Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to force charter schools down the throats of Newark, N.J.’s public school kids. (Susana Gonzalez / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Our New Philanthropic Overlords

Why the donor class loves charter schools—and themselves.

BY Chris Lehmann

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Since the beginning of the dotcom era, entrepreneurialism has been operating on steroids, producing vast fortunes at a faster pace, as business cycles have sped up.

David Callahan uncovers a good deal of eye-opening material in his survey of America’s new donor class, The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. But after provoking his readers into recognizing an influential new class of self-scripted, affluent social reformers, Callahan delevers only a cursory account of how this mammoth new philanthropy sector might be gently reformed along more democratic lines. As a result, a book that might have been a useful jeremiad about the oligarchic state of the American political economy resolves into a puzzled shrug.

Callahan grants that the opaque and interventionist agendas favored by the new cohort of givers—many of them tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill and Melinda Gates—are part of a results-driven model of charity that they’re prone to call “giving while living.” But like other journalists hymning the grandeur of the digital revolution, Callahan can’t resist the allure of its glib, disruptive rhetoric and the self-enamored policy imperialism that tech critic Evgeny Morozov has dubbed “solutionism.” One chapter, concerning the radical municipal agendas of the donor class, is called, with no irony, “Super-Citizens,” and Callahan is just warming up, delivering boosterish, bowdlerized accounts of our “Second Gilded Age” such as this:

Since the beginning of the dotcom era, entrepreneurialism has been operating on steroids, producing vast fortunes at a faster pace, as business cycles have sped up. Now, this same energy is increasingly being harnessed to giving away money on a large scale, marking a major turn in the annals of philanthropy. 
… Lots of super-empowered problem-solvers, it might seem, are just what the world needs right now.

Where to begin? Concentrated energy and resources are no guarantors of success, as the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 Great Recession demonstrate. Some of the most ballyhooed initiatives of Big Philanthropy have been bellyflops, like Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to force charter schools down the throats of Newark, N.J.’s public school kids. Callahan only touches on such fiascos, and cautions that the titans bankrolling school privatization—the pet cause of many new millennial donors—should be more transparent, so as to make the charter crusade more palatable.

The larger point is that the charter school philanthropists are seeking to engineer the permanent neoliberal capture of a critical public good. It is not the case that American public education exists to provide a feeder pipeline of well-tested STEM graduates to the grandmasters of Silicon Valley. No, as the founder of the common school movement, Horace Mann, made plain, the American public school system is devoted to “bring forward those unfortunate classes of the people who, in the march of civilization, have been left in the rear.”

Of course, the reason that the Zuckerbergs and Gateses and Eli Broads of the world flock to the charter-school boondoggle has nothing to do with civic education, and everything to do with the myth of their own meritocratic worth. A similar short-sightedness afflicted the First Gilded Age, when robber baron social theorist Andrew Carnegie rationalized his own “giving while living” agenda with the claim that he and his cohort were naturally selected by virtue of their “superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer.” This absolute conviction of his otherworldly prowess drove Carnegie to beggar his workers out of a living wage, and courtesy of the administrative abilities of his thug-lieutenant Henry Clay Frick, to massacre nine workers at the 1892 strike at Carnegie’s Homestead steel works. That tragedy helped launch a robust mobilization of American workers demanding their just rewards as the real progenitors of American prosperity.

Now, with a self-styled billionaire occupying the White House—replete with his own bogus charitable foundation—it is past time for gigged out, casualized Americans to follow suit and reclaim our fundamental social goods for ourselves. Perhaps we would already have done so, had our public schools been equipped to teach us anything about our own labor history.

Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is editor-in-chief at Baffler and the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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