The Givers That Take

I have just published a new book that is now available to download for free below:

Advance Praise

“In this important book Barker explains how radical reformers have compromised their missions by accepting foundation funding and/or elite understandings of social problems. It includes a timely section in which he argues that Bill Gates, the World Health Organization, and pharmaceutical corporations have steered the COVID response in ways that do not promote the best interests of humanity.” — Joan Roelofs, Professor Emerita of Political Science, author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003).

“Scholar and labor organizer Michael Barker is one of the leading authorities worldwide on so-called philanthro-capitalism. His new book builds on his earlier magisterial study, Under the Mask of Philanthropy. It examines a wide range of instances around the world in which the ruling classes have operated through philanthropic foundations to cement their rule by co-opting into the capitalist fold radical movements for social and political change. This is a must read for all those who wish to understand how global capitalism constructs its hegemony. Brilliantly researched, written with great clarity and urgency, this book is an essential tool in the struggle for social justice around the world.” — William I. Robinson, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Global and International Studies, author of The Global Police State (Pluto Press, 2020).

“In this sequel to his Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017), union and socialist activist Michael Barker provides a hard hitting and well researched critique of how foundations, such as that of the Gates family, continue to set a policy agenda that maintains the world capitalist system with all its inequitable outcomes for the most disadvantaged. The book has the attractive feature of being very current in examining how powerful philanthropic actors have shaped responses to COVID-19 that benefit Big Pharma rather than the global many. Other chapters document the ‘cooling-out’ function that older foundations (Rockefeller and Ford) played in moderating the radicalism of the United Farm Workers and black power movements in the United States, as well as that of German philanthropies (e.g., the German Social Democrats Friedrich Ebert Foundation) in mitigating the radicalism of trade unions opposing the plundering of the mineral resources of Nigeria. Barker, throughout the book, poses collective social action inspired by ‘Alternate Socialism’ as the principal counterweight to the ravages of capitalism and as the path forward to more just and democratic societies.” — Robert F. Arnove, is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Education, editor of Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (GK Hall, 1980).

“Barker presents a thorough unmasking of the ideological pretensions of philanthropic foundations and a masterful exposition of their role in reproducing capitalist hegemony.” — Peter Seybold, Associate Professor of Sociology, contributor to Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad.


Marxists have a realistic view of humanity. We believe that history is replete with examples demonstrating that our species strongest instinctual urges move us in the direction of cooperation not violence. To put it simply, humans are more prone to give than to take. At the same time, Marxists understand that a small clique of self-centred individuals, the ruling-class, use their power to undermine our ability to work together and help one another. Hence socialists continue to organize collectively to fight for improvements in our classes daily living conditions with the aim of running society in a way that embraces the positive not the negative aspects of human nature.

With the advent of technologically advanced societies that by their nature are highly interdependent on one another, capitalisms survival, now more than ever, relies upon our division: hence the need for ruling-class propagandists to relentlessly emphasize our brutal natures to the exclusion of our caring habits. Elites repeat ad Infinium that there is no alternative to their preferred capitalist system – a bankrupt political and economic system that asserts the dominion of profit making over all other human priorities. Thus, to justify this nonsense they repeatedly assert that their preferred capitalist system is well adapted to harnessing humanities true biological inclinations which they characterize as being dominated by aggression and competition.

Yet it is the cooperative actions of mutual aid that remain the habits that best define the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, and it for this reason that the ruling-class are forced to work so hard to suppress such emancipatory instincts. This everpresent fear of our collective power remains the primary reason why a certain section of the ruling-class feels compelled to cloak their exploitative ways under the mythology of their own altruistic beneficence.

As Frederick Engels put it simply in 1845: the super-rich “is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter…” Or as William Morris wrote in 1884:

“We many of us have experienced the bitter hostility of these philanthropists to Socialism, which in point of fact they realise as the foe doomed if successful to make are end of their occupation; a foe which would quite change that class on which they try their benevolent experiments, and which they look upon meantime as a necessary appendage of capital, would convert it into an all-powerful organisation that would at last absorb all society, and become nothing less than the State.

