When, in May 2017, during a climactic moment in fights over unionization, graduate students dropped a “TRUMP UNIVERSITY” banner from the rafters of the Yale School of Management, they poked a hornet’s nest: the institution’s donor relations. The action spotlighted Yale’s receipt of a $10 million gift from alumnus and United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Further, the students alleged, the financial relationships helped to explain the university’s refusal to bargain with its federally-certified graduate teacher union—as well as the expectation by Yale and its peer institutions that a right-wing, white nationalist presidency would reverse the legal precedent that required them to do so.
The scene was choreographed to dramatize a clash between student-activists and administrative managers, workers who know another world is possible and bosses whose capacities for solidarity seem to have atrophied, like diseased limbs, as they rose in the ranks. The point was that the de facto alliance of this supposed bastion of liberal education with the Trump administration could be proven—or at least constructed rhetorically—through a trail of donor receipts. But the success of the protest-performance depended on a cultural common sense about philanthropy. Animating the scene was the idea captured in so many cultural clichés: Money talks. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. She sold out.
Groups on the left have long harbored concerns about the moral and political compromises entailed when one accepts funding from wealthy, often more conservative, foundations. The radical feminists of color network INCITE! warns against the “non-profit industrial complex” that siphons mass movement politics into top-down, professionalized 501(c)(3) ventures oriented not to community needs, but to donors on whose favor their jobs depend. From specifically-theorized movement politics to vague figures of speech, there is an ingrained sense that philanthropic generosity imposes a barely-concealed ledger of debts—political, ethical, social—upon the beneficiary. If you want to know a nonprofit’s priorities, find out the source of their money. If you want to attack an opponent, expose his fiscal affairs. If you want to prove your allegiance to the grassroots, refuse donations from corporate PACs. Now say it louder and better for the organizers out there pounding the pavement: the revolution will not be funded.
What would it mean to sever philanthropy—affectively, politically—from reciprocal obligation? What would it look like to enact politics on a ground other than debts owed to donors, to history, to the future?
These questions are not solely pertinent to contemporary movement politics. They are a gateway into a deep thicket in the academic study of religion, whose history might well be narrated as a multi-century debate about varieties of debt and obligation. This field has dwelled with questions about sacrifice and obligation to creditor-gods, about the debts owed (or not) by secular modernity to religious forbears, and about the coercions involved in gestures of expenditure and largesse. We find these creditors, these histories, and these power-plays once again in the sphere of philanthropy, which—like the academic study of religion—recently has undertaken a critical review of her received traditions.
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Some of the most fervent critiques of philanthropy come from philanthropists themselves. Business magazines and Sunday opinion pages feature fund managers and trust legatees as they acknowledge their complicity with racism, colonialism, and patriarchy—right before they pledge to make capitalism a tool of repair. These conscious capitalists will diversify their boards. They will historicize their endowments in order make informed investments in the communities of color that their ancestors dispossessed. Within some key circles of philanthropic and investment discourse, it is not that wealth taints good organizing efforts. It is that good organizations—screened by wounded attachment—can heal the donors themselves.
Consider a recent profile of fund adviser and author Edgar Villanueva, published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The piece hinges on Villanueva’s emphasis that “across American history and through the present day, the accumulation of wealth is steeped in trauma.” This is a trauma rooted in six centuries of expropriation of black and indigenous resources, by and for white wealth accumulation. According to Villanueva, this “colonizing virus” has transmuted into today’s foundation-driven gift economy, which not only fails to address a yawning racial wealth gap, but actually exacerbates it by legitimating a patronage system in which the (overwhelmingly white) wealthiest direct their money to (overwhelmingly white) nonprofits. Communities of color, often the ones expropriated on the way to building billion-dollar endowments, continue to bleed out.
So far this sounds basically familiar. Supporters of INCITE! and organizers of labor justice movements might be inclined to agree. Reading on, the tone shifts. Villanueva has a plan for repair, and it is decidedly not the movements that, in the words of Andrea Smith, “require millions of people, most of whom cannot get paid.” No. His solution is to create a new relationship with monetary gifts:
Money is like water; it’s a precious, life-giving resource. Money should be a tool of love that facilitates relationships and helps us thrive, rather than something that hurts and divides us. If we use it for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine.
