As everyone knows, Bill Gates is on a mission to eradicate polio from the world. And it’s interesting that everyone knows it, as if being on a dedicated search-and-destroy for a disease were impossible to do anonymously, or as if polio needed to be told that Bill Gates is coming for it.
The story of Bill Gates’ use of his ill-gotten billions to fight poverty and disease is an instructive illustration of how capitalism has colonised the inner world of what used to be considered virtues – generosity, kindness, compassion and so on – but also of the isomorphic similarity between Gatesian philanthropy, the operations of the US military panopticon and transnational capitalism. As David Graeber points out in his book Debt: the first 5,000 years – a book that finally explained money to me – the unsustainable economics of debt and payment have come to dominate not just the political world but the social world as well. And the foundation run by Bill and Melinda Gates is both about money as panacea and fictionalising the ways that money is made.
The Gates Foundation is now the largest philanthropic organisation in the world, with assets of stupendous proportions, and is starting to have something of an impact on the structure of health interventions in non-Western countries.
In a 2009 report on the Gates Foundation, The Lancet pointed out that it is rarely transparent, doesn’t collaborate well with others with greater professional experience in the areas it is targeting, is secretive in its decision-making, arbitrary in its focus regardless of evidence, rarely seems to target areas of greatest need, and hits and runs without developing local infrastructures.
This is another way of saying that the Gates Foundation’s interventions are questionable and don’t lead to long-term structural benefit for those it is supposed to be helping. If this is true, as The Lancet suggests, what is the Gates Foundation’s actual function? If Bill Gates is not embarking on a quest for personal redemption, or striving to obliterate the memory of once being publicly pelted with cream pies, what is he doing? After decades of smothering the world in shitty computers and screwing his business competitors, it would be heartwarming to think that Gates is engaged in some kind of conscious expiation for his evil acts. But I suspect that the truth is very much weirder and, most likely and very obviously, an extension of all the practices of domination and control he and many other corporate robber barons have been engaging in for the last few decades.
At Bill’s unsurprisingly corporate website is Bill’s 2013 Annual Letter, a very interesting and revealing document. Beneath a photo of Bill pointing at a chart somewhere in Ethiopia while Ethiopians point at him there’s the following caption:
Over the past year I’ve been impressed with progress in using data and measurement in improving the human condition.
I’m not sure whether I’m more weirded out by the thought that Bill Gates has a concept of the human condition, or that he thinks data and measurement can fix it.
Bill pontificates further:
A business has increasing profit as its primary goal. Management decides the actions –such as improving customer satisfaction or adding new product capabilities – that will drive profit and then develops a system to measure those on a regular basis. If the managers pick the wrong measures or don’t do better than their competition, profit goes down. Business magazines and business schools analyze which measures companies use and which companies have done particularly well or poorly. Other companies benefit from these analyses, learning from the performance of their competitors which tactics and strategies work and which don’t.
Unlike business, where profit is the ‘bottom line,’ foundations and government programs pick their own goals…Given a goal, you decide on what key variable you need to change to achieve it – the same way a business picks objectives for inside the company like customer satisfaction – and develop a plan for change and a way of measuring the change. You use the measurement as feedback to make adjustments. I think a lot of efforts fail because they don’t focus on the right measure or they don’t invest enough in doing it accurately.
Apart from giving rise to stray thoughts that Bill Gates is actually a number-crunching robot or the only Vulcan without pointy ears, the most striking thing about this statement, and the Gates Foundation’s raison d’etre generally, is the use of a fictional technocratic business model to address deeply intractable social problems, problems created by the cruel practices of neoliberalism, colonial rapacity and neglect, vulture capitalism, and so on.
The goal of ‘profit’ is taken out of the neoliberal model and replaced with a utilitarian objective like ‘Eradicate Polio’. Neoliberal capitalism itself becomes a neutral anodyne accounting model, self-regulating and seeking inner harmony with all its protagonists working together for the common good, like a team of mechanics on an F1 racing car. It’s a model overseen by benign plutocrats, who carefully explain how the world can be fixed and what we have done wrong.
