Brand Oprah is a seamless and hugely influential melding of capitalism, self-help, humanitarian aspirations and spirituality. Endless consumption is encouraged by personal recommendations and lavish freebies from iPods to jewellery. At the same time, disciples can practise tasteful austerity with “debt diets” reminding us that “we are all responsible for everything that happens to us”. The poor, too, are responsible both for their condition and for overcoming it. Buying things for the deserving poor – and Winfrey is clear that they are not all deserving – must be seen as “giving them bootstraps”.
Pledging to “destroy the welfare mentality”, Winfrey has often suggested that receiving state assistance is a choice, one she herself rejected. Her grand philanthropic acts, such as the failed experiment to move 100 Chicago families into private housing during Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” efforts, are accompanied by politically welcomed criticism of public assistance as dependence. Yet as psychologist Bruce Levine notes, it is precisely “fundamentalist consumerism” which destroys self-reliance. Winfrey has been justifiably accused by activists of “reinforcing the US war on the poor” by blaming victims.
In practising what should really be called “humanitarian privatisation”, Winfrey and other philanthropists like Bill Gates have targeted public education with missionary zeal, speaking authoritatively on a subject they know little about. Having decided not to donate to inner-city public schools after criticising them and deeming their students unwilling to learn, Winfrey has publicly backed those advocating “charter schools”, the US equivalent of free schools – including Gates and the makers of a controversial film, Waiting for “Superman”, which attacks teachers and unions. In a parallel move, Rupert Murdoch is going ahead with plans to sponsor an academy in east London over the objections of the local council.
The billionaire “humanitarianism” of Winfrey, Gates and Murdoch is deeply compromised not only by its failure to acknowledge the causal relationship between extreme wealth and great poverty but by participating in an ideological assault on the welfare state. It posits itself as the only way to change the world – from above and with a wealthy few firmly in control.
Excerpt from original article by Priyamvada Gopal for the Guardian.