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Capitalism and Philanthropy in the (New) Gilded Age

From: American Quarterly
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2008
pp. 201-213 | 10.1353/aq.2008.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Philanthropy is big news these days. Media attention has focused on new trends—dot.com philanthropy, profit-oriented philanthropy, microlending—and on sensational individual gifts—Ruth Lilly's $200 million to Poetry magazine, Sanford I. Weill's $150 million to Carnegie Hall, and most famously, Bill and Melinda Gates' $30 billion foundation devoted to health and education, which was augmented last year by $31 billion from Warren Buffett. Academic interest in philanthropy has anticipated this recent mainstream attention, but since 1978, when Yale's Center for Non-Profit Studies was founded, this field of study has grown dramatically, with publications appearing regularly and new centers established across the country. Why such interest in the "third sector" right now in both the mainstream and the academy?

At one level, the answer is obvious. Following the collapse of Soviet-style communism, we repeatedly hear, capitalism has unequivocally triumphed. Even those offshoots of communism, socialism and the liberal welfare state, are supposedly in retreat. Philanthropy—voluntary, individualist, nongovernmental—steps into the breach left by the absence of an activist state. A question nevertheless immediately rises: Why is there a breach to fill if the invisible hand regulates market society so efficiently and well? The evident human and environmental failures of capitalism are placed in bold relief by voluntary philanthropic action. As billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett put it simply when making his contribution to the Gates Foundation, "A market system has not worked in terms of poor people." Philanthropy cannot help but reveal the tensions and contradictions in liberal capitalism. These tensions and contradictions date back to Adam Smith, who, as every primer on philanthropy notes, wrote not only The Wealth of Nations but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

There is, however, something specific about the current interest in philanthropy. Media coverage of Buffett's gift, and of philanthropy more generally, suggests there is a marked sense in the United States that triumphal liberal capitalism is currently experiencing a legitimation crisis. While such crises are neither new nor necessarily threatening, in this current version philanthropy serves as a flashpoint for debates about liberal capitalism. For scholars in American studies, philanthropy raises questions about two other interrelated issues: American "exceptionalism" and imperialism/transnationalism. Since Alexis de Tocqueville, the philanthropic mode has been associated, rightly or wrongly, with the United States. The relative weakness of the U.S. state has meant that philanthropy has been seen as central in funding not only social welfare, but also intellectual and aesthetic work. Equally important, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, but particularly in the wake of World War II, the philanthropic mode has been associated with the involvement of the United States in global politics or, others would say, with its economic and cultural imperialism. For scholars in American studies, therefore, philanthropy represents an important conceptual field with which we must engage.

Such a statement, however, begs the question of what philanthropy is. In his introduction to Philanthropy, Patronage, and Civil Society, Thomas Adam writes that "on both sides of the Atlantic, scholars have failed to develop a united theoretical concept of philanthropy. This has resulted in a confusion of terms and in many misunderstandings" (4). In an effort to reduce this misunderstanding, Robert A. Gross identifies a characteristic form of modern philanthropy that emerged in the seventeenth century and sought "to apply reason to the solution of social ills and needs" through "abstract and institutional" forms. I rely here on Gross's definition, which helpfully narrows the scope of focus to the large-scale, nonprofit institutions that have played a prominent role in civil society in modernity. For many, however, Gross's definition of philanthropy would be a misnomer. Philanthropy has traditionally been defined as the disinterested expression of a "love of mankind," so why associate that term with organizations, like the Carnegie or Rockefeller Foundations, whose financial histories and activities have not been seen as disinterestedly beneficent by their critics on either the Left or the Right? In other words, philanthropy, like aesthetics, is a term that has embedded in it critical and utopian—and thus also debatable—longings for transcendence of the contemporary economic and political scene. In the current moment, philanthropy...



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