By Stephen Gowans
A number of articles published here and elsewhere have been critical of progressives who have become entangled with foundations sponsored by corporations, imperialist governments and wealthy individuals. These progressives have been criticized by some for being willing to accept foundation support and by others for presenting themselves and other foundation-connected leftists as “independent” left voices. The first group of critics complains that progressives undermine their credibility by taking foundation grants and accepting foundation positions or unjustifiably enhance the credibility of the foundations they take money and jobs from. This group has no basic disagreement with the political positions of the foundation-connected progressives. The criticism of the second group, on the other hand, originates in disagreement over fundamental political positions. It defines the political position of foundation-connected progressives as pro-imperialist, not in intentions but in its effects, and argues that it is this basic political position which makes these progressives attractive to foundations. They appear to be credibly progressive – even radical – but in fact promote views that pose no real threat to corporate domination and indeed even buttress the ideological foundations of that domination. They are independent in the sense that they are not told to what to do or say, but their views considerably overlap in important ways those of their foundation sponsors.
The first group of critics argues that progressives should reject connections to corporate and government-controlled foundations, or, alternatively, should take the money but scrupulously refuse to self-censor, even if it means losing funding. The point of this article is to argue that were progressives to follow this advice, little of consequence would change.
The most significant role foundations play, is not in encouraging progressives to self-censor, either to guarantee ongoing funding or to secure funding for the first time (although this doubtlessly happens), but to funnel money to progressives who promote views that are no threat to continued ruling class domination and reinforce certain views and values that discourage leftists from emulating or supporting militant movements or parties, at home and abroad. By providing these progressives with a platform to reach a large part of the progressive community, the corporate community, through its foundations, puts these left intellectuals in a position to define for the progressive community a common sense that is at worst innocuous to the interests of foundation sponsors and more often indirectly conducive to those interests. More militant voices, whose views are uncompromisingly antagonistic to those of the foundations’ sponsors, are denied funding, and dwell, as a consequence, along the margins, where their ability to set the agenda is severely limited. This is a long-standing ruling class strategy: give the moderates a voice and marginalize the militants. If the militants can’t be marginalized, suppress them.
What would happen if those who self-censored refused to do so any longer, and renounced their ties to foundations, as the first set of critics prescribes? The same foundation money would flow to someone else who expressed the same self-censored views, only this time without the need of self-censorship. Wolfe’s quip applies not only to journalists but to intellectuals generally. “You cannot hope to bribe and twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”
There is no shortage of people who lean to the left who needn’t be bribed through the promise of foundation grants or implicit threats of their withdrawal to express views that are pleasing to corporate foundation sponsors – views that implicitly accept as desirable certain societal arrangements or strategies for the left to follow that allow the corporate rich to maintain their dominance and further their goals. It’s wrong to suggest that Stephen Zunes has been bought or sold out because he has accepted a position with a foundation controlled by former Michael Milken right hand man Peter Ackerman. Zunes is saying what he would have said all along, even if he hadn’t forged foundation ties. That Zunes has found a community of interest with Ackerman, who is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and head of Freedom House, simply reveals how mildly left Zunes’ views really are.
Foundation-friendly leftist views hold that the world can be changed without taking power; that hierarchical political organizations of the type that have proved successful in class and national liberation struggles of the past are undesirable and should be set aside in favor of loose, decentralized, (and therefore ineffective) movements; that the highest task for progressives is the extension of the democratic project, defined without reference to class; and that this goal should be achieved by a loose coalition of grassroots groups practicing non-violent direct action. These views are, of course, far more pleasing to the dominant class than the view that says power should be seized and held onto to accomplish concrete anti-capitalist goals (freedom from exploitation or neo-colonial domination) and that the route to power lies in the same hierarchical, disciplined organizational forms that have proved successful in the past. Z-Net style progressives are pleasing to the ruling class because they promote a strategy for the left that has no chance of success, and is built around the pursuit of nebulous goals. To conserve the status quo, all you have to do is make sure this brand of leftism receives a large “advertising” budget, to maintain the “brand’s” dominant share position in the left community. I’m borrowing marketing terminology, but it fits well. Coke has more customers than RC Cola because it has a much large advertising and promotion budget. Foundation funding is like an advertising budget that allows the foundations’ sponsors to push their preferred brand (in this case, a brand of leftism) to the fore.
Telling progressives, therefore, that they’re being manipulated by foundations is pointless and at odds with reality. Many progressives with foundation ties are not being manipulated, bribed or bought. They point out correctly that there are no strings attached to the money they receive, they say what they want to say without interference, and they’ve secured a platform they would not otherwise have to advance views they strongly believe in. To these progressives, it is the foundations that are being used, not themselves. Journalists say the same: Editors don’t tell me what to write. But, then, editors don’t have to tell journalists who implicitly accept capitalist goals and values what to say. Likewise, foundations don’t need to use the threat of withdrawing support to left intellectuals. Many left intellectuals have, without the spur of stick or carrot, adopted views that are already, in the view of foundation sponsors, desirable for a leftwing opposition to hold.
The problem, then, is much larger than one of individuals’ relations to foundations. It is a problem of a class comprised of a tiny minority, which, by virtue of owning the major productive resources, has a virtual monopoly on resources that allow it to define the common sense of the age, not only broadly, but within the left community as well, by giving a platform to those who hold desirable views. The same problem surfaces in the media, where the parallel individualist solution of importuning journalists to stop self-censoring or give up their jobs as journalists, has obvious weaknesses. There is also an obvious weakness in FAIR’s strategy of asking the mass media to forget they’re owned and controlled by corporate wealth that has an interest in propagating certain views and values.
To define the common sense view, all you have to do is make sure those whose view of the common sense is compatible with your own interests, get heard. Challenging the virtual monopoly of the corporate rich to define the ruling ideas or to define what constitutes a desirable set of views and values for the left to hold cannot be done, therefore, by urging individuals to be incorruptible, most of whom are not corrupt now and are incorruptible anyway. The challenge is a systemic one, whose solution lies in changing the system, not individuals. So long as major productive resources are privately owned, the wherewithal to define the common sense will lie within the grasp of private owners. They will use foundations to raise the visibility and voice of left intellectuals who hold desirable views to weaken left opposition and divert its energies to humanitarian, but conservative, tasks which pose no threat to the interests and continued domination of the corporate rich. The left intellectuals who rise to prominence will do so, then, not because their arguments are more compelling, their approach more realistic, or their orientation more leftist, but because they’ve been handed a platform their militant left competitors are denied.