by Miki Kashtan
In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.MacKenzie Scott, pledge letter, 2019
I have been thinking about this article for a few years. I am excited and relieved to finally put all these thoughts in writing, and simultaneously full of trepidation. What I am saying here questions the foundations of our current paradigm and its destructiveness and points to the way that philanthropy supports the status quo. It can all too easily appear to people as if I am taking issue with philanthropists as individual human beings in the same way that when I talk about patriarchy people are upset with me because they automatically interpret me as being against men.
Neither is true and both are understandable, because there is, indeed, quite a bit of hostility towards men and towards wealthy people, and because the desire to be seen as a full, caring human being is deep and strong in all of us, especially those whose needs are all too often attended to at cost to others. In both cases, this happens systemically and not through any specific individual choice, and yet I have a deep conviction that the moral weight on the soul is huge even if it’s not within awareness. I wrote a whole piece about where I see men within the system of patriarchy, which I called “A Love Letter to My Brothers,” which includes endless tenderness towards what is being done to boys to prepare them to be men within a patriarchal world. Paradoxically, it’s the depth of my deep faith in human nature that leads me to the conclusion that something terrible and tragic has to happen before any of us would follow along with our existing systems in ways that impact others.
I don’t know nearly as much about philanthropists as I know about men, simply because I have engaged deeply with many more men (by the many hundreds) than philanthropists (a mere handful). And what I already know is enough for me to have full confidence that philanthropists are trapped within the logic of the system we currently have even if it may appear from the outside that their power would be enough to do whatever they want. Ultimately, the fundamental issues I have are with the way our systems are set up, not with the choices that this or that individual make within it. In addition, if anyone with significant access to wealth wants to find even small steps outside our current system, understanding how philanthropy sustains and reinforces what bell hooks called “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy” is a vitally important first step.
Philanthropy as theft and illusion
I am well aware that my use of the term “theft” is provocative. My use of it is unrelated to legal or normative definitions, both of which take for granted the presence of private property. I mean theft in a simple and elemental sense: taking something from others or from life with at least some degree of coercion. Each of the ways that philanthropy does this is hidden within what I see as an illusion built into the current systems.
Extraction vs. the illusion of wealth creation
In order to become a philanthropist, a person must first have significant access to resources. Although entrepreneurs have adopted the language of “creating” wealth, I believe that to be one of several illusions that philanthropy rests on. Underneath that illusion, what I see is that wealth is extracted from people, relationships, and/or natural elements.1 Every form of philanthropy, in that sense, depends on an initial form of theft that created the wealth, either by that person or one of their ancestors. Whatever giving happens is invariably going to be less than the amount previously accumulated, which means that the fruits of the initial theft continue to accumulate.
Personal gain vs. the illusion of fair tax deductions
When money is then given, a second form of theft happens, which is that the philanthropist doesn’t pay taxes on the money donated. Within the dominant paradigm, the tax deduction seems logical and fair. What it actually does in practice is reduce the amount of money that is available to the state for attending to needs that the capitalist economy, by definition, cannot attend to, since it’s not designed to attend to needs. In times past, such needs were attended to through direct relationships and through coming together to share resources based on needs. These pathways have been destroyed by patriarchy, especially in its capitalist form. Now all of us, to various degrees, are subjected to the control of states, which includes the collection of taxes. However much I would like it to be different, the state is the only entity at present that has any capacity to directly attend to needs outside of exchange. Not paying taxes on money that is donated takes away that capacity from the state and makes it less possible to mitigate for the impacts of extraction through state mechanisms.
Complex motivation vs. the Illusion of generosity
Despite the inherent, built-in gaps within the philanthropy model, philanthropy is still overwhelmingly seen as an act of immense generosity, both by those who practice it and by others. Those who engage in large-scale philanthropy receive admiration and appreciation and are looked up to as role models of responsible citizenship.
Looking more closely, it turns out that study after study shows that higher earning people give a smaller percentage of their annual earnings than lower earning people. That in itself is a complex and troubling bit of information. It becomes even more pronounced when we recognize that the lower earning people don’t usually donate enough to be able to get tax benefits for their contributions. In the US, for example, where I have a bit of knowledge about the tax system, a donation would have to be at least $12,951 in 2022 for there to be any tax benefit from it. This is an unlikely huge amount of money for a low-income person to donate. And this isn’t the end, either. Because the lower anyone’s income, the more of it is tied to attending to basic needs, and the less of it is available for other purposes. Which means that when the exploited people of society donate money they are more likely to experience impact from that on other parts of their life. The higher earners who very often give away a smaller percentage also have many more accumulated assets and their giving makes far less of a dent in their ability to care for their own needs. I am not the only one who understands this, Warren Buffet himself, in his famous pledge of 99% of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to philanthropic foundations said this: “Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures. In contrast, my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99% pledge.”
