Liberal Philanthropy and the Management of Dissent

Is it really so far-fetched to believe that our planet's wealthiest liberal elites have conspired together to maintain their power?

Liberal Philanthropy and the Management of Dissent

This article is excerpted from chapters in Under the Mask of Philanthropy, available here.

Many of the world’s leading plutocrats exhibit disturbing psychological tendencies, and so it is fitting that Joel Bakan diagnoses their nominal home, the corporation, as psychopathic. While many corporate executives may well have numerous commendable personal traits, their commitment to pursuing their own class interests—at the expense of the mass of humanity—necessarily means that they must master the means to manufacture public consent, or at least acquiescence. The creation of non-profit corporations (or philanthropic foundations) thus served a critical function for powerful elites, allowing them to distance themselves from their psychopathic for-profit offspring, so they could recast themselves as good Samaritans striving to work for the common good. That this simple deception is readily evident after even the most cursory of examinations brings us to a disturbing psychological tendency commonly found within public, not elite, realms. In juxtaposition to the mental state of the corporate psychopath, the mass of humanity exhibits a concerning trust in the psychopath’s apparent generosity. In many instances the resulting mixture of trust and distrust manifests itself as a naïve optimism of the mind, and a pessimistic understanding of personal power, vis-à-vis that of plutocrats. This troublesome state of affairs is of course the polar opposite to Antonio Gramsci’s empowering call for “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

Explaining the self-harming aspects of the majority of the public’s collective resignation to plutocratic political arrangements is critical for the eventual revival of our mental well being. A good starting place would be to search for any symptoms that indicate that our society’s leading institutional psychopaths are stifling our ability to recognize our own mental deficits. Such an examination should lead us to scrutinize the influence of both for-profit and non-profit corporations, but not one at the expense of the other. Problematically this is exactly what has happened, and while most critical research has focused on for-profit corporations, few progressive studies have interrogated their philanthropic counterparts. Furthermore, those few researchers who have investigated the influence of philanthropy on the processes of social change have tended to overemphasize the power of conservative foundations, while simultaneously downplaying the negative impacts of liberal foundations. This pathological self-censorship concerning the influence of psychopath-derived liberal philanthropy means that nearly all progressive scholars have ignored the power such philanthropists have wielded over historical processes.

For well over a hundred years in the United States, ruling-class elites have ostensibly sought to work in harmony with their class enemies by funding limited forms of progressive activism. In this way, American elites have contributed towards the creation of what some presently refer to as a non-profit industrial complex: “a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements.” This non-profit industrial complex forms a natural corollary to the world’s biggest for-profit prison system that exists in America to punish the poor and the downtrodden. Indeed, the non-profit side of the political equation complements the state’s overt repression, “manag[ing] and control[ling] dissent by incorporating it into the state apparatus, functioning as a ‘shadow state’ constituted by a network of institutions that do much of what government agencies are supposed to do with tax money in the areas of education and social services.” (Here it is important to observe that this shadow state works hand-in-hand with the corporate media to undermine cooperative action through an ongoing propaganda battle for the public’s mind.)

What is more than apparent is that the ostensibly “charitable” strategy of managing social change therefore has its institutional roots in the early twentieth century when, as Edward Berman notes, “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.” Similarly in Engels’s classic, The Condition of the Working Class in England—published by the author in 1845 at just twenty-four years of age—Engels explains: “The English bourgeoisie is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter…” Addressing himself to the ruling class, Engels rebukes their vile philanthropic hypocrisy. “Philanthropic institutions forsooth! As though you rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very life-blood and then practising [their] self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing [them]selves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity,” when in actual fact they “give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them!”

