Swans Commentary » swans.com May 21, 2012  



Foundations For Empire
An Interview With Inderjeet Parmar


by Michael Barker



(Swans - May 21, 2012)   Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of Government at the University of Manchester (UK). He studied Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Sociology at the University of London, obtaining his doctorate at the University of Manchester. From 2006-09, Parmar served as Head of Politics at the University of Manchester, and he is the Chair of the British International Studies Association. His two most recent books are Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller in the Rise of American Power (Columbia University Press, 2012); and Inderjeet Parmar and Michael Cox, (eds.) Soft Power and US Foreign Policy: Theoretical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2009). This interview was carried out by e-mail in April 2012.

Michael Barker (MB): Could you explain what you see as the main differences between hard and soft power?

Inderjeet Parmar (IP): Not easily done but in the main, hard power tends to be coercive while soft tends towards persuasive; hard power can also be inducements based, e.g., aid or loans or other forms of incentive; soft power is based on the absence of overt coercion or incentives/inducements.

MB: I tend to think that most writers have neglected emphasizing the importance of soft power, most specifically that of philanthropy, in legitimizing and extending capitalist relations: what are you thoughts on this matter?

IP: While foundations are probably characterised by soft power, or can be, I think they also convey hard power: they offer grants of all kinds worth very large amounts of money, including grants to build plant, which act as inducements to act in ways congenial to the donor's ideas and interests. Such grant programmes also build departments at universities, or think tanks linked with governments, and hence incentivise certain kinds of thought and behaviour. By their emphases on specific ideas about economic, educational, and political development, foundations catalyse and promote certain kinds of thinking and marginalise others, with political ramifications. So although an example of soft power, because of their image, I think that foundations can be seen as conveying hard power as well.

MB: When do you first remember reading or hearing about critiques of liberal philanthropists and their foundations?

IP: When I was an undergraduate student at the London School of Economics back in the 1980s -- I read a journal called the Insurgent Sociologist, which was eye opening to say the least and, initially, hard to believe.

MB: What was your initial reaction to such criticisms? Here I am predominantly thinking about the former "big three," the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations.

IP: I was shocked to read the critiques due to the image of such foundations, and the London School of Economics received large funds from Rockefeller as I recall, among others.

MB: Following on from the last question, could you could briefly explain what you think about the academic/activist literature that is critical of liberal philanthropy?

IP: I generally find it all too rare but very much to the point. I think all critique, or support, needs to be based on rigorous research, however, to be taken seriously. I was especially inspired by the work of Don Fisher at the University of British Columbia and Robert Arnove at Indiana. More recently, Joan Roelofs's book was helpful. But I think the work of G. William Domhoff at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was most influential of all. The thing about liberal philanthropy is that it has an image of being progressive, humanitarian, idealistic, and motivated by love of humanity, and that, I'm afraid, is too frequently far from actual reality.

MB: What motivated you to write Foundations of the American Century?

IP: Well, I'm an academic interested in American power in the world as well as the distribution of power within the USA, and how elite power works in a formally democratic society. I'd been researching the foundations for a few years and discovered largely untapped records of foundations' activity in their own archives, and the insights they provide to the mind and networks of the US foreign policy establishment. By ca 2006, 10 years after starting the research, I felt there was a book-length investigation in the subject. I had read Ed Berman's excellent book -- published ca 1983 -- and thought it was time to build on it.

MB: How would you describe the general impact of liberal foundations on the evolution of research within universities and on intellectuals more generally?

IP: In general, they expanded provision of international relations and area studies and helped create more jobs and better teaching in those areas. But, their motivations go well beyond creating jobs per se but in promoting the hegemony of specific modes of thought and the networks that sustain us hegemony, and that is a lot more problematic as it skews knowledge production, academic agendas, and public knowledge and opinion, undermining the notion of a free market of ideas.

MB: Do you think anti-capitalist activists can strategically utilize liberal foundation funding to develop an anti-hegemonic movement for social change?

IP: This is problematic, not easy, but tactically possible, I suspect. The problem is always that activism requires funding and that is normally located in corporations, foundations, governments, and other big institutions. And they tend to be "conservative" in the main, and not anti-capitalist. I have shied away from asking for funding from foundations due to a conflict of interest -- I do not want anything I say -- either negative or positive or neutral -- to have even a hint of being tainted with foundation largesse. Winning foundation funding, if you're anti-capitalist, might be possible but the organisation would need to be aware that the foundations have their own agendas and are usually very well informed as to the status and philosophy of the groups and individuals who seek funding.

MB: Given that you mention the work of Joan Roelofs and G. William Domhoff I was wondering why you did not really draw upon their work in your own book?

IP: That's a good question -- why do I not cite Domhoff much more, or Roelofs? Maybe there are two kinds of intellectual influence? There's the indirect influence of some key ideas at a particular time that shape an entire approach to power -- and I think Domhoff's work had that kind of influence. And I think I used him much more directly when I worked on the Council on Foreign Relations and the Royal Institute of International Affairs. But by the time my focus extended to foundations I had become much more overtly interested in Gramscian ideas -- especially as a result of reading Stuart Hall's book on Thatcherism, while teaching a course on Anglo-America in the New Right Era. And that also melded with reading Robert Arnove's work on foundations -- he takes a more overtly Gramscian approach.

So, I maintain an intellectual debt to Domhoff but others too, but I don't think one has to cite someone's work all over the place to "show" their impact on one's thinking -- it's weaved into the whole approach and treatment of a subject.

Of course, neither Roelofs nor Domhoff write too much in the area of foreign policy and America's rise to globalism, although the logic of their approach is embedded in my own work.

Another point of interest is that I have tried to use a whole range of approaches to power in order not to be pigeonholed or be justifiably accused of one-sidedness. Hence, as you will see in the book, I look at a whole range of approaches to state-society relations that are out there in the literature and say what I think of them and synthesise, use them or reject them in favour of Gramscian approaches; and the Gramscian approach I think I have derived in large part from the empirical as much as I have approached the evidence in that way. But having in mind a set of different approaches while examining evidence does permit, I think, a better understanding of what's going on and how to understand and try to explain it.


[ed. Also, read Michael Barker's excellent review of Inderjeet Parmar's latest book, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (Columbia University Press, 2012). His review was published on Ceasefire on May 18, 2012.]


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 21, 2012