Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot floating around the internetosphere about altruism. More to the point, I noticed recently that Bill Gates, everyone’s favourite ruthless businessman turned cuddly nerd, had been delivering a variation on his favourite theme, found expounded by the likes of Steven Pinker, supplanted by his insistence that nothing need majorly change, all we need to do is be a bit more altruistic. He even, with staggering gall, wheeled out the claim that, on the whole, poverty is decreasing, the world is improving, etc. His accompanying words “This is one of my favourite infographics” ringing out like the desperate pleas of the aristocracy as the world below them plunges into chaos.
I say this because of course, he is completely wrong, as Jason Hickel points out in the Guardian;
” What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.”
It doesn’t take a level of genius to work out why it might be in the interest of someone like Bill Gates to gloss over the exploitation inherent to capitalist production, but that doesn’t prevent the smiling and assured performance he gives feeling particularly stomach churning, the purported values of altruism and the meat grinder of Gates’ own business concerns making a horrific screeching sound upon contact. “There’s nothing wrong with the way things are done, you all need to be nicer” is the line, seeping from the mouths of the Davos set like poisoned honey. What’s more, it’s not hard to see how this is a tempting vision for anyone feeling the weight of world events on their shoulders, collapse and decay they seem to be entirely helpless to prevent. All that we require is that you do your bit. If we buy the correct, sufficiently ethical products, our daily act of charity, and sink enough money into the worlds problems, nothing more will be required of us.
Of course I’m not arguing that altruism itself is a problem, or purely self-motivated, but it is important to bear in mind the impossibility of any kind of “Pure” altruism. The mechanisms of desire are driven by interest in a spinozist sense, the gaining of satisfaction. As Frederic Lordon outlines in Willing Slaves of Capital;
“Here we could paraphrase Spinoza: interesse sive appetitus. Some do not like this identity, however. Or rather, they do not like its consequences. For if human essence is desiring, it follows from this identity that all actions must be considered interested”
In this way, we can understand the impossibility of any action without an element of self-satisfaction. As Lordon goes on to demonstrate, this is not some nihilist statement against human action, as in this sense interest is far more than the negative associations we might associate with accusing someone of being self-interested, but the object of desire itself. Any action we take must necessarily be interested as it is invested in the satisfaction of some desire. Taking this into account, folded into the libidinal excesses of capitalism’s upper echelons, it is the least outrageous statement possible to claim that gestures of charity are not devoid of self-interest. While this does not inherently wipe it of any value, when this self interest is that of capital altruism becomes an empty hand
Charity in this context is giving with one hand while taking with the other, where the taking outstrips the giving by at least several magnitudes. It is the pretence of progressive ambition while tightening a grip on personal fortune as nobody is looking. The philanthropy of the billionaire is a PR move, integral to the running order of capital and so predicated on its inefficacy. It effectively generates the idea that charity will save us, which contains within it the assumption that the system as it exists is not fundamentally flawed. All you need to do is do your daily penance, your daily act of kindness, and we can right the wrongs we have perpetrated. It makes little sense to expect the very same systems of proletarianisation and exploitation to solve the very same problems that are their lifeblood, yet many of us nonetheless hold to this, seeing within this impossible solution a source of comfort, a fuzzy, warm land of safe solutions away from the rather tricky business of enacting social change.
Bill Gates is wrong not just because he is bad at reading data, he is wrong because he and many like him are where they are as a result of the very processes which lead to poverty elsewhere in the world, that they continue to perpetuate and show no signs of alleviating. He is wrong because wilfully or not his sermons of philanthropy and progress contain within them the necessary kernel of neoliberal capitalism, the idea that change is enacted from the pockets of the individual, that the problems of the world are simply caused by our own bad decisions. To present the altruism he preaches as some kind of selfless gesture of common good belies the clear interests that lie behind it, going beyond the usual alleviating of guilt that follows acts of charity. If it becomes apparent that rich people can’t save the world with money, then where do we stand? We appear to arrive at a point where change requires something much more radical.