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Can charity change the world?

IN Marx’s day, solidarity, humanity, sharing amongst working people were not considered “charity.” Charity was something that those with money did. It relieved the conscience of the rich (and made them look good to their peers) and provided benefits to some. The name of Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie can still be found on libraries and museums throughout Britain.

It’s hard not to cheer for 99-year-old Captain Tom Moore, who raised £33million for the NHS by walking 100 laps of his garden. The money raised will help to save lives, not least those of NHS workers who like other key staff, are on the front line of the crisis.

But, as ever, there is another side to charity. Until recently Tom’s chosen fundraising platform, JustGiving, skimmed 5 per cent of all donations. That would have meant a bonanza to the company of over £1.5m for Tom’s efforts. That’s now been replaced by a standard fee of 1.9 per cent plus 20p — still over £300,000.

JustGiving is owned by the US digital fundraising and cloud software provider Blackbaud whose president and CEO Mike Gianoni was paid over £9 million last year. Virgin Money Giving (yes the same Virgin clan who sued the NHS) claims it doesn’t make a profit but it charges charities a one-off fee of £150 to join and deducts a 2 per cent “platform fee” plus a 2.5 per cent payment processing fee from every donation made.

The “charity sector” has become big business.

Some of those rattling a tin or bucket outside a charity shop are volunteers but the more visible “chuggers” (charity muggers) in your high street are rarely employed by the charity whose name they wear on their tabards. More usually they are employed — generally on the minimum wage plus commission and often on zero-hours contracts — by companies such as Real Fundraising and UrbanLeaf Ltd.

Unicef is paying One Sixty Fundraising £1,303,731 in the hope of raising £5.2m if donors continue to give for four years — their first year’s donation goes straight to One Sixty. That’s an insult to the children that Unicef aims to help and it’s demeaning to the street collectors, who are required to undergo training to project a cheerful belief in their “product.” Charities respond that raising funds costs money and that in a competitive environment they have no choice.

Well before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we saw a huge increase in people relying on charity — from foodbanks to housing and health care. Today charities face an enormous challenge.

In March it was estimated that British charity income will drop by over £4 billion during three months of lockdown. The Financial Times warned that income might drop by up to 50 per cent, leading many to collapse, and declared that “after the immediate crisis has passed, charities will play a critical role in rebuilding society.”

Within a fortnight the government announced a £750m fund to keep charities afloat — a tiny amount beside its £350bn fund for business but a clear indicator of its intention to secure a return to (big) business as usual with the voluntary sector picking up the tab.

Almost half of the money is allocated to charities that prop up the NHS such as St John’s Ambulance and hospices. Chancellor Rishi Sunak boasted that the cash will “ensure our key charities can continue to deliver the services that millions of people up and down the country rely on.”

Charities patchily fill some of the gaps created by neoliberal policies that prop up financial capitalism. Some charities (like private schools) actively undermine public services. The charitable sector is increasingly being used as the spearhead of privatisation, the “acceptable” face of contracting out.

There’s an even darker side. Dubious “think tanks” like the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA, in fact an active right-wing lobbying organisation, registered with the Charity Commission as an educational charity despite its refusal to reveal its funders and regularly invited to media interviews and programmes like Question Time to provide an “independent” perspective on current affairs) directly seek to challenge socialist ideas.

And sinister bogus “charities” such as the Institute for Statecraft — an “independent body dedicated to refreshing the practice of statecraft, to improving governance and to enhancing national security” are funded by our government (to the tune of £2.2m in 2017-2018; other funding comes from Nato and other right-wing sources) to undermine democracy with disinformation and smears, in Britain and worldwide.

In Britain the core threat to progressive charities is the appointment of hard-line neoliberals to the Charity Commission. NGO “political” engagement is restricted while that of bodies like the IEA goes unchallenged and calls for all registered charities to reveal the identities of their major donors are ignored.

The explicit intention is to restrict the space for social and political action, make civic engagement a force for subverting socialist ideas and at the same time encourage engagement in “positive” activities which do not challenge existing structures of class and power. This was a policy pursued successfully in the neoliberal transformation of socialist economies from 1989.

More than a century and a half ago, in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels declared: “A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

“To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.”

Engels in particular was dismissive of the English industrial capitalists who “have founded philanthropic institutions, such as no other country can boast of.” He continued: “as though you rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very life-blood and then practising your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!”

A half-century before William Blake had put it a bit more succinctly:
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor: And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we.

Even today, it’s possible to hear people talking about “strivers” versus “scroungers,” rehearsing Victorian distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor, the latter category magnified in the public imagination by programmes like Benefits Street.

At the same time, many people “give” because they can’t do anything else, or because they genuinely believe that their giving really does “make a difference.” Moreover charities such as Oxfam, the Child Poverty Action Group, Shelter, MIND, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace all espouse progressive ideals that are aligned at least to some degree with socialism and reveal the underlying exploitative nature of capitalism, bringing pressure to bear on public policy, variously at national or international level, in addition to their own direct provision on behalf of their target groups.

And a host of less high profile charities — of which the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School is one — do vital work. Without them society would be the poorer and the future less bright.

But many otherwise worthy campaigns offer no fundamental challenge to the underlying causes of poverty, suffering and environmental degradation.

As a recent article in the Morning Star put it, the “deliberate construction of poverty and the cultural enjoyment its creators get from it by indulging in the solace of charity and pity” continue to disfigure our society.

Today charity is a corporate wheeze — most big corporations and banks have tax-saving charitable arms. Ultimately these are little more than a marketing ploy, massaging their corporate image, securing goodwill — and profit — at little cost to themselves.

So: can charity change the world? It can make life temporarily better for a relatively limited number of individuals and communities. But it can never bring about that transformative shift in society which makes charity unnecessary. And in some cases it props up an economic system that is inherently exploitative — of people and the planet.

On Thursday June 18 at 7pm an online panel with Mary Davis, Andrew Murray & Maxine Peake will debate the relevance of Marxism in a New Time of Struggle and launch the new issue of the Marx Memorial Library’s journal Theory & Struggle.

On Monday June 22 Michael Jones, Phil Katz and Jonathan White will discuss Historical Memory & the Fight Against Fascism. Register on www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk/events.

This article is number 65 in the Full Marx Q&A series; earlier answers can be found on www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk/education.

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