Philanthropy between reform and social control

Charitable commitment in Geneva at the turn of the XIXe And XXe centuries reveals the ambiguity of philanthropy, between science, behavioral reform and social control.

While work on philanthropy seems to have multiplied in recent years (the journal Genèses notably devoted its fourth issue of 2017 to the relationship between philanthropy and the State in France, Politix his first of 2018 to “philanthropic enterprises”, this title announcing the generally critical view taken on the rise of foundations in areas of public utility), here is a work which returns to the phenomenon at the turn of the XIXe And XXe centuries in Geneva, where philanthropy now declares itself scientific, but is still limited to social action, including missions of foresight and education. The result of research by two historians specializing respectively in the Swiss ruling classes and the fight against poverty, Thomas David and Alix Heiniger, To make society informs us in particular about the practices and motivations of the Geneva elites, seeking to reform behavior rather than society.

The transformations of a city

The authors point out that we are in a time of economic and demographic transformations: companies are setting up, the workforce is increasing in industry, construction and commerce while it remains stable in agriculture. As a result, the population of Geneva doubles between 1850 and 1900, going from around 65,000 to 130,000 inhabitants (p. 14), mainly due to immigration which is not without worrying the original population. The presence or increased visibility of these working classes, dangerous classes (to borrow the title of Louis Chevalier’s famous work on Paris in the XIXe century) is a first explanation for the multiplication of philanthropic works: it is necessary to respond to situations of precariousness which, without being absolutely new, risk posing growing problems.

Compared to the European average, the Genevan population appears mixed in terms of nationalities: the rate of foreign nationals in 1910, which did not exceed 5% in other countries, rose to 15% in the Confederation and to almost 40% in Geneva (p. 144). The French were clearly in the majority, accounting for almost a third of the total population in 1870, before this ratio gradually decreased. This is a second element of explanation, this time of the emergence of charitable organizations linked to a community, allowing it to help its most fragile members, and sometimes to control its most turbulent – the work shows how philanthropists could work with the police services, for example in the case of expulsions from the territory.

The city also experienced political changes. The liberal-conservative patrician families who had held responsibilities since the Reformation saw their weight decline since the revolution of 1846 which brought the radicals to power (p. 15). Philanthropy, for these former elites, was also a way of maintaining a form of influence or prestige.

To which can be added a religious dimension: yesterday hegemonic, Protestantism remains in the majority, but sees its situation complicated by the growth of the Catholic population. The proselytizing dimension of charity in several organizations is little doubted, some seeking to maintain a shaken domination, others, outsiders, to establish their status.

Various philanthropists and organizations

The authors started from thePhilanthropic Directory from 1903. At the initiative of the Geneva Public Utility Society (SGUP), one of the main organizations in the charitable field, this document aims to present all the organizations present in the city, each with its objectives, its headquarters and the names of its leaders. This publication “is part of a broader trend of inventorying and publicizing Western urban philanthropic activities” (p. 29). Geneva was not a pioneer in this respect: comparable directories for London and Paris have existed since the first half of the 19th century. XIXe century, developed by the Charity Organisation Society (COS) and the Central Office of Charity Works of Paris respectively.

The designers of the Geneva directory, in an approach that is intended to be analytical and not just enumerative, propose a classification of organizations into seven types: general philanthropy, assistance to the poor, illnesses, accidents, hygiene, instruction, education and moralization, work, domestic economy, and finally foresight (p. 34). This categorization, which has changed slightly over the years, calls for the following remarks: activities today concerned by the non-profit sector such as sport, culture or support for research were then completely outside it. It is also necessary to note the singular nature of the last category, foresight, to which a separate chapter is devoted for this reason. The term actually groups together two distinct types of organizations, savings institutions and mutual aid societies. Individual strategy on the one hand (we accumulate money that may prove useful later), collective on the other (members contribute and insure each other), which have in common the objective of preventing precarious situations. Their inclusion in philanthropy in the strict sense may seem questionable, at least conventional. It is revealing in this respect that the leaders of these organizations remain generally outside the main networks of philanthropists.

