Live Aid, celebrity and humanitarian performance

The week after Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced that they would set up the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to the causes of ‘advancing human potential’ and ‘promoting equality’, is as good a time as any to have an event that focuses on Live Aid, celebrity and humanitarian performance.

Occupy Protest, Berlin Photograph: Stefan Boness

Occupy Protest, Berlin
Photograph: Stefan Boness

Staying with the announcement of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, they are only the latest prominent billionaires who seemingly want to end or reduce plutocracy. The most prominent thus far have probably been Bill and Melinda Gates with their Foundation to which also Warren Buffet gives much of his fortune. No doubt, others will follow in the wake of Chan and Zuckerberg, and a prominent observer of these initiatives has indeed remarked that hardly a day goes by on which somebody among the one-percenters does not declare they are going to give all their assets to charity.

Taking a closer look at the Chan Zuckerberg venture, it is also worthwhile to note that they do not propose to give their fortunes to a charitable foundation, but to create a limited liability company (LLC) instead. Quite a few commentators have suggested that far from being altruistic, this is a sophisticated tax avoidance scheme, not least because when gifting shares rather than cash one avoids paying higher costs in capital gains tax. Zuckerberg responded to this in an actually quite honest way that makes the whole venture though not less problematic: He stated that the Chan Zuckerberg foundation was deliberately set up as an LLT because in contrast to charitable foundations, who are restricted from political lobbying and investing in for-profit ventures, this set up would enable him and his wife to also make private investments and participate in policy debates – and lobbying, surely, even though Zuckerberg did not spell that out in concrete. Thus far, the Initiative’s intentions remain rather vague, but from past charitable engagement one focus points to those areas that underline the business model of Facebook – connecting people in various ways.

More generally, is the quest to promote equality not a bit rich (literally and figuratively) if coming from somebody whose profits are based on a global economic system that has widened inequalities to unprecedented levels? And should we base the hope for a more equitable global order and social justice on a caste of philanthropists who are, really, philanthrocapitalists and are continuing to produce the global inequalities that they then promise to tackle? The critic Teju Cole puts it succinctly, people with the power and wealth of this class of philanthrocapitalists may well support brutal policies in the morning, found charities in the afternoon, and receive awards in the evening.

And even if philanthropist endeavours come with seemingly the best intentions and proclaim to be apolitical and non-partisan, there is no clear line between philanthropy and politics. Philanthrocapitalists are not simply charitable givers, they determine spending priorities and (indirectly) important policies, in the case of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for example in the field of global health. Many of their priorities may on the face of it be worthwhile causes to pursue, but the question remains whether unaccountable and unelected private capitalists should determine public policy priorities? And what are the opportunity cost, what diseases and which social welfare measures fall off the radar because philanthrocapitalists show no interest? With the increase in resources from philanthrocapitalism that is predicted to grow among relatively young entrepreneurs with extraordinary wealth like the Chan Zuckerberg couple, their influence on public policy will grow – and relatively speaking, the influence of everybody else will lessen. This has implications for democracy at large, as those who help create economic inequalities also set parameters for what social causes are worth supporting. Ultimately it raises the question what impact the rise of the 1% as major philanthropists might have for truly progressive politics. Politics that aim to change the system that makes such vast accumulation of wealth possible in the first place.

The prototypical philanthrocapitalists are, at the end of the day, effectively buying the future they would like to see. The way they go about that unites them with the group of rock stars and other celebrities who since the 1980s try to Save Africa through Band Aid, Live Aid and subsequent campaigns like Make Poverty History. The Africa they want to save, a continent of perennial suffering in particular of women and children, suffering indeed often caused by ‘African men’, does not really exists outside their imagination. The Africa that does exists, a continent full of problems but equally full of energy, ingenuity and indeed modernity, does not need the white saviour – but the white saviour industrial complex seems to become more and more pervasive in contemporary global culture.

Join James Thompson and Tanja Müller for an event on Live Aid, celebrity and humanitarian performance at the University of Manchester, 10 December 2015, 6:00 to 7:30, Martin Harris Centre, Room SL01.

I have written about the legacies of Band/Live Aid in various blogs and articles, see Band Aid Thirty, the IMF and the call to trust the doctor!; Give me the money, now! But what will happen tomorrow? Ebola as a symbol for the ‘moral bankruptcy of capitalism’; The Long Shadow of Band Aid Humanitarianism: revisiting the dynamics between famine and celebrity, Third World Quarterly (2013), 34, 3, pp. 61-79.

James Thompson is the author of Humanitarian Performance. From Disaster Tragedies to Spectacles of War, 2014, Seagull Books.

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