Why I don’t like charity

Alright, I’ll cop to a little hyperbole there.

I view charity as inherently insufficient. By itself, that doesn’t make it worthy of scorn, especially when so many millions are suffering under an unjust economic system that necessitates it. Yet as fat-cat banker/ Democrat Richard Wolf’s appearance on Sunday’s Up w/ Chris Hayes reminded me (h/t Elias Isquith), the rhetoric of charity is routinely used to deflect criticism, absolve guilt, and mask systemic injustice.

Wolf plays the exculpatory game well: He invokes “philanthropy,” thus ridding Wall Street of any responsibility for the inequities and abject poverty the financial industry has wrought. Pacify the plebeians with a few dollars here and there and, in the process, erode democratic sovereignty. Private interests can defray the costs of, say, upgrading technology at the local public school, but the beneficiaries of philanthropists’ largesse are then beholden. The locus of power has been shifted from citizens and their elected representatives to corporations and affluent donors.Wolf’s charity defense carries over into conventional politics, as he calls for “shared sacrifice” and raising taxes on the wealthy. Again, this is supposed to mollify us, to silence our cries for economic justice. We’ll continue ruling the country, Wolf is effectively saying—but don’t worry, we’ll throw you some scraps.

Elias labels this center-left persuasion “Third Way”; pity-charity liberalism is an alternate adjective. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the de facto governing philosophy of the Democratic Party. Hayes does a good job pinpointing the principal reason (rising inequality, increased pecuniary reliance on finance industry) for the shift, querying in one segment whether Democrats can represent both labor and capital. The answer, of course, is no—the two are irreconcilably opposed. The most capital can do is offer charity, because transforming social and economic relations, such that the need for charity is obviated, would entail negating the power of capital itself.

The truth is, magnanimity is no substitute for autonomy, for agency. Charity reifies hierarchy. It robs people of their dignity. Democratic citizens are reduced to vassals and supplicants. What’s the matter with noblesse oblige? The existence of nobility.

I’m currently reading Barbara Ransby’s fantastic biography of the great Ella Baker. The oft-overlooked civil rights organizer, intellectual, and activist advanced a different model of social relations, one that repudiated the reliance on mere charity, elite “beneficence” toward the benighted, or saviors from on high. She wanted poor people, oppressed people, to receive more than a temporary handout. She wanted them to have the power to collectively change their circumstance.

It’s this kind of radical democracy that threatens the power of people like Wolf—threatens them in a way that charity absolutely does not.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at shawn.gude@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. This is an interesting take, Shawn. I particularly like this:

    “The truth is, magnanimity is no substitute for autonomy, for agency. Charity reifies hierarchy. It robs people of their dignity. Democratic citizens are reduced to vassals and supplicants. What’s the matter with noblesse oblige? The existence of nobility.”

    I think the sentiment in there would have to be more fleshed out for me to sign on whole-heartedly. I imagine I wouldn’t agree with this idea to its full extent, but it’s one way we really should look at charity and philanthropy.

    • There’s an old Jewish tradition of eight levels of charity (though the Hebrew word “tzedakah” usually translated as “charity” literally means “righteousness”)

      1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
      2. Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund) which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
      3.Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.
      4. Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
      5. Giving tzedakah before being asked.
      6. Giving adequately after being asked.
      7. Giving willingly, but inadequately.
      8. Giving unwillingly

      The higher the level, the less about what a fine person the giver is, and the more about helping the recipient.

    • In the West, Christian charity, which glorifies God, replaced [pagan] magnanimity, which glorifies the self. As for the rest of your argument, it smells of brimstone and Machiavelli.


      “Machiavelli criticized Christian and classical ideals of charity by a similar argument. He asked: How do you get the goods you give away? By selfish competition. All goods are gotten at another’s expense: If my slice of the pie is so much more, others’ must be that much less. Thus unselfishness depends on selfishness.

      The argument presupposes materialism, for spiritual goods do not diminish when shared or given away, and do not deprive another when I acquire them. The more money I get, the less you have and the more I give away, the less I have. But love, truth, friendship and wisdom increase rather than decrease when shared. The materialist simply does not see this, or care about it.

      Machiavelli believed we are all inherently selfish. There was for him no such thing as an innate conscience or moral instinct. So the only way to make men behave morally was by force, in fact totalitarian force, to compel them to act contrary to their nature. The origins of modern totalitarianism also go back to Machiavelli.

      If a man is inherently selfish, then only fear and not love can effectively move him. Thus Machiavelli wrote, “It is far better to be feared than loved…[for] men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so, but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective” (ch. 17).

      The most amazing thing about this brutal philosophy is that it won the modern mind, though only by watering down or covering up its darker aspects. Machiavelli’s successors toned down his attack on morality and religion, but they did not return to the idea of a personal God or objective and absolute morality as the foundation of society…”


      • The argument presupposes that wealth is a zero-sum game.

        I’m not wholly comfortable with attributing to Machiavelli the notion that totalitarian force must be used to induce beneficence to others. Niccolo was well aware of love and friendship; IIRC he remarked in his meditation on Livy that when he turned his studious mind to Scripture, he constantly returned to that portion of the Gospel in which Jesus tells his followers that they already know how to be good to their own children, and need only do that to others as well. This was in criticism of the RCC of his day, an institution which he found too corrupted by overweening secular power to be a proper vessel of morality to future generations.

        • Today, “magnanimity” is FDR, who gives other people’s stuff away—neither Christian nor even a decent paganism. ;-P

          Machiavelli’s Prince is likewise beyond good and evil, and virtue. Whatever works.

          • Whose “stuff” was given away?

            Who ended up poorer as a result of the New Deal?

    • It’s a great line, but problematic on its face insofar as a system dependent on the lack of a hierarchy is a system based on dreaming rather than doing. The perfect being the enemy of the good. I’d rather have noblesse oblige than to work fruitlessly towards a change where there is no nobility.

  2. My one (big) problem with this take is that it assumes that charity exists only for things that we have collectively already agreed ought to be targets of giving. The best systems have both a private and a public component.

    Private charity by itself is poor, because historically speaking those that most needs assistance do not receive it when private charity is solely responsible. (e.g.: before government took over the duty to fund their care, people with developmental disabilities rarely made it past a very young age, because almost no one was willing to give money to help them or their families.)

    However, public charity takes a huge investment of time to set up and implement. Relatively new causes that might depend on assistance have to rely on private charity vehicles, because a democratic government is simply not nimble enough to address their needs.

    The choice between private charity and public assistance is a false one, and a suckers bet.

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