Charitable giving

Charitable giving

An investigation in a national newspaper has found that charitable donations have been in free-fall as the number of donors crumbles due to the credit crunch. The general response has been to urge the great and the good to open their hearts, and their pockets to save the day. How quaint, to believe that in the face of capital loss people will band together in solidarity to help out the weak...

"It's a nice idea but it'll never work." That's the killer sentence which is thrown at anarchists time and again by people trying to justify capitalism. Yet year after year, these same people either rely on, or probably give time/money to, a vast network of aid organisations which aim to put a bandage on the worst excesses of their favoured 'ism'.

Recently, it emerged that this system is falling over, and with it the bizarre capitalist belief that while we can't trust people to run their own affairs in their own best interests as a mass, we can rely on the altruism of the world's greediest tycoons to save from destitution the very people they trampled on their way to the top.

The best response the mainstream press can come up with is an appeal to give more and give often. But give what? The reason we have a problem is that at the core of capitalism is a mountain of bad debts and false lending worth several times what is actually in the bank to pay for it. There is no money. The financial illusionist has said 'ta-da', waved his wand and is waiting for his round of applause as it transpires there never was any.

Such a simplistic call masks the real nature of charity and its role in society, and fails to show logically why a failure of such is so terrifying to at least some sections of the ruling elite. The travails of the poor are certainly not something which has bothered them while they were paying paramilitaries to murder unionists, buying blood diamonds, displacing millions of people to get at ores for mobile phones or any of the other myriad of despicable activities they've been willing partners to over the years.

Charity is not, as some might have it, an example of the genuine goodness of the captains of industry, reinforcing their right to lord it over the rest of us unruly plebs (statistically, they actually give far smaller percentages of their income than the poor). Nor is it solely - though there is certainly an element there - a matter of people feeling guilty about their own fortune.

The real problem with a fall in charity giving is that it drops the absolute poorest below the breadline - into territory where they have nothing left to lose. As much as the state's own benefits system came into being on the back of real fear about what the working classes might do should they be left with nothing at all, charity - now worth some £30bn annually in the UK - functions as a means to supplement the poor just enough to avoid having them organise themselves.

Charity has been a bugbear of anarchists for generations. It is dis-empowering, condescending, re-enforces class hierarchies and defines the rich as 'good' benefactors, the poor as 'bad' scroungers. It creates dependence if it is not directed towards sustainable solutions and puts a kind mask on a monstrous society of systemic inequality.

More than that, the way in which it is given can be abhorrent, including not just corruption and reclaimation of funds - look at the percentages of money actually spent on the front line in most major charities - but its use, as with certain religious aid charities, perpetuates nasty little hidden agendas.

In the UK, it has been tied irrevocably into the fortunes of the state itself, with the Charities Commission carefully regulating who can and can't found one - church groups can, companies and governmental departments can be proud sponsors, but political groups are strictly forbidden.

As such, the state acts as the 'giver' of charitable recognition, a powerful means of utilising charities for their benefit - and blocking criticism of the system itself. In recent years, it has gone even further, tying charities to governmental apron-strings by directly funding them to run mental health facilities, homeless schemes and drug rehab projects, even prisons.

By doing so, the state is able to wash its hands of direct involvement, while mobilising the guilty masses into volunteering the same work for free that they had previously been doing for money and crucially, retaining control as the sole service procurer. It's difficult to argue for better conditions when you're being told 'whatever we pay you comes out of the solution to the problems of the poorest people on earth'.

Yet while this merry-go-round is ongoing, capitalism keeps creating a vast array of problems which charity then has to continually 'solve' (or more likely, patch up as best they can), a process which Peter Kropotkin in his 1906 work (yes this was first pointed out a century ago) Conquest of Bread noted was the idea of "wounding first and healing afterwards".

I will leave you with a quote by Joseph Lane from even further back, 1887, from his An anti-statist communist manifesto :

The only remedy for their misery, poverty and constant unemployment is the destruction of a system that puts it in the power of an idle class to employ and enslave the workers, and at best to dole out a small portion of their stolen wealth as charity to those who have produced it all when starving, and that no permanent good can be done for them by relief works, charity, or, in fact, anything under our competitive commercial system, with all the means of producing wealth monopolised.

Until capitalism goes, all we're doing is picking at the bones thrown over our masters' shoulders. Too true.

More links:

Panopticism in 1977 by Foucault - in which he examines how the charities of France have acted to bolster religious, economic and political aims since monarchical times.

Thesis: Just Take from the Rich and give to the poor is a reformist but interesting look at the effects of charitable giving, highlighting the devastating psychological impact on individuals who are forced to live on handouts.

Paul Theroux In the New York Times makes some good points about how aid to Africa will be a fundamentally bottomless pit using the example of how US doctors are sent over to teach in Malawi - yet their Malawian students then move to the US where their skills are in high demand, leaving the country not only lacking in money, but losing some of its smartest people to the very country which is supposed to be helping them.

Insurgent Desire carry an excellent critique of the Food Not Bombs phenomenon.

Posted By

Rob Ray
Dec 21 2008 14:32


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Dec 21 2008 15:42

Your post touches on this, that the charity sector now is often just used as a way of providing privatisation on the cheap. Contracting out state services to the voluntary sector with workers who are less organised and on lower pay and conditions.. We have an article on some of this stuff here:

Caiman del Barrio
Dec 21 2008 17:54

Anyone know anything about charitable donations being beneficial to business for tax purposes?

Dec 22 2008 00:38

I don't know about beneficial, but they don't have to pay tax on charitable donations, so the donations they give effectively are much smaller than they appeared to be.

Organisations also get a big PR boost, which has financial benefits. I used to work for shelter, the housing charity. Their biggest corporate donors are mortgage lenders like Halifax, who evict people from their homes (many of whom may then become shelter clients)