Friday, May 04, 2012

Expression of a Distant Destruction

In the most recent edition of Jacobin, Curtis White has an interesting article about philanthropic foundations and their uneasy relationship with progressive movements, "The Philanthropic Complex". It's a pretty good read. The following passage appears midway through the piece:
They do not have to justify the origins of their wealth, or how they use that wealth, or what the real benefit of their largesse is.
In the end, what the foundation can be trusted to understand is not forest health, or climate change, or the imperatives of recycling; what it can be trusted to understand is the thing that gives it its privileges: its endowment.  Unfortunately, managing how the endowment is invested often leads to conflicts with the stated social purpose of the foundation.

For example, one of the emerging controversies in the world of private philanthropy is the 95-5 question.  Foundations are required to give away just 5% of their endowment each year.  The other 95% is invested.  But invested where?  Environmentalists are particularly sensitive to this question because if the money is invested in companies that continue to pollute, you have a very disturbing reality.  5% does (theoretical) good while 95% does demonstrable bad: chasing profits in the same old dirty and irresponsible way.
This issue came to a head when the Los Angeles Times concluded a long investigation into the investment practices of foundations by revealing that the Gates Foundation funded a polio vaccination clinic in Ebocha, Nigeria, in the shadow of a giant petroleum processing plant in which the Gates Foundation was invested.

The Los Angeles Times report states:
But polio is not the only threat Justice [a Nigerian child] faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it “the cough.” People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Say what you like about the need to invest wisely for the future of the foundation, but this is prima facie evidence of a deep moral conflict not just at Gates but in all of private philanthropy.  The simple fact is that most boards actually don’t know if their investments and their missions align.  When pushed on the matter, most foundations respond as Gates did:  investments are the foundation’s private concern and no business of ours.

But the problem remains, when organizations receive funding, what confidence do they have that this happy money is not itself the expression of a distant destruction?  (Perhaps your funder owns stock in British Petroleum.  Of course, for the people of Louisiana, that’s anything but distant.)  When philanthropy proceeds without acknowledging this reality, it proceeds without conscience.  It proceeds pathologically.  It destroys the thing it claims to love.  And it makes the organizations it funds complicit.
These are important points to make, and I quoted White at length here to present some of the movement of his argument, but I want to say this: there is no such thing as significant wealth that "is not itself the expression of a distant destruction". There's not! Investments and positive missions cannot ever align! Capitalism requires destruction. Accumulations of wealth, of capital, means dispossession, theft, someone somewhere getting enclosed, robbed, impoverished, maimed, killed. That's the whole game! Our continuing ability to pretend that it's possible to somehow reform into existence, or big money into existence, our allegedly desired better world is amazing.


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