Skip to Content

Pathfinders: Heavenly Gates

It must be a great feeling for anyone with a social conscience to be so ridiculously rich that they can spend their entire time doing something to alleviate a major global problem and actually feel that they are achieving something lasting and significant. Talk about the buzz, it must be a high that those seedy Russian oligarchs can never experience no matter how many yachtfuls of champagne they swim in or campaigning journalists they have knocked off by their hit-men. Cash-with-conscience philanthropists with billion dollar bank accounts must feel like the messiahs of the hi-tech age, second only to the great saints but without the unpleasantness of a stake-burning  or a crucifixion to earn their place in the pantheon of the Blessed.

Bill Gates, through his charitable Foundation, is one such saint, who has poured billions into agricultural R & D, malaria, polio and a host of other third world problems and who is a leading light in the Giving Pledge, a club of super-philanthropists dedicated to giving up the lion’s share of their wealth to solve problems of poverty, starvation and preventable disease among the world’s poorest ‘bottom billion’. Just last month the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hosted a Reinvent the Toilet fair at their Seattle campus, a successful competition to find a design of lavatory that operates without running water, electricity or a septic system, at a running cost of no more than 3p a day and which captures or recycles energy. The applications of such a non-water-based design in many of the world’s poorest and resource-starved countries are too obvious to need spelling out. Poor sanitation kills 1.5 million children a year, and causes 50 percent of hospital admissions across the developing world. Bill Gates has the Midas touch. Every social ill he turns his attention to instantly sprouts solutions. He can even turn poo into gold.

How could even the most jaded and cynical socialist find anything to criticise in the activities of such a man? Churlish in the extreme to whinge about the often ruthless methods by which St Bill got to be so rich in the first place. Here’s a man who cares, really cares about the world’s poor, and is so stupifyingly rich that he has no need to impress anyone by pretending fake concern. Ditto Warren Buffett, possibly the most class-conscious benefactor in the super-philanthropist club and famous for complaining that he pays less tax than his secretary. Ditto Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire owner of Facebook who is barely out of his teens but whose ability to wield an economic power fifty countries would go to war to possess is mitigated, mercifully, by an apparently decent character and youthful save-the-world idealism. Arguably the force behind the super-philanthropy of the Giving Pledge is the ghost of Andrew Carnegie, in whose essay The Gospel of Wealth are to be found the arguments most influential in the thinking of these plutocrats. Carnegie’s view was that of the enlightened plutocrat, the sort who knows he can’t take it with him, the sort who has ceased to yearn for loot and now yearns for legacy. Carnegie, it must be said, meant well, and indeed even implied at one point that a future society might be built along egalitarian lines which would render his conception of top-down charity redundant. Given such a mentor, how could anyone gainsay the efforts of the 81 members of the billionaire club of the Giving Pledge, apart from perhaps suggesting mildly that all their money combined still won’t go as far as they hope or achieve as much as they think?

To return to the poo competition, a team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine submitted an entry which uses a black soldier fly larva to eat the organic waste and turn it into environmentally-friendly animal feed. This toilet is now being field tested. The winning design from Caltech is solar powered and generates hydrogen fuel and electricity. These and other designs are fantastically useful and there is no question that with implementation they will improve the lives of millions across the world. Bill and Melinda score another home run.

But there is a sense in which Bill’s public-spirited generosity has an insidious dimension. It’s the sense in which he functions as capitalism’s PR agent, always accentuating the positives, the successes, the achievements, the progress. Is it an achievement, for instance, to get 81 of the world’s billionaires to join the Giving Pledge? Undoubtedly, and the best of luck to them. But what are we to make of the other 1145 billionaires (at 2012 estimates) who have not signed up? Some are perhaps hesitating. Many will have simply turned their noses up at the chance to give a little back. Socialists are always pointing out that the enemy of humanity is a system, a set of abstract social agreements, not any real living individual. However that doesn’t alter the fact that many of the super-rich are evil, squalid little shits who, if there turned out to be a Hell, fully deserve to rot in it. Bill can’t very well admit this in public since he acts as unofficial ambassador for these manicured Mafiosi. He’s like Cliff Richard trying to front a death metal band. You only have to browse through the Forbes list (www.forbes.com/billionaires) and compare it to the Giving Pledge list (http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2010/08/04/the-gates-buffett-giving-pledge-t...) to see how the vast majority of these paper princelings tend to regard the pressing issues of world poverty and hunger – they couldn’t give a flying shite into a Bill Gates organic supertoilet.

But Bill’s PR work doesn’t simply consist of putting a nice face on a lot of nasty bastards. He also has ringing praise for the social system which put him where he is today: ‘Capitalism is a phenomenal system because it’s generated so much innovation.  Other systems don’t allow that to happen. There is no other system that’s improved humanity, whether on a hundred year scale or a ten year scale. The world is better off...’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16738888).  Compared to what, feudalism? That’s like saying that the NHS is better than witch-burning.  Compared to Soviet ‘communism’? That was nothing but state-run capitalism in disguise, like British Rail on a bad day but with show trials. What are these ‘other systems’ against which capitalism has performed so miraculously? Bill doesn’t say and of course Bill doesn’t know. It’s just a rhetorical device. The only reason capitalism looks like a winner is because capitalism is the only horse running, a sure-fire bet that Bill and his friends won their money on. The real talent, the one that will make capitalism as obsolete as the Hansom cab, the future system Carnegie suspected might be possible, remains locked in the stables while Bill’s earnest propaganda helps to keep it there.

What, to a socialist, is the real indictment of capitalism behind the Poo Competition in Seattle is the fact that any of these university teams could have come up with any of these designs without the Gates Dollar to spur them to heights of inventiveness, but they didn’t. Why didn’t they? Because scientists don’t care? No. Because science has to do what money says and, except for the rare occasion when someone like Gates comes along with a wad of it, money doesn’t care.  Bill Gates thinks that money solves problems, but these are problems all created by money in the first place. Capitalism creates an apocalypse and then picks its way across the corpses rescuing the odd orphan, trumpeting its own philanthropy as it goes. Bill Gates surely knows this. They all do.  Though it isn’t nice to speak ill of the dead well off, in this sense, Bill and his friends are as full of shit as his toilets.