Home > News > The colonies of our time and philanthrocapitalism

By Dr Vandana Shiva

We have known for some time by now, from far before the virus that is running rampant across the globe started to spread panic across half of the planet, that the survival of our species had perhaps never been so threatened. We have also known that never had so few individuals had control over the lives of the whole community, and never before had our bodies and our minds been transformed into fully-fledged colonies from which to extract profit and amass an exorbitant wealth in a few hands. Just as how centuries ago, the European colonial powers had reappropriated the concept of Terra Nullius – an unpopulated land, therefore prime for occupation – in order to take possession of the lands inhabited by people considered to be inferior or sub-human, so do the biotechnology and chemical industries of our times use the concept of Bio Nullius to steal seeds and engage in biopiracy, with the use of patents and intellectual property rights, in order to embezzle a ‘conquerable’ life. Meanwhile, in more or less the same way, the tech giants and the surveillance capitalists – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc – are establishing the concept of Mens Nullius to take possession of and control our minds, along with our lives. The recolonisation of our age needs new ‘civilising missions’ to depict the seizing of resources and predatory actions that it fosters, as ‘liberation’ of those who are generally considered ‘savage’ or ‘barbarous’. While they solemnly declare war on hunger and on poverty, on viruses and on cancer, on school drop-out rates and on hate, Bill Gates and his worthy colleagues are systematically privatising the commons, starting with software, getting jaw-droppingly rich thanks to patent monopolies and to financial profit, generously handed out by governments due to their obligation to pay taxes. Never have we had need as we do today to resist all of this together, on the global scale and with deepening solidarity. Vandana Shiva reflects on this and many other issues in her beautiful preface to ‘Ricchi e buoni’ (‘Rich and good?’), the book by Nicoletta Dentico that ‘will be an important compass for guiding the evolution of our collective strategies and for defending our existence and liberty from the various forms of recolonisation credited through philanthrocapitalism’.

The New World of the 1%, the world of the multi-millionaires and philanthrocapitalists who make up the most exclusive elite on the planet, is actually the old, brutal, and violent world of colonisation. Colonisation creates colonies declaring that which belongs to others as void – Nullius – so it can be bought up. Those common assets that belong to communities, and to which the communities belong, are transformed into the private property of the coloniser. 

This is what colonisation does. Dispossesses communities of their access rights, evicts them from their territories, but then gathers profits from that which has been stolen and shut down, thanks to the process of colonisation. The contemporary global economy is based on the reinvention of the colonising project. That is exactly how it works. It is the colonisers who define the historic narrative, writing the laws and the rules which serve to legitimise the sacking of lands, resources and wealth perpetrated against the colonised.

That which the papal edict, in favour of colonisation back in the fifteenth century, enabled, is enabled by free trade agreements, the deregulation of the economy, the new tools of genetic engineering and digitalisation, the new narratives around technology today. The first colonisation established the concept of Terra Nullius – the empty land – to seize the territories of colonised populations and make them into the property of the colonisers.

In the contemporary world, the biotechnology and chemical industries have constructed the concept of Bio Nullius – or empty life – to steal seeds and try their hand at biopiracy, with the use of patents and intellectual property rights. The tech giants and surveillance capitalists such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft have established the concept of Mens Nullius – or empty mind – to control and take possession of our minds and of our lives.

Bill Gates has privatised the commons of software, making himself rich thanks to patent monopolies in the IT sector, and to the financial profit gathered from that which should have been open source. He has also managed to avoid paying taxes as a result of the rules and subterfuge of ‘free commerce’, which have allowed him to store the gains he has accrued in tax havens.

New multi-millionaires like Mark Zuckerberg are using Facebook to wiretap our minds, extract data from our behaviour and manipulate it, steering our choices and driving our relationships, but then selling them to the money machine or to the electoral machine.

With the growing dominance of the digital in our democracy, artificial intelligence has started to elect leaders using AI, in order that they might control contemporary politics.

Intellectual property rights over every idea, over every living being, over every aspect of natural processes and the functions of social communication, act as elements of an extractive industry of the theft of resources and of people’s common property, our knowledge and our democracy included therein.

Philanthrocapitalists such as Bill Gates take power away from governance and from politics. They replace the democratic decisions of elected governments and succeed in enforcing policies and laws that oil their money machine. 

And in this way, the face of democracy changes. From a democracy ‘of the people, from the people, and for the people’, comes a democracy ‘of the corporations, from the corporations, and for the corporations’. Philanthropy has become the instrument for diverting democracy and colonising people’s lives, in order to extract money from them. It is not ‘giving’. It is sophisticated appropriation (money-grabbing). 

Philanthrocapitalism is a modern edition of recolonisation. If the commons of times past were the earth and territories, the commons of our time are life itself, rendered inaccessible by plutocrats. Our seeds and biodiversity, our bodies and our minds: these are the colonies of today and the philanthropists like Bill Gates are the New Columbus.

The novelty of our era is the nature of the new colonies that have been created: the life-forms, the living organisms, our biodiversity, food, health, our bodies and minds, our knowledge and our stories, our relationships and friendships, our communications and choices. 

All of this is subject to new tools which are the new property rights, new dependencies, new twisted logics, new slaveries, new empires and dictatorships. As Shoshana Zuboff writes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, we are the new raw material. The novelty also lies in the creation of a new religion founded on the veneration of certain tools: technology and money.

