Philanthropy’s Role

Jennifer Harris in Democracy. A Journal of Ideas: “…Today’s new ideas are just beginnings. Hence the need for philanthropic investment. One challenge is to get academics to work differently. In Hayek and Friedman’s day, creating beachheads at places like the University of Chicago and George Mason was necessary in part because the academy was fairly hostile to their ideas. Today’s situation is more one of distraction and benign neglect than outright hostility; the question is whether the most promising academics can reject pressures of over-specialization in favor of asking bigger questions, and can come to see themselves as part of a common project spanning relevant disciplines. Against this task, the role for philanthropy is less straightforward than financing a critical mass of endowed chairs at a couple of well-chosen universities.

Developing new ideas is only one front in this movement. If developing ideas is difficult, moving them in the world is more so, partly because it means contending with the power structures underpinning neoliberalism. Historians like Angus Burgin and Quinn Slobodian explain how neoliberalism’s rise was ultimately a marriage between libertarian intellectuals, big business, and white evangelicals. The amalgam that resulted was generous enough for each faction to take what suited their purposes and largely ignore the rest.

Upsetting this coalition will involve creating immediate stakes for what can often feel like abstract ideas. This is where social movement and grassroots organizing groups come in. Yet these groups are the first to admit, returning to Michael Shuman, that “Too little is being invested today in answering a fundamental question: What exactly are we organizing for? Many of our pat ‘answers’ are obsolete…. One unanswered question looming large, for example, is how to provide decent work to everyone without destroying our ecological base. Can anyone say, with confidence, what our economic program is?”

It’s not difficult to make out what these groups are against—consider the array of campaigns targeting the predatory behaviors of Wall Street or specific corporations. To the extent that campaigns do have affirmative aims, they tend to be for better minimums—the Fight for $15, for example, or paid sick days. To be sure, this is critical work and should continue. But these fights do not add up to, nor derive from, any coherent answer to neoliberalism.

Such is partly the nature of campaigning; outrage mobilizes. But at least part of the blame also falls on philanthropy—the foundations that tend to invest most heavily in economic and social justice work tend to support specific campaigns. There is too little focus on building power, and too little focus on ideas.

Arguably the lack of focus on ideas also partly stems from the fact that it has traditionally not been seen as the competency of these groups to be the idea generators. But that seems increasingly less true: The current push for reparations probably would not be mainstream if not for the Movement for Black Lives, just as teachers strikes in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and elsewhere are breathing new life into the labor movement.

There is much to learn from the wisdom of angry crowds in America today, it seems. And philanthropy is well situated to help bring about a new set of relationships linking organizers and activists and academics. Through thoughtful funding of post-graduate career paths, it might even be possible to generate a new mold of organizer, who is some blend of the two. Take Ady Barkan, called the “most powerful activist in America.” Barkan studied social movements in college and law school, and went on to found Fed Up, a campaign premised on three insights: one, the Federal Reserve wields far more power over the economic well-being of the country than does any other single institution, including Congress; two, partly for that reason, monetary policy should be a topic of political discourse; three, the rules of the economy have sufficiently changed that it is possible to allow for much more expansionary monetary policy than most economists have advocated, without nearly the same risk of inflation. Affirmative, structural campaigns of this sort—ones that target key institutions of power and rewrite the rules over how the economy is managed—are possible.

But they are not easy. It is safe to assume they would be easier with less uniform opposition from the business community. There are rumblings of a new willingness to depart from the highly partisan, staunchly conservative activism business has adopted over the past four decades. The ultimate test of whether these rumblings amount to anything will likely center on business itself—specifically, on whether business is willing to dispense with one of neoliberalism’s most insidious ideas: shareholder primacy. There is an emerging policy agenda importantly grounded in the notion that “Corporations are creatures of public permission,” as economist Lenore Palladino has put it. And “The privileges granted to large corporations are just that—privileges—not rights, and they are granted by the government so that corporations can accomplish public purposes that otherwise would be hard to meet.”

Not least, any worthy successor to neoliberalism must involve a moral dimension. The most important periods of social and political struggle have always fought not just over who should have power, but over which ideas about morality should dominate. In the late twentieth century, as market logic pervaded more and more spheres of human life and became fused to moral arguments about freedom, markets assumed a moral force of their own. As this happened, other ideas about morality not tethered to markets receded. A course-correction may be brewing, though. “We ripped the market out of its moral and social context and let it operate purely by its own rules,” one prominent observer wrote recently. “We made the market its own priest and confessor.” Another put it this way: “The first thing we must recognize, is that economic justice is a moral issue. And economics can’t be separated from moral questions. It was never intended that way.”

The first quote belongs to conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, and the second to Rev. William Barber II, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign—lending weight to the notion that some of the best arguments against market fundamentalism today are moral ones, and they are found on both the right and the left.

All of this adds up to a pretty different picture of philanthropy. We need foundations willing to try something different than issue-specific programs. We need to invest in institutions and individuals—academics, think tanks, movement actors, business leaders, moral and religious figures—willing to prioritize ideas over policy, and willing to see themselves as part of a common project….(More)”