In a speech at the World Economic Forum in 2008, former Microsoft CEO and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates argued that a new approach to capitalism and to philanthropy in the twenty-first century was needed. He said, “Creative capitalism takes this interest in the fortunes of others and ties it to our interest in our own fortunes in ways that help advance both. This hybrid engine of self-interest and concern for others can serve a much wider circle of people than can be reached by self-interest or caring alone.”

While not a religious statement on the face of it, we can trace the origins of this type of thinking back over four centuries to find the religious values at its heart. Moreover, these values, in myriad new adaptations and mutations, are now global in reach. In this brief essay I connect Gates’s philosophy of giving—along with many other contemporary neoliberal philanthropists—to Protestant traditions and the origins of capitalism, particularly the emphasis on entrepreneurialism and the development of human capital. My main interest in tracing how these ideas have “traveled” from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century is to indicate a few of the differences—as well as similarities—in western philanthropic thinking and practice that have occurred along the way. Because of the constraints of space, I contrast just two moments on this path: the era of so-called modern philanthropy in the United States at the turn of the last century, including industrialist actors such as Carnegie and Rockefeller, and the period of Gates, Buffet, Bloomberg, and other billionaire philanthropists today. While liberal emphases on independence, the rational development of human capital, and the expansion of entrepreneurial practices remain constant between these two eras, I contend that neoliberal forms of governmentality manifest some important differences worth investigating further vis-à-vis their impact on contemporary giving.

In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber argued that certain aspects of Protestant (particularly Calvinist) belief were important in the early development of capitalism. Among these were the conviction that one’s salvation and status as “saved” had to be secured and manifested through individual hard work, planning, and worldly success rather than through priestly assurances. The rational pursuit of economic gain thus became perceived as laudatory and the accumulation of wealth was connected positively with religious norms. Further, the ethic of self-help and the emphasis on the individual in terms of productivity and the efficient use of resources were essential components of the spirit of the era.

With respect to its philanthropic legacy, it is important to highlight the notable decline of medieval notions of charity that occurred in Europe alongside the rise of these Protestant assumptions about individual self-interest. This was a drawn-out process and spatially uneven so I am generalizing greatly, but what seems essential to consider is the broad shift away from a sense of interdependence and obligation to local priest and community as ideas of personal independence and responsibility began to take shape. This pattern was quite marked in the writings of many nineteenth-century scholars of economics, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s famous passages in The German Ideology. Some of the reasons for the Marxist disdain for charity involved the concern about the theft of workers’ labor being “returned” to them as a gift, the ways in which charity can mask ongoing forms of exploitation, the legitimization and naturalization of class distinctions, and the postponing of crisis through ameliorating some of the worse effects of the capitalist mode of production. But the main reason that Marx and Engels were so opposed to Catholic charity and early forms of Protestant care was owing to the belief that it created a dependent relationship between the proletariat and the capitalist—giving workers a subservient consciousness and sapping their spirit and potential for revolutionary action.

The later Marx (although not Engels, who maintained his fascination with “primitive” Christianity and its potential for revolutionary thought) seemed to lose interest in these questions as charity continued to morph through the late nineteenth century. As Cihan Tuğal has shown, the ongoing attacks on medieval charity and early Protestant care during this period were perpetuated and celebrated primarily by political economists such as Thomas Malthus, Edmund Burke, and David Ricardo, alongside the acceleration of ultra-rationalist thought. As a manifestation of the truly rational society (in their way of thinking), those unwilling to work could be legitimately left to starve to death, as otherwise society itself would be weighed down and damaged by these dependent scroungers. Thus, like Marx but with different end goals in mind, these liberal thinkers believed that dependence between donor and recipient was the inevitable result of charity and the ultimate antithesis of the rational society.

The early twentieth century philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller should be viewed in the context of these ideas. As Olivier Zunz has documented, American philanthropy of this era was concerned with creating institutions and dispersing funds in ways that would enable individuals to live healthy and productive lives while remaining or becoming fundamentally independent. The end goal was to find solutions to the various problems besetting society while simultaneously maximizing human potential and creating autonomous and self-interested workers and citizens. In many respects this approach is similar to contemporary attitudes, as seen in Gates’s statement about the interconnection of self-interest and concern for others at the World Economic Forum. There is a similar fixation, traceable back to the early Calvinist era, with the development of human independence, autonomy, and self-care, alongside the values of responsibility, efficiency, and hard work. Care for others, as manifested in acts of philanthropy, was necessarily bound to these liberal values, otherwise it risked undermining homo economicus and capitalist society itself.

Given these similarities, what are some of the differences that have emerged between liberal and neoliberal approaches to giving? In studies of classical liberalism most scholars highlight the rights of rational individuals to pursue their own goals in a free or uncoerced state. The assumption of individual rights and freedoms is established in relation to and often in opposition to a government or other system that is assumed to encroach on these freedoms. Liberal rationalities emphasize autonomy, productivity, and lack of interference from outside actors or institutions. Scholars of neoliberalism (focusing on neoliberal governmentality), by contrast, give greater attention to the inculcation of an entrepreneurial self and the development of ideals of individual rational choice based on cost-benefit calculations. Good (neoliberal) governance, in this value system, is more direct and active. It consists of providing the expertise, knowledge, and incentives that enable—and indeed require—individuals to make the best possible choices so they can use their “powers of freedom” appropriately.

