Cold charity

Unlike the Guardian or the Independent, you may have noticed, the Socialist Standard did not run a Christmas Charity campaign. You may think this is fair enough, we are after all, asking for your money all year round anyway, and constantly campaigning to change the world for the better, anyway.

What we don’t do, though, is channel money into projects trying to relieve life under capitalism, using the institution of private property par excellence – charity – to patch up the problems of private property. It’s for good reason that politicians such as Portillo, back in his ultra Thatcherite days, used to rail against taxes as taking away the moral choice of giving to charity. Charity ultimately comes down to the individual choice to dispose of property according to personal preference, and suits them as have plenty of property to dispose of.

Charity itself is a symptom of the failure of markets, by its very definition charity is not playing the market game properly. Why give money to help the sick who cannot afford treatment? Why help feed and clothe the poor? There is certainly no profit in it for the donors (though there are respectable salaries for charity workers advertised every week in the Guardian). That essential services cannot be provided by market forces should be enough to indicate the problems with that system to anyone’s mind.

Yet, the lunatic neo-liberal right see it in exactly the opposite case. Any one of the people who advocate ‘Anarcho-Capitalism’ suggest “Charity” as the answer whenever you point out that maybe some people might not be able to afford free market police, courts or hospitals. One reason, of course, is that they prefer the power to stay in the hands of the wealthy, whilst charity can produce similar effects to state welfare, the control of the money remains in the hands of the holders of private property. The element of compulsion in state taxation doesn’t just mean no control over the level given, but also no control over where it goes.

Bill Gates, the Microsoft Billionaire began his philanthropic career giving vast sums of money to help children learn how to use the internet. Thames Water give money to projects in the developing world to help people get access to decent water. GlaxoSmithKline, the Pharmaceuticals firm give drugs and money towards helping the poor in the US get treatments they cannot afford. Whether or not these “gifts” of money, staff time or expertise have truly beneficial results, they also often have the effect of assisting the very markets these capitalists swim in.

After all, for Gates, it’s important that people get into the IT habit, and equally important for skilled workers to emerge and work in his industry, hence his educational emphasis as well. Nor is it churlish to point these things out, Gates may truly believe in the social power of education and IT advances, but the fact remains that these charities represent the pocket fluff from the income he makes in those industries.

The Guardian, in fact, publishes a list of charitable donations from major companies. According to their figures, the top companies in the UK gave 0.8 percent of their pre-tax profits to charitable causes, totalling some £637 million worth of gifts (in money and kind). That these donations can be written off against taxation indicates that these companies have a good incentive to give, and of course, it never hurts the corporate image.

Indeed, the image charity gives has always been a part of the reason for giving, the public self sacrifice of a non-returnable gift emphasises the wealth and power of the giver at the expense of them as are compelled by their needs to accept it. It’s no surprise that, say, Shell have set up a charitable foundation to look at sustainable energy use and other environmental issues – nicely off-setting any environmental charges that may be made against them publicly.

After all that, though, corporate donations remain a mere 4.9 percent of the total accruing to the “Voluntary”. The total in the UK is £15.6 billion in the last year, with 34.7 percent coming from the general public (including private millionaires and people putting coppers in rattle-tins). State spending, however, accounts for almost 29 percent at £4.52 billion. Whilst much of that may well be local authority dispensations, and possibly outsourcing such as housing associations and the like, it remains clear that much “charitable work” has become a way of engaging in state activities. Competition between charities and volunteers willingness to work cheap probably gives an incentive for that.

Charities, as well as being tied up with the state, are substantial property owners in themselves, nearly £1.37 billion of their income comes from trusts (i.e. investments in property and the stock exchange) and a further £530 million comes from trading activities, The Salvation Army, for instance, has a profitable textile recycling business, from all those donated and unusable clothes they get, making £23 million last year.

Charity emerges in the minds of capitalists as an alternative to the welfare state, one that has been tried before in the Victorian tradition of giving to the deserving poor. It is a way of checking democratic accountability, and controlling where the money will go in the interests of protecting the very social system that causes the poverty and problems charity is initiated to alleviate. Some might ask, considering socialists are out for a society where each gives of their labour and its produce freely, why we might be so down on charity. Our answer is, is that for us, socialism is not about moralistic giving and self sacrifice, but a condition of society wherein helping others is the best way of helping ourselves though working to help others. The fruits of the common effort of socialism will not be gifts but, rather, the common wealth of all.

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