Elite philanthropy then, is nothing new, but its subsequent institutionalization in America over the last century in the form of mammoth foundations is something that would certainly be news to Marx and Engels. These well-organized philanthropies grew to dominance precisely because of their usefulness in undermining the very real threats to capitalist power posed by the growth of working-class organizations, especially around the turn of the twentieth century. Prominent early examples of such threats to unearned ruling-class privilege can be seen by the powerful organizing efforts of the Knights of Labor (during the 1880s), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW—whose influence peaked in the first two decades of the twentieth century), and various other socialist organizations and groups, like the multiracial United Mine Workers of America. Hence in the face of the violent labor wars of the late nineteenth century, which “directly threatened the economic interests of the philanthropists”, liberal philanthropists were forced to the realization

that social reform was unavoidable, [and instead] chose to invest in the definition and scientific treatment of the “social questions” of their time: urbanization, education, housing, public hygiene, the ‘Negro problem,’ etc. Far from being resistant to social change, the philanthropists promoted reformist solutions that did not threaten the capitalistic nature of the social order but constituted a “private alternative to socialism.”

Writing in the appendix to the American edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1887, Engels highlighted this growing trend by drawing his readers’ attention to the nature of the reforms “against the spirit of Free Trade and unbridled competition” that American capitalists had felt compelled to implement.

The largest manufacturers, formerly the leaders of the war against the working-class, were now the foremost to preach peace and harmony. And for a very good reason. The fact is that all these concessions to justice and philanthropy were nothing else but means to accelerate the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, for whom the niggardly extra extortions of former years had lost all importance and had become actual nuisances; and to crush all the quicker and all the safer their smaller competitors who could not make both ends meet without such prerequisites.

So in an attempt to bring the dispossessed and/or alienated into the capitalist system, a limited number of far-sighted elites used their ill-gotten wealth to support progressive causes like education, health care, and environmental protection schemes—in such a ways as to better maintain an unequal status quo. As Sheila Slaughter and Edward Silva point out:

In the progressive era foundations such as Carnegie, Russell Sage, and Rockefeller tried to bring their resources to bear on ideology formation in the public sector. Foundation leaders and managers fully realized the problems presented by a free marketplace of ideas in a democratic society undergoing rapid capitalistic industrialization. Concentrated wealth and power coexisted uneasily with widespread poverty and alienation in a political democracy that gave the masses a voice in government. As representatives of capital, they clearly saw the potential threat posed to their control of the economy by the popular, organized anti-capitalist groups offering alternative ideological interpretations of power arrangements. Accordingly, they began using their resources to experiment with methods of producing, distributing, and, indeed, imposing an ideology that justified capital.

Slaughter and Silva demonstrate that foundations’ efforts to impose their ideologies on the public had actually “borne little fruit” by the end of the progressive era and by the start of World War I. However, once the war had ended, the aspiring philanthropists found an easier terrain on which to work: “groups holding deviant ideologies were decimated through the use of wartime statutes (the Red Scare, the Palmer Raids, mass deportations)” which meant that the foundations were then “unbothered by a free marketplace of ideas.” These legendarily vicious attacks upon so-called deviants (trade unionists and socialists) did not, however, take place without serious popular resistance, and between 1917 and 1920 America bore witness to a working-class upsurge that drew hope from the successful Russian Revolution. This resistance included—but was by no means limited to—astounding displays of working-class power as demonstrated by the 1919 Seattle General Strike, which involved around 65,000 workers in one city alone. It is in the political climate of such mass insurrections and repressive acts of state violence, that one should understand the flowering of the corporate world’s philanthropic impulses.

Historically speaking the most influential liberal foundations in the United States, if not the world, have been the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Each of these foundations were set up by America’s leading capitalists in 1911, 1913, and 1936 respectively. A relative newcomer on the philanthropic scene has been the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is now the largest such foundation in the world and gave away some $4.2 billion in grants in 2015 (up from $3 billion in 2009). Due to the senile, pro-corporate nature of the mainstream media, for the most part such powerful agenda-setting foundations are best known to the public for their support of progressive causes. Yet when the critical evidence is weighed up, a strong case can be made that ruling-class philanthropy is far from altruistic. As Andrea Smith explains:

[I]n 1913, Colorado miners went on strike against Colorado Fuel and Iron, an enterprise of which 40 percent was owned by Rockefeller. Eventually, this strike erupted into open warfare, with the Colorado militia murdering several strikers during the Massacre of April 20, 1914. During that time, Jerome Greene, the Rockefeller Foundation secretary, identified research and information to quiet social and political unrest as a foundation priority. The rationale behind this strategy was that while individual workers deserved social relief, organized workers in the form of unions were a threat to society. So the Rockefeller Foundation heavily advertised its relief work for individual workers while at the same time promoting a pro-Rockefeller spin to the massacre.

