The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age
By David Callahan
Knopf, 344 pages, $38.95
By Lauren Greenfield
Phaidon, 504 pages, $95
The best book for understanding the problem of wealth and income maldistribution is neither Capital (Karl Marx's three-volume economic history) nor Capital (the more recent work by French economist Thomas Piketty). It's Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Published in 1897, as Britain reaped the benefits of the industrial revolution(s), Dracula allegorized a cautious ambivalence toward the emerging capitalist order. The tale of an immortal, ascetic and (lest we forget) blood-sucking real estate prospector who travels from Transylvania to England to snatch up property and seduce bourgeois, upper-crust recruits for his army of the undead, Stoker's novel hinted at a latent fear of the industrial-capitalist boom. Where capitalism promised the end of feudal servitude, pledging a new gilded age of equality and freedom through labour, the realities of industrialism told a different story.
"The vampire, like monopoly, destroys the hope that one's independence can one day be bought back," literary theorist Franco Moretti wrote in 1982. "He threatens the idea of individual liberty. For this reason the nineteenth-century bourgeois is able to imagine monopoly only in the guise of Count Dracula, the aristocrat, the figure of the past, the relic of distant lands and dark ages." In this Old World guise, the Count represents the unspoken fear of the new-bourgeois British capitalists: the return of a monopolistic, downright feudal organization of property and wealth. The analogy was seeded by Marx himself. In Vol. 1 of Capital, he writes that "capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks."
And yet Dracula also offers another image – one of the possibilities of capitalism and wealth accumulation. It's precisely through the concentration of "new money" that the heroes of Stoker's novel are able to defeat the monstrous Transylvanian monopolist. As the character Mina Harker reveals in her journal, the heroes are furnished with funds, horses and "all the maps and appliances of various kinds" required to stalk and kill Dracula. "It made me think of the wonderful power of money!" she exclaims. "What can it not do when basely used."
Stoker succeeds where ol' Marx, perspicacious though he was, fails: by anticipating the ways in which capital would not merely revert to the operations of feudalism (embodied by Dracula) but would manage to revolutionize itself as a newer, harder-to-hate force. It's tricky to argue with the concentration of wealth and power when it bankrolls something as patently noble as vampire slaying.
Dracula's monopolist metaphor seizes on a recurring theme in the history of capitalism: that the way to fight shamelessly greedy money is with altruistic money. It's an idea explored in great depth in David Callahan's The Givers, a book that looks at the modern rise of "megaphilanthropists." Callahan turns a chary eye to the seemingly selfless act of philanthropy, exploring how it works to undermine (or at least drastically change) the basic operations of liberal democracy.
He zeroes in on altruism's built-in vampire-slaying defence – the idea that giving constitutes an obvious, unproblematic, inherent good. The book opens with a case study of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who in late 2015 pledged an estimated $45-billion (U.S.) to a charitable initiative. "Here was one kind of solution to an age of vast and vexing inequality," Callahan writes. "The richest of the rich could give all the money back. Who could possibly complain about such an act of generosity?" Who indeed? What would possibly be wrong with donating enormous sums of money to construct a new library, underwrite cancer research or otherwise contribute to the public good?
The thing is, most developed liberal democracies already have a nifty system for ensuring that the wealthy give back to the broader society at a level that reflects their inordinate income. It's called taxes.
Instead of giving $45-billion to charity, or even structuring their own charity, Zuckerberg and Chan founded the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a limited liability corporation. As such, it can (hypothetically) operate as a for-profit while taking advantage of big-ticket tax exemptions. Engaging in grandstanding shows of philanthropic giving while simultaneously avoiding taxes is an increasingly common tack among tech titans. Apple, according to an analysis cited in The Givers, used tax havens to dodge $2.4-billion in remittances in 2011 alone, pioneering methods commonly employed by Facebook, Google, Adobe, Yahoo, Netflix and other industry leaders who seem to be giving with one hand while taking with the other.
Again, so what? If Zuckerberg avoids a few billion in corporate taxes only to invest tenfold in a charitable initiative, isn't the net benefit still positive?
Perhaps. But, as Callahan reveals, the large-scale philanthropic initiatives of this "creeping plutocracy" aren't beholden to the public will – or, more precisely, are beholden to the philanthropist's sense of what's good for the public. "Often," he writes, "philanthropists are shaping arenas in ways that never entail a roll-call vote by elected representatives. … Private funders have been pushing more energetically into public life even as many ordinary people have been withdrawing." As Callahan puts it, this trend can be "very scary if you're worried about civic equality."
The sneaky seizure of power in the United States may be seen as a fix – or, in TEDhead techno-plutocratic jargon, "disruption" – for the perceived inefficiency of American political life. Congress is logjammed. Schools are terrible. Hospitals are a joke. If the government can't cure what ails society, who better than a cabal of openhanded elites? The issue, as The Givers illustrates, is that the machinery of politics is grindingly unproductive because of the influence of private money – with lobbyists, think tanks and byzantine bureaucracies of "experts" commandeering the mighty ship of state.
