I’ve come to realize that philanthropy, at least for the feral elite, is more about public relations and ultimately buying immortality than about doing good for other people.
That’s certainly my takeaway from reading Empire of Pain–The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.
The Sackler’s philanthropy was also a way in which to burnish their reputation and obscure the manner in which they made their fortune as legal drug dealers. Rather than marijuana or cocaine, OxyContin was their gateway drug. The Sackler’s marketed it relentlessly as safer and less addictive than morphine. (It was twice as strong and insidiously addictive.) They maintained that it couldn’t be abused because of the buffered coating and timed release. (From its introduction, OxyContin was immediately the drug of choice for black-market drugs dealers, while addicts were grinding it up and injecting it.) Since the Sackler’s introduced OxyContin in the late 1990’s, opioid-related deaths have risen more than fivefold. By the numbers, opioids have killed more than 450,000 in the US in two decades.
Polite American society recoiled in horror when Trump bragged that he could shoot someone on the streets of New York City and get away with it. But the Sackler’s whacked hundreds of thousands of Americans and did get away with it, possibly because they had a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art named after them.
Or maybe it’s because much of polite American society is composed of sociopaths with little or no regard for their fellow Americans. Maybe because money is power and money rewards sociopathy, we wind up ruled by greedy sociopaths. Indeed, it’s more evidence that the people who rule this country–conservatives or liberals–have no desire to reform any aspect of this country. The bipartisan consensus is that the only role of government should be to ensure that the wealthy and banks and corporations they own continue to prosper. They are uniform in their dedication to austerity and privatization of public resources. No one is any position of influence appears to have more than the passing regard for human life. They all believe, regardless of their partisan differences, that American citizens should accept brutalization as the baseline of existence. This vision of an ideal America is uniform among our ruling class. The Sackler’s are not outliers. Biden spent his career helping build it. Trump was created by it, and he strengthened many of its most malignant aspects. Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Reagan all worked toward the same general goals.
A society in which precarity is the norm and decency is nonexistent is going to give rise to violence, drug abuse and widespread discontentment. In such a society there’s no shortage of pain. Indeed, the Sackler’s always maintained that the impetus for marketing and selling OxyContin was the heartfelt concern they felt for their fellow Americans who were in such pain.
In a way the Sackler’s are fulfilling the promise of neoliberalism with its celebration of individualism and entrepreneurship by providing a marketable commodity. If you abuse OxyContin in a desperate quest to dull the pain of modern day America it’s your own damn fault and you are a junkie lacking self-control. Meanwhile, the Sackler’s, through their bankruptcy machinations and legions of high-powered lawyers, have been able to squirrel away billions in off-shore accounts, leaving Purdue Pharma an empty corporate husk.
Philanthropy is simply used as a way to whitewash all of this. It’s not just the Sackler’s, either. The outing of Bill Gates as a monster is more of the same dynamic.
There are larger questions that we need to deal with as a society. I mean, do we really believe that these individuals deserve the political privilege that billionaire philanthropy affords—to remake the world according to their own worldview, with no checks or balances—because they’ve managed to become so obscenely wealthy? No matter how well-meaning or virtuous we fantasize such individuals to be, what can these outrageously rich people know about the lives of the poor people they claim to help?
Fully reckoning with the Sackler’s or Gates means confronting our own deep-seated worship of wealth and hard-wired belief in hero narratives. If we really want to fix the world—eliminating inequities in how we educate, medicate, feed, house, pay, and otherwise treat people—we can’t rely on billionaires with big ideas.
Especially when they’re killing us.
Update: The Sackler’s are asking a federal court to grant sweeping legal immunity to their family and to more than a thousand parties linked to the family and the scandal, including one of their companies peddling opioids across the globe, according to new court records.