Giving is a Political Act

Jake Werner

October 27 2020

At Preston-Werner Ventures, we think of giving as a political act. We reject the idea that deprivation is merely an accidental lack that can be filled bit by bit through charity and technological advance. If such an idea were plausible a decade or two ago, it is hard to sustain today. What may have seemed like steady progress has now given way around the world to growing racist and nationalist movements based on a zero-sum struggle for resources and power, even as the stream of climate refugees begins to build. We see deprivation not as a lack but as a systematic outcome of our society.

The large-scale cooperative processes that sustain our lives, from the market economy to corporate bureaucracies to national and global governing institutions, are the same processes that generate concentrated pools of wealth and produce systematic inequalities among classes, races, countries, genders, sexualities. They are the same processes that give rise to the endemic insecurities and resentments that serve as the raw material for demagogic politicians to mobilize projects of national or racial supremacy. Finally, these same processes have left the world vulnerable to pandemic disease and are intensifying the existential threat of climate change.

Each of these forms of deprivation and oppression are related to all the others. Thus intervening to target a single one, in the hopes of making incremental progress toward overcoming it, will ultimately prove futile without a comprehensive effort to reshape the whole.

Such an effort requires intervening in the realm of politics—where the systematic processes that today produce our hierarchies of want and plenty or power and oppression are shaped—in the hope of transforming these structures so we can all thrive together.

Placing social problems in the larger global context that produces them may at first make progress on these issues seem daunting. Yet recognizing the systematic interrelation of social problems also means that with the right strategic analysis, a relatively small intervention could cascade through the whole system, transforming previously impossible dilemmas into manageable problems. More than that, remaking social dynamics in the right way would change the global system from a force that resolutely resists progress to a force that systematically transforms social relations in a progressive direction.

We aim to use such an analysis to support projects that build on each other strategically. Priority areas include:

  • Transforming US politics in a progressive direction. Though the problems we face are global, the US is still the most powerful country in the world. Dysfunctional politics in the US is currently a major obstacle to defeating the coronavirus pandemic, rebuilding the global economy, reducing global inequality, and combating climate change. With the right leadership, the US could become a powerful force advancing each of those interrelated goals—progress on which is also a necessary condition for the deepening of progressive change within the United States.
  • Racial justice. Progressive change in the US must fundamentally incorporate an anti-racist analysis or it will repeat previous episodes, like the New Deal, that won reform at the cost of deepening the color line.
  • Promoting international cooperation. After the global economic crisis of 2008 and a sharp drop in the quality of global growth, xenophobic movements have grown around the world at a popular level, while support for great power conflict has emerged strongly within the elites of the major countries. Under stress of the pandemic, these two currents are now at risk of joining together. That threatens to poison the world’s most important bilateral relations, that between the US and China, which would render progress on the many crises facing humanity impossible. If, instead, the US and China were to establish a new foundation for cooperation by committing to join together their complementary strengths to solve these crises, then rapid progress would follow.
  • Global development. The loss of dynamism in the global economy after 2008 and the global inequalities that caused that loss of dynamism are at the root of all the crises we face. The only way to restore dynamism to the global economy is by devoting substantial public resources to transforming those parts of the world that have been starved of capital for decades or more, so that the billions of people currently subordinated within or excluded from the global economy can contribute to it.
  • Green transformation. None of these goals is viable if economic growth continues its current course of destroying the ecological foundations for human life. Yet growth, if channeled toward serving sustainability goals rather than undermining them, would be the most powerful force available for green transformation.

Each of these priorities is fundamentally a problem of political economy, that is, the structural distribution of power that decides the deployment of global society’s shared resources. Only a progressive transformation of international politics and of politics within the major countries of the world can achieve any one of these priorities. But progress on each advances progress on the others, and together they build toward an entirely new structure of social life that would finally make ending deprivation a possibility.