City Research Online

The new Victorians? Celebrity charity and the demise of the welfare state

Littler, J. (2015). The new Victorians? Celebrity charity and the demise of the welfare state. Celebrity Studies, 6(4), pp. 471-485. doi: 10.1080/19392397.2015.1087213


This article asks whether the expansion of celebrity involvement in charitable and humanitarian issues in Northern Europe and the US might be a comparable historical phenomenon with the philanthropic endeavours of prominent nineteenth-century persons. The article notes that the conspicuous nature of star philanthropy in both Victorian times and the present is fairly dramatic in comparison with that of the mid twentieth century, when the welfare state and the New Deal were at their peak: a welfare-oriented era which, to some, now increasingly looks like a ‘historical blip’. It asks whether the rise of contemporary celebrity involvement in charity can therefore be explained in terms of the contemporary political conjuncture, inasmuch as celebrities could be understood as individuals with large amounts of private capital seeking to intervene in – and gain forms of power through – involvement in humanitarian and charitable causes that might have formerly been the job of the state. Can celebrity involvement in charity be explained in these terms? Does the marriage of celebrity and charity today take a neoliberal form, one that parallels the liberal form of nineteenth-century interventions, bequests and donations? What might the key differences between forms of spectacular ‘philanthrocapitalism’ in these eras (particularly the contemporary insistence on the confessional and intimate modes of address) reveal about its workings, its internal traditions and about the specificity of our own age? This article draws on contemporary media discourse, debate in the voluntary sector, historical scholarship and Foucault’s distinctions between liberalism and neoliberalism to argue that whereas ‘celanthropy’ in the Victorian period eventually came to contribute to the welfare state, today it is more involved in privatising and dismantling it.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Celebrity Studies on 25th September 2015, available online:
Publisher Keywords: celebrity, charity, celanthropy, philanthropy, philanthrocapitalism
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
SWORD Depositor:
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