Haiti | To Hell With Altruistic Capitalism

by , under Church, Economics, Emerging Church, Theology

Bill Gates

A few weeks ago I was asked to guest post something on the site for the forthcoming ‘Evolving Church’ conference in Toronto in April this year. The theme of the conference is ‘the Kingdom Economy’ and it is this that I explore a bit in the post, which you can find here.

It connects to the previous few posts on this site in that it offers a critique of capitalism, informed by a Marxist reading of charity, using the story of Jesus being approached by a rich young man wanting to know what he should do to find eternal life:

It’s one of those stories that jumps from the page at you. A man – a good guy by all accounts – comes to Jesus with the blunt question that others had probably been too scared to ask: how do I get eternal life? You can imagine the wry smile breaking across Jesus’ face. ‘It’s simple, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘Just obey the commandments.’ The man is perhaps more relaxed, more confident now, and comes back at him: which ones? To which he gets the obvious reply: don’t kill people, don’t be unfaithful, don’t steal stuff, don’t lie… Yeah, yeah, yeah the man says, cutting Jesus off before he recites the entire list. ‘I’ve done all that…’

And then comes the hit. Jesus turns, fixes him with his gaze and speaks right to the heart of the matter: go and sell all you have, and give the money to the poor. The man turns away sadly and walks away, the camera holding a long shot as he walks off into the distance, slowly and thoughtfully. He is a rich man, gutted.

What I think Jesus meant by his answer was this: you are trying to view your salvation through the eyes of what you can buy and sell and profit from. What you can do. But you need an entirely different economy, a totally different way of ordering your house.

And I think this is utterly pertinent at the current time. When we have profits privatised and losses nationalised, bankers and celebrities raking obscene amounts of money into personal fortunes something is wrong with the world. Especially when they then present themselves as altruists by giving small portions of it away in grand gestures. Or when companies like Starbucks dress our consumption up as ethical action: buy this coffee and save a poor farmer.

And it is particularly pertinent in the aftermath of the horror of the earthquake in Haiti. We see the politicians on both sides of the atlantic with their bleeding-heart messages about the disaster…. when in reality the West has f*cked Haiti over time and time again – preventing proper development, forcing the poor into cities and sweatshops to create cheap clothing for the US, suffering coups supported by the CIA… and now told that they deserved this earthquake because they sold their souls to the devil when they bought themselves out of slavery from France.

Please, please give generously to help Haiti get back on its feet. But in a week or so when the story has gone from our screens, let’s not forget them, and let’s try to get the systemic issues sorted out. They need debt forgiven. They need minimum wage agreements. They need symmetric fair trade agreements. They need to be given a fair chance, especially by the US.

As I say in the post on what looks like being a great conference, Oscar Wilde had it right when he said that the worst slave owners were the ones who were kind to their slaves. Why? Because they prolonged the horrors of an abusive system. And yes, that, on the grand scale, is what altruistic capitalism looks like.


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  1. Jim

    “Especially when they then present themselves as altruists by giving small portions of it away in grand gestures.”??

    Bill Gates is giving away of 98% of his wealth. What do you propose, higher taxes on the rich because.. hey.. governments are such fantastic instruments of creativity and ingenuity?!

  2. KB

    Jim, the point is that the manner in which Gates has accrued so much wealth has been harmful. It’s wonderful that he is giving away so much, but far better to have a system where wealth was not pooled in the hands of the very few. This need not be a high taxation system, simply one where there is greater equality of pay, and fairer systems that would not allow a company like Microsoft to so ruthlessly control a market.

    We’re foolish to celebrate someone who gives huge amounts to the poor… when they only gathered the money by exploiting the low paid in the first place.

  3. Jim

    Thanks Kester.
    In regard to Gates, my problem is that I don’t believe he has. Yes, there have been the anti-trust cases, but I don’t believe the heart of these is exploitative. Microsoft produce fundamentally flawed software, but there is a reason why it dominates the market, and not to do with the anti-trust stuff.

