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They offer charity instead of justice

By Paul D'Amato | December 8, 2006 | Page 9

"YOU SEEM to really have something against the rich," someone recently asked me. "What about philanthropists like Warren Buffett?"

Warren Buffett, the second richest man in the world, announced recently that he will donate $37 billion of his $44 billion mostly to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation--leaving the poor man a $6 billion pauper.

The press emphasizes Buffett's generosity. They do not bother to ask how it is possible for one man to have such wealth and still have an obscene amount when he gives four-fifths of it away.

The three richest people in the world (Warren, Bill and Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico) have assets exceeding the combined GDP of the 47 poorest countries. Meanwhile, 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day.

Charity does not do away with the conditions that give rise to these disparities. On the contrary, it perpetuates them.

The Irish socialist James Connolly, commenting on famine in British-controlled India, put it well: "Charity...though utterly useless for the purpose of staying the ravages of famine among a population of 36 millions perishing beneath it, yet fulfils the purpose of those who desire to hear their own trumpet blowing and see their names advertised side by side with the elite of society and in company with royalty.

"Above all, it does not interfere with the ceaseless flow of Indian tribute into the coffers of their conquerors. Therefore, justice India must not expect, but charity... she will have."

Buffett is following in the tradition of men like Andrew Carnegie--the 19th century wealthy steel magnate who gave away $7.2 billion (in today's dollars). Carnegie explained in an 1889 article, "The Gospel of Wealth," that the rich man should be "the sole agent and trustee of his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer--doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves."

When asked why instead of giving to charity he didn't pay his workers higher wages, Carnegie explained that he needed to be competitive, and in any case, workers would just "fritter away" extra pay. This "trustee" went to great lengths to keep down wages, hiring an army of 300 Pinkerton guards to attack locked out workers at his steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892.

Carnegie is a perfect example of how for the rich paternalism and ruthlessness go hand in hand. The ruling class wants the working class to beg for handouts from charities, not fight collectively for what is rightfully theirs.

The emphasis on private giving has an ideological component, presenting the illusion that unaccountable private foundations (which also serve as tax havens) can substitute for (and justify cuts in) government social spending. Bush's emphasis on "faith-based" charity is part of a package that includes tax cuts for the rich and other measures that have helped people like Buffett to get rich.

The praise of Buffett separates his act of giving from the means by which he accumulates such staggering amounts of wealth. The reality, in the words of Karl Kautsky, is that "Colossal poverty is the foundation of colossal wealth."

Buffett made his money by ruthless exploitation; buying up companies cheaply, cutting costs and restoring their profitability, or shutting them down and moving on. Along the way, he has laid off thousands of workers.

"People as successful as Buffett don't accumulate $44 billion in wealth through charitable dealing," writes MarketWatch's David Weidner. "Long after the public turned on smoking and health, Buffett infamously explained his investment in the tobacco business: 'It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty.'"

Frederick Engels spoke contemptibly of bourgeois philanthropists who claim to have "rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very life-blood and then...placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them."

One of the great obscenities of capitalism is the charity event where the rich philanthropists get together and pat each other on the back. "Think of cavorting around in a dress suit because some poor wretch is hungry," Eugene Debs wrote in 1902, "and...that in 'fashionable society' the definition of this mixture of inanity and moral perversion is 'charity.' Fleece your fellows! That is 'business,' and you are a captain of industry. Having 'relieved' your victims of their pelts, dance and make merry to 'relieve' their agony. This is 'charity' and you are a philanthropist."

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