There is another layer of complexity to the image of pure benevolence that philanthropy conjures up. The more anyone gives, the more is given to them. There are many intangible benefits that accrue to philanthropists: influential seats on boards, media attention, and the very aura of benevolence and generosity. I see this latter one as related to something I already mentioned earlier and I want to repeat: my deep intuitive sense is that those with access to immense privilege know, somewhere in their soul, that their needs are met at the expense of others. The sense of generosity related to giving in care for others may very well be a moral balm for that complexity.
Control vs. the illusion of making a difference
The third form of theft that I see within philanthropy is more complex and less directly material. It is the taking away of autonomy and dignity from those who receive money from philanthropists by insisting that the philanthropist be the one to decide how the money is to be used. The logic of justification of this form of control is in part based on the basic tenet of ownership: whoever owns a resource of any kind is the one with the ultimate say about what to do with it. This is accepted almost as self-evidently true, all the while hiding the reality that within this framework those with the most acute need have no say in which needs would be attended to and how. Solutions are imposed, often with detrimental impacts on communities, especially vulnerable and marginalized ones.
Sustaining the current paradigm vs. the illusion of ending poverty
Philanthropy also sustains the current systems in more direct ways which end up being one more form of theft which is more subtle and difficult to discern: it’s robbing us of community and of locally relevant responses to challenges as especially the largest foundations impose standards, practices, measures, and other elements of a modern, bureaucratic, capitalist, individualistic framework based in the scarcity, separation, and powerlessness that are the core foundations of our current systems. This kind of imposition is particularly acute in the context of the relationship between the global North and the global South in the context of capitalism, especially in its neoliberal form. Philanthropy, in this context, spreads the development paradigm across the globe.
There is deep and painful paradoxical complexity to this. The entire development project, with the Green Revolution as its prime example of success, is framed as alleviating hunger and extreme poverty, which apparently it does. However, what development of this sort doesn’t do is address the actual root causes of the plight of billions in the world. Specifically, I am talking about the role of European colonization in creating the current conditions through extraction of local minerals, plants, and animals, over centuries, and converting, around the world, both existing non-Western civilizations and indigenous groups, into dependent economies within what Immanuel Wallerstein calls the world system of capitalism.
Even if, indeed, there is temporary alleviation of certain forms of acute suffering, there is little by way of directing resources to restoring the commons and to engaging collective wisdom, locally, to address the challenges within rather than beyond both regional and planetary means. I don’t see any significant movement in the direction of the rich countries orienting to offering support rather than dictation of terms. This is so pervasive, that when Manfred Max-Neef was engaging in a radical attempt to do exactly what I am imagining here, and involved impoverished, indigenous people in a Latin American country in active design of what would support them to live in dignity and attend to their basic needs, the results of that endeavor were physically destroyed by the government rather than implemented.2
As I often remind myself and whoever reads my writing, I am not a primary researcher or activist, and I don’t actually know much except what comes out of my own immediate experimentation which is both extensive and limited. In particular, I don’t have any way of knowing what is possible and what is likely. Is it ultimately possible to address the enormity of challenges on a global scale within the existing paradigms? Many philanthropists believe it is, along with scientists, policymakers, the business sector, and many NGOs and governments. On the basis of my fundamental thinking and my reading of less mainstream sources, I do not believe that it is possible for the methodologies and mindset that created these immense and overwhelming challenges can be the ones to address those challenges, certainly not as an imposition on others.
As I complete this section, I am noting with interest that Norman Borlaug, the primary theorist of the Green Revolution, and Manfred Max-Neef, one of its deepest critics and the theorist of what came to be known as “human-scale development”, have expressed immense frustration with the many who know nothing about hunger and what it means to live an impoverished life and theorize or criticize from a comfortable distance. Both of them lived and worked directly with impacted populations, and yet reached opposite conclusions. As the ecological cost of development is coming back to haunt us, and without knowing, I sense that Max-Neef’s less known approach is more aligned with life. I am not surprised it’s less funded.
