The Poor Must Seize the Charities

It is not enough to mitigate the worst aspects of poverty. We should instead seek to harness the potential of direct aid to create organizations which aim to abolish the conditions which make that aid necessary. Vulnerability has three important dimensions: individual, social and programmatic. These are interlinked and one influences the other. Individual vulnerability refers to biological, emotional and cognitive aspects of the individual. Social vulnerability is characterized by cultural, social and economic aspects that determine the opportunities to access goods and services, whereas programmatic vulnerability consists of the social resources that are necessary for the protection of the individual in relation to risks and integrity, as well as to physical, social and psychological well-being. For example, charities should not only help homeless, but also prevent homelessness and bring opportunities to vulnerable people, such that the poor might be empowered by their own efforts and not by what others do for them.

In 1801, the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act was passed to facilitate the seizure of ‘common’ land that was under the control of the lord of the manor, even though historically such rights as pasture were variously held by all manorial tenants. The tenants displaced by the process often left the countryside to work in the towns. This made the industrial revolution possible – at the very moment new technological advances required large numbers of workers, a concentration of large numbers of people in need of work had emerged – former country tenants and their descendants became workers in industrial factories within cities. In 1832 William Forster Lloyd, a political economist at Oxford University, looking at the recurring devastation of common (i.e., not privately controlled) pastures in England, asked: “Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining inclosures?”1

Regardless of what the apologists claim, the market was not a spontaneous creation of blind economic laws; neither is it an ahistorical institution as old as humanity itself. Rather, the capitalist market emerged in Europe in the sixteenth century as a qualitative extension of the simple commodity mode of production that had existed as a subordinate part within all class societies. Capitalism’s genesis dates back to the sixteenth-century English countryside, when the common land of peasants was effectively privatized and, for the first time in human history, people were forced to rely on the market for subsistence. Over the next two centuries, as land enclosures continued and workers were forced to sell their labor under threat of starvation, industrial capitalism emerged. This novel system created a material abundance the likes of which the world had never seen. Between the beginning and end of the nineteenth century, production per person increased exponentially.

At the same time England’s peasants were being transformed into an urban proletariat and children were losing their parents to coal-pit accidents and their arms to the gears of mechanical weavers, the bourgeoisie of London built the first orphanages and public hospitals. By the nineteenth century, poorhouses for the disabled and centers for the distribution of unused and spoiled food had been established in every major industrial city. But if these philanthropic ventures balmed the broken hearts of the bourgeoisie, they did nothing to alter the structural privation to which they were responding. But, as Wilde notes, “this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty.” Charity, if it soothes the soul and provides a degree of sustenance the economy denies, buttresses the same system responsible for the impoverishment. Homeless shelters and breadlines do not challenge the existing social order; the philanthropic sentiment behind them has always been a corollary of capitalism.

The Gospel of Wealth, an article written by American steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie in 1889, argues that the wealthy can undermine social protest by donating to worthy causes. Carnegie rejected demands to raise wages and living standards because that would cut into profits. He preferred to create “opportunities for people to better themselves”. Of course, these opportunities should be profitable or promote profit-making. Instead of giving money to governments, Carnegie advised the rich to establish charitable foundations so they could shape society in a pro-business direction. Oil magnate JD Rockefeller embraced this strategy, insisting that “the evils of society are not fundamentally economic but are physical and moral. They are to be cured by improvement in the public health and in the public morals.” Reducing social problems to biological defects embeds racism in medical research, education, and treatment.

