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Philanthro-capitalism? Huh?

December 17, 2008

Philanthro-capitalism is a theory which contends that a main feature of capitalism is that ages of wealth creation give rise to golden ages of giving.   Matthew Bishop and Michael Green argue for philanthro-capitalism in their allegedly controversial book “Philanthro-capitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World.”

Bishop and Green contend that since the birth of modern capitalism in the Middle Ages, philanthropists have played significant roles in solving the societal ills of their time.   And, there have been four of these Golden Ages of giving since the Middle Ages.  The fifth age is happening now.  According to them “[e]ach past boom in giving was associated with massive wealth creation linked to innovation in business, and also to social upheaval that left big problems to solve. Often this was accompanied by political unrest that seemed to threaten capitalism, adding urgency to the need for a philanthropic response.”

I must admit I don’t quite get  the controversial part yet (taking exception, of course, with the highly sensationalized title).  Philanthropy seems to be the bargain that capitalism makes with society.  Capitalism allows for unbridled greed to result in immense wealth at the expense of the most oppressed, with the understanding that someone (those with immense wealth) will have to pick up the pieces.   Well, maybe here’s the controversial part – capitalism doesn’t make anyone sign a contract or make the bargain explicit in any other way.  And, so, perhaps the controversy lies in determining whether we can really trust that philanthropy is part of the bargain.

I’m more interested in the significance that lies behind “who gets (or chooses) to save the world.”  Let’s assume for a minute that the rich do have the ability to save the world.  Then, the image of the solutions to the world’s problems will be made in the those who choose to give.   Will there be any images of South Asian values, cultures, or voices?

It’s entirely possible that I’m completely missing the essence and value of philanthro-capitalism.  Anyone out there know something about it?  Does it make sense to you?  Why or why not?  What implications does it have for the role of South Asian philanthropy?

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