Of Ideology and Philanthropy

In this column (on corporate power), Michael Barker examines the anti-democratic nature of liberal philanthropy. As he notes, many of the organisations that regularly challenge the legitimacy of corporate power are in fact often themselves funded by corporate donors.
December 13, 2011
Ceasefire Magazine


Massive not-for-profit corporations, like the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations, created by the world’s leading capitalists, have “gone to great lengths to rationalise the contradiction between democratic principles and elite dominance.” Seen through the eyes of their executives, democracy only functions when it is run by the few for the many.[1]

Education thus takes a key place in the successful promotion of elite governance both on domestic and international planes of action; and although not well known, Edward Berman, professor emeritus at the University of Louisville, has written an important book that examines just this subject.

By briefly reviewing Berman’s study The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy: The Ideology of Philanthropy (State University of New York Press, 1983), this article aims to publicise his vitally important, though oft neglected, ideas on the anti-democratic nature of liberal philanthropy.

While the history of elite governance is long and troublesome, in Berman’s book we are invited to study the honing of such management strategies from the early twentieth century onwards. Today of course the Gates Foundation is the most financially powerful philanthropic body in the world, but until its relatively late arrival on the scene, the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations (the “big three”) had dominated the philanthropic arena.

Indeed, exporting the ideology of the capitalist state has been a key function of these foundations, a duty of care that fell securely on their shoulders as they “represented one of the few sources of unencumbered ‘risk’ capital available during the period from 1945 to 1975.”[2]

As Berman acknowledges, the interest shown by these foundations in creating and financing “various educational configurations both at home and abroad cannot be separated from their attempts to evolve a stable domestic polity and a world order amenable to their interests and the strengthening of international capitalism.” Their simultaneous promotion of elite governance and massive levels of worker exploitation consequently required the forging of a “liberal consensus” among the ruling class and their allied functionaries, which would actively pre-empt radical structural alternatives, and legitimise capitalism – by fostering public acquiesence to elite priorities.

To successfully facilitate the building of this consensus, the creation of right-thinking educational institutions was essential in generating a “worldwide network of elites whose approach to governance and change would be efficient, professional, moderate, incremental, and non-threatening to the class interests of those who, like Messrs, Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller, had established the foundations.”

Far-sighted elites evidently recognised the popularity of alternatives to capitalism, so in turn advocated progressive reforms which attempted to find the  “middle ground between the extremes of oligopoly on the one hand and socialism on the other, while encouraging an atmosphere congenial to increased levels of productivity.”[3]

This is not to say that the individuals who launched foundation “education” programs during the Progressive Era were not seriously concerned with improving the lot of the poor and downtrodden: just that many of these people with “a deep and abiding concern for the plight of the poor” failed to tackle the root cause of injustice, that is, industrial capitalism.