While the many philanthropies of the world address social injustice, gender discrimination, and countless other issues, there is one topic that is off-limits to most of them: changing the capitalist system itself, the source of many problems that philanthropy aspires to solve.
This conundrum is the focus of a new book, Post Capitalist Philanthropy, by Alnoor Ladha and Lynn Murphy, which is a bold inquiry into what they call “philanthrocapitalism." As Ladha puts it, “A few people have amassed so much wealth that they're now determining the agenda for a civil society. Ostensibly, we're told that this is for social benefit, but actually they're getting huge amounts of tax breaks, social and political power, and undermining democracy itself. And so, in some ways, you can't think about new economic systems and alternative systems without grappling with the paradoxes and complexity of philanthropy."
Ladha, an activist, journalist and political strategist, was co-founder and executive director of the global activist group The Rules from 2012 to 2019. He's now council chair for Culture Hack Labs, a not-for-profit consultancy.
His coauthor Lynn Murphy was once a senior program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. But she found it ethically problematic to be a white, privileged decisionmaker at a wealthy US foundation directing the shape of education in the poorer countries around the world. "I was working on what was then often called global development and international education, with a piece of how do you improve the quality of schooling for the poorest children."
But the mismatch between the capitalist notions of education and development, and the native worldviews and cultures of the south, proved too much for Murphy. She resigned as a self-described conscientious objector to ‘neo-colonial philanthropy,’ and now works as a strategic advisor to foundations and nonprofits in the geopolitical south.
In my latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #39), I interview Ladha and Murphy to explore their criticisms of philanthropy and its capitalist norms, and their ideas about moving beyond this dominant mindset.
What exactly do Ladha and Murphy find objectionable in institutional philanthropy? It a worldview that Ladha calls "the gaze of modernity," which in turn guides so many other grantmaking priorities.
The gaze of modernity is the idea that "human beings are separate from the living world," said Ladha. It is based on a "dualism that came from Enlightenment logic and was globalized around the world," which says "that our minds and our bodies are dualistically separated., and that we "have these God-like minds and these animal bodies that need to be tamed."
Ladha argues that "this logic proceeded to create the so-called 'other' around the world, and it merged with the colonialist, imperialist project of European domination in the 1500s." It declared "that the Christian, white male is at the top of the social hierarchy, and every so-called other, especially Indigenous people, black and brown bodies, female bodies, etc., are all subhuman. And so the separation is deeply rooted in our alienation from the living world."
This worldview affects how US foundations dole out their funds and the types of societies and individuals they seek to shape. Murphy reported that she saw the "objectification" of communities around the world despite their manifest differences: "I saw again and again and again the reification of what a community is….Community [was] treated as an entity that is somehow almost static across place and very context illiterate." She said that most foundations are "institutionally unable to handle various cosmologies" and "other states of being" among grantees in the South.
For example, many Indigenous cultures reject the subject/object separation that is standard in modern capitalist societies. They reject linear, Cartesian, Newtonian conceptions of the world and machine metaphors of life, instead seeing the world, including nature, as vibrantly alive. This makes it hard to for philanthropy and its staff to escape the "life-destroying norms" of the capitalist political economy, whose worldview is so deeply embedded.
The point of Post Capitalist Philanthropy is to try to offer ways to experience a world beyond capitalist modernity. This requires both critique and creative innovation. As Ladha put it, "If you do not have a critique of capitalist modernity, you are contextually irrelevant. But if all you have is a critique, you are spiritually and creatively impoverished. If we do not understand the oxygen by which we breathe – which is late-stage capitalism, neoliberalism, separation from the living world, materialism, rationalism, positivism, scarcity, control, entitlement – then we don't understand the context we're in."