No. 38, December 2004
New Study on the Role of US Foundations
On occasion, the most striking evidence of power and influence is the invisibility of its source. Since the early twentieth century, a number of foundations have been set up in the United States by the wealthy — the Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Bill Gates foundations are prominent examples. A new study by American political scientist Joan Roelofs (Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, State University of New York Press, 2003) provides an outline of the US foundations' activities, and an analysis of their role.
The range of their interventions is sweeping (including education, health, social services, the media, arts and culture, research, public interest litigation and social movements); their role in many cases crucial. Yet political scientists and sociologists have written very little on the topic. Roelofs notes that for twenty years she has been trying "to persuade other political scientists that a realistic accounting of the political world must acknowledge the activities of foundations and their grantees", but with little success. "They are vastly influential institutions, yet their power is understated by most researchers and by the foundations themselves. Through their 'gatekeeper' and funding roles, they discourage criticism of themselves and the organizations they sponsor, and they marginalize critical studies."
Roelofs argues that foundations play an important role in maintaining the social-political hegemony of the ruling classes. For the ruling classes do not rule by guns and laws alone. Rather, they need to be able to do so without the constant resort to force. So, she argues, they manufacture the consent of the ruled through the activities of a broad range of institutions, activities and persons (not necessarily themselves members of the ruling class) who disseminate the ideology of the ruling class as if it were merely common sense. While dissent from ruling class ideas is labeled 'extremism' and is isolated, individual dissenters may be welcomed and transformed. Indeed, ruling class hegemony is more durable if it is not rigid and narrow, but is able dynamically to incorporate emergent trends.1
This process is attempted not only at the national level but at the international level as well. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US National Security Adviser and still a preeminent figure in the US national security establishment, has himself claimed the following:
A study of the political significance of the activities of US foundations is of obvious interest to people in India, since grants from foreign funders to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and academics here are now pervasive. The recent controversy over the funding of the World Social Forum, held in Mumbai, brought this issue into even sharper focus.
foundations: beginnings, size, scope
The activities of this 'third sector' — that is, neither government nor business for profit — are sizeable in the US economy. In 1998, there were 1.23 million 'independent sector' organisations (including prominently hospitals and universities) in the US. The 'independent sector' had revenues of $665 billion in 1997 and about 11 million employees. Roelofs argues that this 'third sector' serves as a protective layer for capitalism in various ways: nonprofit organisations pick up some of the economic slack caused by industrial decline; they provide some of the goods and services (from homeless shelters to high culture) that the market cannot, thus helping to patch up the failures of capitalism; they co-opt troublesome and alienated elements who might otherwise become threats to the system, often providing them interesting jobs with a sense of social purpose; they help fragment people's movements into a number of separate 'identity' movements of minorities (even the poor are treated as a 'minority'), movements which are focussed on academic activities and litigation; and finally, in order to head off 'disruptive' or revolutionary movements, they at times promote political change within the existing ruling class frame.
While only about 20 per cent of the revenues of the 'third sector' came from donations,2 Roelofs argues that foundations are its planning and coordinating arms. The 50,000 grant-making foundations in the US have assets of about $450 billion and spent about $27.6 billion in 2000 towards education, health, human services, arts and culture, and public benefit' (including civil rights and social action, community improvement, philanthropy and voluntarism, and public affairs). Among the largest in assets are the Gates Foundation ($21 billion), the Lilly Endowment ($16 billion), and the Ford Foundation ($15 billion).
Ideology and information
Entire academic disciplines
are reconstructed for this purpose. Ford helped transform the discipline
of political science in a behavioral
direction — the 'scientific' study of observable human political
behaviour, away from phenomena that are not directly observable, such
and their interests. Between 1951 and 1957, Ford's Behavioral Sciences
Division spent $23 million, marginalizing those political scientists
who had different understandings, whether traditional or Marxist. During
the 1950s and 1960s "the Ford complex provided 90 per cent of the
money channeled to political science by American philanthropic institutions." Roelofs
cites specific examples of how academics learn how to be accepted in
the community and continue to receive research grants.