    But, back to the main point… I don’t agree we need a system of greater equity of pay, we need systems which reduce poverty through better opportunities, stronger international laws, healthier civil societies… chasing after ‘greater equality of pay’ will be a fruitless exercise which won’t address poverty.

    In regard to ‘exploiting the low paid’, the current C4 programme ‘Slumming It’ with Kevin McCloud really gets into some of that.

    Non of this stuff fits into easy soundbites or polorised opinions. It’s inherently messier and a lot more nuanced… but, yet again, with work and attention, God can be found in that mess.

  4. KB

    Chasing after ‘greater equality of pay’ will be a fruitless exercise which won’t address poverty.

    The best research suggests that this is actually the single most important goal if we are to see a better society. I’d highly recommend reading The Spirit Level (UK version | US version), which argues very very convincingly that lower income inequality leads to better life outcomes for all levels of society, including reduced levels of poverty, reduced stress and anxiety, lower levels of violence, depression, obesity… The list goes on. It’s comprehensive piece of work, and something I’d like the main parties to respond to the general election we’ll be having in a few months time. What it conversely shows is that ‘the American Dream’ is a nightmare: equality of opportunity does not lead to equality.

    The US – closely followed by the UK – is top of the tree for income inequality, and the worst for obesity, stress, violence etc. etc.

  5. Mike R

    I’d like to quote the facebook status from an activist friend of mine here, because I think it’s particularly pertinent:

    “I spoke to 7 adults tonight about the Jubilee legislation, and also shared how Haiti, who’s debt was relieved last June now as of today has a $100M loan from the IMF. LOAN!!!! we’re not only advocating for The Jubilee Act and the Vulture Fund Act, but some letters will be written to the IMF and media!”

    Sobering thought.

  6. Karsten R

    lower income inequality we had in the former GDR. Didn’t work there, basically the income equality was on a very low level for most and only the “Nomenklatura” was bathing in Champagne including the Honecker widow who still sings praise od Communism.

  7. Andy

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Kester. I, too, want to know what a/the kingdom economy looks like. I also agree that now is a good time to be discussing this, with the grand edifice of neo-liberalism showing some major cracks.

    What is your take on, firstly, the extent to which post-colonialism and current models of capitalism are part of the same piece? And, secondly, which bits of altruistic capitalism would you like to replace, and with what? I’m sympathetic to your suggestions for systemic change in Haiti but they appear to be modifying market mechanisms at the same time as likening capitalism to slavery.

    I’m interested in the potential contribution of other forms of enterprise, such as mutuals and co-ops, which are more redistributive in nature. Whilst I don’t think these remove the need for generosity and charity, nor are they a solution in isolation, I wonder if a kingdom economy might resonate with some of these principles.

  8. becky

    Kester, good points. My eyes roll over whenever I see celebs speak out on sex trafficking without also speaking out on heroin/cocaine use. (I’m all for legalizing weed as I don’t think it’s any worse than alcohol but that’s not what I’m referencing here.) It’s very well known that humans and heroin are trafficked via the same channels. Hence, it’s not enough to simply save one person noble that may be but to speak out against the systemic evils that allowed that person to be brutalized in the first place. And when it comes to Haiti, the US definitely has blood on its hands.

    You might be interested in this documentary that I reviewed for the God’s Politics blog –
    http://blog.sojo.net/2009/12/03/why-poverty-persists-in-a-world-of-wealth/

    This film illustrates the problems you’re illuminating without becoming sensationalist. In particular, it really hammers the “charitable giving solution” advocated by Jeffrey Sachs (Bono’s go-to economic guru). If you want a screener of “The End of Poverty?” shoot me an email and I’ll forward the request on to the publicist. I really think it’s a great discussion starter.