Not long after the Rockefeller-sanctioned Ludlow Massacre and the ruling-classes’ new-found commitment to philanthropy, the U.S. government passed the Federal Wartime Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18, which allowed the incarceration of Marxist and socialist critics of the capitalist state. Most members of the Socialist Party of America were subsequently imprisoned, as was their 1920 presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, who still garnered 900,000 votes while in prison. Of course, along with the rise of philanthropic power, violent repression continued to play a central role in ongoing attempts to crush popular opposition movements. On this score, Debs was very conscious of the role played by elite philanthropists, and he had long been a vocal critic of the rising tide of capitalist do-gooders like Andrew Carnegie. In his 1901 article “Crimes of Carnegie,” he drew attention to gory details of the 1892 Homestead massacre perpetrated by Carnegie at his steel mill. As a consequence, when Carnegie endowed his “first library for the alleged benefit of working-men, I objected,” said Debs. Debs then went on to highlight the “splendid example” of “revolt” being shown by the workingmen of Newcastle to Carnegie’s latest charitable intervention, and Debs called upon “honest workingmen everywhere [to] protest against the acceptance of a gift which condones crimes in the name of philanthropy.” What there could be no doubting is that socialism was the antidote to hypocritical philanthropy, and Debs concluded:

We want libraries and we will have them in glorious abundance when capitalism is abolished and the workingmen are no longer robbed by the philanthropic pirates of the Carnegie class. Then the library will be as it should be, a noble temple dedicated to culture and symbolizing the virtues of the people.

Just as Carnegie had first mobilized quasi-military forces against workers during the Homestead strike, most influential philanthropic benefactors continued to see no contradiction in deploying violence against workers. Building upon the precedents set during the first Red Scare in the wake of the Russian Revolution, such repression reached new heights during the Depression, when the Ford Motor Company’s strike-breaking Service Department actually “constituted the world’s largest private army, numbering between 3500 and 6,000 men.” But nevertheless, in a clear demonstration that the ruling class are always on their back foot in managing popular insurgencies, in spite of their routine use of violence in the workplace:

Pressure from the rank and file [trade union movement] found an outlet in three successful strikes in 1934; the Auto Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio, the Teamster general strike in Minneapolis and the San Francisco general strike. These strikes, led by socialists, had built on the traditions of the IWW and mobilized wider layers of workers alongside the unemployed to build a powerful force to achieve victories.

Successful strikes did not take place everywhere, but the key problem facing the capitalist class was that their rule was so precarious that only a few examples of working-class success might be enough to endanger their ability to rule. Therefore shortly after this new peak in worker militancy, President Franklin Roosevelt was compelled to grant significant reforms to the working class—e.g., the 1935 Wagner Act (which finally gave workers the legal right to join a trade union)—primarily because he feared the consequences of not doing so. This fear was made transparent the following year when Roosevelt explained, during his presidential address, that:

The true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as arise from it. The most serious threat to our institutions comes from those who refuse to face the need for change. Liberalism becomes the protection for the far-sighted conservative.

Philanthropic efforts institutionalized within liberal foundations thus serve as a major channel for directing ongoing ruling-class attempts to “protect the system of private property and free enterprise.” But tragically, to date, the little political attention on the left that has zeroed in on the detrimental impact of foundations has overwhelmingly focused on conservative philanthropists. This peculiar bias makes very little sense when we recognize that the rapid growth of right-wing foundations in the United States (from the 1970s onwards) was in large part a response to the successes of the liberal philanthropies. But this oversight is understandable when one acknowledges that much of the popular left-leaning press in America tends to be reliant on the generous funding provided by liberal foundations.

