The Givers Who Take: Delusions of a Liberal Utopia

Every day that passes us by the wealth and power of the billionaire-class is further consolidated. The gap between rich and poor grows, a process that is umbilically-linked to the immense profits that continue to be amassed by a greedy handful at the expense of the rest of us. Under capitalism the only true givers are the working-class. But as the rich know all too well, this anti-democratic method of misrule is inherently unstable, hence the capitalist takers are compelled to give us back a little. This institutionalized system of take and give is the subject of David Callahan’s just-released book The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age (Knopf, 2017).

Callahan sets himself a big task, which it seems he is not really up to. He notes how critical “scholars like C. Wright Mills worked to gain an understanding of a new ecosystem of power that included major corporations, government, and the military.” Thus Callahan sees his task as being to “reckon with the rise of big philanhtropy – and the givers behind it.” Loosely inspired by The Power Elite (1953), Mills’ classic exposition on the mechanics of class rule, The Givers set out to describe the activities of this “new philanthropic power elite.” The major difference is that while funding from the philanthropic community for studies on what Mills’ referred to as “The Cultural Apparatus” were blocked, Callahan’s own ahistorical boosterism has been well-received.

Hardly a philanthropic outsider, Callahan had — prior to setting up the website Inside Philanthropy — cofounded a think tank called Demos in the late 1990s which received generous funding from the historic big three philanthropic foundation giants, Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie. He waxes lyrical about his hopes for a future overseen by loving givers only because he closes his eyes to any alternative more egalitarian future, and to the seriously problematic history of liberal philanthropy itself. “Even if you worry about inequality, it’s hard not to feel hope as super-empowered, high-minded givers looks to solve problems” – problems that are at root caused by the actions of his billionaire takers.

Over a century ago, Callahan reminds his readers, “John D. Rockefeller’s proposed foundation had been denounced by the U.S. attorney general as ‘an indefinite scheme for perpetuating vast wealth’ that was ‘entirely inconsistent with the public interest.’” At the time, the then germinal Rockefeller Foundation was correctly referred to as a “Trojan horse” in a devious plot by one of America’s most infamous robber barons to undo democracy. Nevertheless, Callahan confidently asserts, “these early criticisms of mega-givers” have now “faded.” “As distrust of robber barons and their monopolies became a distant memory, so too did fears that philanthropy was yet another tool of oligarchical control…”

Callahan acknowledges that huge foundations like those created by Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie “went on to wield huge influence in America and the world.” Likewise he is well aware of the benefits that accrue to the ruling class through their dedicated philanthropy: giving “can be yet another tool to advance partisan goals and class interests,” he says. “In effect, it can be a way of taking.” Bearing these critical statements in mind, it is worrying that he holds so much hope for the future of elite philanthropy, breathlessly pronouncing that his time round “everything is bigger — both the wealth and the clout that comes with it.” “Not only do philanthropists indeed have more power than ever before,” he reiterates, which is not a bad thing, “but that influence is likely to grow far greater in the coming decades.”

This power shift is one of the biggest stories of our time,” Callahan observes, before adding his own proviso that this tale is “a hard one to tell properly,” not least because “Just figuring out what philanthropists are up to is no easy thing.” He explains how “philanthropists often operate subtly, working behind the scenes to set agendas and shape decisions – backing ideas, research, and pilot projects. Even as they emerge as the new social engineers of our time, their fingerprints can be hard to see.” Yet in Callahan’s latest ode to the mega-givers, this lack of democracy is a good thing because:

“The truth is that democracies just aren’t so good at some things – like tackling over-the-horizon threats, for example. … We need people with big plans, a drive to make a difference, and the money and power to do so, even if they sometimes get behind bad ideas.”

By his own accounting he believes mega-philanthropy will continue to grow to subsume all manner of democratic processes, so the best we can apparently hope for is that The Givers will become more accountable. At the same time Callahan is cognizant of the “bigger risk” caused by the acceptance of such elitism which “will further push ordinary Americans to the margins of civic life in an unequal era when so many people already feel shoved aside by elites and the wealth.” Needless to say Callahan finds this disempowering vision of the future “deeply troubling” as his “givers are becoming more powerful while ordinary Americans struggle to get their voices heard at all.” His troubles are, however, a little disingenuous.