The CIA also keeps close contact with those studying international relations at centers/institutes set up on the advice of foundations by Harvard, Columbia, MIT, and other leading universities. Those who do not cooperate with the US government are cut off from foundation funds as well: The independent and highly respected Institute of Hispanic-American and Luso-Brazilian Studies at Stanford was destroyed in order to obtain Ford money.
The foundations' reach is global. Not only do future leaders of the third world receive their training at American universities with foundation-supported fellowships, but foundations support social science departments at universities throughout the world. Ford established a National School of Law and Administration in the Congo in 1961. By 1968, the 400 odd graduates of the school made up an elite corps of civil servants holding important administrative and judicial posts throughout the Congo.
Between 1919 and 1940, Rockefeller funding (close to $5 million) provided "the mainstay of the support that social science received" in Britain. The London School of Economics and other stellar institutes in London, Geneva, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Netherlands, etc. "By the 1950s, the 'Americanization' of political science was well underway in most of the world."
'Identity politics': Ideologies are promoted that counter the concept of unity among the toiling and oppressed. In the late 1960s the US ruling classes were disturbed by signs of unity among anti-establishment organisations of various oppressed sections (for example, the Black Berets, a militant Chicano group in New Mexico, began meeting with Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the American Indian Movement and expressing solidarity with Cuba). Thus began the foundation-supported emergence of the distinct 'identity politics' of each socially oppressed section. Beginning with early 1970s Ford began to fund women's studies too, a major area for it today.
The 'identity politics' of individual groups, severed from the frame of a broader liberation of all the oppressed, can serve the ruling classes well. For instance, the US military is providing increasing opportunities to women and minorities — in the maintenance of US imperialism, including the killing of women and oppressed peoples in different countries. Beyond the splintering effect, foundation initiatives helped transform radical movements into professional-led scholarly or bureaucratic organizations.
Think tanks, media: By funding both sides of a debate, foundations can ensure that the debate remains in the ruling class frame. Brookings Institution is considered the chief 'liberal' think tank, and the American Enterprise Institute a leading right wing one. Both receive Ford grants. The Economic Policy Institute, promoted by foundations (including Ford) since 1986 has provided labour unions with research inputs, helping them, for example, oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Ford also funded the pro-NAFTA Institute for International Economics, as well as pro-NAFTA forums (including an alliance of 100 Latino organizations and elected officials).
The media are a further link in the chain. A range of magazines from the right to the left (the latter including The Nation, Mother Jones, The Progressive, and In These Times) have received foundation funding. So have the Institute for Alternative Journalism, public broadcasting, databases, and alternative on-line news services such as OneWorld Network.
Foundations not only shape the way the system is viewed, but also try to patch some embarrassing tears in its fabric. Donations to state and local governments have helped bring about reforms in several fields. "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that foundations have been the source of almost all innovations in education (private as well as public)", says Roelofs. Funding in the arts and cultural activities have ensured a richness that the market alone may not have delivered, and kept artists, writers and musicians away from dangerous politics. (A detailed study of the CIA's use of foundations in this regard is presented in Frances Stonor Saunders' Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, 1999.)
Some of the cultural funds flow abroad, too, with predictable results. The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) was formed in the 1960s, and staged plays that explored the United States's exploitation of the Philippines. With Ford funding, "PETA has passed from what it terms 'the theater of confrontation' to 'the theater of empowerment', which is how PETA's Women's Theater Program evolved". Now, it is reported, they tour the country with plays about domestic violence and reproductive health, themes which by themselves do not worry the Philippines or US ruling classes.
Foundations' intervention in social movements
Among the most significant mass movements in the US was the one against racial oppression. Between the 1920s and 1940s the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) had taken up, against heavy odds and in the face of repression, the question of racial discrimination. As a result it had won a significant, loyal black following, alarming the powers that be. As a direct counter, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) — which had long played an important role in restraining black militancy — received Ford funding in the 1950s, and the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund (LDEF) was set up.
