Recently appointed president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Rajiv Shah, weighed in on today’s political situation while addressing the Global Philanthropy Forum in Washington, D.C. You can watch his roughly 20-minute talk here.

His general question was “What happened in 2016?” Shah paints a picture of a post-Cold War, liberal-globalized world in which nations were making steady progress towards economic development, improved life expectancies, and peace. Then, all of a sudden, Rodrigo Duterte was elected in the Philippines and authorized the vigilante murders of thousands; Brexit happened, shattering the consensus of the European Union; and Donald Trump won America’s presidential election, accompanied by a sharp increase in hate groups. All the while, mass immigration gave rise to nationalist politics and a rejection of the globalized order that was benefiting so many.

In trying to find a source of “the crisis of 2016,” Shah turns to a primarily economic explanation: “a deep economic insecurity brought about by... America’s second gilded age. Since the turn of the century, while American wealth holdings have roughly doubled, average productivity per capita has grown less than 1% per year.” Anxiety over unemployment, a sense that our kids will be worse off than we are, and stagnating wages are the root cause not only of Trump’s election, but of other phenomena, such as a distrust of institutions and a new racism cropping up among American schoolchildren. 

Shah fails to discuss the “root causes” of today’s situation adequately. In discussing what foundations like Rockefeller must do to address today’s problems, he offers a laundry list of vague platitudes such as policy innovations, taking risks, being more transparent with the people we serve, working together, etc. Despite his good will, one gets the sense that for Shah, the cure for today’s ills is more of what we’ve been doing for the past few decades.

But this approach ignores what Augusto Del Noce has called the “transpolitical interpretation of contemporary history,” an interpretation that takes into account above all the philosophical underpinnings of contemporary history. Shah’s analysis of steady progress ruptured by economic frustration and nationalism can only go so far because it tacitly rejects the possibility of a larger metaphysical crisis as the root cause of today’s ills, and limits itself to political or economic realities.

According to Del Noce, Western intelligentsia made a mistake of interpretation following World War II. Rather than seeing Nazism and Communism as the logical conclusion of modern philosophy, they classified Nazism and the totalitarian aspects of Communism as fruits of Europe’s old culture, or the “barbaric epilogue” of Europe’s metaphysical and theological tradition.

As a result, the post-World War II global order misclassified traditional cultures as “fascist,” and equated progress with increased material prosperity and the diminished influence of traditional ways of life. This philosophical move, which has been the regnant paradigm of development since World War II, has left much of the world in a state of cultural failure. While material well being has advanced, whole societies have been told that they must abandon their traditional culture, cease talking about higher values, and embrace the “open society.” In this situation, we shouldn’t be surprised when people, lacking the orientation provided by their cultural heritage, flock to a nationalist political symbol as a substitute.

Today’s philanthropy, which accepts the post-World War II thought consensus that Del Noce describes, speaks a lot about root causes, but fails to realize that the crisis goes deeper than economic and political conditions—it goes to the fact that we are living through a cultural void and are deliberately avoiding the possibility that what is needed today is a rediscovery of our spiritual and humanist traditions. As a result, we allow the metaphysical crisis to play out and worsen, while applying shallow remedies to its symptoms. Until elites in the philanthropic sector (like Shah) shift the discussion towards questioning their deepest assumptions and most basic narratives, philanthropy will be incapable of addressing today’s crises at their root causes.

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