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Updated: May 21, 2013 11:37 IST

Foundations at the top

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
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Foundations of the American Century: Inderjeet Parmar
Foundations of the American Century: Inderjeet Parmar

Foundations of the American Century
The Ford, Carnegie, & Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power:Inderjeet Parmar; Columbia University Press,
61 West 62nd Street, New York, NY 10023. $ 40.

The Big Three among American foundations subsist in networks of high-level contacts and influence; they fund research groups, projects, and conferences, and confer prestige on those they support. Purportedly philanthropic, they state a commitment to value-neutral social science intended to resist American isolationism at home, to train foreign experts to run other countries, and to promote “the study and appreciation” of the United States abroad; Inderjeet Parmar’s accomplished account, the first such in half a century, draws on the foundations’ extremely rich archives and constitutes a detailed analysis of their origins, their aims, and their impact.

John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who in their time were openly called robber barons, started philanthropic bodies only partly to improve their reputations after violent episodes in which the National Guard and the Pinkerton private detective agency shot and killed protesting workers; both plutocrats hated organised labour, which was making considerable headway in the early 20th century, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. congratulated his corporate managers on crushing the protests. The oligarchs, who had destroyed all competition by ruthlessness, bribery, corruption, violence, and exploitation, then set about realising their vision of themselves as “architects of massive, centralised corporate-bureaucratic national and global networks”.

Therefore, those who run the foundations are of the elite business class and the elite political class; many are in both. The foundations have consistently worked in, through, and with Ivy League universities and major state institutions, notably the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, to propagate American values, despite the contradiction between their commitment to value-free social science (the tenability or otherwise of which concept has escaped their attention) and their often explicit refusals to fund work which even queries their idea of American values. A 1940 research proposal by Robert Lynd, who argued that in order to fight fascism the U.S. would need to mobilise ordinary people, or the state bureaucracy and its allies would slide into bellicose militarism and undermine civil liberties, was rejected not with rational criticism but cheap abuse.

The foundations were nevertheless central to the creation of learned societies, such as the British Association for American Studies, which became networks producing prestigious publications and symbolic capital. Yet even an American Studies pioneer, Marcus Cunliffe, concluded that British Americanists had said little new about the U.S. and had mainly tried to explain and justify American experience within ideas and assumptions set by Americans.


The networks became ends in themselves, enabling the foundations to advance their vision of American society, mainly that of a white East Coast elite, through contact with other elites around the world. Friedrich von Hayek did something similar after the war, telling his acolytes not to go into politics but to colonise the minds of the intellectuals. The foundations, however, have always been involved in politics, and after 1945 were integrated into a state-private network to fight the Cold War. Ford, for example, used CIA funds for that, and some of the work involved direct attempts to strengthen right-wing factions — again at the top — of European social-democratic parties like the British Labour Party.

The foundations of course avoided certain topics. These included the Jim Crow laws in the Deep South, McCarthyism, which was so virulent in the 1950s that the thoroughly Keynesian Lorie Tarshis’s work and teachings were banned from several U.S. universities because he advocated the highest wages compatible with full employment, and the near-genocidal extermination of Native Americans during the white colonisation of the Americas. Even the foundation-inspired African Studies Association was so racist that its African-American members walked out en masse from the annual conference at Montreal in 1969.

As for the foundations’ impact, Parmar examines three examples closely. In Indonesia, Ford in particular aided the violent overthrow of the recognisably social-democratic Sukarno in a civil war which killed up to a million people in the mid-1960s but ensured western access to Indonesia’s resources and the surrounding waters. The economists who carved up Indonesia within a few days of Suharto’s installation were called the Beautiful Berkeley Boys after their alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley.

In Nigeria, U.S. government and foundation officials were so ignorant that the Ford secondee to the Nigerian government, Wolfgang Stolper, proudly said he knew nothing about Africa; his diaries reveal deeply racist attitudes towards Nigerians. The interventions reinforced local feudal elites, exacerbated ethno-religious hatreds, and worsened corruption.

In Chile, foundation funds went only to economists of the centre or the right. At the Catholic University, many recipients were “euphoric” about the 1973 coup, in which the elected President Salvador Allende was overthrown and Augusto Pinochet’s forces slaughtered thousands of civilians. Some of those academics — the Chicago Boys — had plotted with the military before the coup, and soon became ministers in the Pinochet regime, turning Chile into, as Parmar says, a laboratory for neoliberal experimentation. That no economist had predicted the coup seems to have caused at least some rethinking in the Ford Foundation, though the mass murders seem not to have troubled them, despite forceful reports from their agent Nita Manitzas in Chile. The foundations have now turned their attention to majority Islamic societies.

Parmar, in terms broadly derived from Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu, exposes the foundations’ ideological agenda; the arrogance of the American policy and power elites, and their fear of their own and other countries’ ordinary people, amount to a doctrine of the self-appointed elect. This is not even a Platonist theory of a caste trained to rule. The story of the foundations — Parmar includes material on the Gates Foundation — is one of influence, if not power, without the responsibility and accountability of public office.

(Arvind Sivaramakrishnan is senior deputy editor with The Hindu)

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