Philanthrocapitalism vs. the public in Covid-19 times

Philanthrocapitalism vs. the public in Covid-19 times

Isabelle Darmon

A pandemic, perhaps more than any other disaster, is a philanthrocapitalist’s hunting ground. Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt and co are everywhere to be seen, whether with their philanthropic or with their business cap on – and, in reality, with both. Philanthrocapitalism organises the connection between the two. Since Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and the financial shock that immediately provided one more illustration of her thesis, philanthrocapitalism has become one of capitalism’s most significant formations. Philanthropy ‘opens the way’ to capitalist ventures in ‘non capitalist milieux’, to use Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase, in the name of securing global health, food security, access to education and fighting climate change.

Continuity and fluidity between the philanthropic and the capitalist arms of such a formation is made clear by conflicts of interest exposed in damming fashion by various investigative journalists (e.g. Los Angeles Times, The Nation) and social scientists for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).  But ultimately this seamlessness is claimed and vindicated by philanthrocapitalists themselves. The logic of philanthrocapitalism is the multiplication of charity by accumulation, and of accumulation by charity. Covid-19 is casting renewed light on how consolidated this capitalist formation has become, particularly due to the push and organisation given to it by Bill Gates – notably since the launch of the ‘Giving Pledge’ in 2010.

Taking up the useful characterisation of contemporary capitalist societies by Rosa et al (2017) and their account of the joint and mutually reinforcing dynamics of ‘(socio-economic) appropriation, (socio-cultural) acceleration and (socio-political) activation’, it may be argued that philanthrocapitalism harnesses these three dynamics and tightens their joint grip. But this analysis is insufficient in itself. It misses the kind of power which is thus deployed, that of a privatising power that refers us to our alleged ‘natural’ private drives of ‘self-interest and caring for others’ (Bill Gates’ words). These are drives to take and give when we please, against any commitment to the defence and fostering of the public realm. The continuity and mutual reinforcement between philanthropy and capitalism finds here its root.

In that sense, the starting point for analysis needs to be what Rosa et al call acceleration. But it is not just a ‘socio-cultural’ process characterising the philanthrocapitalist formation. It is its very legitimation. Acceleration as programme and legitimising discourse has particular salience in the context of the fight against coronavirus. The BMGF is now referred to as a ‘global health actor’ as a matter of course in the media, alongside the WHO, of which it is the first funder if one takes into account its funding through GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. It has contributed to the launch of a Therapeutics Accelerator in March with the Wellcome Trust and Mastercard. And, at the beginning of May, it led the launch, alongside the President of the European Commission and the French President, of an ‘Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator’.

The philanthrocapitalist formation presents itself as the best carrier of acceleration because it is formed on the back of technology companies, which claim innovation as the engine of (human) progress and for the aversion of (natural) disasters. But above all thanks to its alleged ability for connecting masses of mobilisable funds ‘directly’ to ‘innovation’ for humanitarian ends (which is how basic universal public goods are reframed in philanthrocapitalist parlance). Such a claim to a ‘direct’ connection only makes sense where prior ‘slow down’ factors have been identified and removed.  These are invariably regulation and government bureaucracies, as Gates does not tire to explain. Yet, as exposed by the Corporate Europe Observatory, the alleged need for private acceleration only arose due to lack of initial interest by the pharmaceutical industry in ‘biopreparedness’ (‘ie being ready for epidemics such as the one caused by the new coronavirus, COVID-19’), when prompted by the European Commission in 2018.

In the Covid-19 context, regulatory acceleration is a key target, including for trialling, and here, philantrocapitalist mediation verges on the magical, as it promises to ‘get conclusive clinical trial results and regulatory approval in three months or less, without compromising patients’ safety’. The speed of the ‘impatient optimists’ is an irresistible call and subjective hook. This is especially so in the current context, binding us to the vision it entails with regard to the speediest route to vaccines (or, for that matter, to food security, or in the fight against climate change), as being that of charity + corporations. Concomitantly and most importantly, it makes us share the delegitimising contempt for any public concern which does not align itself with their modus operandi.

