The comfort of strangers (freedom isn’t free, part 3)

Continuing from yesterday on my ambivalence about the marketization of everyday life: how this relates to philanthropy is the professionalization of charity. This has two dimensions: people helping strangers through direct service, and people giving to strangers.

I’m coming from the assumption, probably false, that the default position for most human communities throughout most of history was that you help people that you know, directly. Charity, to the extent that it functioned, functioned in this way. Potlatch, mutual aid, etc.¬†For that to evolve into the kind of philanthropy we know, two things had to happen: groups had to be set up for the express and sole purpose of helping others, and people had to become willing to give to those groups even when they wouldn’t know the beneficiaries.

Religious institutions long had charitable components, but as part of a larger mission. I’m talking about equivalents of our modern nonprofits – groups set up with only the charitable component, the direct service element, in mind. But that’s not sufficient: people had to be willing to give those, separate from their giving (tithing, service, etc.) to religious institutions.

What I’m after here is that philanthropy is emblematic of a depersonalization of charity, of turning something that was originally a very human, face-to-face, community-based relationship into something that, at the extreme, is automatic, arm’s-length, and principle-based. Like a monthly donation via checking-account withdrawal to an NGO that supports international development.

Again, I’m not saying this is a bad thing, necessarily, just observing that it is part of a broader trend of marketizing the relationships of daily life, and that there is reason to be profoundly ambivalent about that trend.


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