One of the themes of Bill’s Annual Letter is the narrative of Bill as technocratic superhero: There is a problem in a Third World country that no-one has been able to solve! What is to be done? Why isn’t polio dead? Bill decides to go and see for himself. In less time than it takes to boot up Windows he has nailed the problem and the solution: You don’t have enough data, people! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before! Bill Gates is Bruce Wayne without the good looks, the cape and the Batman voice. But he has the tech, and he’s gunning for evil supervillains.
Bill Gates’ magical model is how the business operations of capitalism represent themselves to each other. Just as Mafia bosses don’t describe themselves as sociopathic murderers but as ‘businessmen’, so billionaire weirdoes prefer to represent themselves as forces for benevolence. (Remember how Gina Rhinehart wrote a poem about how compassionate her version of capitalism is and had it engraved and nailed to a rock?)
In the Gates model you can conveniently replace ‘Eradicate Polio’ with any number of other objectives taken from the operations of panoptic hi-tech military capitalism. That’s the real beauty of it. Gates says that ‘foundations and governments’ are structurally equivalent. His model is actually a map for those who exit and enter through the revolving door of the predatory corporates, techno-military and political parties – the headquarters of the compound-eyed, blood-gargling beast of malice that is getting more inventive and intrusive in how it represents the world and rewires it.
It’s a kind of totalitarian monster really. Whoever you’re working for, your employers are the same. The state militaries, their humongous apparatus of spying and the interests of transnational corporations are not just virtually identical, they are fused. This has been blatantly revealed in the sinister groveling collusion between Google et al and the US government, but was also obvious in the invasion of Iraq, where US forces obliterated everything so US multinationals could get paid bazillions in public money to pretend to build it up again, and in the recent revelations that the US bugs its ‘allies’ to get a heads up on everything they are doing. Elected governments and global tech companies effectively act as agents for each other.
The unilateral model of capitalism Bill Gates proposes, that nation-builds ‘failed states’ and other unfortunates through philanthropy, is almost identical to the US military’s model for nation-building outlined in the US Army’s 280-page Counterinsurgency: strategic field manual FM 3-24, signed off on by David Petraeus and James Amos in 2006. FM 3-24 is war by manager-speak. It is an argument that the initial failures in Afghanistan and Iraq were primarily because of lack of data. Just as the Gates methodology decontextualises the causes of poverty and disease, so the US counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) positioned violent American military intervention as a managerial exercise in salvation and rescue, as if the US military were the Gates Foundation with guns.
Petraeus and Amos wrote in their introduction to FM 3-24
[COIN] requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmiitary agencies… [Leaders] must ensure that their Soldiers and Marines are ready to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade…Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors.
COIN, as portrayed by Petraeus and Amos, is an invasion with better data, and like Gates’ queries into the causes of poverty, FM 3 2-4’s inquiries into the causes of violence in the lands they are occupying displays an ignorance of the reality the US is inhabiting that is almost wondrous. Have a look at this extract from FM 3-24, ‘Factors to consider when addressing grievances’.
These kind of positionings of a subject population parallel the Gates Foundation’s engagement with local third world populations. Critical structural issues are decontextualised and depoliticised as if the intervening party had just dropped in like the fairy godmother. Magical neoliberal manager-speak shears them even further of local content, and relegates them to the arena of abstract problem. FM 3-24 abounds in diagrammatic representations of war:
These different streams of capitalism, the triumphalist cheerleading of Gates, the delusional violence of the neoliberal militaries and the kleptocratic practices of the private sector sit comfortably together. They all use the same documents, one could say.
Capitalism wants it all: to eat up the world forever, burn everything alive and to save it as a kind of pristine eco-friendly, shopping-malled paradise free from unsightly diseased children. That’s what is unique about capitalism as an economic system. It contains its own death wish and continually masks it with the pleasures to be gained from the insatiable making and using of money. Capitalism can starve people to death, bomb them into oblivion and then still turn up afterwards with a look of deep concern, a billion dollars in aid, a cure for polio, a plan for everyone to become entrepreneurs, and a writers festival.
