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Improving the world with Facebook: Zuckerberg makes his contribution

[Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 1-15, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

In December 2015, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan took the birth of their child, this moment of private happiness, as an occasion to publicly anounce their intention to donate 99 percent of their Facebook assets — just a measly 45 billion — to charity. In a letter to their baby girl, they professed that the birth moved them to reflect on the world in which she will grow up. And of course, the inventor of the platform for self-promotion on the world wide web decided not to keep the letter under wraps until his daughter could read it, but posted it for the whole world to read on Facebook. The Zuckerbergs have big plans: “Like all parents” they want only the best for their child, but unlike the vast majority of parents, this does not mean making sacrifices and saving money so that their child can go to school and have a better life than her parents. Given the enormous private power embodied by their wealth, the Zuckerbergs are more demanding: they wish to lay a whole “better world” at their little daughter’s feet.

The happy couple start off the good news by giving a big “thumbs up!” to the modern world. If for once you don’t let yourself be brought down by the gloomy media, but take an optimistic glance out the window of your villa in Palo Alto, you will notice that the world is already getting better all by itself: “Health is improving. Poverty is shrinking. People are connecting.” Nevertheless, the well-meaning billionaires do not want to simply let human progress run its course, given that “We don't always collectively direct our resources at the biggest opportunities and problems your generation will face.” In addition to the perpetual ills of the capitalist world and to the equally perpetual good intentions that go along with them — “eliminate poverty and hunger,” “provide everyone with basic healthcare,” “nurture peaceful and understanding relationships between people of all nations” — the Zuckerbergs add their own career-specific obsession: alongside the usual victims — women, children, and immigrants — they discover another wretched breed in need of their care: “the unconnected”! The misfortune of having to eke out an existence without the Internet, of being excluded from “ideas, persons and opportunities,” is particularly worrisome to the Californian benefactors. What the poor need, but do not have, in order to become part of “inclusive and welcoming communities” and learn to “advance human potential and promote equality” is clear: a social network and access to it. The Zuckerbergs’ critical panorama shows that you can invoke any kind of misery in the world in any order without accusing anybody of anything, and without even addressing the reasons for the evils listed. For the Zuckerbergs, these are all things that have “not yet” been sufficiently improved, though they are already getting better and just need a boost with the help of the desire to do good, ingenuity, technology, and therefore with the money the Zuckerbergs have. This made-up world free of any conflicts and antagonistic interests, in which a better tomorrow slumbers today, is above the suspicion of causing the ills it brings forth. Correcting these ills means optimizing them: the world just has to adjust its priorities and “tilt our investments a bit more towards the future.”

Though the Zuckerbergs might insist that they are only making a “small contribution compared to all the resources and talents of those already working on these issues,” they nevertheless join the ranks of the super-rich makers of a better world. In their daily lives they have grown accustomed to the fact that their wealth is a means to command society’s material wealth as well as other people. And like the other big players in the American charity business, the private power their money affords them has so gone to their heads that they not only believe themselves capable of buying the world, but a better one – purged of all hardships. Zuckerberg claims the business that has made him stinking rich by “connecting” the world to be just the opposite, i.e., the reason for his ability to pursue his lofty mission:

“Building Facebook has created resources to improve the world for the next generation. Every member of the Facebook community is playing a part in this work.”

By “resources” he not only means the wealth Facebook has enabled him to earn; rather, the platform itself represents a better world and a major instrument to improve it. Unlike other major donors, Zuckerberg doesn’t just erect a monument to himself by donating the money he has made in other business ventures. His business is the way he makes the world a better place. He presents his communication platform for keeping in touch with and showing off to others, with 1.7 billion users to date, as the realization of a global “welcoming community” of good will and as an instrument for transforming the globe, as Zuckerberg proudly notes with reference to the “Facebook revolutions” during the Arab Spring. This web portal that prides itself on offering personalized news feeds, i.e., posts from friends, fan sites, and news presorted according to user data, thus wrapping the user in an individualized information cocoon guaranteeing that the only things he hears about the world are the things he wants to hear about it, is thereby presented as a medium that enables its users to take responsibility for the world and its problems. He would like to see his network, which is widely used for gossip and for promoting users’ personality to a like-minded audience, understood as a source of knowledge and know-how, and acts as if the virtual presentation of technical solutions, medication, etc., is already a contribution to giving the hitherto excluded real access to such things.