Later, in the 1960s, as an upsurge began among blacks and other minorities, foundations multiplied public litigation organisations: Roelofs lists 23 created or vitally sustained by Ford Foundation between 1967 and 1975. In 1970 alone foundations channeled $15.6 million to the right type of black organisations. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference at first received funds, but when Martin Luther King Jr took it on a more militant path, emphasised the common interests of all the poor (black and white), and opposed the Vietnam war, that funding declined. After his assassination his memory was promptly sanitised by the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change established in Atlanta with foundation and corporate funds.
The US ruling class was alarmed by the slogan of 'black power', first used by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the 1960s. The Ford and Rockefeller foundations responded by creating the National Urban Coalition (NUC) to transform 'black power' into 'black capitalism'. Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was named a Ford Foundation fellow, and he became a board member of the NUC. NUC and CORE supported community development corporations (CDCs) to establish small businesses and industries in depressed areas. Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York had witnessed the radical Mobilization For Youth, the community action movement, and a 1964 uprising against police atrocities. Ford's answer was the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC), which promoted small businesses in the area. BSRC director Franklin Thomas later became the first black president of Ford Foundation. Corporations and foundations invest millions in the CDCs, which have contributed to ghetto pacification and the development of moderate leadership. However, they have failed — even in boom times — to make much of a dent in persistent poverty.
In 1952 Ford established the Fund for the Republic, which litigated for civil liberties during the dark days of McCarthy. But the victories in such litigation came after 1954, by which time CPUSA and the Progressive Party had been comprehensively smashed. Even as it funded civil liberties work, Ford Foundation suggested to the CIA that it collaborate with the New York City and other police departments in intelligence operations.
Roelofs points out that the actual social benefit of public interest litigation has been dubious at best, and that the US suffers high rates of incarceration, poor prison conditions and liberal use of the death penalty. But "One foundation objective, to channel discontent into harmless waters, seems to have worked. The energies of protesters and radical leaders have been expended in litigation campaigns for rights. An eminent legal scholar, Arthur S. Miller, claims that this is precisely the function of judicial activism: 'By helping to siphon off discontent and channel it into innocuous forms, the Court enables that [ruling] class to remain on top while giving up only the barest minimum necessary to quell disastrous social disorder'".
As independent mass organisations sprang up on various issues — Central America solidarity groups, antiwar groups, environmental groups, minority groups — foundations sponsored parallel organisations — Americas Watch; peace groups (by 1984, foundations contributed one-third of the peace movement's income); 'sustainable development' organisations; and legal defence funds for various minorities. In 1969, McGeorge Bundy, then president of Ford Foundation, was asked by a congressional hearing on foundations why Ford supported 'radical' organizations. He replied:
Some of the most prominent international organisations, such as Human Rights Watch (with its affiliates Americas Watch, Asia Watch, and similar groups) receive foundation funding. So do various 'alternative' summits — such as the 'Global Forum' adjunct to the UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio and The Other Economic Summit (TOES) to the G-7 (richest nations' annual meeting). As readers of Aspects are aware, the latest addition to the list is the World Social Forum.
The CIA uses foundations and organisations as 'pass throughs' for its international operations. A well-known case was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, whose mission was to try to discredit Marxism, especially among European intellectuals. In 1967, there was a brief period of indignation after these transactions became public:
Foundations, of course, are not
unique to the US. In Germany, foundations are linked to leading political
parties — the Konrad Adenauer foundation
(Christian Democrats), the Friedrich Ebert foundation (Social Democrats),
and the Heinrich Boll foundation (Greens). Other prominent foundations
include Rights and Democracy (Canada), the Westminster Foundation for
Democracy (U.K.), and European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity. Moreover,
foundations are far from being the only source of funds for non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) around the world. Both direct corporate donations
and government funds are significant. The National Endowment for Democracy,
set up by US Congress, was modeled on the private foundations; it funds
subsidiaries in promoting private enterprise, labour solidarity, and
so on. The UK has its official aid arm Department for International Development
Ford's work in Indonesia was a major example of foundation collaboration with US government plans, and one replicated elsewhere. Ford Foundation worked through MIT, Cornell, Berkeley and finally Harvard to train Indonesian officials as modern administrators working under US tutelage. It established a US-type economics programme at an Indonesian university and trained faculty at the US universities to run the Indonesian programme. High-level Indonesian officers were trained in the US, learning counter-insurgency skills from the US military, and business and public administration at Harvard and Syracuse universities. Students in all of Indonesia's elite universities had been given paramilitary training by the Army in a program for a time advised by a ROTC colonel on leave from Berkeley. All this helped lay the groundwork for the 1965 coup in which the legitimate government was ousted and over 500,000 communists and their sympathisers were butchered.
