The Givers Who Take: David Callahan’s Delusions of a Liberal Utopia

Every day that passes us by the wealth and power of the billionaire-class is further consolidated. The gap between rich and poor grows, a process that is umbilically-linked to the immense profits that continue to be amassed by a greedy handful at the expense of the rest of us. Under capitalism the only true givers are the working-class. But as the rich know all too well, this anti-democratic method of misrule is inherently unstable, hence the capitalist takers are compelled to give us back a little. This institutionalized system of take and give is the subject of David Callahan’s just-released book The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age (Knopf, 2017).

Callahan sets himself a big task, which it seems he is not really up to. He notes how critical “scholars like C. Wright Mills worked to gain an understanding of a new ecosystem of power that included major corporations, government, and the military.” Thus Callahan sees his task as being to “reckon with the rise of big philanhtropy – and the givers behind it.” Loosely inspired by The Power Elite (1956), Mills’ classic exposition on the mechanics of class rule, The Givers set out to describe the activities of this “new philanthropic power elite.” The major difference is that while funding from the philanthropic community for studies on what Mills’ referred to as “The Cultural Apparatus” were blocked, Callahan’s own ahistorical boosterism has been well-received.

The Givers Callahan

Hardly a philanthropic outsider, Callahan had — prior to setting up the website Inside Philanthropy — cofounded a think tank called Demos in the late 1990s which received generous funding from the historic big three philanthropic foundation giants, Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie. He waxes lyrical about his hopes for a future overseen by loving givers only because he closes his eyes to any alternative more egalitarian future, and to the seriously problematic history of liberal philanthropy itself. “Even if you worry about inequality, it’s hard not to feel hope as super-empowered, high-minded givers looks to solve problems” – problems that are at root caused by the actions of his billionaire takers.

Over a century ago, Callahan reminds his readers, “John D. Rockefeller’s proposed foundation had been denounced by the U.S. attorney general as ‘an indefinite scheme for perpetuating vast wealth’ that was ‘entirely inconsistent with the public interest.’” At the time, the then germinal Rockefeller Foundation was correctly referred to as a “Trojan horse” in a devious plot by one of America’s most infamous robber barons to undo democracy. Nevertheless, Callahan confidently asserts, “these early criticisms of mega-givers” have now “faded.” “As distrust of robber barons and their monopolies became a distant memory, so too did fears that philanthropy was yet another tool of oligarchical control…”


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