Making inequality palatable vs. the illusion of creating change
One way of looking at philanthropy is as a form of resource redistribution: a way of mitigating the impacts of the syphoning of resources to the few which happens continually through unequal exchange and direct accumulation. By definition, this is going to be limited. In order to sustain a philanthropic enterprise, wealth must continue to accumulate. No philanthropic work will ever finance the dismantling of the system that makes it possible. Mitigating impacts makes it possible for the system to continue with somewhat less absorbing by the many. When the impacts are sufficiently mitigated, the suffering diminishes enough to entrench the acceptance of existing social orders in different parts of the world.
That the existing social orders are accepted is something that was fully driven home to me when I saw a particularly shocking table showing actual wealth distribution in the US, what people in the US believe it is, and what they would ideally want it to be. For context, the US is a core site of the global trend of runaway neoliberalism. Within the industrialized global North, the US is the country with the most measured inequality. This means that Canada, every European country, Australia, and New Zealand are all more equal than the US. Moreover, most of the other countries of the world, including Russia and China, have less skewing of income distribution, too.
And yet people in the US, generally, are not aware of this situation and the reality of resource distribution in the US and globally. Few people fully grasp how much skewing there is, and how much that skewing is continuing to grow, including accelerating during the pandemic. This is evident from seeing that people generally believe there is significantly less skewing than what is actually measured. What’s more tragic for me is that some degree of skewing of asset distribution is generally accepted, even desired, likely the result of deep internalization of the idea that some people deserve more.
The image of these comparisons is profoundly telling. In the actual distribution, the bottom 40% of the population don’t show up at all: their access to assets is so small that it literally disappears in the chart. In what people believe is going on, that same 40% have about 9% of the assets. In the ideal or desired version, that same 40% have about 24%. The top 20%, on the other hand, actually controls about 84% of the assets, is believed to control about 58%, and in the desired version would ideally control only about 32%. The ideal version is much closer to equality and is still unequal.
I am left wondering to myself if people actually knew, en masse, what the reality actually is, globally, if that would be enough for people to actually rise up in huge numbers to protest. And, even if people did protest and rise up, in the absence of a compelling vision, no change would likely happen that will fundamentally transform the logic of accumulation. In this way, philanthropy, in upholding the current system that sustains it, is robbing us of vision, of a palpable way of holding on to the presence of an alternative way to what we see around us. Since the system as we know it is promoted as the only viable possibility, the alternative to which is state control such as communism or total chaos, the only pathway we can recognize, collectively, for making life better stays within the current system and depends on the benevolence of those who have made it within the system.
Despite the pervasiveness of the patriarchal narratives of scarcity, separation, and powerlessness that have been deeply internalized in us, there are ample archeological, anthropological, social, mythological, and evolutionary pointers to a time before patriarchy in which humans lived in matricentric societies in which flow, togetherness, and choice were the foundations of all life.
This isn’t only in the past. Every new human arrives here with full trust in life, dependent and not helpless. Every new human, unless already traumatized before birth, is ready to receive unilaterally, to relax into a total absence of any vigilance, to make their needs known with the trust that others will orient to caring for them, and to immediately make impacts on them known with full abandon, as information to the environment, without any blaming or shaming. I’ve known this for a long time, and am being reminded, while writing this piece, by the proximity to a new human who was born so recently that this total cellular, organismic trust is still fully within her. Beholding this is a clear reminder that we all came here with this deep imprint and that it may hold the key to the fundamental transformations necessary to realign humanity with life.
When we live within flow and trust, no one feels the impulse to accumulate. Natural abundance is based on sufficiency and regeneration. We take what we need, not more and not less, and we trust there is then enough for all. We know that we live in a closed system, where each of us needs food and is food. We accept the inherent vulnerability and freedom that being alive is. We surrender to decay, death, and even killing as integral to life. We take our place within the interdependent web of beings, alongside all other beings, in full reverence for life.
The path towards flow is simple and immensely difficult: shedding what we have accumulated and restoring trust in natural abundance after having broken it to create artificial surplus and manufactured scarcity; uncoupling giving from receiving and restoring trust in each other’s capacity for gifting after millennia of exchange; and releasing control and restoring trust in ourselves and our capacity to face hardship after being habituated to fixing every little discomfort with money and technology.
In some future piece, I plan to come back to looking at what is needed for anyone to embark on such a journey of liberation within. It means taking on, questioning, and freeing ourselves from everything we have been trained to believe, both through stories and through various forms of direct and subtle violence, so as to realign with the cellular memory we still carry within us. Then we can restore choice as we discover enoughness, restore togetherness as we orient to everyone’s needs, and restore flow as we embrace radical redistribution to restart circulation.