At an even baser psychological level, flashy exhibitions of "giving" scan as little more than a way for shrewd capitalists to justify their exorbitant wealth. Charity gives the illusion of a conscience stirring in capitalism, like some genial ghost in the apparatus of inequality and wage exploitation.
In the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, an employee of timeshare tycoon David Siegel vindicates his boss's wealth to two hapless tourists lured into a Las Vegas sales pitch. Presenting a wall of photos featuring Siegel alongside various celebrities (Alec Baldwin, Morgan Freeman, the Rock, Rudy Giuliani, etc.), the canny salesman makes a rushed, requisite note of the self-appointed Timeshare King's selflessness. "A lot of these are different charity events he donates a lot of time and money to," he says, as if by rote. "So that's a good thing."
A new photo book by Lauren Greenfield, the producer/director of The Queen of Versailles, submits another image of wealth in contemporary America – not so much a counterpoint to the philanthropism of The Givers as a complement. Callahan's book quotes supergiver and former New York mayor David Bloomberg as noting that "the reality of great wealth is that you can't spend it." Greenfield's Generation Wealth indexes wild attempts to do just that – to conspicuously display great wealth.
The book maps the overlapping landscapes of money, aspiration, insecurity, celebrity and vacuity that define the American Dream's contemporary topography. One of the book's characters is a wealthy limousine driver known as Limo Bob. He holds the Guinness record for the world's biggest limo (100 feet long and equipped with a swimming pool and a helicopter landing pad). Yet Limo Bob and the other blinged-out, made-up, megawealthy subjects of Generation Wealth speak less to the infinite possibilities of affluence than to its hobbling limitations. Such garish displays of hyper-conspicuous consumption betray a crippling lack of imagination.
In the introduction to their 2011 book The Trouble With Billionaires, Canadian authors Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks pose a hypothetical question: How long would it take Bill Gates to physically count his money? They surmise that, counting at a clip of one dollar a second, it would take Gates 1,680 years to tally his fortune. The point is not that Gates has a lot of money, it's that the amount of money he has is near unfathomable. As McQuaig and Brooks put it, the realities of being a billionaire are for most people "beyond their comprehension."
What we can fathom, however, is a bigger house, a nicer car, a more expensive jacket or a Jacuzzi hot tub bubbling with fine champagne (and fetid bacterial cultures). Such are the ambitions of Limo Bob, with his record-setting luxury car, or David Siegel, with his 90,000-square-foot mansion modelled after the Palace of Versailles. If a big house or a long sedan are judged as signifiers of wealth, then surely the biggest house and the longest sedan signify a consummate amount of wealth. We can dream in superlatives, but we can't conceive of something else – something altogether better.
As the frothing anti-capitalist journalist Chris Hedges puts it in Greenfield's book, "if you are living in a poor neighbourhood, and you drop $200 to buy a pair of Jordans, it's as if suddenly you're not poor anymore. But the social mobility you have is fictitious and is provided by expensive designer brands. Once you acquire them, then at least in the presentation that you give the rest of the world, they deny your reality. … The same ethical rot runs from one end of the society to another."
Likely the most troubling aspect of Greenfield's collection is her sojourns to China and the former Soviet bloc, where the plague of mindless accumulation and greed has spread, like Count Dracula disseminating the vampiric logic of monopoly. One of Greenfield's photos shows a 28-year-old Chinese tutor who charges women as much as $16,000 to learn "skills for the wealthy, such as how to fold a napkin" or "how to wear a hat."
But even the pronounced displays of wealth in Greenfield's book – which, with its $95 price tag and glossy, hardbound objet d'art presentation, is itself a marker of modest distinction – pale in comparison with the megadonors and superbillionaires of The Givers. In addition to lavish houses and fancy cars, these (to use Callahan's designations) "agents of wealth," "disputers" and "new Medicis" are able to buy influence and actual political power. But to paraphrase Hedges, the rot remains the same. At least the models, millionaires and playboys of Generation Wealth have the poor taste to be vulgar and conspicuous about their wealth, unlike the tech juggernauts in zipped-up hoodies and pleated Dockers nimbly juking around the checks and balances of governance to fix America's political agenda.
Callahan sets out acknowledging the thorniness of questioning philanthropy. His book proves fairly evenhanded, careful not to cast blanket aspersions on the superwealthy. Ultimately, his concern – and ours – comes back to the question of how people give and how the structures of enormous charitable institutions affect the operations of democracy itself. It is precisely because these megaphilanthropists are so altruistic-seeming that we should regard them more cautiously.
The vampires may have been defanged, dressed in frumpy Eddie Bauer windbreakers, but they still live to leech – not only the labour force or the marketplace, but liberty and democracy itself. And all the while we watch them in wide-eyed adoration, admiring the wonderful power of money so basely used.
John Semley is a writer based in Toronto.