Here clued up and eager readers of Callahan’s text, will have noticed that this review has strictly limited itself to a discussion of the books prologue (which can be read online here), as to be completely honest I don’t particularly want to give my hard-earned money to Callahan no matter how much he loves The Givers. This viscerally felt impulse not to give is further strengthened by my possession of Callahan’s previous book on much the same topic, Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America (2010). So in my own small gesture of charitable benevolence to anyone who is planning to read The Givers, I will do you a favour by not detailing the contents of this brand new book, but instead will continue this review of Callahan’s muddled politics by reflecting upon the philanthropic arguments presented in Fortunes of Change.

Devoting elaborate energy in Fortunes of Change to proving that systemic inequality is, and always will be, a fact of life for the majority of American citizens, Callahan, as he does today, still has a few nagging doubts. The “outsized wealth” wielded by rich liberals — many of whom “aren’t in the business of dismantling their class privileges” — “is bad for representative democracy,” he correctly observes. “Whatever our ideology,” we should be united in recognizing that the “swelling ranks of the liberal rich pose their own special threat to democracy” when these “rich ‘super-citizens’ push into every last corner of America’s civic space and drown out the voices of ordinary Americans.” (p.9) But as Callahan accepts that capitalism and inequality are the only conceivable game in town, this is the price the public must pay for the philanthropic “help” provided by ruling liberal elites.

As one might expect, Callahan’s liberalism is as simple-minded as it is contradictory. On the one hand he concludes: “The left’s traditional prism of class politics… is no longer operative. The world has changed, and it is silly to pretend that it hasn’t.” (p.273) Then just a few pages later he points to a dismayed hedge fund manager, who had been a major Obama fund-raiser, who reportedly said: “I’m surprised that Obama is turning out to be so left-wing. He’s a real class warrior.” (p.277) Evidently many elites still view society through the “prism of class politics”, even if in distorted form. If anything, Obama was always a determined warrior, fighting on behalf of the ruling-class – despite all the misleading liberal rhetoric of hope and change.

Callahan’s political muddling on the history of philanthropy is exemplified by his comments on Bill Gates’s “early ventures into large-scale charity” which he believes “followed the model established by John D. Rockefeller – namely, to avoid politics and throw vast resources into solving big problems.” (p.160) By any account this statement is nonsensical. The immense philanthropic resources marshalled by the numerous Rockefeller Foundations (as well as the Gates Foundation in its wake) have always well-served elite interests in undermining all manner of progressive forces of social change. Not wanting to take Callahan’s limelight, but here I would like to give a little plug to my own book, Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017) which synthesizes much of the critical literature on this subject.

Talking specifically about the legacy of the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, Callahan glowingly recounts how “The wealthy left-wing heirs of the sixties generation built a funding machine that has transformed activism in the United States, nurturing a vast universe of social change groups that might not otherwise exist.” Not wanting to be outdone by their forerunners he explains that now “an even wealthier generation of liberal heirs – determined to ‘leverage privilege’ – is setting out to do much the same thing” but “on a scale that dwarfs anything see so far.” Again despite his excitement at such prospects, he still finds a few words to acknowledge that there are “rich ironies at play.”

