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review by Henry Robertson, Green Party of St. Louis
Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, 2003. Albany: State University of New York Press, paper, $22.95, ISBN 0-7914-5642-0.
Philanthropy is good. Joan Roelofs is one of the few people who challenges this assumption. Her new book examines how foundations maintain the ruling class’s hegemony (as Antonio Gramsci used the word) from outside the apparatus of government. Refreshingly for an academic, she makes no pretense of academic impartiality.
Private foundations are grant-making bodies, some 50,000 of them with assets of $450 billion. “Nonprofit” is not a word that applies easily to them; they do make profits but are restricted in how they can use them. Political activity is supposedly forbidden by law, but they have one gaping loophole—they may do “nonpartisan” research, generating the reports and policies that establish their expertise on social, economic and governmental problems. They create think tanks, organize conferences and make grants to the organizations people commonly think of when they hear the word nonprofit. At the top of the pyramid sit the big three created by the fortunes of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford.
Foundations employ the over-educated, surplus children of the managerial class who might otherwise turn dissident. They co-opt activists. They educate government officials and stand on one side of the revolving door between public and private employment. These beneficiaries don’t see themselves as serving an ideology, only common sense; the ideology is as ubiquitous and invisible as the air they breathe.
Foundations employ the over-educated, surplus children of the managerial class who might otherwise turn dissident.
Foundation money and policies have had immense but little-known influence. In their early days they helped destroy the ward system of municipal government and replace it with at-large elections and city-manger government run by bureaucratic experts. In 1921 they induced Congress to turn over its role of budget initiation to the White House—a major shift in the balance of power within the federal government. In international affairs, where they operate free from domestic restrictions, they set up groups like the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations; they have fronted for the CIA since its inception in 1947. In Eastern Europe the foundations of George Soros and others trained the new governing elites, funded political parties, took over the media and facilitated the privatization of state enterprises into the hands of Western corporations.
The foundations must be credited with genuine reforms. They promoted Social Security, civil rights and public interest law. They address market failures with community development corporations, poverty alleviation and subsidies for the arts. These efforts have been merely ameliorative. They channeled “black power” into “black capitalism.” Grant-taking activist groups, if they want to survive, will lower their sights and pursue short-term, incremental goals. “Organizations that link racism, repression, imperialism, and militarism to the practices of corporate capitalism may be ignored.” Structural change will not come from campaign finance reform. Legislative reapportionment, another foundation favorite, installed the more egalitarian “one man, one vote” principle, but it has had no discernible effect on public policy.
Grant-taking activist groups, if they want to survive, will lower their sights and pursue short-term, incremental goals. “Organizations that link racism, repression, imperialism, and militarism to the practices of corporate capitalism may be ignored.”
Roelofs is scathing on how multiculturalism keeps the left fragmented. The foundations promote “pluralism.” As long as people practice identity politics and seek rights, representation and a role in the process, they will not see that broader solidarity is necessary to effectuate real change. Minor victories on points of legal process are depoliticizing and co-opting.
Foundations and Public Policy is a rambling survey rather than an in-depth study. It is not always clear on how much money is really involved or how much influence the foundations have had compared to government, corporations and other “civil society” organizations. Like any good leftist, Roelofs chants the mantra of democracy, but when she comes to examine the concept more closely, she admits being uncertain how majority rule could serve the interests of the poor in a society where the majority is not poor.
The book is an excellent introduction to the myriad, often subtle ways in which ideological hegemony is preserved. What is needed, Roelofs argues, is a “counterhegemonic movement.” Hope lies where vision is broad enough to overcome pluralism. “Environmentalists, consumers and the poor are not simply disadvantaged minorities. They are not demanding integration into the system but a different allocation of resources.”
[23 dec 03]