[4]

A hint at a distinction in recent philosophical commentary comes from Slavoj Žižek, in his opposition to the proposal of Bill Gates to mold more "Good Billionaires"[5]. It is not enough for the Soros's and Gates's of the world to give away their fortunes, to decry the pitfalls and crises provoked by capitalism, he would say. The reasons we would agree with him is that firstly, the concentration of capital in the hands of a few individuals is a threat to the sustainability of democracy. Capital, as a means of command can corrupt the very institutions that govern a demos in systems of governance lacking robust controls and systems of accountability. A nation that once prided itself on its system of checks and balances, the United States, sees itself today enthralled in rampant corruption and ever shifting movements of influence bought by uncontrolled flows of money, quietly substituting former ideals of its' democratic republic to more cynical and farcical similacra of itself. The superwealthy are rightfully singled out not because they do not have the power to do good, but precisely because that power has no distinct function as a force for good. It has a much greater ability vis a vis what is afforded the average citizen in a western nation, to do as it wills: with person X, perhaps we see a few random acts of good, however person Y can, if sufficiently strategic, wrest control of or wreak catastrophic effects across large geographies. The second reason we would agree relates to one of the first things mentioned here regarding the relation between knowns and images. Insofar as the field of economics is itself known through images subject to the influence of schools, institutions, think tanks themselves under the command of capital, certain States have, through strategic circuitous arrangements of absence and laissez faire rule through private capital, seen great success in the weaponizing of images favorable for the maintenance of the established order under false or deceptive narratives (images) of anything challenging its hegemony. These States, through its legislative and judicial apparatuses harness a veritable ecosystem of corporations, "freely" funded institutions, "independent" universities and "independent" news media for the production and reproduction of the functional exploitation of the demos and a functional disregarding and sidelining by States of those excluded from, or at the margins of that demos.

A New Semantic

Let to us propose two preliminary evaluative distinctions in advancing the idea of a "new semantic", such as that which Žižek calls for. The first is the one most are least precise about, the nexus of capital. The "giving" of donors that serves the purpose of prolonging, extending or giving new life to exploitation cannot in any reasonable sense be described as philanthropic insofar as it fails to create a novel non-exclusivable value to the world. Giving by the wealthy, for example, meant to develop variable capital and future consumers in the developing world in conjunction with the CSR programs of eagerly awaiting multinationals should be called what it is, capital investments necessary for the production of means of consumption/production, as the case may be. It will perhaps be called cruel to deny acts in which particular individuals end up "better off" from an act of giving. But the proper response is that capitalism has always had it "feel good moments" and "heartwarming" promotions of charity. However, capital by definition implies a use of exchangeable wealth for the purpose of the extraction of a surplus value, thus a form of subjection to a network of apparatuses and institutions in which there are socio-historical ossifications and reifications of dominators and the dominated in matters of the demos. So, here the semantic call is for clarity in the meaning of "value" beyond: 1) capital; and 2) appearances of local value that net globally as losses.

The second distinction involves the previously mentioned issue of "power", which is of course present in relations of capital, but which represents a much broader category of social phenomena. The "giving" of donors either serves the purpose of reproducing sets of hierarchical-relations or it undermines those particular relations. The "giving" of those with sufficient capital "for" an other, existing or to come, serving the purpose of reproducing such relations --e.g. center-periphery relations of global capitalism, included-excluded relations of representative institutions-- , expanding or giving new life to those relations by not increasing power or by decreasing the power--e.g. increasing dependence, weakening the capacity of self-determination-- of those whom the act was done for, would equally fail to meet the criteria of a phil-anthropic act. This type of example, known primarily as an activity of States, is more properly considered an activity of the maintenance of constituted (power) relations. Here the call is for us to maintain clarity on the significance of what an act of giving means for the relations between points or terms.

It is thus that we reiterate that philanthropy is by its very nature political. It's "politicization" in discussion can on the one hand mean an obfuscation of something that challenges a particular state of affairs, but we can equally use such discussions as an opportunity to bring clarity to the ever-changing nature of relations between humanity's constituents.

  1. The title of this piece is named after the powerful essay by Callon, Michel & Latour, Bruno. (2011). “Thou shall not calculate! Or how to symmtricalize gift and capital". Athenea Digital. Revista de pensamiento e investigación social. 11. 171. 10.5565/rev/athenead/v11n1.847. ↩︎

  2. What immediately comes to my mind here is something careful readers of Foucault learn from his work on the mutual presupposition between power and knowledge. Power, contrary to it's conception in other authors, is shown to operate through a transmission/distribution/mobilization of segmentarities and affects, which in turn become the lenses and fields for the development of what is known and experienced for our bodies enveloped in the strata of power. It is thus that self-deception is never experienced as such. We take the segmentarities and affects to be who we are and representative of reality, not the distributions of power or relations betweens forces. Cf. "6 January 1982: First Hour" in Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2001). ↩︎

  3. One of the most commonly cited articles discussing social cooperation is "A Neural Basis for Social Cooperation" authored by James K.Rilling, David A. Gutman, Thorsten R. Zeh, Giuseppe Pagnoni, Gregory S. Berns and Clinton D.Kilts in Neuron, Volume 35, Issue 2, 18 July 2002, Pgs. 395-405. The utility of prisoners dilemma models for questions pertaining to "social cooperation" is that they allow us to strip back assumptions about what forms human habit, and produces scenarios where the strategies of life are allowed to display their own forms of logic as opposed to assuming a generalized logic and applying it to particular social strategies. Potential deception, the legitimacy of established rules (or absense of prior established legitimate social norms of players in such artificial scenarios) and political stakes can each be present in well designed prisoner dilemma models. ↩︎

  4. Among the best summarizations and explanations of the model of production of contemporary tech giants like Facebook and Google can be found in the work of Yann Moulier Boutang, e.g. La abeja y el economista, trad.
    M. Colina & S. Pulido (Traficantes de Sueños: Madrid 2012). On the other hand, amongst the best breakdowns of the idea of the production of subjectivity as conceived by Felix Guattari, c.f. Maurizio Lazarrato, Sign and Machines, trans. J. Jordan (Semiotext(e): Los Angeles, 2014). ↩︎

  5. See Žižek, Slavoj. 2017, ↩︎