While the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations “are considered to be among the most progressive in the sense of being forward looking and reform-minded,” we should recognize that they are also “among the most controversial and influential of all the foundations.” The activities of all three of these foundations are closely entwined with the oppression of all workers all over the world through their close ties with foreign policy elites. In this respect, the foundation-initiated Council on Foreign Relations, perhaps more than any other think tank, worked to set the parameters which defined America’s imperial interests. In 1939, the Council on Foreign Relations even launched a secret project in collaboration with the U.S. State Department, later known as the War and Peace Studies Group, which sought to develop a concrete plan for US domination in the post-war world. Elaborating on these controversial ties, Frances Saunders, in her book Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, also details how a covert propaganda campaign was waged by the Central Intelligence Agency with the financial aid of liberal foundations; all carried out in a coordinated attempt “to nudge the intelligentsia of western Europe away from its lingering fascination with Marxism and Communism towards a view more accommodating of ‘the American way.’” As just one part of this cultural war against the left, in 1951 officials at the Ford Foundation voiced their concerns that although “the non-Communist left in Europe is anti-Stalinist,” it was at the same time “to a large degree pro-Marxist,” and so they discussed the need to discredit the theories of Marxism. In a bid for an answer to this enduring threat to liberalism, a report written for the foundation in 1951 observed:

A major descriptive analytic study of Marx’s political record and the code of his political conduct, undertaken by a scholar or an institution above suspicion of partisanship and known for strength of liberal convictions, might substantially contribute to disabusing the European non-Communist left of its traditional belief in Marx as a great man in the history of radical progressivism. Such a study might help close the present gap between Marx and Stalin and identify the former, as well as the latter, as the “Machiavellian” he was. Marx could be left to the Communists, and the non-Communist left could reinforce its anti-Stalinism by anti-Marxism, thus ridding its ideology of its present paralysing ambivalence.

As in earlier periods, this subtle propaganda war unfolded against the backdrop of state violence, directed both internally and externally against socialists. For example, in 1940 Congress passed the Alien Restriction Act (Smith Act) whose first target were the Trotskyists who had helped lead the successful Minneapolis Teamsters rebellion during the Depression. The working class, however, remained undeterred in their fight for justice, and later during America’s involvement in World War II, wildcat strike actions reached unforeseen heights as workers united and fought back. Thus, in quick response came the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which banned outright all solidarity and wildcat strikes. As history has shown, the passing of this act represented an all-out attempt to purge the labor movement of radicals and Marxists, which tragically, when combined with the anti-communist hysteria that was initially whipped up the Democrats, proved largely successful in undermining working-class movements for progress. As these attacks continued to build momentum, there was a dramatic rise in the number and power of philanthropic foundations in America. Hence, once the ruling class has enacted successful legislative and propaganda offensives to weaken dissenting movements, which were independent from their control, they quickly moved in to fill the political vacuum by providing selective support to ‘dependent’ groups. This infiltration of social movements by foundations has aptly been referred to as “philanthropic colonization”.

During the 1960s, the now famous neoconservative David Horowitz provided the left with a timely series of articles regarding the dangers of liberal philanthropy. Then in 1969, during the Marxist stage of his career, Horowitz published three articles in Ramparts magazine titled “The Foundations: Charity Begins at Home,” “Billion Dollar Brains: How Wealth Puts Knowledge in its Pocket,” and finally “Sinews Of Empire.” Horowitz recognized the immense power that large amounts of money could wield, which, he said, worked to “sustain the complex nerve centers and guidance mechanisms for a whole system of institutional power”. As he correctly pointed out, “the foundation millions really represent taxable surplus that ought to be in the hands of the community,” not distributed by “charitable trusts in the form of ‘gifts.’” Horowitz then traced the trajectory of liberal philanthropy from 1877 onwards, observing how Booker T. Washington had first “ascended to national prominence with his white-sponsored philosophy of self-help and political quietism.” Then at the outset of the 1960s, financed by white wealth, Horowitz observed how the NAACP and the Urban League positioned themselves “on the right wing of the civil rights movement”. As usual, working in conjunction with these philanthropic interventions was “the big stick of Law and Order” with the accompanying “frame-ups and police terror.”