In philanthropy, I contend that these liberal/neoliberal divergences have led to some different strategies of giving in the contemporary era. In the examples below I focus on these differences, and particularly the intersection between neoliberal philanthropy today and the religious values that were galvanized and/or developed from the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism of earlier times.

The Systematic Repudiation of Welfarism: The policies and practices of the post-WWII Keynesian period, with its expansion of government benefits and other forms of social welfare, were targeted with a vengeance by neoliberal politicians such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and Helmut Kohl in the late 1970s and 1980s. But equally relevant to the revanchist attacks on government-provided, horizontal systems of care was the vituperative disparagement of a particular consciousness perceived to have developed during this post-war period: the rationalities of dependence. Following from Ronald Reagan’s notorious slashing of government funding for everything from school lunches to housing for the homeless, and George H. W. Bush’s 1988 “Thousand Points of Light” speech promoting community volunteerism (in lieu of federal aid), the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in the United States is probably the best example of this new mode of governance. The PRWORA created limits on assistance from the government, while at the same time requiring recipients to enter the workforce within a certain period of time. As Kenneth Hudson and Andrea Coukos note, this particular welfare reform manifested “the dark side of the Protestant ethic,” a dedicated effort to obliterate, once and for all, any remaining memory or allegiance to an ideology of interdependence or government responsibility, while simultaneously reinforcing labor discipline in the free-market mode. Thus, the context of neoliberal philanthropy is important to consider precisely because of its historical position following the Fordist, Keynesian moment, with its social contract and sense of interdependent community responsibilities (however minimal and geographically uneven in implementation). This historical context inflects contemporary giving in every register, as grants and gifts repudiate government assistance, shore up failed market systems, and simultaneously recruit recipients into market systems and ways of being, as discussed in greater detail below.

The Cultivation of Entrepreneurial Subjects: The intent on transforming the poor into better workers extends through both liberal and neoliberal philanthropy. But in the contemporary period, this intent also involves a recruitment into a specific subject position, that of the entrepreneur of the self. Rather than training in social reproduction—the type of training needed to become a strong worker and compliant citizen—contemporary giving aims at the constitution of a new subject, that of homo economicus. Contemporary market philanthropy, as Matthew Sparke and I wrote in The New Washington Consensus: Millennial Philanthropy and the Making of Global Market Subjects, “operates at a personal as well as a structural level.” Recipients of aid are encouraged to develop themselves as choice-maximizing entrepreneurs responsible for their own well-being and care, and often that of their family or community as well. Indeed, as Stephen Young and Katharine Rankin have pointed out, previously marginalized subjects, such as women, are especially targeted for development aid as they are seen to be good risks, providing the potential for a positive return on investment as well as the integration of new subjects into the spirit of homo economicus (or, in this case, “rational economic woman”). Moreover, fusing this spirit of entrepreneurialism with spiritualism itself, the new economic figure is often constituted in a newly conjoined form with a religious self, what Mona Atia has termed the “pious neoliberal.” In her insightful book, Building a House in Heaven: Pious Neoliberalism and Islamic Charity in Egypt, she documents the intersection of charity, economic development, and subjectivity formation in Egypt, showing the multiple ways that subjects are simultaneously disciplined by religion and the market. Atia’s ethnography is one of numerous new studies of these types of “fusions,” indicating that neoliberal forms of market philanthropy, in connection with various religious doctrines, have now expanded globally.

New Geographies: As research such as Atia’s and Daromir Rudnyckyj’s documents, the new zeitgeist of spiritual economies and pious neoliberalism is embodied and rendered material through particular religious practices and performances in specific places by identifiable actors. In this way we can see that these types of fusions are not abstracted forms of governance from above, but always geographically situated and institutionalized through practice. As spiritual economies advance in scale and scope worldwide, a theme I would like to develop in future work involves this spatial element of neoliberal philanthropy. How do new practices augment or replace older spatial logics, especially those related to local institutions and community practices—the stones of the medieval church or the forms of devotion exhibited by specific actors in mosques and temples or local nonprofits and community organizations? What types of entrepreneurial activities can be performed in what spaces, inside or outside traditional religious institutions? These performances are no longer necessarily sited in the same way, and thus they have opened up new possibilities and new subject positions in conjunction with the new spatial practices. I am interested, as well, in the role that memory plays in these transformative moments. As I noted with respect to the brutal attack on the ideology of social welfare in the United States, the collective consciousness and memories of alternative ways of doing and practicing care and social development are often at the forefront of struggles over change. How these types of knowledge and memories of alternative justice are sustained in specific places and practices over time and across space is the subject of work yet to come.