reputation laundering:
the role of charity in capitalism

what is money laundering?

economics is not my strong suit, so please bear with my naïve example here:

if I were a mobster and I had a large amount of illegally-obtained money in the form of sequential bank notes, I would not be able to simply deposit it into my bank account, or make a large cash purchase, without the attention of the authorities. to actually spend the money I would need to slowly diffuse it into general circulation, for example by running a cashflow-heavy business and giving the “dirty” money as change to my customers. It would take time and effort and I would not be able to spend 100% of the money in the end - operating costs would eat up some of it - but I would accept this as the cost of doing business.

I argue that the ruling classes also use their wealth to “launder” their reputations in a similar way. it seems that in our culture, a certain amount of charity work is enough to make a person beyond criticism.

on jimmy savile

Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, Order of the British Empire, Knight Commander of Saint Gregory, media personality beloved by royals and the public alike, had a career spanning seven decades. during this time he also sexually assaulted over 589 people, including victims as young as five years old. he also raised an estimated £40,000,000 for charitable causes. these two facts go hand in hand. it's easy to see how criticism of Savile could have been quickly dismissed with “how dare you? he built this hospital” and so on.

it is my belief that, to Savile, this charity work was the “cost of doing business” in order to continue his sexual predation indefinitely.

on charity

in our society, charity has a kind of saintly aura - it's very hard to criticise without coming off as selfish or worse. but I'm going to try anyway.

symptoms, not causes

for the most part, charities tackle the symptoms of social problems and not the root causes. this ensures that inequalities will continue to exist.

if a charity is distributing aid to an impoverished community, it's crucial to investigate why that community is impoverished. is it due to systemic racism? is it due to environmental devastation? is it due to housing being made excruciatingly expensive, and home ownership impossible, due to landlords? is it due to corporations moving jobs overseas where the workers can be more fully exploited? is it due to the lack of an adequate welfare system? what are the actual long-term solutions to these problems?


many charities have opposing goals. it would be a little contradictory to donate to both a cancer research charity and an animal rights charity when you realise that the cancer research charity is conducting animal testing. if everyone in the world started to donate equally to every charity, it would not solve every societal problem - some of these charities are causing problems at the same time as solving others.

investments, and the violence of capital

charities want to be seen to be “making the most of” the donations they receive. to that end, instead of directly spending the donations on aid, it is invested - which seems to be commonly understood as a magic way of receiving extra free money. this perspective obviously falls apart under scrutiny.

return on investment is paid out to shareholders based on profit. profit comes from exploitation - for example, if a garment worker creates £100 of value for a company each day but is paid only £2, that is the bosses and their shareholders stealing £98 from the worker. to receive the biggest return on investment, charities will invest in the most profitable companies - which happen to be in industries such as the fossil fuels and arms manufacturing. it would not surprise me to see a charity giving aid to war-torn countries while also investing in the companies profiting from that war at the same time.

charity as a replacement for public services

you only have to look as far as the rise in food bank use to understand that our welfare systems are being dismantled, and charities are being shifted into their place. our government is pointing its citizens toward food banks instead of giving them adequate unemployment benefits and so on.

recently, 99-year-old Tom Moore raised £15,000,000 for the NHS by doing laps of his garden. the uncritical celebration of this by the media suggests a new narrative pushing our lifesaving healthcare services out of public funding and into the realm of charity.

the recent explosion of fundraising platforms such as GoFundMe is another example of capitalist state failure to meet our basic needs. it's not exclusive to the United States either - many UK citizens are unable to get the healthcare they need on the NHS and are having to turn to fundraising.

on the ultra-rich

when a billionaire such as Jeff Bezos makes a charity donation of $10,000,000, it's easy for us to think of this as a large sum of money - after all, this is probably more money than we'd ever see in ten lifetimes. but us humans have trouble visualising numbers this large, especially comparatively. but ten million is a mere 0.007% of Bezos' net worth of $150,000,000,000. to put this in perspective, for a person with a net worth of £25,000, to donate the same percentage would amount to a mere £1.75.

it's common to see people defending the existence of the ultra-rich due to their charity donations, even though it's an utterly minuscule proportion of their wealth. the rich also pay very little tax (if any) and so avoid funding important public services for the rest of us.

on edward colston

the event that finally gave me the motivation to write this article was the toppling of Bristol's prominent statue of Edward Colston yesterday. in the aftermath I have seen numerous people protest that the statue should have been left standing due to his philanthropy - Colston funded schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches and was described as “the great benefactor of the city of Bristol”.

Colston also enslaved 100,000 people and killed 19,000, how can any amount of philanthropy make up for these crimes, let alone outshine them? I think it reveals an arrogant refusal to engage with Britain's despicable history of empire and colonial violence, which continues to this day.

some people complaining about the toppling of Colston may have perfectly happy when the statue of Jimmy Savile was taken down. it's easy to denounce a person when their actions are seen as being completely individual, but to denounce a system that continues to benefit us seems harder to stomach.

charity as social signifier

I believe charity is another excuse that privileged white people (myself included) have used as a way to delay examining our own role in societal problems such as white supremacy and classism. it's a sort of belief that a few charity standing orders makes you kind of a good person and so you don't have to think too hard about your role in social issues.

I had an argument yesterday with a man who disapproved of the Colston statue being torn down, and when challenged on the casual white supremacy of his statement, our mutual friend's immediate response was to cite his charity fundraising as proof of his virtue - and by implication, his non-racism. I don't buy into any of these “get out of jail free” cards for racism - see also “my partner is [race]” and “I have black friends” - but someone less critical might give the benefit of the doubt.

how can we do better?

if we can achieve worldwide socialism, charity will be completely unnecessary. structural problems will begin to be torn down, and people's needs will be met.

before that can happen, I think grassroots organising might be the way to go. the People's Free Medical Centres and Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren programs spearheaded by the Black Panther Party are very inspiring and worth reading about for example, but there are many great organisations today as well.

I think, today, giving money directly to marginalised people, to community organisations and to bail funds is a pretty good thing to do.

I definitely don't have all the answers and I don't want to argue that donating to charity is inherently a bad thing - I think a fair amount of good can be done this way - but we have to be critical, and seek structural solutions for structural problems. charity alone will never be enough.