Why do rich people give? Philanthropic donations and the economic justice of ‘big man societies’

Daniel R. Smith

Why do rich people give away money to charitable causes? Beth Breeze’s (2013) recent piece in Discover Society has an answer: they feel committed to a cause, project or foundation which also allows them to turn their money into an extension of their professional success as capitalists. There is a link between ‘good spending’ and the ‘good life’, she argues.

Beyond the cynical suggestion that tax-breaks exist for large donors, Breeze is suggesting that philanthropic donations by some of Britain’s wealthier capitalists (those whose personal fortune goes beyond £10 million), is concerned with converting their ‘good spending’ into creating a ‘good life’ – both for the capitalist giving away their monies, and also the projects the money is invested in. Central to this argument is a notion of distributive justice. Who gets what and on what principle this rests? Underlying the arguments from Breeze’s informants is the philosophy that tax-benefits, as well as the inability for public spending to act as the basis for philanthropic projects, implies that the burden of philanthropy falls to the richest to redistribute their wealth accordingly through their own ambitions. For Breeze, this rests uneasy with most people:

“representations of philanthropy …are incoherent and contradictory because we are not comfortable about wealth making, we are unsure what status to give the wealthy and therefore we do not know how to characterise or assess the desireability of wealth-giving.” (Breeze, 2013)

To answer why we feel uneasy about philanthropic projects from the super-rich, the work of anthropologists’ on ‘big man societies’ can be of some help. Ultimately my claims is this: Rich people give to improve the moral status of their name. As Breeze’s notes, philanthropy is about modern standards of success and identity formation for the capitalist. This is the central problem of capitalism where the capitalist has moved beyond the Protestant ethic of predestination. Today our capitalists seek salvation through putting their wealth in the service of the moral sanctity of their name.

According to Maurice Godelier (1999; 1986), big man societies consists of an unstable hierarchy of magnanimous ‘big men’ whose wealth, power, prestige, and ultimately their ability to maintain it, rests upon a contradiction: having accumulated such vast wealth, power and prestige, the ‘big man’ must “give back what he has received if he wants to go on gathering into his hands an ever-greater quantity of wealth for redistribution.” (Godelier, 1986:163) The central task of the big man is to make a name for himself through his magnanimity. Here we see the first similarity with philanthropic capitalism and big-man gift economies – the gift of a large charitable sum of money earns the donor his prestige but also proves his capitalist ethic, his ability to accumulate and redistribute. The tax-break which turns 600k into a million pound donation also highlights the contradiction at work: in order to earn more for redistribution it involves giving away wealth, and by giving it away it improves the moral sanctity of their person – their name.

When it comes to understanding a potlatch society, ‘big man society’ or competitive gift-giving societies, the general way of talking about them is as “logics of society.” As a ‘logic’ of society, the general meaning is that ‘this is how society goes about producing a type of social order and its people’ (which is simple enough), but also at another level it refers to how society produces social relations and their economic organisation beyond the level of subsistence. That is, the production of wealth as also the production of specific types of social status and political relations of domination and the organisation of interest groups. A big-man is a person whose whole enterprise consists in “the production and circulation of means of exchange…” (Godelier, 1986:163) that consolidate his economic and political power in a community of competitors. The commands of valuables, ‘the production and circulation of means of exchange’, becomes the basis of his power and prestige. His valuables are goods that are a semi-abstract substance (e.g. feathers, shells, necklaces, ceremonial tools, stones, … money) which can be used to stand for the existence, on an imaginary level, of social relations and one’s access to wealth and power. Money is a prime example (or their equivalents, usually called ‘primitive monies’ (Godelier, 1999:162-167).

Beyond the level of subsistence, the big-man appropriates the labour of others and uses it as a source for the wealth that will be redistributed to others for the means of his own renown and prestige. As Godelier puts it,

“by his ambition and his initiatives, the big man thus serves as the means through which the wealth and efforts of several local groups are united for the furtherance of common ends. He serves as the unstable, provisional medium for supralocal political relations that have not yet reached the point where they would need to take the form of a permanent institution.” (1986:164)

Again we may note a parallel with philanthropic capitalism, the giving away of wealth acts to implement the furthering of common ends – cancer research, food for the starving, clean water and wells, schools etc. – where there is not permanent institutional means. Philanthropy is a form of big-man patrimonial giving. As Breeze notes, the use of philanthropic donations as a stand-in for government spending in austerity Britain is a central part of Cameron’s Big Society project, for our ‘Big Society’ is also the logic of a Big Man society.

Reliance upon philanthropy simply serves to bolster the interests and preserve the position of the wealthy elite. Such a statement is obvious – and many have suggested reasons for it and noted it, the most recent being Zizek’s much watched RSA video. But what is less obvious and less noted is the ethical implication and dimension from the perspective of the big-man: What does the philanthropy capitalist suggest as a notion of economic justice? It is essentially archaic and can be found in Aristotle’s Politics under the discussion of ‘justice’. In matters of politics, what people seek is ‘the good’, the reason for their association and their common ends. In politics, the good is aimed at by producing justice – that which is good for the whole community. For Aristotle, the justice he speaks of is the right to privileges, prestige and power to exercise the common ends of the community, i.e. put ‘justice’ in place. And his argument is that those whose birth and property become the most worthy recipients of justice, the fruits of the community and exercising of the communities justices, that is, that which is desired by the community. Now we all need to note for our philanthropy capitalism is that good accumulation of wealth is the basis for good causes and a good life to be lived by the whole community.

Philanthropy capitalism essentially suggests that those who have accumulated vast wealth have not so much a moral duty to redistribute but rather through their redistribution they become those best set to exercise what is ‘good’: this suggest that the projects of the philanthropist sets the terms of what is worth investing in, and what is more is that they are the best set to see that it is initiated. What underlines Aristotle’s philosophy of justice is that those who are best at performing certain functions are the most worthy recipients of the privileges that allow these functions to be performed. If flautist A is better than flautist B then A deserves the better instrument, or in our case if capitalist A is better than capitalist B then A deserves a higher tax-break, and better public recognition and greater prestige and further ability to exercise their political-economic power. It suggests a society that sees the ability to accumulate vast wealth as the basis for being most worthy to choose, set up and initiate moral and humanitarian projects. The uneasiness we feel, then, towards charitable giving from the rich isn’t so much that their spending outstretches most people’s ability to donate, or the cynical motive to gaining tax-breaks, but rather because underlying it is the big-man philosophy of justice: those who can accumulate wealth beyond subsistence are those best placed to set the standards for what subsistence consists of. That is, philanthropic capitalism is not only an oxymoron in terms but in practice. It suggests justice begins with those who can best exploit others.


Breeze, Beth (2013), ‘Why do rich people give?’, Discover Society: http://www.discoversociety.org/why-do-rich-people-give/

Godelier, Maurice (1986), The making of great men, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Godelier, Maurice (1999), The Enigma of the Gift, (London: Routledge)


One thought on “Why do rich people give? Philanthropic donations and the economic justice of ‘big man societies’

  1. Rich philanthropist is an oxymoron simply because a true philanthropist would not be rich – she would already have given away everything she did not need.

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