“In the name of redistributing wealth and power, a tiny group of the most privileged members of U.S. society will help decide which social justice groups – and causes – will thrive in the next half century and which will wither.” (p.266)

Nevertheless he feels obliged to add: “To some degree, of course, none of this can be helped – not given the current nature of our economic system.” (p.267) So as far as Callahan is concerned, it is acceptable that anti-democratic elites, whose first and foremost priority is to a capitalist economic system premised upon inequality, should have the ability to determine which organizations will flourish (with funding) and which will wither (without funding). Holding out no hope for a socialist alternative, Callahan condescendingly explains that “realistically, it is neither possible nor desirable to create total economic equality.” So while he thinks it realistic that poverty continue to be imposed upon the poor majority by an elite minority, he is emphatic: “Egalitarianism cannot be imposed on the rich. Instead… the upper class must uphold this spirit voluntarily.” (p.290)

Callahan’s unwavering faith in liberalism necessarily means that he still maintains high hopes for the politics of the Democratic Party. Here he even believes that the interests of big business are actually helping move the party in a more progressive direction! “Far from corrupting the Democratic Party, then, some wealthy liberal donors are actually doing the exact opposite: they are helping the party find its moral backbone.” (p.101) In this instance Callahan leans upon the individual example of Tim Gill, a liberal activist who went on back the spineless Hillary Clinton against the left-leaning alternative Bernie Sanders, thereby making his own unique contribution to ensuring the un-electability of the Democrats.

Proud of his elitism, Callahan aims to correct non-liberal critics writing: “ ’Corporate Democrats’ and special interests – reliable culprits in the left’s narrative about stymied reform – are only part of the problem.” (p.31) Thus according to Callahan, the real “obstacle to progressive ambitions” are the “less educated white voters of modest means”. As proof of this problem he draws his readers’ attention to Thomas Frank’s already discredited New York Times best-seller What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004). The reactionary conclusions of Frank’s book were of course quickly debunked by political scientist Larry Bartels, who moved beyond wild speculations and actually examined the voting records of Callahan and Frank’s culprit, the working-class. Thus writing in 2005 – as covered in The Nation — Bartels concluded:

“Working-class whites have not become more Republican in their presidential voting behavior. They have become less Democratic in their party identification over the past forty years, but at a considerably slower rate than middle- and upper-income whites… Insofar as the data presented here suggest anything about how to appeal to working-class whites, they suggest that bread-and-butter economic issues are likely to be more potent than social issues. At least, that has been the case over the past 20 years, and especially in 2004.”

Bartels conclusion is particularly pertinent as far as challenging Callahan’s narrative of future change is concerned, as Callahan himself admits: “although rich donors do tend to push the Democrats rightward on economic policy, they often push the party to the left on social issues.” (pp.100-1) This would imply that rich liberal donors are precisely the problem, not the solution, because, as Bartels makes clear, it is economic policies which play a decisive role in determining the voting patterns of the working class. Nevertheless, later in Fortunes of Change Callahan does dwell briefly upon the findings of Bartels subsequent and more detailed study of American politics.

“Things have become so bad that ‘the preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent impact on the behaviour of their elected officials.’ Or at least that is a conclusion of Unequal Democracy, the authoritative study of politics in the new Gilded Age by the political scientist Larry Bartels.” (p.278)

This observation leads Callahan to the illogical conclusions that: “The influx of wealthy liberals into politics may serve to mitigate the downsides of such quasi-plutocratic rule…” (p.278) Yet, as you may have guessed, the findings of Bartels book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2009) did not describe how the American public were holding out for the aid of rich economically conservative liberals. In fact what Bartels found was “an astonishing level of public support for what would have to be a very radical program of social transformation,” including not least the outlawing of inherited wealth.

Such a progressive and transformative program as outlined by Bartels was certainly on the cusp of coming to fruition during the massive upheavals that accompanied the growth in the civil rights movement during the 1960s. It is for this reason that liberal philanthropists saw fit to intervene to head-off such emancipatory threats to their class privileges. Callahan however touches on this issue to simply celebrate the fact that the civil rights movement “attracted serious liberal money starting the early 1960s.” On this point he references and selectively paraphrases the seminal critical research that was undertaken by William Domhoff in his book Fat Cats and Democrats: The Role of the Big Rich in the Party of the Common Man (1972). But what Domhoff makes abundantly clear, and what Callahan doggedly ignores, is that this massive increase in liberal funding for civil rights activism came precisely in response to a surge in civil rights militancy from 1960 onwards – a newfound radicalism that was characterised by the rapid spread of student sit-ins and then Freedom Rides that sought to break segregation in buses and bus terminals.

