But there is still another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that doing so not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are. After all, it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress. It improves the image of the winners. By using private and voluntary half-measures, it crowds out public solutions that would solve problems for everyone, and do so with or without the elite’s blessing. There is no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives. But we should also recall Oscar Wilde’s words about such elite helpfulness being “not a solution” but “an aggravation of the difficulty”. More than a century ago, in an age of churn like our own, he wrote: “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”
Anand Giridharadas on philanthropy.
From a longer and very much worthwhile essay on billionaire philanthropy, and related to Giridharadas’s book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, which I really need to get around to reading…
Also, because it probably bears mentioning: in the modern context, comparing capitalists with slaveowning reads as, uh. Maybe something of a Hot Take. But contextually in Wilde’s time it was pretty common; Marx does it quite extensively in Capital, for example, to the point of all-but calling capitalism in general, in which individuals are effectively coerced under threat of starvation to sell themselves, a kind of “socially acceptable” form of slavery for white people.1 Marx’s point, incidentally, was both that slavery and capitalism are terrible institutions, that the drivers behind both are the same, and that the working class should be the ones to stand the most vociferously against slavery in general.2
So tl;dr, you could certainly have an argument as to the appropriateness of the “capitalism is like slavery!” comparison—both Marx and Wilde are, obviously, Extremely White Guys—but the fact that it was a known argument has probably in no small part contributed to the historic tendency of the right to try and do as much wedge politics as possible between the white working class and communities of color. Which, as we’re probably all aware, has been hugely successful for them.3 So… there’s that.
- “What the working man sells is not directly his Labor, but his Laboring Power, the temporary disposal of which he makes over to the capitalist. This is so much the case that I do not know whether by the English Law, but certainly by some Continental Laws, the maximum time is fixed for which a man is allowed to sell his laboring power. If allowed to do so for any indefinite period whatever, slavery would be immediately restored. Such a sale, if it comprised his lifetime, for example, would make him at once the lifelong slave of his employer.” Incidentally, this exact system is the generally considered to be the most prevalent form of slavery in modern times. [↩]
- “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” [↩]
- But has not always been the case, for which ref. for e.g. Alan I. Abramowitz’s The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump, which shows some of the statistical trends as they’ve manifested in the US over time. [↩]