Latin America has witnessed a number of insurgencies — Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, and many others. "The NGOs appeared by the thousands in the last three decades of the twentieth century. Some promoted small-scale economic development, as in microcredit or aid to the 'informal economy', while others managed health clinics or financed home ownership in shantytowns. Human rights NGOs were extensive, sending the message that neither women's equality nor police due process required radical transformation. 'These humanitarian NGOs, it should be noted, were careful not to denounce the role of the US and European complicity with the local perpetrators of human rights violations.' The foundation-created organization, Americas Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Americas), did not relate US-supported militarism (including death squads) to abuses in Latin America. It found the chief problem to be 'a lack of respect for human rights'." Says Roelofs,
The North American Congress on Latin America, once critical of NGOs, has been transformed and is itself now heavily funded by Ford Foundation. Likewise, the Latin American research institutes no longer criticize imperialism or discuss dependency theory. 'Identity politics', targeting patriarchy in the household, family violence instead of State violence, is the new fashion.
In South Africa, the African National Congress professed socialist principles, pursued a path of armed struggle, and included the South African Communist Party in its fold. The ANC's stated goal was for the land and resources to revert to the people. South Africa was rich not only in gold and diamonds, but more importantly chromium and ferrochrome, manganese and ferromanganese, platinum and vanadium. Moreover, developments here would have a broader impact on Africa.
In 1978 the Rockefeller Foundation convened a Study Commission on US Policy towards Southern Africa, chaired by the Ford Foundation president. The Commission mapped out a path for gradual transition to majority rule. US private organisations were urged to "support organizations inside South Africa working for change, assist the development of black leadership, and promote black welfare". (emphasis added) Ford also aided public interest law firms, black trade unions, the South African Council of Churches, scholarships for blacks to become lawyers, etc. When apartheid finally was brought to a negotiated end, a new leadership was waiting in the wings within and outside the ANC.
Well before the collapse of the professedly communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, MacArthur, Bradley, McKnight, Mott, Mellon and Soros foundations supported East European scholars, universities and institutes. Systematic efforts were made to expand relations with the intellectual elite of these countries over the course of decades. Private donors and the US government funded groups such as the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland aimed at overthrowing the regimes there.
This pattern of informal and formal cooperation continued during the next phase — creating a new hegemonic ideology and elite. It included assistance for universities (a new Central European University was set up from scratch), creation of new political parties, 'training programmes' for new parliamentarians, new media institutions (independent press centres, training of journalists, supplies and equipment for radio and TV stations, libraries and electronic databases). Between 1989 and 1994, private foundations spent $450 million in Eastern Europe. Among the recipients were important officials and advisers in various countries. By 1995, there were 29,000 NGOs in the Czech Republic, 20,000 in Poland, and similar numbers in other countries. "They were almost entirely supported by foreign corporations, foundations, governments, political parties and international institutions such as the European Union and the World Bank."
