Pacifying civil society


In recent times, capitalist interests have financially supported two types of revolution — helping fund the "neoliberal revolution" and supporting/hijacking popular revolutions (or in some cases manufactured "revolutions") in countries of geo-strategic importance.

The neoliberal revolution has, naturally, been funded by right-wing philanthropists intent on neutralising progressive forces within society. However, the "democratic" revolutions (most notably the recent "colour revolutions" in Eastern Europe) are funded by an assortment of quasi-non-governmental organisations, like the US-Congress funded National Endowment for Democracy, and private institutions such as George Soros's Open Society Institute.

However, the one revolution that these interests will not bankroll will be the revolution at home — here in our Western (low-intensity) democracies.

This point is forcefully argued in the US group INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence's 2007 book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, which provides a useful overview for how capitalist elites and their liberal foundations actively work to coopt civil society in the US.

Unfortunately, to date no researchers have critically examined the influence of liberal philanthropy on the dynamics of Australian civil society — although I hope to in the near future.

The best known and most influential liberal foundations operating in the US have been the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation — although the Gates Foundation recently rose to prominence as the best-financed foundation. In 2006 alone it distributed more than US$1.5 billion worth of grants.

These major foundations were all created by the US's most rapacious capitalists. It would seem commonsense that progressive activists working towards creating a more equitable and participatory "new world order" should avoid funding relationships with foundations created by the very same capitalists who stand to lose most from such revolutionary changes.

Consequently, it is important to ask why it is that so many progressive (even radical) groups accept funding from major liberal foundations.

Several reasons may help explain this contradiction. Firstly, it is well known that progressive groups are often underfunded, and their staff overworked. There is every likelihood that many groups that receive support from liberal foundations have never considered the problems associated with such funding. If this is the case, hopefully a discussion on the issues raised by this funding will help more activists begin to rethink their unhealthy relations with their funders.

On the other hand, it seems likely that many progressive groups understand that the broader goals and aspirations of capitalist-funded liberal foundations are incompatible with their own more radical visions for the future. Yet, despite recognising this dissonance, it would seem that many progressive organisations believe that they can beat the foundations at their own game and trick them into funding projects that will promote truly progressive social change.

Many of the radical groups that receive funding from liberal foundations argue that they will take money from anyone willing to give it, so long as it comes with no strings attached. This position, held by numerous activist organisations, is highly problematic. If we can agree that it is unlikely that liberal foundations will fund the much needed societal changes that will bring about their own demise, it poses the question of why do they continue funding progressive activists?

Judging by the number of articles dealing with it in the alternative media, very little importance appears to have been attached to discussing this question and investigating means of cultivating funding sources that are geared towards the promotion of radical social change.

Fortunately though, in addition to INCITE!'s book, which has helped break the unstated taboo surrounding the discussion of activist funding, another critical exception was provided in 2003 by Professor Joan Roelofs' book Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism.

Following the end of World War II, the US chemical-industrial complex undertook a phase of phenomenal growth, which in part provided the stimulus for the public's increasing concern with the environment. This period in history also witnessed the equally dramatic parallel rise in the number and power of philanthropic foundations.

However, despite the sizable financial influence wielded by these foundations, the discussion of the role of philanthropists in funding social change has been very limited. This is especially problematic with regard to their influence on environmental politics, because the largest most prominent liberal foundations, like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, played a key role in helping launch the modern-day environmental movement.

Over the years, contrary to popular beliefs, much evidence has been accumulated that demonstrates that liberal philanthropic foundations have had a profound effect in shaping the contours of US (and global) civil society, actively influencing social change through a process alternatively referred to as either channeling or cooption. Some have defended the need for foundations to shape democratic processes, but, as Roelofs observes, they often fail to "probe the contradictions to both 'free enterprise' and democratic theory implied by the need for extra-constitutional planners."

Roelofs suggests that liberal foundations "greatest threat to democracy lies in their translation of wealth into power". She adds that such foundations "can create and disseminate an ideology justifying vast inequalities of life chances and political power; they can deflect criticism and mask (and sometimes mitigate) damaging aspects of the system; and they can hire the best brains, popular heroines, and even left-wing political leaders to do their work."

Arguably, liberal foundations have bolstered elite cultural domination through the use of consensual (in this case charitable) institutional arrangements, rather than simply coercive ones. This "charitable" strategy has its institutional roots in the early 20th Century, when as Professor Edward Berman noted, "more far-sighted" elites "recognized that a societal consensus could only be achieved if the extremes of poverty and wealth were somewhat mitigated"; which in turn could only come about when the "working classes were more integrated into society's political and particularly its economic system and its dominant norms".

It is interesting to note that one major social movement that received substantial financial backing from philanthropic foundations during the 1960s was the civil rights movement. Predictably, liberal foundation support went almost entirely to the less militant, moderate professional movement organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

As an example of the type of indirect pressure facing social movements reliant on foundation support, we can examine Martin Luther King Jr's activities as his campaigning became more controversial in the years just prior to his 1968 assassination.

In February 1967, King held a strategy meeting where he said he wanted to take a more active stance in opposing the Vietnam War — noting that he was willing to break with president Lyndon Johnson's administration even if the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he lead, lost some financial support. This was despite contributions to the SCLC already being 40% less than the previous year.

In this case, it seems, King was referring to the potential loss of foundation support as, after his first speech against the war a week later, he again voiced his concerns that his new position would jeopardise an important Ford Foundation grant.

By providing discriminatory support, foundations have systematically promoted the independence of all manner of social movement activists from their unpaid grassroots constituents — thereby facilitating movement institutionalisation. The strategic use of such philanthropy to support "reforms" — for example in education, health care and environmental protection — provided a vitally important means by which capitalist elites could maintain the status quo by actively bringing the dispossessed into the capitalist system.

Liberal philanthropists have helped direct dissent into official channels — limiting goals to amelioration rather than radical change.

One of the most important books exploring the detrimental influence of liberal foundations on social change was Professor Robert Arnove's ground-breaking 1980 book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism. Arnove observed that: "A central thesis [of this book] is that foundations like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford have a corrosive influence on a democratic society; they represent relatively unregulated and unaccountable concentrations of power and wealth which buy talent, promote causes, and, in effect, establish an agenda of what merits society's attention."

In effect, they "serve as 'cooling-out' agencies, delaying and preventing more radical, structural change".

Given the existence of such critiques, it is ironic that progressive activists tend to underestimate the influence of liberal philanthropists, while simultaneously acknowledging the fundamental role played by conservative philanthropists in promoting neoliberal policies.

Now more than ever, it is vital that citizens committed to a participatory democracy work to develop alternate funding mechanisms for sustaining grassroots activism. Then and only then, as Professor Brian Tokar observed in his excellent 1997 book Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash, will progressive activists be able to break the "insidious cycle of competition and co-optation" that has been set up by liberal foundations and their anti-democratic cohorts.

[Based on a workshop presented to Green Left Weekly's Climate Change — Social Change conference in April.]