“And yet, though these well intentioned people look upon us as their enemies, I don’t think we need accept the position; we must at least take what we can get from them; take for instance as an instalment of a decent London – the parks and gardens which their efforts have done much to get for us. What we would press upon them is that they should set a higher ideal before them than turning the life of the workers into that of a well conducted reformatory or benevolent prison; and that they should understand that when things are done not for the workers but by them, an ideal will present itself with great distinctness to the workers themselves, which will not mean living on as little as you can, so as not to disturb the course of profit-grinding, but rather living a plentiful, generous, un-anxious life, the first quite necessary step to higher ideals yet.”

Under capitalist relations, profit-grinding always trumps human life. Deaths continue to multiple as the billionaire-class engorges itself at our expense, as can be seen by the perpetuality of famines amidst a world of plenty. Hence as long as profitability acts as the guiding principle determining the production and distribution of food millions will continue to needlessly starve. The scale of this exploitation of course varies immensely across the world, but even in Leicester, the UK city where I live, the percentrage of children living in households mired in poverty has increased from 30% to 39.9% over the past five years alone. And we should be clear that charitable works designed to feed the needy are simply not up to the task of eradicating such inequality, which is why socialists struggle to overturn the economic and political system that, by its design, withholds food from the poor.

Over a hundred years ago, the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin along with the Russian working-class responded to the task at hand – and their collective actions brought about the Russian Revolution of October 1917. In the decades running up to this successful revolution Lenin had understood the urgent need for the working-class to come together in an organized fashion to overthrow the political system that starves the poor, but he also acknowledged the positive (albeit temporary) role that could be played by charitable efforts if they were coordinated by the working-classes and their democratic organizations. This type of aid was far-removed from the type of disempowering charity that has always been inflicted upon the needy by the ruling-class. In 1912, with the plight of starvation again facing millions of peasants, Lenin had explained:

“The peasants can find a way out of their condition only by abolishing the landed estates. Only the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy, that bulwark of the landlords, can lead to a life more or less worthy of human beings, to deliverance from starvation and hopeless poverty.

“It is the duty of every class-conscious worker and every class-conscious peasant to make this clear. This is our main task in connection with the famine. The organisation, wherever possible, of collections among the workers for the starving peasants and the forwarding of such funds through the Social-Democratic members of the Duma—that, of course, is also one of the necessary jobs.”

Needless to say, while socialists across the world have been busy organizing against their oppressors, capitalist elites have always emphasized their own lofty ambition to make the world a better place for all. But other than by throwing crumbs at the poor, the ruling-class have no real interest in disrupting the capitalist system that they sit atop of. They merely throw scraps from their bountiful feasts to the workers beneath them – to the workers whose labour creates all the world’s food in the first place. Contrast this miserly charity with the more significant way in which the ruling-class have shown us how they really feel about our welfare, which has seen these same elites involved in ethnic cleansing, promoting the eugenic sterilization of the poor, instigating international wars in their perpetual struggles for wealth and global domination, and doing everything in their power to neuter the working-classes ongoing efforts to fight for a socialist future. And always present at the forefront of this violent battle for the future have been the philanthropic funds/foundations of the ruling-class.

We know that for most of the twentieth century the primary philanthropic foundations that helped the American ruling-class prop up their bankrupt system were the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Ford Foundation. These big three foundations still exist today, but they are now joined by tens of thousands of other foundations. However, the most significant philanthropic body to build upon the anti-democratic legacy of the big three is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – a philanthropy which currently has over $51 billion in assets. The activities of the Gates Foundation therefore feature quite heavily in the following pages.

The Givers That Take presents few novel arguments, but what it does do is document the manifold ways in which the charity of the American ruling-class has been utilized to consolidate the rule of capital. Again, this is a story that has been told many times before, but it is still a story that many people are not fully aware of, and so for this reason this book aims to progress earlier analyses by bringing many different streams of philanthropic criticism together in one place.

