Book Review: Under the Mask of Philanthropy

The following review, authored by Professor Joan Roelofs, was published in the November 2017 issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy (Volume 33, Issue 3, pp.160-4). I don’t agree with all of Professor Roelofs representations of my arguments, but I am still happy that my book has received a positive review.

Book review

Michael Barker’s Under the Mask of Philanthropy is one of the very rare extensive critiques of the “nonprofit sector” from a left perspective. Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, derided “bourgeois socialists”:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.

How should we today characterize philanthropy’s relationship to socialism?

There is broad agreement that conservative philanthropists have conservative and often, reactionary aims. However, Barker argues that liberal philanthropy has mystified its role in co-opting those trying to promote anti-capitalist thought and action: “The overarching purpose of liberal philanthropists … is to sustain corporate profits and legitimise the capitalist status quo, not to promote global peace and human emancipation” (28).

Barker opted out of academia just before receiving his PhD and is now a socialist activist in his place of origin, England. His enormous book is a compilation of his recently published articles, 42 chapters of them. His footnotes and citations are extensive; unfortunately, an index is missing. The book is more like an encyclopedia than a monograph, yet it is useful, important, and often fascinating.

The pivot of his research is the work of the largest liberal foundations: Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Sage, Gates, Soros’ Open Society Institutes, and others. The evidence for his argument is their relationship with their grantees and advisees: progressive organizations (some created by the foundations), reform movements, policy institutes, university projects, and networks. The latter may be in the guise of councils, task forces, committees, or stakeholders. Mainstream social science often claims that networks are non-hierarchical structures appropriate to our current “egalitarian” [sic] world, but the outcomes of most deliberations attest to the power of elites. Some of the networks Barker examines are the General Education Board, the War-Peace Study Group of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, the Freeze Campaign, and the Social Science Research Council.

Barker reminds us that philanthropy critique has a history. The Walsh Commission (1915) was a Congressional investigation, primarily of the Rockefeller family, which was creating its philanthropic foundation at the time. Public opinion in that Progressive era generally assumed that the foundation’s main purpose was to improve the Rockefellers’ public relations in the wake of the Ludlow Massacre. Frank Walsh, a Progressive, led the inquiry and concluded that the Rockefeller family wanted to preserve its wealth and power by “subsidizing all agencies that make for social change and progress,” although it would be more philanthropic to treat their workers more fairly.

Horace Coon’s Money to Burn (1938) revealed that military contractors provided major support for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1990) reported the philanthropic co-optation of the civil rights movement, with the Ford Foundation in the lead. A major contribution to these critiques (now taboo for ad hominem reasons) was David Horowitz’s series in Ramparts, “Sinews of Empire” (1969). Barker also mentions the works of Robert Arnove, editor and contributor of Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism (1980), and Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (2003).

Other valuable histories in the book describe the role of foundations in creating the World Bank, Planned Parenthood, the Conservation Foundation, the eugenics movement, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Green Revolution. The liberal foundations, which didn’t consider US aggression and militarization as “problems” that need their fixing, shepherded major elements of the 1960s anti-war movement first into an “anti-nuke” and then into an “anti-testing” campaign. The foundation-funded SANE protest was muted when the focus shifted to fallout, because underground testing was then initiated. Nuclear weapons themselves receded as “targets.”

Radicals who regard the civil rights movement as a model for achieving social change despite entrenched attitudes might consider Barker’s evidence that the foundations channeled and co-opted the movement to remove its original challenge to business as usual. Barker describes the important role that business corporations also played in the civil rights struggle, and relevant to our present crises, among them the military contractors. For example, Lockheed was a sponsor of the United Negro College Fund and a major supporter of the NAACP. Military contractor philanthropy has been particularly generous to all minority organizations, providing not only donations but also joint programs with Native American, Black, Hispanic, and women’s organizations. In some cases, “grassroots” organizations were created by foundations, well funded in order to draw people away from financially struggling genuine grassroots movements.

Barker devotes several chapters to the role of foundations in South Africa; the African National Congress Freedom Charter’s commitment to socialism had to be suppressed (Barker claims it wasn’t socialist to begin with, but I disagree). The methods used repeated the co-optation of the US civil rights movement, with an emphasis on individual rights, black capitalism, and lavish rewards for cooperative leaders. Elements of this model have been employed in the “NGOization” of the world; Barker gives examples from Latin America, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

One reason why so much of this history is unknown is that “Given the massive power liberal foundations have welded [sic] over academia it is perhaps not too surprising that discussing their corrosive influence is a taboo subject within academia” (366). There is no career advantage in looking too closely at philanthropy.

Also contributing to obscuring history is foundation funding of alternative media, such as: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Center for Investigative Reporting, Center for Public Integrity, Democracy Now!, Media Channel, Free Press, Center for International Media Action, and the Independent Press Association (330). We rarely read or hear critical reports of liberal foundations and nonprofit organizations (from either the mainstream or alternative press) unless there has been a financial scandal, outrageous CEO pay, or a lawsuit. Investigating their barriers to badly needed social change or even democracy itself is not considered important news. Yet these institutions form an enormous part of our political, social, economic, and cultural life (and increasingly throughout the world), at the expense of traditional political parties and other popular forms of civil association.

So what is to be done? Barker argues that:

[W]orking within conventional universities only serves to legitimatize the status quo. … [Critical scholars] may need to move to these harsh edges and reject their comfortable lives within the neoliberal ideological factories that we presently call universities. (383)

This prompts the question: is there anywhere in academia where radical researchers can survive while making useful contributions to the cause? Furthermore, Barker maintains that progressive activists must “work to dissociate their progressive activism from liberal foundations … and create sustainable democratic revenue streams to enable their work to continue” (512).

His solution is not very practical. It is not so easy today to find adequate funds, as costly “professional” publication, facilitation, and communications are needed to legitimate organizations. At the same time, the tax code limits or discourages “funding the revolution.” Even when funds have been available from radical foundations seeking to promote anti-capitalist organizations, the results have not been promising. It is hard to find anti-capitalist organizations, and nonprofits cannot legally fund political parties (at least not in the US). Consequently, radical foundations, e.g., Haymarket Peoples Fund and Resist, support progressive groups and further “identity politics.” These initiatives have often increased the power, rights, and well-being of working class people and oppressed minorities. Yet beneficent reforms do not seem to lead to radical change. This is similar to the experience of the British Fabian socialists, who hoped that “gradualism” would lead to the abolition of capitalism, but that wasn’t in the stars.

Barker’s work prompts the vital question: how to bring about radical social change, which is desperately needed. Our capitalist nations are not only failing materially (supposedly their strong point) but they are breeding chaos, declining health, suicide, and addiction. They are also leading the world toward extinction from environmental or nuclear disaster.

The power of foundations to block major change arises not only from their elite networks holding top positions in politics, economy, cultural institutions, and progressive organizations, but also from their ability to shape the political ideologies of most citizens – the common wisdom – that Gramsci described as hegemony. What has been done, despite all this, may give us clues to what can be done.

For help in finding the way and avoiding the dead-ends, Under the Mask of Philanthropy is an important guide for activists and radical scholars. Barker’s research is ongoing and more may be found at https://underthemaskofphilanthropy.wordpress.com

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