How do we solve the problems that plague us: hunger, inequality, disease, civil unrest? In his most recent book, Anand Giridharadas argues that reform efforts should not be left in the hands of the ultra-wealthy.
Too often, he contends, philanthropists stop short of advocating for real change, because if things really did change, those philanthropists would be cast from their comfy perches at the top of society. They’d much rather position themselves as champions of reform and change and progress while keeping things pretty much the same.
It’s a sharp critique. It echoes arguments made a century ago about the morally troubling nature of John D. Rockefeller’s fortune and philanthropy. It’s a familiar argument, but its familiarity has not lessened its urgency.
Yet, in the moments when he begins to articulate a way forward, Giridharadas relies on another familiar formulation that is much less convincing.
He suggests that there are two primary protagonists in the battle for social reform. They are, in one corner, the wealthy, globalist elite. This is the Aspen set. The financiers and McKinsey consultants. The billionaires with vacation homes in Svenborgia. These are the people whose philanthropic practices, in Giridharadas’ opinion, fall short of effecting any real change.
In the other corner, counterbalancing the ultra-wealthy, is the federal government.
The former group, Giridharadas argues, has grown stronger at the expense of the latter. His primary prescription is to reinvigorate the government, which is more equipped to pursue democratic processes toward democratic ends (like greater income equality, or more equitable access to public goods).
This is a familiar description of how power works in our society, but it’s also unconvincing. The moneyed classes have not in fact grown stronger as government has grown weaker. Rather, these two centers of power have grown in stature together, gaining strength as society becomes more atomized and resources are extracted from rural communities.
“When a society helps people through its shared democratic institutions, it does so on behalf of all, and in a context of equality. Those institutions, representing those free and equal citizens, are making a collective choice of whom to help and how. Those who receive help are not only objects of the transaction, but also subjects of it—citizens with agency.”
This sounds more aspirational than descriptive of reality. Did Donald Trump confer with your elected representative before he extended aid to soybean farmers affected by tariffs? Do the patients at dysfunctional VA hospitals throughout the country feel like citizens with agency? Does anyone seriously think that our process for subsidizing flood insurance in federal floodplains represents a “collective” or freely made decision in any meaningful sense?
The choice we face is not between a reinvigorated federal government on the one hand and deference to the wills of the rich and powerful on the other. Those are two sides of the same coin.
Giridharadas himself does hint at a kind of alternative. “The political system […] is not just Congress or the Supreme Court or governorships. It is all of those things and other things,” he writes in the book. “It is civic life. It is the habit of solving problems together, in the public sphere, through the tools of government and in the trenches of civil society.”
This glance toward the more intimate spheres of civic life is welcome.
Giridharadas’ many references to “problem solving,” however, call forth a couple of observations. One is that small organizations cannot solve problems in any meaningful sense if their solutions are trumped or replaced by a more powerful federal government. It’s difficult—not impossible, but difficult—to speak at the same time of empowering democratic institutions on a national level and empowering democratic institutions on a local level.
Secondly, the emphasis on problem solving might itself be...well, a problem. There is certainly a sense in which even the smallest and most intimate of institutions—a family, say, or a marriage—exists to “solve problems.” We might say that the bonds of marriage help provide a counter to the “problem of infidelity”, or the “problem of raising well-adjusted children.”
But to frame civil society primarily as a vehicle for solving problems opens the door to those who would sweep away portions of civil society in the name of solving problems better or more efficiently. What if our most treasured institutions exist not because they foster the “habit of solving problems together” but because they foster virtuous habits that enable us to live our lives in fulfilling ways?
Think about the local youth baseball league. It is an example of a civil institution. It might tangentially “solve” problems by providing young boys with an alternative to more harmful ways of whiling away a summer afternoon. But, really, it’s not about solving problems at all. It’s about local people gathering to mutually attend to something they all enjoy: baseball.
I know this is somewhat esoteric, and Giridharadas is justified in focusing his attention on the faults and failures that have ushered forth many injustices in our society. He is focused on the big picture, and he ably brings it into greater focus.
But the big picture is as bleak as it is big.
When Giridharadas writes, “What could […] individuals do [to effect change]? They could petition the government. They could join movements fighting to change law and policy,” it feels inadequate, as perhaps every “solution” might.
But if our solutions must invariably be smaller than the problems we face, it seems plausible to begin at a point prior even to the desire to solve problems. Giriharadras cites a few people who write about the importance of “loyalty to place.” Here is where it seems a more productive path forward might begin. We can’t hope to fix the places and institutions we don’t first know and love.
It is difficult to change the world. It’s not so hard to love a place (your street, your town, a patch of nature) or a practice (baseball, reading science fiction, gardening), and to take actions that will preserve and extend those places and practices.
Civil society isn’t for anything. It’s a reflection of what we value and who we are, problems and all.
Image credit: Truthout.org / CC BY-NC-SA (modifications were made by Philanthropy Daily)