The first essay featured in this book introduces some of the problems to do with elite philanthropy by providing a critical engagement with the writings of David Callahan, who is the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy – a web site that says it was created with one “simple goal” in mind: “To pull back the curtain on one of the most powerful and dynamic forces shaping society.” As a firm supporter of the Democratic Party establishment, an investigation into Callahan’s views on the elite’s charitable impulses provides a useful means of dismantling such self-serving philanthropic propaganda. This chapter is then followed by a debunking of the Malthusian narrative featured in the popular 2019 documentary Planet of the Humans. Such population-obssessed solutions have long been promoted by the major foundations, but this review of the film also investigates the strange overlaps that exist between liberal causes and those of the notorious Koch brothers.

For most of its history the US government’s Central Intelligence Agency has worked in coordination with the major philanthropists. So, Chapter 3 interrogates a 2017 essay (that was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books) which focused on why the ruling-class became interested in the evolution of French political theory.

Thereafter the analysis turns to the concrete organizing efforts of the United Farm Workers union to understand how the union’s militant orientation was undermined by elite forces that were external to the union and their membership. This historic examination of trade union activism, and it’s eventual undoing, then segues to a discussion of the Ford Foundation’s troubling interventions in the black power movement of that era (the 1960s and 70s). Part of this chapter explores the significant linkages that came to exist between black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and the “community development” policies that were favoured by philanthropic elites to undercut the popular allure of socialist politics.

The book then moves on to an examination of the politics of charity and famine relief, looking at the world-famous “Band Aid” phenomenon. This humanitarian case study is used to demonstrate how genuine public concern with inequality can be unwittingly harnessed to imperialist policy agendas. After this a critical review of Yasha Levine’s 2018 book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, then explores the various related surveillance projects that were incubated by the US government with the aid of philanthropic elites.

The middle section of the book is composed of three chapters which shed further light on the anti-democratic machinations of the big foundations. The slippery connections between philanthropy and fascism are initially discussed in the Greek context, with Chapter 8 providing an overview of how US foreign aid was instrumentalized in an ongoing attempt to obliterate class struggle. A longer essay then examines how global public health interventions have been used by philanthropic elites to promote their own favoured technocratic disease fixes at the expense of both democracy and life. The concluding chapter in this section then uses the long line of “humanitarian” interventions in Nigerian affairs to demonstrate how ostensibly charitable initiatives have been used to prop up a despotic status quo which allows immense profiteering to coexist alongside extreme poverty.

Drawing the book to an end, the final section is composed of four inter-linked essays which are concerned with responses to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that continues to ravage the world. The first two essays examine the history of Big Pharma’s profiteering from managing public health, and discusses the toxic role played by Bill Gates’ and his foundation in facilitating this dire situation over recent decades. These two essays were first published online in April and May of 2020 by CounterPunch as a means of rebutting the fawning coverage given by the corporate media to Gates’ philanthropic initiatives. Following on from these chapters is another shorter essay bringing such pandemic related criticisms up to date, with a particular focus on the central role that has been played by Gates in defending corporate patent rights pertaining to the production of much-need vaccines. And the closing chapter of the book, while not specifically focusing on philanthropic intrigues, reviews Debora MacKenzie’s important 2020 book The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One.  As this review shows, despite her pro-capitalist inclinations MacKenzie does at least understand that changes are needed if we are to right our sinking ship. As she states:

Covid-19 has been, by anyone’s reckoning, a crisis—and it’s just getting started. Things are going to happen or change now, whether people take control of them in the broad interests of humanity or not.

Workers across the world are of course already fighting for control of their lives and the future. So, the modest aim of The Givers Who Take is to contribute towards developing a critical story about past philanthropic interventions so the working-class can more effectively anticipate future attempts by the ruling-class to undermine each and every mass struggle that lies ahead.

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