Philanthropy is theoretically an expression of generosity and fellow-feeling, but in an increasingly unequal world, charitable giving is a form of reputation laundering for super-rich oligarchs who build their massive fortunes on savage programs of exploitation and immiseration. The idea is that you can paper over the fact that deliberately starting the opioid crisis made you richer than the Rockefellers by having your name plastered all over the world's leading art galleries and museums.
Nowhere is this more on display today than in Paris, where the farcically wealthy millionaires and billionaires who collectively pledged €600m to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedra failed to pay out a single sou as of mid-June. It's desperately needed: Notre Dame is crying out for cash to pay its workers' wages and remove the lead from its ceilings so that it can start work on rebuilding, but the super-rich are holding out for the chance to endow a wing or a room or a gift-shop, the kind of thing that could provide some reputation-laundering ROI.
When the cathedral publicly complained about the broken promises in June, the Arnault (Vuitton) and Pinault (Gucci) families coughed up €10m each. They had pledged €100m and €200m, respectively. Meanwhile, the L'Oréal family foundation is MIA, as is oil giant Total.
Many of these same billionaires are the generous Macron benefactors, among the 600 super-rich donors who donated €3m and €4.5m to Macron's campaign slush-fund (Macron has since slashed taxes on the super rich, representing a 60,000% ROI on their campaign contributions).
Writing in the Guardian (and channeling Anand Giridharadas), Aditya Chakrabortty writes, "For the super-rich, giving is really taking. Taking power, that is, from the rest of society. The billionaires will get exclusive access to the "vision" for the reconstruction of a national landmark and they can veto those plans, because if they don't like them they can withhold their cash. Money is always the most powerful casting vote, and they have it."
Meanwhile, the salaries of 150 workers on site have to be paid. The 300 or so tonnes of lead in the church roof pose a toxic threat that must be cleaned up before the rebuilding can happen. And pregnant women and children living nearby are undergoing blood tests for possible poisoning. But funding such dirty, unglamorous, essential work is not for the luxury-goods billionaires. As the Notre Dame official said last month, they don't want their money "just to pay employees' salaries". Heaven forfend! Not when one could endow to future generations the Gucci Basilica or a Moët Hennessy gift shop, so you, too, can enjoy the miracle of sparkling wine, or a nave by L'Oréal (tagline: Because Jesus is Worth It).
The lesson from the ruins of Notre Dame: don't rely on billionaires [Aditya Chakrabortty/The Guardian]