George Soros is perhaps the single most significant private funder to the region. Soros foundations can be found in 34 countries around the globe, 26 of them in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. The recent 'revolution' in Georgia was backed among others by Soros (see Jacob Levich, "When NGOs Attack: Implications of the Coup in Georgia", www.counterpunch.com, 6/12/03). Soros, the NED and other western funding agencies have a hand in the current crisis in Ukraine (see "US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev", Ian Traynor, 26/11/04, The Guardian; "Western aggression: How the US and Britain are intervening in Ukraine’s elections", John Laughland, The Spectator, 5/11/04, globalresearch.ca/articles/LAU411A.html; "IMF Sponsored 'Democracy' in The Ukraine", Michel Chossudovsky, 28/11/04, globalresearch.ca/articles/CHO411D.html)
Political parties are directly funded, often in contravention of local laws. The US's National Endowment for Democracy funded the organisations that led the overthrow of the Czechoslovakian communist government. In the words of US Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer, "I'm open about supporting the opposition parties, including getting money for them from the National Endowment for Democracy. I think we should be proud of it."
All this hectic funding activity has accompanied and facilitated the vast economic changes being carried out in the region: massive privatisations and mass impoverishment.
A significant study
While Roelofs establishes the importance of foundations, we should not lose sight of or understate the role of other instruments of the ruling classes, in particular their principal instrument, the State. Many of the activities performed by the foundations are also directly carried out by the State itself. The US State actively co-opts elements of the oppressed and exploited — witness the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' attempt to tame the civil rights movement through both direct contact with the leadership and significant welfare and legislative measures. The State itself funds NGOs around the world, through official bodies such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (although no doubt the credibility of 'independent' foundations is greater than such official bodies). The State also skillfully distorts slogans of popular movements to its own ends, using the banners of 'human rights', 'women's liberation', and 'defence of minorities' as justifications for the imperialist invasion of Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan (and perhaps Sudan as well in the future).
Moreover, the environment for the operation of foundations and foundation-sponsored NGOs is not generated by the foundations themselves, but is created by coercive State action, both at home and abroad. At home, despite the democratic pretensions of the United States, its ruling classes have not hesitated to employ selective fierce repression on those who pose even a distant threat to the system. Infiltration, agents provocateurs, harassment, arrests, and even murder have been used against a range of organisations. The CPUSA in the McCarthy period, and the cores of several organisations and movements in the late 1960s-early 1970s were crushed primarily with such methods. Indeed, repression on such organisations helps make foundation-sponsored, 'safe' activity more attractive.
Abroad, coups have been executed, insurgencies crushed, repressive regimes bolstered, and intransigent nations invaded by imperialist military and intelligence agencies or their underlings. It was the military coup which overthrew Allende in 1973 that laid the ground for foundation funding of Chilean intellectuals; similarly, Ford's work in Indonesia was an accompaniment to the main event, ie, the military coup that overthrew Sukarno. The relation between the imperialist states and client regimes rests principally not on ideological hegemony, but on the political domination of the latter by the former; that domination is in turn based on their economic and military status as imperialist countries. Thus the environment for foundation intervention in Eastern Europe and the third world depends largely on the character of the regimes in those countries.
Finally, the effectiveness of foundation-sponsored (or any other co-opting, or diversionary) activity in diverting or pacifying restive sections depends to a great extent on the nature of the political economy. In a society where there is quite a bit of cream to go around, that is, in an imperialist society during periods of prosperity, it is easier for the ruling classes to disseminate their ideology, isolate dissenting elements and win over the rest. Cracks emerge, however, even in imperialist societies during periods of depression: radical movements in the US flourished during the 1930s but suffered during the great post-war boom. In a society like India, where the vast majority must struggle for minimum needs, ruling class hegemony is even more fragile. That is not to imply that foundation-sponsored outfits such as NGOs can be treated lightly in societies such as ours, but there is greater scope to overcome the hurdles they place in the way of people's consciousness and movements.
For observers of the Indian political scene, the relevance of Roelofs' work is obvious. Much of what she writes could apply with little change to the vast proliferation of NGOs here (discussed in Aspects no. 35), many of them funded by US foundations. Public interest litigation, human rights organisations, women's studies, dalit studies, and adivasi organisations have received substantial funding, with results along the same lines as in the US.
1. Roelofs' conceptual framework, as she states, is based on the work of the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci. (back)
2. The remaining came largely from fees and Government grants. (back)
All material © copyright 2015 by Research Unit for Political Economy