Bill Gates vs polio

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's chart

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’.

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:

Diagram 1
Diagram 2

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. “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.”

    Why just polio? I’ve often wondered. Why not cure all the world’s ills while you’re at it? And wasn’t polio mostly eradicated anyway before Bill Gates came along? It’s a bit like Mary MacKillop becoming a saint because one or two people who sought her avenue to God through prayer were cured of cancer. If God is so good and benevolent, and can do that for one or two people, why not everyone?

    Maybe humanism (worldly concern over diseases such as the poliomyelitis virus, perceived as part of a naturalised human condition, and so a question of compiling commonsense facts and applying a cure through corporate data measurement, rather than being understood as the result of structural and social inequalities due to different and competing value sets, coupled with the belief that people like Bill Gates are basically good rather than part of the problem) has become the new religion, and its philanthropists our secular age Gods?

  2. We probably shouldn’t underestimate the narcissism and egomania of the Gates’ of the world. Just as when particularly cruel politicians once out of office want to be branded as humanitarians and ambassadors for peace so the neoliberals generally want to be praised for their achievements and most especially for their goodness and their virtue. It’s not enough to be rich and powerful and famous. One must be publicly praised for one’s saintliness too. B
    The Gates Foundation is apparently having effects on policy delivery in some areas purely because they have so much money to throw around, and they have their fingers in a lot of pies. Sure Gates could be funding gun control, be the jubilee network’s biggest backer – but it would be hard to situate those as non-political as one can with sick children.

  3. Hey Stephen.

    That book you mention, David Graeber’s “Debt: the first 5,000 years” is so illuminating, and if he’s right, so devastating. Got through the first quarter of it so far.

    What I already take from this is: debt, money, power and oppression go together, and for a billionaire who has the good (massive) fortune of benefitting from this ‘perfect storm’ of economic-political-societal set up, it’s a bit rich (pardon pun) to think that dealing with a third-world health problem is the Best That Can Be Done with the billions. The structural set-up still exists.

    Is that what you are pointing to — that the billionaire hero story covers over the very reasons/dynamics that set up both his billions and their suffering?

  4. I would also like to link all this to the middle class getting a home loan, and the lower-class renting of those who have got a negatively-geared house-investment-loan. I’m sure you would too, from what you’ve said in the past.

    • Yeah. As I said, the system uses the system to fix the system but designates the problems as existing outside the system. And diseased children are always context-free. One cannot protest about the politics of the situation because ‘urgent action’ is required. It’s the thinking that led to the NT Intervention, intervention that like Gates’ interventions stifles dialogue and criticism. I meant to invoke Elaine Scarry’s book ‘Thinking in an Emergency’ but forgot.
      And yes, the housing ‘crisis’ in Australia has been very much a creation of the housing-as-investment model. If I own 4 houses there are 3 less for everyone else, and the ones that are available for purchase will therefore increase in price. As will mine, making me wealthier.

  5. “The system is not at fault” might be the (neo-liberal, or whatever) mantra you are writing against in all your posts?

    • yeah, I guess. I mean systemic problems of any kind are always outsourced, always expelled psychologically speaking.
      As far as my posts go, I’m just doing a 3-chord thrash and screaming.

      • But which rock/pop band ever sung: it IS your fault, it IS our fault, it IS the system, don’t go looking elsewhere…?

        • Um, perhaps we need to have a conversation about some popular music ensembles often referred to as ‘punk….

          • It’s more the whole oevre Luke. The Sex Pistols guitarists Jones once said that he couldn’t understand how he ended up there.. He said that trying to answer that question often kept him awake at night. He struggled to understand why he – a neglected, abused and unloved child who lived in poverty, a compulsive thief who had spent time in youth detention couldn’t play guitar well and was barely literate – found himself playing guitar on one of the most transformative albums in rock and roll history. Maybe it was because punk was precisely about the idea that such kids – boys and girls, black and white, gay and straight – could speak and had the most interesting things to say. And didn’t ned to be technically gifted to say it and for it to be powerful.

  6. The system can only use the system to fix the system for so long before the price of axe-handles and baseball bats need jacking up, I’d suggest (e.g. negatively gearing scarce commodities such as food and oil – the “Mad Max” factor).

    • O yes. Gatesian philanthropy and economics is unsustainable. Not just for everyone else, but for itself. Everyone knows neoliberal capitalism will crash and burn. And is doing so as we speak. Elaine Scarry argues – correctly I think – that the panoptic violence of regimes like the US is acted out precisely because they sense their own instability. The violence and surveillance is that instability made visible.

  7. And what about patents?? That’s how Gates and Microsoft made their fortune – patenting every single variation of things they don’t ever plan to implement – and patents are one of the biggest methods the pharmaceutical industry has of keeping medicine unaffordable, and leaving entire nations without access.

    And while we’re piling on the Bills, how about the Clinton foundation?

  8. Oh absolutely. Transnationals and Big Pharma would patent our genes if they could, and intend to, just as the agricultural conglomerates intend to patent every plant if they can. It’s not unusual for these kind of dominant practices to be represented as altruistic acts for the sake of PR: GM rice will prevent 3rd world hunger, gene ownership will prevent the birth of suffering disabled babies, fracking will prevent global warming. But it’s also about a radical extension of the concept of property; that a person or a virtue or a natural feature or a human attribute or a mental state can be owned by a government or corporation. And no-one needs to consent to these ownerships either.

    • And this seems part of the debt story: in changing property law, we put you in a debt that only we who now own the means of production can provide.

      Same as how schooling works. The teacher / the system, puts the child in debt/lack to begin with, that the teacher/system services. Ie, you don’t know anything, you are a blank slate, and it is we how have the info/ideas/skills/expertise to provide to you.

      It’s possible a progressive journal and sub cultures focused on alternative-culture can do this too. You guys have a lack; we have the answers.

      • Sure. Which is why the best we can do, maybe, is to ask questions and offer invitations and the act of resistance often lies in the attempt to just create a space where questions can be asked, and debated.

        • I have a feeling there is something more, too, Stephen. Something like: can we create a space together that is not predicated on lack/expertise or debt/salvation? Of course, this is a question but it does suggest activity too. ???

          • No we can’t create a space not predicated on lack, expertise and salvation, cos everybody has and is these things.
            A lot activism is just (and rightly so) an attempt to get a dialogue happening. Where I live fracking is a big issue. The blockades and so forth that take place – very successfully – are an attempt to stop the ruthless implementation of dominant non-consultative power and start a dialogue – about the issues of profit, ecology, power, etc etc a conversation those engaging in domination don’t want to have.

  9. This really is a blistering piece when played on scramble. But back to the first track and its gloomy tenor, polio will win out over faux cures while i-pods die in the tip.

  10. can you say more about the kind of space you are imagining, when you say we might “just create a space where questions can be asked, and debated”.

    • Democracy I suppose. A demos that interrogates itself. The only reason why direct action or activism is needed is because a dominant authority takes action without any attempt at dialogue.

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