The Rockefeller philanthropic institutions insisted that medicine be “scientific” and place biology at the root of disease. Defining “scientific” as biological means that social factors can be dismissed as ideological and therefore not scientific. In the early 1900s capitalist philanthropic foundations backed academics from top universities to promote “race science” and ultimately eugenics to eliminate the “socially unfit”. In 1910 Carnegie and Harriman philanthropic foundations funded Charles Davenport (1866-1944), a professor of biology at Harvard University, to document the hereditary basis of poverty and inequality. Davenport’s Eugenics Records Office was instrumental in shaping the two arms of American eugenics policy: forced sterilization and racist immigration controls. By 1935 more than 20,000 people in the US had been forcibly sterilized for belonging to the “socially inadequate classes” which included delinquents, alcoholics, drug addicts, the sick and disabled, paupers, orphans, the unemployed and those who scored low on an IQ test.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when protest movements identified social conditions as a cause of poor health, the Rockefeller Foundation countered with a 1975 conference to set a “new direction” for health policy, condemning “irresponsible individuals” who indulge in “sickness-promoting behaviours” and burden “responsible” people with higher taxes. Rockefeller policy papers formed the basis of the US government’s report, Healthy People: The Surgeon General’s Report on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (1979). “Personal excesses” were blamed for “runaway health costs”, and the public was instructed to eat healthy, get active, stop smoking, drink responsibly, say no to drugs, abstain from sex, work safely, etc. Capitalists never give money away without strings attached. Providing “a hand-up instead of a hand-out” promotes the belief that people are poor because they lack opportunity and social support, not because the capitalist class hoards the surplus.2

In 1984, Charles Murray published Losing Ground. Its central thesis was that all government welfare programs should be abolished, supposedly because welfare hurt the very people it was intended to help by “rewarding bad behavior” such as “illegitimate babies.” Murray also called for ending food stamp programs. Murray’s manipulation of data claimed to show welfare programs were the cause of minority poverty, rather than the cure. In order to get the numbers to work to “prove” that liberal social welfare spending created poverty, Murray excluded government spending on the elderly from his “evidence.” As Lester Thurow, former dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management noted, 86% of federal social welfare spending went to programs to help the elderly; and the poverty rate for the elderly dropped from 25.3% in 1969 to 14.1% in 1983, refuting Murray’s thesis. There is no science to support Murray’s social Darwinism ideas that the economic elite exploit to persuade themselves they acquired their wealth through merit.3

One of the political functions of the safety nets of the New Deal includes promoting political stability. The redistribution of income downward and the expansion of the welfare state eased discontent among the disadvantaged, legitimized ‘the system’ as fair, and otherwise contributed to electoral calm and business profits. However, neoliberalism is fundamentally hostile to social welfare programs. In 2000 Jeb Bush summarized neoliberal thought: “True compassion means suffering with the poor and acting on the consciousness of your suffering – and we should shift power away from the bureaucracy to the people in the compassionate community, who actually deal with these problems.” Bush promotes charitable choice as neoliberal social welfare strategy. The impact of 30 years of neoliberalism is diminished social, economic and political functions of the welfare state, as redistributing income upwards continues to take its toll.

The intensification of both poverty and private aid is no coincidence. George W. Bush encouraged charitable giving at the same time he cut tax rates for top earners and reduced welfare spending. In Latin America, charitable NGOs serve as the auxiliary troops of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs, redirecting popular discontent over slashed public spending into apolitical, often US-funded relief. Charity, by contrast, creates a relationship that compromises the humanity of both parties. It humiliates the recipient at the same time it gratifies the giver. The proper response to the suffering around us is not sympathy but anger, and with it, a commitment to political solidarity. What we need is a society that doesn’t force people to live on the streets or beg for a meal. Indigence is not a thing to be pitied, it is a condition to be organized against and abolished. The recipients of charity don’t need more pocket change – rather a system to harness direct aide to create organizations with the potential to abolish the conditions that make that aid necessary.

We must recognize charities on the grounds that such organizations are merely trying to deal with the symptoms of capitalism rather than capitalism itself. Thus, the government is very happy to relinquish this chore of providing essential services to charities eager to pick up the slack, as they slash previously funded safety nets. One important goal is for charities to help the vulnerable – their service users – to make the most of their lives. However, ownership only becomes a worthy goal if it is something worth owning, such as control of their development. It is necessary to help the vulnerable take ownership of the charities in order to take ownership of their future. This includes helping the poor develop leadership in order to control the process. The poor must seize the charities and, in turn, advocate for direct aid that is necessary for protection against the risk of – individual, social, programmatic – vulnerabilities.

1 From a Discussion of Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin.

2 Rosenthal, Susan. (May 2015) Socialist Review.

3 Ideas Have Consequences: the Explosion of Inequality (1 Oct 2017)


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