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.