Network analysis is indeed an essential part of the work: the analysis of the directory cited above led the authors to identify 810 philanthropic figures, including 117 affiliated with at least two charities (pp. 20-21). The detailed study of a small number of them highlights the most frequent profiles. Generally speaking, there is little deviation from the city’s elites (mainly economic), which does not prevent forms of diversity. Among the most active figures are members of the old Protestant elite, such as Frank Lombard, who retired early from the family bank to devote himself to his charitable activities, but also members of the rising middle class such as Henri Boveyron, son of an engraver, commercial employee then banker, member of the radical party (p. 51). We also find women, often widowed or single (the authors acknowledge that the activity of married women may have been invisible in a certain number of cases), for whom philanthropy has also been a means of accessing salaried employment, particularly in care and education (p. 53). It should be noted that participation in charitable works, in which one would tend to see an outdated, even embarrassing practice, can go hand in hand with struggles that one would more easily judge to be progressive, as shown by the example of Camille Vidard, professor of literature, philanthropist and activist in favor of women’s suffrage.

Between reform and social control

Beyond its descriptive dimension, the work questions the meaning of these practices: what do the functioning and objectives of philanthropic organizations tell us? A first notable fact is the scientific character claimed by the most important: the Central Bureau of Charity (BCB) aims, by means of the centralization of donations, to put an end to the direct link between donor and recipient. Files are created for each applicant, including information on their material situation, sometimes psychological elements: alcohol consumption is stigmatized, as well as “bad morals” that one will not be surprised to see more strongly condemned among women – the weight of the abolitionist movement is obvious, philanthropy also having this function of keeping women in difficulty away from prostitution. It should be noted that derogatory judgments do not necessarily prevent the granting of aid, which remains modest in any case: the office can grant small sums of money to pay rent, vouchers for the purchase of basic necessities, food, fuel, or even work vouchers, a few hours of work giving the right to remuneration. Finally, he can propose a placement in an institution, asylum, home, or in apprenticeship if the children or adolescents are concerned (p. 98).

This reformist character is particularly evident in the educational field. The authors begin by recalling that several laws were passed during this period, starting with that of 1892 on abandoned children, which “substantially extended the power of intervention of philanthropists, since the law defined by relatively flexible criteria situations in which it was possible to remove children from parental authority” (p. 111). This is followed by a case study devoted to an establishment for young girls: La Pommière. The authors describe the admission process after a report by a family member, a leader of a charity or a church (among the reasons for refusal, let us cite the medical examination of a child deemed “hysterical”, of another “completely retarded”), then life in the institution. We will note in particular the almost exclusively feminine character of the establishment, with its director, a forty-something French Catholic, its three youngest teachers, they Swiss and Protestant, and finally its employees. But the most notable fact is that the students are destined for jobs as domestics for women of Geneva’s high society, with profiles close to the ladies of the committee who manage the establishment (p. 136). If we add that the period is characterized by a relative shortage of this domestic staff while its demand increases, we will admit that it is tempting to see in this philanthropic experiment Also a way for the wealthy bourgeoisie to train the staff they need at low cost.

This instrumental vision appears in other places: the chapter devoted to a particular district of Geneva, that of the old town, clearly shows that a certain promiscuity reigned there, making it necessary for members of the wealthy classes to take social action in order to prevent the possible excesses of the most precarious, who also happen to be their neighbors. The obvious limit of this philanthropy, as we have understood, is that it considers the reform of behavior, rarely that of society. Which explains why the workers’ movement has remained globally foreign to it, even if we occasionally find in its press organs appeals to donate to charities.

Anyone working on the subject, including in other fields and other periods, will therefore recognize familiar questions in this work: of method, of sources (directories comparable to the Geneva one of 1903 exist for organizations active in France today, and often constitute a good entry point), but also of substance. The study of elites remains central, however philanthropy is a “total social fact” in the sense that it involves the whole of society, public and private institutions, cultural as well as economic aspects. The reader will also admire the authors’ skill in alternating scales, between micro-histories and more general overviews. The evocation of the tensions between the director of La Pommière and one of the teachers precedes the clear and educational presentation of the transformations of a system of protection or financing – the part devoted to fundraising techniques has been omitted, in particular on the occasion of the first campaigns following a humanitarian crisis. All this makes for an inspiring book for the researcher, and one of great density.