Verso Five Book Plan: Neoliberal Fantasy
One of the most peculiar permutations of neoliberalism in recent years has been the emergence of a nexus of billionaire philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing under the ideological banner of ‘philanthrocapitalism’. Brand Aid provides an important critique of this phenomenon. It focuses on the case of Bono’s Product Red campaign, in which iconic global consumer brands donate a percentage of their profits from designated ‘Red’ items to supply anti-retroviral treatment to HIV/AIDS suffers in sub-Saharan Africa. Richey and Ponte show how Product Red – and philanthrocapitalism more generally – functions to legitimate the economic system that is at the root of the problems that it claims to be addressing. They argue that the purchase of commodities replaces genuine political engagement, while neo-colonial representations of African helplessness and deprivation replace critical interrogation of the causes of global poverty and inequality. Once the target of the so called ‘anti-globalization movement’, multinational corporations are now presented as the agents of progressive change, and their brand identities are intertwined with the saving of African lives. Philanthrocapitalism has thus “found a way to generate capitalist value from those whose physical and economic abjection places them completely outside of capitalist reproduction” (p. 17). Despite the apparent incongruity between this story and the case of shock therapy in Russia, Jeffrey Sachs once again appears in a leading role – as the economic guru who inspired Bono’s vision of the world, and as the driving force behind the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), which Richey and Ponte identify as a further example of philanthrocapitalism. Their analysis helped me to decipher the continuities of neoliberalism beneath its weird ideological shape-shifting, and provided further evidence of the constant, neurotic compulsion of Jeffrey Sachs and others like him to sustain their social fantasy against the unbearable pressure of the Real of Capital.