Villanueva engages in a process of myth-making. Money was once an instrument of colonialism. Now, inherited by a new generation committed to a reparative process, it is reconfigured as vaccine. Villanueva explains the steps to conversion. It begins with “grief” that unfolds into “apology” for the “hurts we’ve endured … and caused.” Next, the inheritors of wealth—newly awake to their need for healing—receive “wisdom of those excluded and exploited.” The process culminates in “repair” as the now-partners “use money to heal where people are hurting and stop more hurt from happening.”
Can investments in causes that center historically dispossessed people also rehabilitate the inheritors of gilded fortunes? (If a Trump official donates money to his alma mater, could it perhaps say little about the politics of the university and everything about the donor? Might the Commerce Secretary be atoning for his own accumulation by dispossession, by “giving back” funds for a new library?) For Villanueva, and for his colleagues sounding resonant notes, the answer is yes. A cohort of conscious billionaires has metabolized a critique of how financial entanglements compromise and derail grassroots movements. They are now inverting the presumed chain of contagion and dependence. Rather than conceive capitalism as something that corrupts social justice work, they suggest that by investing in righteous causes, the wealthy can remediate the crimes that enabled their ascent.
Put differently: Villanueva’s theory of history is also a theory of debt. But here the primary debtor is no longer the needful recipient of someone else’s generosity. The key debtor, in this scheme, is the philanthropist herself. And this debt is not economic, but moral. She owes her own good life to the people whose land and bodies she stole. What does a person do when she becomes conscious of such a debt? Follow Villanueva’s road map. Grieve. Apologize. Listen to the survivors. Invest this wisdom—and profits from your endowment—back in the community who suffered from your crimes. Heal the hurts and the debts that, it now seems clear, have multiplied on both sides of this equation.
We could think of such donations as affective alchemy, a means for transforming colonial complicity to the hopeful solemnity of overcoming it. Philanthropy is how capitalism fashions immune protection out of its own smallpox blankets, never quite managing to repress the memory of who supplied the initial “gift.”
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It has been said that philanthropic forms—gift with strings, harms offset with repayment—are also juridical forms. Channeled strategically, philanthropy can take whatever insurrection, whatever flight, or whatever impossible demand and absorb it into the more familiar universe where accounts are settled as transaction. And we can bring this principle back to the concrete case where it started: what happens to unionized students who expose embarrassing financial intimacies and, in the process, wreck the salmon lunch for alumni (donors) of an Ivy League business school?
Justice can be poetic. After Yale police charged the graduate teachers with creating a public disturbance, a judge compelled them to do charity, otherwise known as “court ordered community service,” to make restitution for the infraction. The state obliged each graduate teacher to be for New Haven what Wilbur Ross was for the University: a donor. The “donation” of time and effort enfolded students back into the economic order in dispute. Staffing the soup kitchens frequented by the people cast out of Yale’s gated community, cleaning up public parks, and tutoring public school children, protestors recouped a right to answer “no” on any form inquiring about our histories of arrest. But still no union. Still a university barricaded against the town. Still the cruel optimism that with a few more worker benefits, a few more jobs for locals, a few more thousands donated to local development, universities can restore some equilibrium to massive ongoing dispossessions.
Current political discourse at times can seem as invested in name-checking the case for reparations as it is committed to free market capitalism as its frame. One could elaborate the hypocrisy at play here, or just shift the question. What does politics look like when an exhausted transactional logic meets an unpayable debt? What would it mean to think, feel, enact a politics on a terrain other than accounts owed and accounts paid? To pocket the cash and refuse to act grateful for the patronage? To meet the enclosure of dissent with an even more relentless critique of its reification?
The revolution will not be funded, but if you want to send money anyway, go ahead. Do it knowing that if there is a debt owed—to the extent that this frame remains useful—it will not be balanced. No amount of reparations, no atoning philanthropy, could be enough. No. For those straining against the present nightmare, the best thing to do is take the money, and run.