Carnegie’s Ghosts

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was born into a poor and politically radical artisan family in Scotland, became a ruthless and extremely successful industrialist and businessman in the United States (twice as wealthy as Bill Gates, in contemporary terms), and then, having decided it would be shameful to die that rich, retired from business to give it all away – becoming ‘the world’s leading philanthropist’ and a tireless campaigner for world peace.

Carnegie was a complex and confounding character. In many ways, his internal contradictions reflected the contradictions of capitalism, contradictions we in the world’s wealthy nations still live out, collectively, of course, but also individually – though mainly on a much smaller-scale than Carnegie! [The average yearly income at purchasing power parity of a Haitian is U.S $1,300, compared to an average yearly income at ppp for a New Zealander of U.S $27,900 -Estimates, 2008, source CIA Factbook, retrieved 16 June 2009]

Carnegie’s wealth was accumulated by luck, skill, vision, the exploitation and suffering of his workers, environmental degradation, bribery, lies & deception, monopoly power, industrial espionage, technological advancement, economies of scale and reinvestment, deal-making & breaking.

The money was not of importance, in a material sense, to Carnegie for most of his career – he had, by his early thirties, achieved significant wealth – it mattered only as a measuring stick for his obsessive competitiveness: Carnegie was man who desperately needed to win.

Even at the time, he was equally praised and condemned (both with good reason) for his philanthropy: many could not forgive him for the way his wealth had been accumulated; many were concerned about the power to shape society that accumulated in the hands of such a rich man – a power that Carnegie, a great egotist, did not hesitate to use; others praised the increasing breadth of his vision, and the good works and contributions he was undoubtedly making to society as he systematically and carefully disbursed the wealth he had striven so hard to accumulate.

While in business, Carnegie himself seemed to deal with the conditions of his workers by choosing not to know and think about it, lying to himself and others about the on the ground realities. Out of sight, out of mind. He spent most of his time far way from the great steel works and the filthy, poverty-ridden towns around them, preferring New York, Europe, and the beautiful surrounds of his Scottish Castle.

Only after retirement was he willing to face some of the dark side of his industry. In 1908, Carnegie attended a ‘Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources”, where he marshaled a devastating array of facts to show that the industry he had been a key part of for so many years was wastefully exploiting natural resources, and not only that, causing unnecessary loss of human life in industrial accidents. (Carnegie p.480)

Ultimately (and despite being an avowed atheist) Carnegie stated in 1914 that “when I go for a trial for the things done on earth, I think I’ll get a verdict of “Not Guilty” through my efforts to make the earth a little better than I found it.” As Peter Krass observes, he may have thought he’d be judged not guilty, but clearly guilt was on his mind. (Carnegie p.540) Part of the reason for his philanthropy was to slay those ghosts of guilt.

And what of this? Did the end justify the means? Were all the deaths and poverty in the name of profit acceptable in return for all the Carnegie Libraries to uplift future generations, for the grants to advance scientific knowledge, for the inquiries that improved medical education? The case to me seems doubtful, even in utilitarian or consequentialist terms, even when a fortune is used mainly for “good works”.

And what of us? …Yes, I include myself in this challenge!

Are we willing to challenge the values of “competition” and “striving” when they lead our society in unhelpful directions, or do we buy into it and seek to even further encourage it?

Are we willing to face the realities underlying our prosperity (and the current recession, as uncomfortable as it is, has not changed the underlying division), or like Carnegie do we prefer to turn our heads away and if we have to, tell ourselves comforting lies?

Peter Krass: Carnegie, 2002, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


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