For the remainder of this piece I focus on the practical dimension of what can actually be done if we find the commitment and at least some capacity to make material changes.
Shifting to de-accumulation
Anyone who truly reaches the painful and overwhelming conclusion that philanthropy cannot create a world that works for all nor restore flow also finds that there are no playbooks for the alternative and they can only be discovered, one step and one dollar at a time, while walking towards the vibrant vision. Given how young this kind of practice is, I only have very broad level shifts to offer for guiding these discoveries, of which I have so far identified four overlapping ones.
From donating to realigning with flow
The idea of “donating” holds, within it, the deep implication that we are generously giving something that is ours to begin with. That idea of realigning with flow reminds us of movement with a direction that has a destination. It is no longer about us or about resources. When we can practice it with conscious discernment and full surrender, this choice of words or orientation is a constant reminder that whatever we currently have access to isn’t and wasn’t ever ours. Ownership is control of resources backed up by what Heide Goettner-Abendroth simply calls “staff of enforcement.” From the beginning, violence has always been necessary for maintaining private property. Realigning with flow requires integrating into the fiber of our existence that what we control has always been an indivisible part of life. Within current systems, no paths outside ownership of some sort exist, as earth has been fully parceled out. It is still possible, as a rigorous orientation, to come back again and again to seeing ourselves as stewards rather than owners of the resources we control.
From principal, investment, equity, and percentages to needs
I have never been wealthy myself and never had to manage assets. I am not even certain that the terms I have used in the heading of this section are technically accurate. I only know that people with wealth are often preoccupied with these or other financial or economic frameworks. In particular, the “Giving Pledge” is entirely based on a percentage of wealth given away.
From the moment I heard about this pledge I have been underwhelmed. Having read some of the pledge letters, I see, vividly, how little questioning of the presence of wealth or how it comes about happens. The words are about equal opportunity, being fortunate, and philanthropy as a moral imperative. Choosing a percentage to give, even 99%, is not based on anything related to reflective discernment of need. As Warren Buffet himself says: “This pledge will leave my lifestyle untouched and that of my children as well.” Later, he also says: “I like having an expensive plane.” I don’t see any evidence that he has considered the possibility of changing his lifestyle, of aligning his choices more with what’s possible for all rather than taking for granted the comforts that his wealth makes possible.
Within capitalist societies, “more” is an imperative. Instead of starting from what we need, looking for creative strategies for attending to those needs, and sharing with others what we don’t need, we are trained to start from what we have and seeing what we can spend it on. No one will convince me that anyone “needs” an expensive plane. And, indeed, Warren Buffet doesn’t claim to need the plane; only that he likes having it. As I see it, he remains outside of life, not within it. He is orienting to continuity of comfort and not to his own and everyone else’s needs. I fully trust that he indeed cares about the rest of the people of the world. And I don’t believe he sees himself as interdependent with us. Shifting an orientation from numerical considerations to actual needs, our own and others, is a watershed shift, not a semantic twist. It’s the first step in orienting differently to wealth.
From retaining wealth to full redistribution
I want to contrast the idea of pledging 99% of our wealth with a very concrete example of what I mean by full redistribution.
At the time of writing this, I recently turned 67. At present, I have access to three forms of material resources, none of which are privately owned assets of any substance. The first is my capacity to do things that others find value in and are willing to give money to sustain. The second form is related: my capacity to inspire people to give money to the projects and organizations I participate in. Neither I nor any group I am part of “charge” for anything that I offer the world. Everything I do is given as a gift and I regularly ask for gifts. The last form of access I have is being a US citizen and therefore being legally entitled to social security benefits for the rest of my life or until the system itself collapses. I am now in the process of figuring out how I can begin to collect these benefits so as to reduce the overall financial burden on NGL.
I am part of a small homepod of three of us who are in a long-term commitment to risk sharing and two others who are in various stages of experimenting with the possibility of joining us. We aim to have a combined financial buffer of $11,000, and we have little by way of solid assets (an aging car, a trailer for our belongings, and our personal belongings). We are intertwined with the Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) community, where about thirty of us sustain ourselves in all or part from gifts freely given to NGL. I consider me, and our pod as a whole, as having fully redistributed what little assets we may have ever had with the exception of the small buffer, which is only there because within NGL as a whole we haven’t yet created sufficient capacity to step into that level of risk sharing where we have one buffer for all of us. Recently, we have dipped into the buffer significantly because of unexpected expenses, and it is unclear whether NGL will have sufficient resources to distribute to restore our buffer given others’ needs and requests that are part of the puzzle we solve every four months when distributions happen. We are in full surrender to the vulnerability of aliveness in a very dysfunctional system based on exchange and accumulation, without any attempt to control outcomes.
