An Exceptional Must-Read: Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism

The Research Group on Socialism and Democracy

Review by Author Johnny E. Williams

Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003).

Joan Roelofs’s Foundations and Public Policy brings much needed attention to private foundations and their direct and indirect role in protecting and promoting capitalism. According to Roelofs these foundations use their monies to maintain capitalism through “civil society” (i.e., nonprofit organizations), which constructs societal consent without resorting to force. To this end the principal objectives of foundations are to 1) quash disruptive activism during economic decline, 2) provide goods and services for unprofitable markets (e.g., the arts, public television, museums, etc.) and maintain control over grantees’ program content, 3) provide employment for the unemployed and discontented who are dissident and potentially dangerous, 4) fragment dissent through multiculturalism (i.e., identity politics), and 5) promote political change that diverts systemic challenges. Each point is explored using Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony to demonstrate how foundations circuitously exert an excessive amount of influence over intellectuals and institutions shaping culture and governmental policies.

Roelofs does a commendable job of contextualizing the historical origins of foundations and their mission. Her analysis, like Stuart Ewen’s (1996) socio-historical examination of public relations, suggests that at the turn of the 20th century corporations seized the opportunity to transform intellectuals’ “disruptive” notions of class struggle and social classes “into ‘social problems’ and tasks for social scientists” (28). Particular attention is given to documenting how social science intellectuals are channeled into collaboration with foundations advancing the idea that poverty and other social ills are individual problems requiring the intervention of trained professionals. Roelofs contends that this process is facilitated by foundation-sponsored professional organizations (e.g., the Social Science Research Council), which serve as conduits for socializing intellectuals into accepting foundations’ socioeconomic ideologies, directing them to pursue “research supportive of foundations and their source of funds-millionaires and corporations” (33). She convincingly demonstrates this point with a detailed analysis of political science’s transformation into a narrowly behavioral orientation (e.g., measuring attitudes, voting, lobbying, coalition building, and other observable activities). In her synopsis, Roelofs illustrates how this discipline’s rigid adherence to the value-free doctrine diverts scholars’ attention away from exploring how capitalism constructs structures of inequality. Her discussion of this doctrine, however, leaves the reader wanting a more detailed account of its effect on research and social change. As it is, the reader gets only a 3-page snippet of value neutrality’s complex intellectual steering.

Roelofs also stresses foundations’ role in facilitating capitalism’s survival by fragmenting dissent through multiculturalism or “identity politics.” This is where Roelofs descends into the ongoing discourse within “the Left” that characterizes identity politics as a cul-de-sac of ethnic particularism, race consciousness, sexual politics, and radical feminism, preventing the development of a unified class struggle against neo-liberalism. Though Roelofs is correct in asserting that identity politics can sometimes impede multicultural alliances against capitalism, she ignores how the matrices of identity politics may also at times enrich and facilitate class solidarity (e.g., Kelley, 1997). For instance, collective emancipation is a consistent principle of black feminism, which is committed to collective survival, male and female, and is not separatist (Collins, 2000). Her disregard of the positive dimension of identity politics weakens her critique of the foundations’ use of multiculturalism.

Roelofs offers a very timely though brief analysis of how foundations encourage nonprofit organizations or the private realm to think and act “locally and non-ideologically” to discourage public participation in national politics. According to Roelofs, foundations steer religious and higher education institutions into policy positions and practices that limit challenges to capitalism. For example, she argues that foundations encourage such institutions to promote a micro (e.g., service learning, tutoring, building houses, etc.) rather than macro (e.g., political organizing) approach to socioeconomic problems. This theme could have been treated in greater depth. Roelofs also examines how foundation funding of the arts prevents people from developing negative ideas about the political system and/or giving serious consideration to alternative systems (85). I found her discussion in this area interesting but somewhat reductive.

Roelofs also explores the effect of foundation funding on the legal system, but provides only limited insight into this underexamined area. Since she could not readily ascertain from judges how foundations influence their legal thinking, she presents a litany of legal decisions suggesting that foundations use litigation to moderate attempts to secure systemic social change. She then moves into analysis of national and international social change organizations, which she argues are products of foundation funding rather than outgrowths of constituencies. She demonstrates how foundation funding is used within the United States as an instrument of control to steer community or grassroots organizations into projects designed to promote the viability of capitalism. This is consistent with Piven & Cloward’s (1978) theorizing on elite funding and its effect on social change organizations. Including this perspective would strengthen Roelofs’s argument that foundations actively channel grantees’ insurgent threats to capitalism into “normal” politics. Roelofs’s critique of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) suggests that foundations use NGOs to transform intellectual protesters of global neo-liberalism into advocates of capitalism. The book’s critique of NGOs contains useful information on foundations’ machinations in the international, political and economic arena that seriously challenge the reader to think holistically about corporate domination over our lives.

The book’s historiography alone makes it a creative contribution to political sociology and the study of social movements. However, the main value of Roelofs’s study lies in its challenging us to think critically about devising an effective counterhegemonic movement.

Reviewed by Johnny E. Williams
Trinity College
Hartford, Connecticut


Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Conscious- ness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Ewen, Stuart. 1996. PR!: A Social History of Spin. New York: Basic Books.

Kelley, Robin D. G. 1997. “Identity Politics and Class Struggle.” New Politics 6 (Winter): 84-96.

Piven, Frances Fox, & Cloward, Richard. 1978. Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. New York: Vintage Books.

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