Zuckerberg says a lot about the glorious potential of what he has invented, but nothing about the capitalist reality to which he owes his instrument for helping humankind: his business model thrives on the fact that in this economic system consumers are first of all excluded from the means to meet their needs. After all, useful things are not produced in order to supply them to consumers, but in order to get their money. This circumstance, the extreme cases of which Zuckerberg calls poverty and seeks to combat with the aid of Facebook and the wealth it has generated for him, is the crucial basis of Facebook’s business: the only reason that its users’ blabbing about their tastes, preferences, and interests is a source of fantastic monetary “resources” is because an entirely different community, i.e., the makers and shakers of the business world, use such chatter for personally tailored advertising in order to snatch market shares from each other in their competition over sales. As a crucial supplier of consumer data, Facebook has become the link between the global consumer and the consumer goods industry, and is itself the world’s largest virtual advertising space, for which industry and commerce are willing to pay a fortune. The real source of Zuckerberg’s wealth, however, is not even the fees that he collects from commercial users, but the stock market speculation that tops it off, thus making his networking algorithm into one of the most valuable companies in the world. The investors speculate on the network power they provide to the Facebook founder by means of that same speculation: the rising prices of Facebook shares and the money that keeps flowing into his company allow him to constantly expand and thereby compete with Google, Amazon, etc., over the monopoly in the field. An internet portal or information network is all the more useful and all the more profitable, the more users it connects and the fewer sellers and buyers that bypass this communication channel. In addition, investors are speculating on the future business with Big Data, which Facebook accrues and diligently collects on the side, even though it is not at all certain what can be done with the monopolistic ownership of this data. With the money he has raised in the stock market, Zuckerberg forges ahead in the fight for a monopoly — while insisting that he is merely out to improve the world. For example, he offered to donate the hardware needed for the entire Indian subcontinent’s poorly connected internet in order to provide people with free basics. At the last minute, the ungrateful government in New Delhi rejected the gift because the donated Internet would have granted access only to Facebook and a few other services.

Of course, the Californian do-gooders won’t let themselves be put off by such rejection: “we can only focus on serving this community and this mission.” After all, for Zuckerberg the fight to monopolize the net is identical with ensuring the happiness of all humankind. He makes sure that his good deeds coincide with his business quite literally by founding a new limited liability company, which in contrast to a pure charitable entity gives him the freedom to support political campaigns and to invest in profit-oriented companies. The Facebook company ultimately needs a friendly political environment to grow, as well as bubbling profit sources to finance its good deeds.

The donation announcement was also big news in Germany for a few days, if only because of the immense sum: $45 billion — an amount on par with whole national budgets and far exceeding the total annual donations from Germany. In addition to its astonishment, the German public also showed its distrust of how America’s big donors intertwine their business and social commitments. Yet it is generally accepted that the private wealth extracted from the market is a good thing for alleviating the poverty into which the market has plunged the poor. In this regard, one cannot deny that Zuckerberg represents a kind of role model for German entrepreneurs whose “dishonorable heirs” are always trying to keep their assets in the family as tax-free as possible:

“The super rich like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donate billions to charitable projects. That’s good.” (Spiegel Online, Dec. 3, 2015.)

Even if a new father‛s concern for the future of the planet is entirely credible, a critical appraisal of the moral value of the donation can’t ignore the sources from which such a generous donor draws.

“Zuckerberg’s fortune is so large because Facebook cleverly avoids taxes every day. He deprives the world that he then wants to make better of a financial basis everywhere… Once again: respect for Mark Zuckerberg’s donation. But the goal of improving the world can best be achieved if Facebook pays taxes, without tricks and worldwide.”

The great benefactor already looks a bit smaller when he semi-legally withholds money owed to the government in order to then give it away generously. He denies needed resources to the authority that is responsible for the general welfare and holds all citizens to their duty; moreover, this private individual presumes to take the place of the public will:

“Even if there is no moral or practical argument against the rationality of venture philanthropy, it is nevertheless a further step toward a parallel political world without control mechanisms.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Dec. 2, 2015)

Improving conditions and the common good in general — at least in Germany and in the opinion of its notional guardians in the media — must not degenerate into the private pleasures of a young American who, merely on the basis of his money, usurps the power to define global poverty and the way to relieve it.