December 21, 2011
In November, PND spoke with Michael Edwards, author of the 2010 book Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World, which offered a sharp critique of the philanthrocapitalist worldview. In part two of our interview, Edwards talks about the impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement and shares his take on the recently established Bellagio Initiative, which seeks to establish "a new framework for philanthropic and international development collaboration in pursuit of human well-being in the twenty-first century."
To read part one, click here.
Philanthropy News Digest: Are you surprised the Occupy Wall Street movement has gained as much traction as it has? And do you think it will continue to have an impact on the income inequality debate in the United States, or in other countries, for that matter?
Michael Edwards: I'm not surprised that Occupy Wall Street has had an impact, especially when you consider that inequality in this country is at its highest level since records began to be kept. Something like one in four American children today live below the poverty line, and across a very broad swath of the American population people are feeling economically stressed, fed up, and want some change. Historically, that's precisely the kind of environment that spawns social movements. It just happened to be Occupy Wall Street, but it could have been something else. That said, the movement already has had an impact on the public debate, across party and ideological lines, and people are now talking about inequality in a way that they weren't even six months ago.
That's what social movements do. They may not have a direct impact on policy in the short term, but they give large numbers of people permission to talk about critical issues in a way they weren't able to before, and they tend to change the cultural conversation in ways which are important over the long term. In a sense, Occupy Wall Street is just a convenient platform for people, many of whom are somewhat suspicious of it, but who feel that something has gone terribly wrong. Whether it will continue to play that role in the future is the big question, and no one knows the answer. But I don't think that matters much right now, because, to give the movement its due, it has done something pretty remarkable in terms of changing the national, and in some ways international, debate about inequality. Will it be able to transform itself into something more formal, politically speaking? Will it develop a policy platform? Will it align itself with other existing movements for change? I don't know. But even if it disappeared tomorrow, its impact would continue to be felt.
PND: What is the appropriate role for foundations with respect to social movements? Should they be doing more to support a movement like OWS in its initial phase?
ME: Foundations have never been very important in supporting social movements in the United States or anywhere else, because that's not how social movements develop. Social movements are self-organized, self-created entities which largely run on their own firepower, including financial firepower raised through small donations, membership dues, labor contributions, and so on. Sure, if you look at the civil rights movement or the women's movement there were foundation dollars involved at various stages, but they were never particularly determinate, and the same holds true today, though maybe the Tea Party is an exception. Part of the reason I think -- and it's a good reason -- is that foundation funding comes with certain strings and accountability requirements attached. And that has an impact on the movement itself in terms of who makes decisions and how they're made. It implies a level of formality that people may not be comfortable with, and it can sometimes de-radicalize a movement in ways that are quite damaging.
It reminds me of the old battle cry "The revolution will not be funded." It might seem silly now, but it's based on something quite important, which is that you have to be sensitive when you introduce foundation funding into a spontaneous, democratic, disorganized movement space. That doesn't mean there isn't a role for foundations and foundation funding. But, generally speaking, what you typically find is that foundations are most effective in these situations when they take a back seat in the process of movement-building and focus on something very concrete where their funding can really make a difference. In the civil rights era, for example, foundations concentrated on supporting voting rights and voter registration, and I think there are parallels to that today.