As Domhoff writes: “It was into this ferment that the liberals and their foundations hastily entered with the promise of lots of money if the students [who had just formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] would only turn their energies to a voter-registration drive.” (p.126) Liberal support coordinated by America’s most powerful liberals was always considered problematic by leading civil rights activists. Hence Domhoff explains how early offers of funding for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “started a controversy… that almost split the group asunder.” The money provided by liberal foundations “as always, had strings attached to it. They were attempting to define the limits of acceptable civil rights activity.” (p.127) So when SNCC made the not uncontested “decision to push into voter registration, Northern liberal money came raining down.” “As usual, the concern appeared to be as much in moderating the new activists as it was in supporting them.” (p.128) More significantly through, Domhoff also explains that by 1964, amid concerns about the students more radical approach to social change, most wealthy liberals “withdrew their personal financial support from SNCC… It was the beginning of the end for SNCC.” (pp.134-5) As far as Callahan is concerned, this history is irrelevant.  Nevertheless, later in Fortunes of Change Callahan observes:

“In his 1972 book Fat Cats and Democrats, an early look at the role of big money in the Democratic Party, the leftist academic William Domhoff wrote that politics is in the ‘hand of the grasping rich, whether of a halfway humane or a reactionary hue.’ Like C. Wright Mills before him, Domhoff didn’t see much difference between Democrats and Republicans, lumping them all into the ‘Property Party.’” (p.164)

Callahan then reluctantly concedes: “This critique if basically right: there is no real debate in the upper classes about capitalism versus something else, and most of the liberal rich described in this book would probably be on the right in Europe.” But he then goes on to belittle Domhoff’s serious critique of the Democrats adding: “But if the differences among the wealthy might seem trivial to a Marxist, the battle between reactionaries and the ‘halfway humane’ is actually a big deal in the U.S. context.” (pp.164-5) This conclusion is hardly surprising, as Callahan concludes that the only battle worth fighting for is for the election of the nicer (more liberal) representatives of the billionaire class. Callahan does not acknowledge the existence of the class war that is being waged upon the majority by his elite friends, so needless to say he discounts the need to build a genuine and alternative democratic party funded by the working-class to fight for the interests of the working-class. This fighting alternative which is a “big deal” was as necessary in 1972 as it is now. Thus after Domhoff made the aforementioned comments about the dead-end politics of the grasping rich, Domhoff continued:

“Even the Democratic Party, the wondrous political organization sometimes unjustly celebrated as the party of the common man, is little more than an unending series of broken promises. To say that it is the best Americans can do anytime soon … is hardly encouraging, for that means wealth and income will remain concentrated to an incredible degree in the hands of the very rich, the tax system will remain regressive and unfair to the struggling wage earner, and the costs of an anaemic welfare state will rest on the shoulders of middle Americans.” (pp.175-6)

This is exactly why Marxists (like Socialist Alternative in America) provided critical support for Bernie Sanders in his fight for the presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton, while at the same time highlighting the need to build an independent party of the working-class. A good case has already been made that the reactionary politics of Donald Trump were only able to come to the fore because the working-class were repulsed by discredited right-wing politics of the Democrats, best exemplified by Hillary Clinton and her corporate benefactors. Sanders was thus presented with a unique opportunity to break with the Democrats. He had the opportunity to stand as an independent, and in doing so Sanders could have built upon the colossal financial support that his campaign had already received from ordinary, not wealthy, citizens. That Sanders did not break with the Democrats was a costly mistake. But it also provided his supporters with an important lesson: the Democratic Party would rather lose an election than win with a socialist leader. Millions of disillusioned Americans who are now desperately seeking a progressive alternative to politicians that are bought and paid for by the big rich; and contrary to Callahan’s uninformed demands, millions of working-class citizens are well aware that the influx of more liberal billionaires into politics will not “mitigate the downsides of such quasi-plutocratic rule” in America.

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).