It can certainly appear as though the loony flagbearers of rampant disaster neoliberalism believe that things can go on as they are, forever. But it’s also possible to read the massive transfer of wealth and resources we’ve seen over the past few decades into the hands of a tiny elite, as an unconscious realisation that the game is up and that if things go on the way they are you will need a few billion in the bank, a private jet, a mega-yacht and homes on several continents just to be able to live a comfortable life.
It is becoming increasingly obvious, for example, that our political leaders have zero interest in doing anything about climate change. There could be lots of reasons for this, not least of which is their stupidity and the clout of the fossil fuel and mining industries, but I’d guess there’s also a belief that it will be the ultimate feeding ground for disaster capitalism, which will fix it.
Of course, this is completely insane. Not only is the system using the system to fix the problems that the system has created but in doing so it subtly positions those problems as occurring outside of it, as though climate change were being inflicted on us by someone else. This is also the dynamic of the Gates version of international aid and the US military’s version of war. Childhood mortality in Africa and insurgency among occupied people have no connection with Western economic practices of war and violent dispossession and colonisation any more than the Queen of the Fairies was responsible for the sinking of the Titanic. Bill Gates makes war on polio, just as Petraeus and Amos made war on insurgents – and they use the same business model.
In his book Fates worse than death, Kurt Vonnegut described a trip he made to Mozambique in the late 1980s.
The photograph at the head of this chapter shows me in action in Mozambique, demonstrating muscular Christianity in an outfit that might have been designed by Ralph Lauren. The aborigines didn’t know whether to shit or go blind until I showed up. And then I fixed everything.
That neatly defines a future that neoliberal elites are prepared to run with. Those of us not fortunate enough to be billionaires will be mired in endless poverty and catastrophe praying for a mega-wealthy mentor to parachute in and save us with his data-crunching, but too afraid to move in case PRISM has our number.
But underneath the Gates Foundation’s rebranding of panoptic capitalism as a benign tool for humanity’s use and Bill’s construction of an image of the soulless plutocrat as compassionate superhero is a revisioning of the very idea of the inner world.
Only a miser would think that giving $100m was intrinsically better than giving $10. How the money was earned and how it is used count for something. In Gatesian philanthropy, the more money you give the more generous you are. So the rich can always trump the poor in the generosity stakes. You can be a better person if you are rich. The myriad problems of the world – the violence, the deprivation, the unnecessary death – only happen because there aren’t enough rich white people around to make things better.
When Orwell wrote that if we want a picture of the future we need to ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever’ he hadn’t encountered American Gatesian panoptic capitalism. The interesting thing about the revelations about the US NSA and Britain’s GCHQ is that they have been countered by paternalistic statements that such organisations need to exist for our benefit, to protect us, to keep us safe. The boot might stamp on us, but it will have a logo of a smiley face on it. Bill Gates is the smiley face of panoptic capitalism, just as FM 3-24 is the attempted smiley face of war.
The adjective ‘Orwellian’ has been thrown about a lot since Edward Snowden’s revelations about PRISM and Boundless Informant and so on. But Orwellian surveillance isn’t just concerned with knowing who does what and when. It’s about getting inside the mind of the subjects of the dominant authority and dictating their subjectivity. That’s what’s so Orwellian about the twenty-first century. It is becoming increasingly difficult to think. For the new Orwellian state, thinking doesn’t so much become branded as problematic – a kind of thinking that both Thatcher and Howard went to war on – but will become, in the post-Obama panoptical age, pointless.
Anyway, rich white guys saving the world through better technology and using their wealth for goodness is an old idea that should arouse everyone’s suspicions. Huge industries are constructed, rare minerals are mined, countries despoiled, genius minds combine their mighty intellects, labyrinthine tax havens are created, thousands are enslaved in soulless factories for a pittance, and all you get out of it at the end is an iPod.
Of course one way for the super-rich person to manage out their guilt – and as strange as it may seem, even Bill Gates has guilt – is to engage in highly public charitable work. It puts a temporary stopper on the growth of self-loathing and continues to give you the endless praise you crave so you can continue to have a functioning self. It proves that you are good and were good all along and deserve nothing but our eternal gratitude.