Book Profile

Philanthropy in (as Self-Defined, a “Transformative”) Solidarity

With whom, though, and for what? In Leah Hunt-Hendrix’s and Astra Taylor’s new book, unfortunately, it seems as if meaningful, bottom-up anti-centralism might be too constrained by their modifying adjective.

The most-insightful critiques of progressive technocratic centralism come from those to its further left. In 2003, for example, Harvard sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol pointedly argued in her Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life that establishment-funded policy and lobbying organizations—Washington, D.C.-based by locale and D.C.-centric in their thinking—had supplanted the mobilizing, grassroots left of the early 20th Century. To ill effect. The (unstated) missions of the groups doing the supplanting, many of them nonprofits, are basically to raise enough money to preserve themselves and enhance their power and prestige. In D.C.

Citing Skocpol, Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor make similar observations in their new book Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea. A member of the extended Hunt family of oil-tycoon fame, Hunt-Hendrix co-founded the Solidaire Network for progressive philanthropists in 2013 and the Way to Win network of progressive donors and activists in 2017. Taylor is a Canadian-American documentary filmmaker and social-change advocate.

During the decades following the successful civil-rights movement, they write in Solidarity, scholars have

documented the way the neoliberal turn was, for the activist Left, characterized by a shift to a shallow, professional, and often philanthropically funded model of “advocacy,” one that elevates self-appointed leaders and elite experts to speak on behalf of constituencies to whom they are not directly accountable. Rather than organizing people to fight for themselves, these groups promote professionals who attempt to exert influence inside the halls of power. Instead of protests, they publish white papers; in place of strikes, they circulate statements; instead of cultivating solidarity, they seek access to decision-makers.

In the earlier Diminished Democracy, Skocpol writes that “[t]he evidence and arguments I present should provoke debate, for they challenge accepted wisdom on both ends of the political spectrum.” The book, in fact, meaningfully engages at least some conservatives and their thinking—including, among others, onetime Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation president Mike Joyce and program-staff executive Bill Schambra, now a Giving Review co-editor.

Given its title, it might seem as if Hunt-Hendrix’s and Taylor’s new Solidarity would similarly engage some figures with and ideas borne of a different worldview than theirs, as well, perhaps particularly in the current context of cross-ideological, populist anti-elitism. There could have been some benefit in that, including for conservatives susceptible to learning from others’ insights. Solidarity doesn’t do that, though—disappointingly and to its, and our, detriment.

The Word, the Book, and the Union and Social Movement

“Solidarity” the word and Solidarity the book both invoke Solidarność the Polish trade union. Founded at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, Poland, in 1980, the union became a broad anti-authoritarian social movement that is credited with ending communist rule in that country nine years later and leading to the end of the Cold War another two years after that. Solidarność is generally and properly recalled fondly, by liberals and conservatives.

“A world-shaking movement such as Solidarnosc cannot, I think, be expressed in one philosophical idiom only, let alone in some narrow ideology,” neoconservative theologian Michael Novak notes in First Things in 2010. “It was real, it was concrete, it was human, it was moving forward from contingency to contingency. … Five hundred years from now, the world shall still be in its debt. It brought Communism to a premature death, and saved the world from an immensely costly, seemingly endless war.”

In bottom-up solidarity, the Poles solved a problem and countered a threat.

Pope St. John Paul II is widely recognized—including by Hunt-Hendrix, Taylor, and Novak—to have played a prominent role in inspiring and motivating, yes, but also strategically shaping the success of Solidarność the union and social movement in his native Poland. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that John Paul II later promulgated, “the principle of solidarity” the word, “also articulated in terms of ‘friendship’ or ‘social charity,’ is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood….

“Solidarity is manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work,” the Catechism continues, and “[s]ocio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity,” examples of which it then lists. “The virtue of solidarity,” moreover, “goes beyond material goods.”

Relatedly, First Things editor R. R. Reno writes of solidarity in 2013, “[m]oney matters, but not as much as we’ve come to think.” If everyone was doing well in the typical ways that such would be materially measured, but “the wealthy and powerful lived in gated communities and held the rest of us in disdain, we’d think our society sick rather than healthy,” Reno continues.

The common good is not just a matter of creating or redistributing wealth; it requires that we be part of a common project, a common culture. It requires solidarity.

Solidarity is not the same as equality. It’s about being with others, being part of something, rather than being the same or having the same amount of stuff.

