This past January, YouTube personality James Donaldson, known professionally as MrBeast, uploaded a video titled “1,000 Blind People See For The First Time.” In this video, which, as of publication, has over 156 million views, Donaldson provides 1,000 lower-income people with the funds to undergo a 10-minute surgery that cured their blindness.
Amazing, right? Theoretically, a person like Donaldson should be using their immense wealth to help others or to better the world around them — besides curing blindness, he’s also planted over 20 million trees, removed over 30 million pounds of trash from the ocean and given $100,000 worth of supplies to local homeless shelters.
So, why the backlash? If anything, shouldn’t we be celebrating Donaldson’s seemingly endless generosity?
Well, I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. You see, I’m not here to argue that there’s anything inherently bad in Donaldson donating to homeless shelters or planting trees or curing blindness. But the criticisms he’s received — which have ranged from misrepresenting people with disabilities to producing so-called “inspiration porn” — are totally valid, no matter how you shake them.
But, more than anything, the problem with Donaldson isn’t just his performative charity — it’s that he, and every other philanthropic millionaire or billionaire, are only perpetuating the myth that capitalism can be good if rich people just use their money less selfishly.
This isn’t a new myth by any means. In 1889, capitalist Andrew Carnegie wrote “The Gospel of Wealth,” which argued that those with means — adjusted for inflation, Carnegie was worth something in the ballpark of $372 billion — have a moral obligation to give away their wealth for good. Similarly, John D. Rockefeller Sr. — Carnegie’s contemporary — gave away around $7 billion, adjusted for inflation, before his death in 1937.
[Related: OPINION: Nobody earns a billion dollars]
Going back even further, we can find discussion of these so-called “bourgeois socialists” in Karl Marx’s 1848 “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Marx described bourgeois socialism as those individuals — including philanthropists — who desire social reform by means of eliminating specific societal evils and not the capitalist system itself.
In Marx’s own words, the bourgeois socialists “want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom.”
Though MrBeast is worth a massive $500 million, this line of thinking continues far above him. Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and face of the “progressive rich,” has given billions of dollars to charities founded by his billionaire friends, Bill and Melinda Gates. George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and MacKenzie Scott, among others, are also known to be particularly charitable billionaires.
That being said, none of this changes the fact that the existence of billionaires is inherently unethical. No matter how much of their wealth they donate, the ruling class still thrives through exploiting the labor of the majority. There is no goodwill in capitalism — not now, and not ever.
Put another way, the monetization of charity for the profit incentive of a millionaire entertainer spells nothing but the failure of our current economic structure.
In a truly fair and ethical society, the 1,000 people whom Donaldson helped cure of blindness wouldn’t have needed to be subjects of a 12-year-old’s favorite YouTube video. Instead, they would’ve had access to a free and comprehensive healthcare program that would’ve ensured their ability to receive this life-changing operation.
If the ultra rich truly cared about creating a more equitable world, Donaldson wouldn’t have turned to sponsors like Coca-Cola — the world’s worst plastic polluter — to help fund a project that doesn’t address the issues causing ocean pollution in the first place. Instead, it promises to clean up all of the trash currently in the ocean — a fool’s errand that reeks of performative activism.
[Related: OPINION: Why you should be a socialist]
The wealthy, and the corporations they represent, are incapable of giving back to the world in any truly meaningful way. The world is the way it is because of the growing rift between the working and ruling class — one cannot be a “progressive” millionaire or billionaire because true progress means replacing the regressive capitalist system that makes such income inequality possible.
MrBeast giving away clothes to those in need, Bill and Melinda Gates donating over $250 million toward malaria research and Elon Musk giving $55 million to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are all good things. But we mustn't rely on the dragons at the top of the mountains to help the peasants below — and, at their very core, they have no selfless interest in doing so.
Joey Sills (he/him) is a junior studying journalism, political science and film production.