    Did you see the issue of Geez that addresses this issue? My favorite is their critique of humanitarian porn – an exploration of how we use people’s suffering to raise money for “noble causes.”
    http://www.geezmagazine.org/issue15

    BTW-I just heard that George Clooney is hosting a telethon to raise money for Haiti – I hate to be cynical but I can’t help but think there is a connection here to the fact that we’re entering into the awards shows that culminate with the Oscars – is Haiti now the celebrity cause du jour replacing their efforts in Africa (I challenge anyone to watch Madonna’s documentary on Malawi without losing their lunch. I only saw it because I was covering the press screenings for the Tribeca Film Festival and wanted to confirm it was god-awful.)

  9. Clare

    How about just gifting things? Apparently that’s the future, according to the author of this book http://www.ascentofhumanity.com/text.php (An acquaintance who’s read the entire text informed me of the conclusion.) Bit radical perhaps? Sorta reminds me of someone though…

  10. KB

    I’m interested in the potential contribution of other forms of enterprise, such as mutuals and co-ops, which are more redistributive in nature.

    I think these are going to be the key, whether it be getting rid of fat-cat banker pay, or helping countries lift themselves out of poverty. In fact, this is part of the long section of practical conclusions in ‘The Spirit Level’ mentioned above.

  11. Nic

    There is only “o-n-e” project now. Capitalism has to go. We either destroy it or it takes out most of the species on this planet. Our niche has exceeded its ‘carrying capacity’, we are at the limit, there are too many people operating a cradle-to-grave system (production-consumption-destruction)— taking natural resources, making and selling stuff that then is burying in landfill. Consumption legitimises and powers the whole process.
    Arguing the merits of Bill gates is futile. There is a multi-level crisis, on all scales. Not just the “incessant violence” at the heart of embodiment, but also at a grand structural level. As Kester argues, Gate’s wealth (and ours) is essentially ill-gotten, giving out of a capitalist system is like punching your mate in the face and then taking them to hospital (same with recycling for that matter!).
    The hard part of the project is how to ‘uncouple’ or exorcise capitalism. As Nick Land argues, it’s an “artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources”. An emergent phenomenon that pervades us all and is out of control; the neo-liberal elites only manipulate and curate the system. Equally, if a human ‘remnant’ does survive, eking out an existence on the Northern Rim, then don’t be surprised if capital re-emerges and wreaks its havoc all over again.
    The Big project has to be, how can capital be banished from the face of the planet? I think there is a growing consensus that this has to happen. The antagonisms and the politics are accumulating around ‘the how’. How is this to done?

  12. KB

    Nic, this is it. This is Apple. We’ve found the core: the ‘how’ of the above.
    This is where the energy is.
    We need to get to work.
    Let’s do it.

  13. Alistair Duncan

    Hey Kester …. If your last post was a serious one about where Apple goes – it gets my vote and would definitely be up for engaging from down South. Though your tweet about Das Capital is interesting …. I am not convinced the answer lies there! The real, the local, the particular is where my vote for the foundations lie not a replacement ideology or even critique. Out with all isms!

  14. Nic

    I agree. Marx and Deleuze+Guattari have the best analysis of capital— but both are from other moments. They’re a great start however.

    David Harvey (Marxist, I know !-)) has written this recently:
    http://firgoa.usc.es/drupal/node/45017

    The question: “what is to be done?” is a good one. I still like Hardt and Negri take from ‘Empire’:

    ‘And no such effective blueprint will ever arise from a theoretical articulation such as ours. It will arise only in practice. At a certain point in his thinking Marx needed the Paris Commune in order to make the leap and conceive communism in concrete terms as an effective alternative to capitalist society. Some such experiment or series of experiments advanced through the genius of collective practice will certainly be necessary today to take that next concrete step and create a new social body beyond empire.’

    Multiple experiments and attempts in: collaboration, theory and practice— Apple could be just one example.

  15. Clare

    Trawling through some of the older posts on here (interesting and enriching – thanks) I now realise you’d already come to the conclusion that gifts need a more prominent role in our relationships. So apologies for my useless comment.