Horowitz went on to highlight how during “the radical upsurge of the [18]80s and 90s, a series of exemplary firings of liberal scholars took place, usually as a result of the professors having linked some of their abstract ideas with the issues of the hour.” As Horowitz emphasized, the power of foundations to shape academic life is an issue which unfortunately has largely evaded critical commentary, because if “Looked at formally, the foundations were imposing nothing.” Indeed this “very subtlety was its strength,” as in “the realm of the mind, the illusion of freedom may be more real than freedom itself.” Thus Horowitz continued, “lavish support and recognition” is provided

for the kind of investigations and techniques that are ideologically and pragmatically useful to the system which it dominates, and by withholding support on any substantial scale from empirical research projects and theoretical frameworks that would threaten to undermine the status quo. (Exceptional and isolated support for individual radicals may be useful, however, in establishing the openness of the system at minimum risk.)

Irrespective of whether one subscribes to Horowitz’s arguments, what can be in no doubt is that everyone has a vested interest in understanding the power that has been undemocratically wielded by philanthropists. In 2014, in the US alone, there were over 86,000 grant-making foundations (representing elites from across the political spectrum) which together distributed just over $60 billion. Indeed, while some on the left may be worried about discussing the fact that liberal foundations bankroll much progressive work (not least through the work of influential mainstream nongovernmental organizations), the secret has been open for years. In fact, critiquing the reliance of progressive activist organizations on liberal philanthropists has been a bread and butter issue of ultraconservatives and libertarians for decades. One of the best examples in this regard is provided by the anti-communist John Birch Society, which was founded in 1958 by Robert Welch (a former director of the National Association of Manufacturers). With significant support from the corporate world the John Birch Society took it upon itself to industriously promote many bestselling books, all of which fixated upon the alleged communist social engineering efforts of liberal elites. In 1972, William Domhoff described the sprawling nature of this ultra-conservative network, of which the Birchites were just one part, as “The Dinosaur Club.” In line with the conspiratorial content of many of the Birchites popular anti-establishment views, Domhoff observed how “Some of the wilder members of this group appear to believe David Rockefeller and his wealthy compatriots are communists in disguise only waiting for the right moment to sell out the United States to the Reds of Moscow and the Pinks of London.” This would be funny, if the consequences were not so dire, and unfortunately, owing largely to the domination of mainstream American politics by ‘liberal’ big business elites, convincing arguments to refute the Dinosaur Club’s web of anti-communist lies have not been forthcoming. Needless to say, the topic of liberal elite subterfuge continues to be a mainstay of leading right-wing media outlets, where it is alleged ad infinitum that conspiratorial liberal billionaires are undermining democracy worldwide. And, as with any influential story, there is an element of truth in such conservative ideas. This is because liberal philanthropists are elitist, and likewise, it is true that their actions are undermining democracy. While conservatives imply that nefarious liberal elites aim to facilitate a global socialist revolution, a holistic look at their philanthropic activities makes it quite clear that they are simply trying to save capitalism by undermining or co-opting citizen-led attempts that fight to create more participatory forms of democracy.

Newspeak dominates critical thinking, not only in our political realm, but also in the supposedly free world of academia. President Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize and critical researchers fail to criticize the work of liberal foundations, while those few individuals that do are labeled as ranters or conspiracy theorists. At the same time, the former head of the BBC—a media outlet that is widely considered to be the most prestigious media outlet of the British liberal establishment—described his former employer as being engaged in a “conspiracy” to subvert British democracy. Thus the question remains: “Is it really so far-fetched to believe that our planet’s wealthiest liberal elites have conspired together to maintain their power?”

Most progressive citizens accept the idea that conservative elites actively coordinated their philanthropic resources to effectively disembowel democracy in the United States; so why is it so hard to believe that their slightly less conservative “liberal” counterparts coordinate their resources to ensure capitalism’s longevity? Liberal elites like Bill Gates and George Soros will never be part of a solution to the current global disorder; they are the problem. Instead, the people we must turn towards to reverse the catastrophe that has been wrought on life by capitalism are the billions of people living all around us. The liberal foundations upon which many groups and ideologies are based must be uprooted and replaced with a solid community-driven foundation that can support the growth of a new just world order. Contrary to much effective propaganda, the future of our planet lies in our cooperative hands and not with a handful of self-interested elites.

Michael Barker is a support worker at a school where he also acts as a Union rep, and is an Assistant Secretary to the Leicester and District Trades Union Council. He is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy.