Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power

September 6, 2012

This book is a useful addition to the scholarly sub-literature on what philanthropic foundations do, how they do it and, according to the Marxist and Gramscian ideological traditions, why they do it. It supplements and adds recent archival data to such earlier works as Edward H. Berman's The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy: The Ideology of Philanthropy (1983) and Robert F. Arnove's Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (1980). By his diligent use of foundation archives, Inderjeet Parmar has unearthed rich troves of new information that add significantly to the record of international grant-making decisions by three of the world's largest foundations.

Unfortunately, his strident and tendentious interpretation of that record has turned what might have been a lively discussion into a screed. On the very first page, the author uses the word "malignant" to characterise the body of information before him. The word aptly sums up his view of nearly all the newly found data that fill the book. No ambivalence. No nuance. No such thing as a mere difference of opinion. No room for contrary interpretations. Parmar surveys a vast and complex landscape and finds it plainly and simply "malignant".

In the next sentence, perhaps feeling that he has over-reached, he backs away a bit from that assessment, but only a bit. "When one reads of the millions of dollars donated to health schemes by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations, for example, it is close to sacrilegious that such initiatives might be other than they seem. Yet I claim something close in this book...Philanthropic foundations, I argue, have been a key means of building the 'American century,' or an American imperium, a hegemony constructed via intellectual and cultural penetration" (emphasis added). We evidently will not drown everything in a bath of malignancy and sacrilege. But we will come close.

Volumes of scholarship on both philanthropy and international relations offer a profoundly different view of most of the events Parmar describes. Yet he takes almost no notice of that literature. He never directly takes on contrary interpretations by such highly regarded scholars as Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, Samuel Huntington, and, in the world of philanthropy, Kenneth Prewitt, who think differently and draw different conclusions from his. (A rare exception is his discussion of Juan Gabriel Valdés' 1995 book Pinochet's Economists: The Chicago School in Chile.) Otherwise, he simply mentions them and glides past.

Instead, he restates his "theory" on virtually every page of the book, in the unlikely event that anyone might have forgotten it. That is a profound shame and a waste of the author's considerable scholarly research skills and diligence. The point is certainly not that he should withhold his critique or soften his interpretation of the facts before him. But he has a scholarly obligation to grapple with what other scholars have written or said about those same facts and strive to prove them wrong. Unfortunately, when he does choose to discuss the work of other scholars, they are almost always of his own ideological persuasion.

As even Parmar occasionally acknowledges, Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie provided support to social scientists and policy scholars across a wide socio-political spectrum. At its root, my problem with this book is the author's easy jump from that record - from the foundations admittedly having created networks of pluralistic thinkers - to the conclusion that thereby they deliberately sought to foster US hegemony in the world. He evidently finds it inconceivable that the foundations fostered pluralistic values and policies, including neoliberal ones, not to advance US power and influence, but because they believed that those values and policies would benefit the citizenry. That hypothesis, and the considerable body of evidence to support it, deserves at least a cursory examination before concluding that it was all, in the end, just a Western imperialist plot dressed up as philanthropy.

Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power

By Inderjeet Parmar. Columbia University Press. 368pp, £.50. ISBN 9780231146289. Published 3 April 2012

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