Jeff Bezos has pledged to donate most of his fortune. What does philanthropy mean for the super-rich?
Amazon founder and Forbes’ 2022 second richest person, Jeff Bezos, has said he is committed to donating most of his fortune to charitable causes. However, with Amazon staff still being subjected to poor working conditions, his philanthropy seems redundant to me. I view it almost as his opportunity to gain even more power and influence, without addressing the issues that have been brought up against him.
Bezos’ statement included promises of devoting a significant portion of wealth to fighting important causes like climate change, and unity. However, one must question the legitimacy of this statement, as he has not signed the Giving Pledge, a promise from the world’s wealthiest to donate a large amount of their fortune. He has also not included a donation target. Despite this, Bezos has been in the news recently for his donation of $100 million to Dolly Parton, to distribute to charities.
In 2018, Bezos made the most charitable donations in the US, placing him on top of the Philanthropist list that year. Although Bezos made more donations than others with comparable wealth, Amazon workers continue to be subjected to long standing hours, unsafe working conditions causing high injury rates within warehouses, and recently made the news for 10,000s of them unceremoniously losing their jobs. In my view, philanthropic work is meaningless if the money which funds it comes from overworking and underpaying its staff. Bezos’ statements about wanting to support the unification of society through his charity work are questionable when his workers have to fight for the ability to unionise in order to negotiate adequate pay and safety conditions.
I find the concept of a “Billionaire Philanthropist” ironic in itself. Nobody needs a billion dollars. A true philanthropist, someone committed to using their wealth for change – like Bezos claims he is, wouldn’t have a net worth in the billions, while simultaneously being under fire for the mistreatment of workers. Although some billionaires, Bezos included, make grand donations to charities, they are still left with a sum of money that is too large to even conceptualise.
The conversation around Bezos’ donations, for me, is a gateway to other conversations about what it means to be a philanthropist. The concept of philanthropy is one which, although widely praised, often benefits the rich and furthers wealth inequality. Wealthy people donating a significant portion of their fortune to charitable causes seems like a good concept. A way to redistribute wealth, from the rich to the poor. However, in actuality, philanthropy does not have this effect, often widening the gap between rich and poor, instead of decreasing it. Wealthy philanthropists have a tendency to donate to organisations and structures which are personal to them. In education this often means that large donations are given to the elite schools attended by the wealthy themselves. From 2007 to 2017, half of donations made to higher education in the UK went to Oxford and Cambridge. Sizeable donations being made to already wealthy, elite organisations is yet another ironic facet of philanthropy.
A problem with philanthropy is that the wealthy decide where their wealth goes. As the majority of today’s wealthy people have not experienced the socioeconomic struggles of the majority, they are not motivated in investing their wealth in favour of the working classes. In the UK, far more money from philanthropy is placed into the arts than into poverty reduction. Simply donating a large sum of wealth does not automatically mean that this money is used to reduce inequality. This is especially true in the case of Jeff Bezos and his underpayment of Amazon staff. It seems as though his efforts may be more of a distraction and attempt to better his personal image, than an effort to create positive societal change.
The wider issue with philanthropy is that it is extremely undemocratic. It gives those with excess wealth unelected power, as they have the money to fund whichever organisations and projects they feel important. The high sums of money donated by the wealthy, like Bezos’ $100 million, can and historically have, influenced our society. This can be positive and all encompassing in its impact, but there have also been negative examples of philanthropy, where it has been used to spread right wing agenda. Wealthy people are able to influence our society simply due to their net worth.
The rich are enabled, through philanthropy, to alter our society as to how they see fit. This creates a wealthy, undemocratic powerful elite. No one should be allowed to have this sort of extreme power, simply due to the wealth they have amassed, especially in a society with low social class mobility, as this means that those with the means to become philanthropists lack the socioeconomic experiences of the majority.
Philanthropy is a complex issue, one which can easily be exploited to benefit those with money. Bezos makes no promises of improving conditions for his workers, and he still retains most of his wealth, making him one of the richest people alive. His lack of commitment to improving conditions within his company gives us considerable grounds to be sceptical of his philanthropic efforts.