Governments are of course still deemed necessary, not only to sanction such fast-tracking, but also because philanthrocapitalism merely pump-primes markets, which then have to be maintained as quasi-markets, where vaccines, seeds, education vouchers are funded in part by public authorities. Acceleration is thus also acceleration of returns on capital, and governments are required to ensure the continued supply of such returns, thereby making clear that they amount to rents.

The delivery of market-readiness is seen by philanthrocapitalists as requiring first institutional activation, the transformation of public education, healthcare or agricultural extension work into performance-oriented and performance-monitored services. The BMGF has been a determined promoter of ‘measurement’ for ‘improvement’ of services and ‘engagement’ of the poor, a triptych adorning the website of one of the global healthcare partnerships founded and sponsored by the BMGF, the Primary Health Care Performance Initiative (PHCPI), which admirably captures activation and its tight relation to acceleration and appropriation. ‘Engagement’ through participation in primary healthcare user surveys, for example, is a crucial instrument both for shaping the survey respondent and managerialising services through ‘data-driven improvements’. Invariably, the ‘blackbox’ to be opened by these data-driven methods is that of ‘service delivery’ – in other words, the work of teachers, healthcare workers, or agricultural extension workers. Here again, Covid19 provides expanded scope – Governor Cuomo has invited Bill Gates to ‘reimagine’ New York’s schools; and the BMGF has reasserted its will to work ‘to build more robust and resilient PHC systems’ as part of its ‘global response to Covid-19’ – with ‘robustness’ and ‘resilience’ pointing to further measurement-driven reforms.

Philanthrocapitalists ‘invest’, this is what they do – they invest their endowment funds to grow them for their charitable grants or charitable investments. These charitable grants and investments are then geared to transforming public services and activities into rent-bearing assets through activation programmes. Indeed data-driven activation of public services, their staff and users is offering a never-ending avenue for assetisation and providing bases for rent for partners of the philanthropic ventures, through patents, publicly funded vaccination programmes or education vouchers, as well as rents from digitisation and big data.

The increasing stock exchange value of these capitalist partners may well in turn contribute to the growth of the philanthropic endowments which might hold stocks and bonds of these corporations, as said above, since this form of crossed interests does not seem to raise any regulatory eyebrows, at least not in the US. After all, this is all in the name of ‘progress’… But, in truth, philanthrocapitalist formations act as appropriation machines all the way through. The fact that foundations themselves are not for profit is immaterial – they must not be analysed through their legal and tax status, but as formations which not only serve for the direct capture of rent for a variety of private, corporate beneficiaries, but also secure the long-term possibility for such extraction, through the boosting of private-public partnerships and the fostering of assetisation of public services and institutions through ‘data driven’ reform. The urgency of charitable humanitarian pursuits (food security, access to education, global health – fight against covid-19) is harnessed for demanding, e.g. from governments, the acceleration of these processes, which ultimately means accelerating the generation of rents for ‘investors’ and revenues for the managerial class.

Ultimately, then, philanthrocapitalist formations appear as particularly suitable for intensifying the interrelation between the appropriation, acceleration and activation characterising contemporary capitalism in its assault on the public realm – reframing public goods as charitable ends, accelerating public regulations, or rather lifting brakes on commodification, and activating public services and programmes so as to transform them into rent-bearing assets. Most importantly, though, these dynamics concur in privatising our subjectivities and relegating our sense of the public.

They are not the only hybrid formations propping up such dynamics – indeed universities (in the UK, the US and other fee-paying systems), which legally, are charities, function along similar lines. Can the passion for the ‘public’ take root again and oppose such predatory formations and their naturalisation? This looks quite an uncertain possibility – yet one that seems more politically forceful and less easily captured than Rosa et al.’s turn to ‘resonance’ as the subjective condition for putting a brake on the spiralling dynamics they otherwise so fittingly alert us to.

Rosa, H., Dörre, K., & Lessenich, S. (2017) Appropriation, activation and acceleration: The escalatory logics of capitalist modernity and the crises of dynamic stabilization. Theory, Culture & Society34(1), 53-73.


Isabelle Darmon is lecturer in sociology and sustainable development at the University of Edinburgh.