These should in theory be used as the means for meeting goals that are in the interest of humanity and of the earth. They are elevated instead to ends in themselves, on the basis of this new religion, made into an art for legitimising the recolonisation which threatens the planet and our future. 

500 years ago, the religion of the Catholic Church was used to justify the violence of colonisation. The new church is modelled by the 1%. It is the religion of money: making money constantly and in whatever way. Technologies and the money machine have been elevated to the point that they have become an absolutist creed, in the food and agricultural sector as in the health sector, the IT and finance sectors. Likewise, philanthrocapitalists are the new popes and priests. Insofar as the 1% are also the new King and Queen, the new monarchs. 

These people are the new Christopher Columbus, explorers and merchants. And they even try to play God when they claim to ‘invent’ life and to ‘geo-engineer’ the planet. Recolonisation in modern garb needs new ‘civilising missions’ to present the theft and appropriations that it fosters as ‘liberation’ of those who are generally considered ‘savage’ and ‘barbarous’. 

In India, at the end of 2016, we witnessed the way in which the digital economy has been levied with force in the country, through an ‘elimination of cash’, and the demonetisation of the economy. Those who were without smartphones and credit cards became, in just a few hours, barbarians and savages to domesticate and civilise with programmes of ‘digital education’ and ‘digital dictatorship’. 

There is now a new initiative announced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which is called ‘Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations LLC’, or ‘Gates Ag One’, in the abbreviated version. Gates Ag One will soon be a subsidiary of the Gates Foundation with Joe Cornelius at its head, the man who currently directs the department of the foundation assigned to Growth and Global Opportunities.

Ag One will work with the foundation’s team which deals with Agricultural Development and with other multidisciplinary partners to ‘accelerate the development of innovations’ that are ‘necessary to improving the productivity of harvests and helping small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are women, to adapt to climate change’. 

What the fanfares of Gates’ announcement leaves unsaid, is that small-scale farmers, by which I refer foremost to the women who have screened a strain of climate-resistant seeds – a collection that Navdanya conserves, breeds and shares – is that the knowledge of these women in its collective, and the quality of the seeds that has been developed for millennia, are rendered completely invisible by the capitalist patriarchy in this late phase of colonisation.

Different cultures and biodiversity, democracy or sovereignty, do not exist in Bill Gates’ world. We are told now that only one agriculture exists, Ag One, the one administered by Gates and by his foundation. Only one science exists, one agriculture, one man who decides if and how millions of people should live or die. This is nothing other than imperialism in its most advanced phase. 

‘Technology’ has been mystified and elevated to a new religious status in order to subjugate and control. ‘Technology’ and ‘innovation’ have become the new buzzwords for the civilising mission which distorts completely the original meaning of ‘innovate’.

Innovate means ‘to make new’, to change things ‘introducing normal methods or new systems’. All of this has been reduced to mechanical invention, and used to define piracy and excluding takeovers as ‘inventions’ of which one becomes an owner through the use of patents. 

Bill Gates is in a constant frenzy to find new opportunities for activating his millions through philanthropy and for creating new colonies to take ownership of, with digital sequences of living systems. 

This threatens international agreements from the United Nations such as the Convention for Biological Diversity and the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

It is the new Columbus who claims to invent what actually existed already, and that he stole. He negates the variety of the living world and of social life, he constructs ‘the empty’ as a licence for conquest, and then builds his Empire over life. 

But today, as in Columbus’ time, the objective is to eliminate the diversity of life, of cultures, of knowledge systems, of economies, of sovereignty, of democracies, of liberties. Piracy and the appropriation of the commons are a seamless continuation of the old method. Nothing new under the sun. 

The Dharma, the right action and right way of life, is replaced by the Adharma of the money machine and of technological development, geared towards profits and towards control as humanity’s ultimate goal.

Taking no account of the consequences that all of this produces for nature and for society. Thus, the accumulation of money among the 1%, reducing the meaning and the value of the human to profit, is defined as the measure of human superiority, despite being unethical and indeed unjust in many cases. It is a superiority which does not require appraisals of any kind.

Never before in its history has humanity had to reckon with such an oversized wealth, closed off in so few hands. Never before has it transpired that so few people had control of the life of all humanity. Never as today have our bodies and our minds been transformed into colonies from which to extract profit, and accumulate wealth.

Never, never before has our species been so treacherously on the brink of survival. Never before have the threats to our liberty and our future manifested themselves to us on the planetary scale. Never before have we needed to resist together, as we do today, on the global scale, in solidarity. 

Nicoletta Dentico’s book (Ricchi e buoni?/Rich and good?) comes at the right moment, and it is essential. It will be an important compass for guiding the evolution of our collective strategies, and for defending our very existences and liberty from the various forms of recolonisation condoned by philanthrocapitalism. 

And this book will help us to identify the democratic trajectories of resistance to the consolidation of the Empire which is expanding to control our agriculture, our food, our health, our bodies and our minds, our ways of life and our democracies.


Translation kindly provided by Kiri Ley, University of Oxford, Oxford Climate Society


The original article in Italian was published by Comune-info on October 24, 2020.


Nicoletta Dentico is among the authors of Navdanya International’s recent Global Citizens‘ Report „Gates to a Global Empire“.

Gates to a Global Empire

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