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‘Changing the World’ Without Changing the World

By Stephen Shenfield March 8, 2019 at 2:28 pm No Comments 3 Min Read

Daniel W. Drezner, The Ideas Industry. Oxford University Press, 2017.

David Callahan, The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 

Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

The capitalist class controls not only the means of production but also many other important spheres of social life. The authors of these books give us close-up views of how capitalists, aided by servitors of various kinds, control two of these spheres: the formulation and dissemination of ‘new’ ideas and the activity that goes by the name of philanthropy (from the Greek words for ‘love’ and ‘human’). Drezner examines the ‘ideas industry’ and Callahan philanthropy; Giridharadas provides an overview of both.

By and large, these authors focus on just one of the two wings of today’s capitalist class – the so-called ‘globalists’ – cosmopolitans who constantly move around the world, believe in open borders and the free movement of goods, capital and labor and profess liberal views on issues like race, gender and religion. For corresponding portrayals of the other – nationalist, protectionist or ‘conservative’ – wing it is necessary to look elsewhere. 

The ‘globalist’ plutocrats and their sidekicks inhabit an ‘intellectual cocoon’ that Giridharadas dubs MarketWorld. In MarketWorld there is endless and mostly vacuous chatter about ‘changing the world’ that never contemplates changing the world (at least not in any very significant way). ‘You can talk about our common problems, but don’t be political, don’t focus on root causes, don’t go after bogeymen’ (i.e., don’t blame anything on anyone in particular). For instance, you can talk about poverty but not about inequality. 

MarketWorld elevates to stardom charismatic ‘thought leaders’ whose superficial mantras supplant the debates of public intellectuals. Their ‘charade’ fills a space that might otherwise be infected with systemic criticism. At the same time, it salves the consciences of the ‘winners’, encouraging them to ‘feel that they are change agents, solutions rather than the problem’. MarketWorld also provides a few jobs to young careerists who want not just to make money but to feel good about themselves while doing so.    

The image that emerges of the capitalist is decidedly schizophrenic, with abrupt alternation between Dr. Jekyll the benevolent philanthropist and Mr. Hyde the ruthless and rapacious tycoon. The theoretical basis of this schizophrenia was first presented by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in his 1889 essay The Gospel of Wealth. According to Carnegie, the ideal capitalist accumulates as much wealth as he can, using whatever means may be necessary, but he accumulates that wealth not for his own benefit – he himself lives modestly – but rather in order to redistribute it in the best interests of society – interests that he is uniquely equipped to judge (after all, he has proven himself a brilliant organizer). That is why Carnegie made his workers toil such long hours at such low pay in the heat of his steel mills – in order to fund public libraries. 

Capitalists evidently do not mind being told to do more good. What they do not like is being told to do less harm. Some of the most celebrated philanthropists do the most harm in their role as businesspeople. One example is the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, whose highly profitable painkillers fueled the opioid addiction crisis (they also stand to profit from addiction treatment). 

Perhaps, however, these authors place too much blame on capitalists as individuals and focus too little on capitalism as a system. As Giridharadas points out, a company that is not run solely in the interests of shareholders risks lawsuits from its investors. Even in the handful of jurisdictions where new corporate laws have been passed to permit the creation of ‘socially responsible’ firms (B companies), such firms have difficulty in attracting and retaining capital and remain few and far between. 

Written By

I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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