Even if Warren Buffett had decided to retain only .01% of his wealth, that is $10 million, which I consider, still, to be beyond what anyone actually would need to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their family and to live in dignity within a community with sufficient meaning and purpose. Warren Buffet’s choices are based on retaining sufficient wealth that he can maintain the basic illusion of self-sufficiency that modern individualism is based on instead of joining the interdependent web that is called life.
From control to surrender
- The Giving Pledge website states that “problems affecting the world are complex, and solving them requires the collaboration of governments, non-profits, academic institutions, and businesses. Philanthropists can play an important role as catalysts, focusing on areas where existing funding is scarce, or that governments and businesses can’t or won’t fund.”
- Absent from this picture are, of course, the very communities that would purportedly benefit from the gifts of philanthropists. All the named players are institutions and individuals with significant access to power. This perspective is fully embedded within the prevalent mindset.
- Instead, de-accumulation as I picture it means releasing control and seeking pathways to collective wisdom. It has been amply demonstrated that ordinary people, when collaborating for a clear shared purpose, when they have a clear practical problem to solve, when they have the authority to implement what they decide, and when they are supported by facilitators, can achieve breakthrough, creative outcomes and find solutions that all can embrace.
- Any of the pledgers, all of whom are billionaires, could easily orchestrate a random sampling of a population they seek to support, provide loving facilitation, and release the outcome to the people whose lives are affected by the results.
The wisdom of baby steps
The system we live in is severely broken and offers unimaginable material benefits to some at immense cost to others. The shifts I am describing above are conceptually simple even if emotionally and spiritually demanding. And yet there are enormous obstacles to shifting the patterns that the system is based on. These obstacles are systemic and entrenched. Simply put, there are no systems to care for those who want to shed resources to the level I am advocating for. While the rest of the world remains as it is, any of us who commit to actual shedding of what we have risk immense individual losses, including potential severing of relationships within family, friends, and colleagues. No creative pathways exist for meaningful shedding, and any resources shed on a small scale all too easily get re-absorbed into the system as it is.
What, then, can any of us do, with or without immense access to wealth? The best answer I can offer, beyond acknowledging that I don’t know, is to start where we are and to take steps in the direction of the journey I am describing that move us beyond our comfort zone while staying within capacity.
In terms of how much to give away, this would mean redistributing whatever amount is not going to create hardship as we orient to relearning to turning to each other and to the material base of life to attend to needs rather than to the market economy based on exchange and accumulation.
In terms of where to give, we can use Joanna Macy’s framework of the great turning for guidance. This takes us away from charity and from alleviating the suffering of individuals to orienting to one of three broad areas.
Holding actions. This is Joanna Macy’s term for whatever we do which is designed to stop or slow down the worst harms currently being done, extending our time before collapse while attending to creating the foundations of a new way of living.
Consciousness transformation. This is a tricky one because, in effect, any yoga class could conceivably be seen as part of consciousness transformation. For me, key to it being actual transformation is that the consciousness work include a systemic lens that supports understanding of why we are here and what needs to happen to create sufficiently deep and lasting change.
Creating alternatives. This points to the many attempts, by many of us around the world, to create projects, groups, communities, families, and ways of living that are inspired by a vision of possibility and aim to embody it even now. This is largely where I see NGL fitting, for example.
All three are interrelated and still each of us can choose where we put our energy and resources and what purpose we are serving by doing so. I doubt very much that Warren Buffett or MacKenzie Scott will end up reading this article, and I am even more doubtful that either of them, or others like them, will take up the practices I am pointing to here. The more likely group that will read this are people who have no assets beyond their basic necessities or those who have small amounts of assets to think about. None of us, whatever individual choices we make, is likely to generate a movement of shifting from philanthropy to de-accumulation. Certainly not on our own. My hope in writing this is to support clarity, depth, and the mysterious flow of living that may, eventually, bring more of us together to soberly look at where we collectively are and find strength and wisdom to take larger actions for the benefit of all.
2 This was in the days before electronic documentation, when only paper documents existed, and is thus entirely irretrievable. The whole painful life of that project is documented in an early work of his: From the Outside Looking in: Experiences in Barefoot Economics.
Images by Gwen Olton
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