In a 2015 First Things article, “Crisis of Solidarity,” Reno presciently appeals to solidarity the principle in ways that one might’ve at least thought would interest, if not intrigue, the authors of Solidarity. “The economic and cultural dissolution of the American middle class defines our moment in history, not squabbles over tax policy, regulation, and green energy subsidies,” according to Reno. “It has led to a growing feeling that the social contract in America has been revised. This drives populist anxieties about immigration, as well as the anti-establishment successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. …

“We’re facing a crisis of solidarity, not freedom,” Reno writes. “We need to get our minds around that fact. We need an updated, reality-based political vision.”

Within a conservatism upended by Trump’s descent down the Trump Tower elevator in 2015 and subsequent political ascendance, the Reno-requested “update” is beginning to occur. As American Compass founder Oren Cass put it in his foreword to last year’s Rebuilding American Capitalism: A Handbook for Conservative Policymakers, for example, the social fabric requires attention “to ensure a sense of place, caring relationships built on mutual obligation, and the solidarity to solve problems and counter threats.”

Conservatives can and should be encouraged to develop more insightful, bottom-up critiques of progressive technocratic centralism—however much they may be unappreciated, if not outright resented, by those who render their own professional judgments from the top of the right’s own (much-smaller) establishment.

Categorizing Away What Could’ve Been Common

Given the way in which Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor define and modify “solidarity” in Solidarity, there’ll be no such encouragement or Skocpol-like engagement coming from them. “[S]olidarity is not always a positive force for a driver of progress and change: these bonds can be neutral, reactionary, or transformative, depending on the community and context,” according to Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor. A reactionary solidarity “fuel[s] the right-wing forces that surge around the world today.”

It’s fair to presume that Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor would categorize current conservative appeals to solidarity as of the reactionary-force kind. Recognizing that “we are in the midst of a massive political realignment in American politics,” they write that that “[b]oth major parties are sites of profound internal conflicts and power struggles.” They characterize the Democrats’ conflict as between progressives and a corporate wing. As for the Republicans, they “are being forced to reconcile their outdated libertarian conservatism with a rabid, conspiracy-driven, white-supremacist fascism.”

Others, including some on the left, may detect more nuance in the ongoing struggle within the right. There is almost no realization of such nuance elsewhere in Solidarity, either.

In contrast to reactionary solidarity, Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor say they’re “interested in what we call a ‘transformative solidarity’—the kind that propelled the fight for civil rights along with other movements that have sought to expand the circle of inclusion while also altering society’s very character,” they write. Seems fair to presume that their circle of inclusion won’t ever expand widely enough to feature First Things authors or American Compass analysts—or any of those Americans whose discontent with the status quo gave rise to the unexpected political ascendance of Trump, for that matter, even if they shared such general discontent with those who supported Sanders.

Solidarity’s analytical compass has much less than 360 degrees; it is partial, off-puttingly so. It doesn’t contemplate “all the forms of solidarity,” as the Catholic Catechism urges—certainly not a cross-ideological one.

In fact, even Solidarność was a failure, according to Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor, since it led to “liberalized trade, privatization of public goods, and deregulation of industry” in Poland. Solidarity “began to crumble, creating space for old antagonisms to emerge, including the rise of a nationalist Right,” they lament. Solidarność “lacked a vision for a political alternative that could guide the movement once in power, and this would be the source of its downfall.”

For, and by, All of Us

Hunt-Hendrix’s and Taylor’s modifying “transformativeness” is essentially their progressive policy, and political, agenda. It’s far from the “common project” of which Reno writes. Its modified “transformative”-solidarity project gives rise to what they call “philanthropy-in-solidarity,” “a solidarity state,” and an international “solidarity beyond borders.” Solidarity sloganized.

What might have been their intriguing “philanthropy-in-solidarity” in particular is presented in a chapter, “The Problem with Charity,” that actually contains what may have been several other more widely agreed-upon, Skocpol-echoing critiques of philanthropy and the practice of charity. “The majority of concentrated wealth is the consequence of state-sanctioned systems that allow for the externalization of costs, hoarding, and tax evasion,” for instance, and “philanthropy-in-solidarity aims to build the power of movements that seek to transform the status quo; it seeks to strengthen those who have been exploited, marginalized, and excluded from participation.” Again, to ill effect. Plus, “much has been written about the destructive impact of conservative super donors, but the rise of wealthy liberals should also make us pause.”

Unfortunately, those outside Hunt-Hendrix’s and Taylor’s too-narrow compass of potential siblings in solidarity are not even really invited to agree, though. Their progressive Solidarity is not really looking for friendship, to use one of the Catechism’s words for solidarity, among allies against philanthropically supported, top-down, technocratic centralism. Proponents of solidarity the unmodified principle would at least try doing so—and will do well for, and by, all of us if and when they do.

This article first appeared in the Giving Review on April 2, 2024

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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