Are philanthropists the new revolutionaries?

20 October 2015

If I say “crowd-sourced social justice” - what comes to mind?

I tried this out on a few people recently and was interested by the variety of reactions. For some it was quite threatening, like 1789 Paris or a Louisiana lynch-mob. For others it reminded them of the power of social media, fuelling the demise of dictators during the recent Arab spring, or the efforts of the 1% movement during the financial crisis. A third group thought it conveyed the best of direct democracy in action, like Obama’s 2008 online-funded election campaign, or Switzerland’s regular use of legislative referenda.

Positive or negative, it’s clearly a concept that elicits a powerful but ambiguous response.

In contrast, it’s difficult to imagine any other topic that inspires almost universal agreement as strongly as does social justice and its close cousin, human rights. What then about the term “crowd-sourced” is triggering this range of reactions?

I believe it has something to do with our current sense of civic impotence.

On the one hand we are a peaceful, perhaps inert nation, happy to roll with the ebb and flow of political middle-marginalism and prone to criticise the terms “direct-action”, “activism” or even “advocacy”. Does this lethargy create a suspicion of “crowd-sourcing”?

On the other hand, we are constantly disappointed by our lack of influence on social policy and the distance we feel from the decision-making, whilst being continually reminded that our taxes will not cover the bills for welfare, education, health etc. Is it this that sparks the more positive sense of optimism for democratic “crowd-sourced” solutions?

As it is, we remain somewhere in the middle: stuck…frustrated…impotent.

Assuming that we are not about to take up arms as vigilantes to see our desire for equality and justice put into practice, then the status quo gives us few avenues to address this malaise. Modern democracy is truly failing us in this regard.

So what can we do? Because we surely must do something! Everyday we read about the basic concepts of social justice and human rights being trashed. You might be able to consign those headlines to far off regions like Syria, Venezuela or Nigeria, where the process of upholding these concepts is indeed a dangerous activity. But the fact of the matter is that it’s just as prevalent here at home.

In Australia, it’s the most marginalised communities that are at greatest risk of injustice or discrimination: Indigenous people, refugees and recent migrants, people suffering with mental or physical disabilities, and those born into the disadvantage of low social-economic circumstance and its associated lack of access to education and opportunity.

However, there are many organisations operating in the cracks of society to uphold basic rights and social justice for these groups. In this instance I’m not referring to the thousands of front-line social workers and grassroots charity staff working tirelessly to address acute every day needs. I mean those organisations that are looking at systemic change, by addressing the root problems through advocacy and legislative action, hoping to nudge our cultural progress forward.

These types of non-profit organisations: human rights advocates, community legal centres and social advocacy associations, etc. are not well funded by government, because they often work on highly politicized, controversial topics. As a result they are reliant on progressive philanthropic capital, along with the passion of their specialised staff, to operate effectively.

By supporting their efforts ourselves, we can break out of this civic slumber and re-ignite our belief in social progress, confident that we are creating real change not just giving to charity.

In doing so, it turns out that we may not only be fulfilling a deep-seated need to contribute, but we may actually be saving our country from far worse social upheaval.

In last year’s blockbuster “Capitalism in the 21st Century”, Thomas Piketty concluded that our incumbent Western socio-economic theory, far from creating a better world for all, is doomed to produce ever-increasing wealth inequality and social destabilisation. The only answer to which is enforced wealth re-distribution. Back to bloody revolution again! Or alternatively Piketty’s solution: increasingly high taxation on the wealthy, which he admits is only slightly more likely to gain political approval than the guillotine.

But as Bill Gates said recently:

"Philanthropy also can be an important part of the solution set…It’s too bad that Piketty devotes so little space to it. A century and a quarter ago, Andrew Carnegie was a lonely voice encouraging his wealthy peers to give back substantial portions of their wealth. Today, a growing number of very wealthy people are pledging to do just that."

The Giving Pledge is indeed a great initiative for Buffett, Zuckerberg, Forrest et al, and I applaud the leadership of those individuals. However, if philanthropy is to be a real force for systemic change, then it’s got to become a collective mainstream activity on a much greater scale.

If giving could reconnect us with our desire to support social justice, whilst re-distributing the wealth and avoiding more painful social crises, then suddenly “crowd-sourced social justice” doesn’t sound like such a crazy idea after all, does it?

View the original article written by Tom Hull and published by Philanthropy Australia here