Mike Edwards | Tools for Unraveling the Emperor’s New Clothes, Pt I

image courtesy of Mike Edwards

Michael Edwards is a writer and activist based in upstate New York who focuses on the links between personal and social transformation. He has spent 35 years in the non-profit sector in a variety of organizations including Oxfam, the Ford Foundation and Demos, where he is currently a fellow, and he also helped to launch the Seasons Fund for Social Transformation.  In 2011 he received the “Gandhi, King, Ikeda Award” for lifetime achievement in the fields of peace and international understanding. 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Mike Edwards, author of Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World and Just Another Emperor, a book that breaks down the myths surrounding philanthrocapitalism. He has made profound insights on civil society and philanthropy and how both of those things could, and do, affect one other.

When I asked him how he came to do this work, he talked to me about his parents, both of whom held strongly to Christian socialist beliefs, sometimes in spite of the views of others in their community.

In 1958, Mike’s mother forced the Mother’s Union–the women’s wing of the Church of England–to accept divorced women as members, something that at that time was highly contested. And his father, who was a priest in the Church of England, was thrown out of his parish in the ‘60s because he was “the first person to perform a marriage ceremony for a divorced priest in a church as opposed to a town hall.”

Christian socialism, which Mike jokes might be considered an oxymoron here in the States, was a strong movement in Great Britain in the 1960s. Overall, the movement itself began in “the mid-19th century [and] attempted to apply the social principles of Christianity to modern industrial life,” especially through advocating for people who were poor, unjustly treated, etc. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Mike says this about his family’s influence, “I was very much a product of a family that didn’t differentiate between the interpersonal work of love and caring and the broader stroke of social justice in which they were involved. Right from the word go, we were taught not to see any difference between those two but to see them as totally integrated, to see each as important as the other.” And that perspective is still very apparent in the work he does today.

After working for several years for organizations like Oxfam and Save the Children, Mike decided to support the development of communities in England and the US (his wife is American), eventually taking a position as a Director at Ford Foundation.

Being influenced by the work he had done with previous organizations, Mike tried to bring a transformational perspective to his work with Ford and received a chilly reception. “When I got to Ford, I decided to bring a transformational perspective to the work, not realizing that that was an incredible barrier for formal philanthropy to get over, and so I received a very cold response. I was never successful in imbedding that approach in the foundation at large, which was a very big disappointment and part of the reason that I left in 2008 to do what I’m doing now, which is being a free and liberated bird, doing my own thing, speaking and writing.”

And in speaking and writing Mike Edwards continues to work towards “a coherent explanation of what transformation might look like and [towards an understanding of] how we might get there.”

This is what we talked about:

XC: I know that you published Just Another Emperor in 2008. Did your experience with Ford Foundation have an influence on you when you were writing that book?

ME: Yes and no. I mean yes because I was in the belly of the beast. I was right in the middle of, at that time, the largest foundation in America, and the world. Of course, it has since been surpassed by [Bill] Gates’ Foundation. So I saw, from the inside, some of the good things, and the not so good things, that foundations do. But I have to say, it was more because I was influenced by seeing other foundations go, much farther than Ford, toward the path of very short material results as well as seeing the very high level of control over the activities that were funded, the very individualistic, materialistic view of the universe, and the problems that philanthropy was trying to solve.

I was very worried that that would take the focus away from deep-rooted problems of exclusion and inequality, racism and sexism, and so on. That’s really what got me worried, and really quite angry. So that was the reason I wrote that little pamphlet, Just Another Emperor, which was written in my final year at Ford, and which certainly contributed to my departure. The new president at the Ford Foundation really didn’t like it and made it really clear that this wasn’t the thing I should be doing as a staff member. I did it because I thought it was an important thing to do. But I was more worried about general trends in the field of philanthropy than I was specifically in the way in which Ford was moving. Although, since I left the two [trends in philanthropy and the direction Ford Foundation was going] have moved closer together.

My overall concern is that philanthropy, which started out as the love of  human kind–that’s the original definition of the word–is now just a game played with money by very powerful people and is not done in the spirit of transformation or democracy or community, but is done in the spirit of powerful people controlling the resolution of public policy, like health and education. I think that’s profoundly destructive to the prospects of transformation that we’re searching for. I found it to be less and less of a support system for those of us that are actually doing the work on the ground in radical and risk-taking ways and more and more a way for the rich to express their desires for the way society should look. And that makes me very unhappy.

XC: Related to that point, I was reading something you wrote earlier this morning and realized all of the ways that the business model has entered into many unexpected areas of our lives…in health care, in education. In public schools, for instance, they require teachers to “teach to the test,” test the students, and then determine the teacher’s performance based on how well the students did–a horrible way to run a school. And I wondered, how did we get here?

ME: Well, I think that’s a long-term cultural trend in Western societies and worldwide too. Probably you’d have to go back thirty or forty years to find its origins. But we know capitalism and markets and business are expansionist by nature. They’re always looking for new space to exploit, you can’t blame them for that. That’s the motivation of business as we know it, to grow, expand, take on more market shares, increase profits, dominate the competition, and so on and so forth. That’s a very powerful force, probably the most powerful force in modern society, and it is backed up by attitudes of consumerism and materialism and by identifying each other as actors in the marketplace as opposed to citizens or neighbors or members of the same community. So I think we know where it comes from. The question is what do we do about it. Is it so powerful that we can’t turn it back? Are we facing an entirely privatized and commercialized and “marketized” way of life?

Many people will say yes, and, you know, some of them will say that’s a good thing because it promotes efficiency and competition. I think it’s deeply destructive to our core identities, since what we want to protect and enhance is the fact that we are not defined by the marketplace. Instead we want to fashion, or co-create, a community of equal people in which we can say we are active citizens and not passive pawns; we are not just consumers, we are not just clients of other people. [We need] a community where we can express ourselves and shape our own destinies in a very powerful way, where we push back against the technocratic way of looking at the world through standardized testing, and mechanical means of delivering healthcare, and philanthrocapitalism, and so on.

So my work on civil society, which is simply the way ordinary people undertake collective action to improve the world around them, has really been my life’s work, the most important thing that I’ve worked on. It has been based on protecting the space for non-market action, so I’m passionate about keeping business out of those spaces. That doesn’t mean, of course, that business skills are never useful in nonprofits. That would be a stretch too far. We all need to know how to use money, raise money, how to spend money wisely, how to account for it. We need to pay attention to basic financial issues of organizational survival and health and so on.

Nothing of what I’m saying takes away from that, but generally that’s not what people mean when they talk about business thinking or business logic. They mean something much more profound–setting us in competition with each other in a sort of winner takes all society, where everything is measured by material satisfaction, and we’re all simply atomized individuals rattling around in a cage. That’s not a very expansive or exciting vision of the future, but it is what lies ahead of us, unless we push back against this stuff.

So I am passionate about that side of things. And my transformational work aims to explore the most difficult areas of life like economics or politics, which has taken on the same characteristics of the marketplace. I’m trying to take those issues on and ask if can we re-imagine them in a way which still delivers the goods. You have to do that, because people have to earn a living. You have to create wealth; you have to have institutions; you have to make decisions, all of those things.

But can we re-imagine the systems that undertake those functions in a radically different way so that we don’t incur the kind of costs that are associated with them at the present, so that we can find joy and connection and unity and compassion and community in those core functions of society? Why can’t we have economic and political institutions which do those things?

I think that’s perfectly possible, so the task is to really flesh them out and give concrete expression to them–so people can’t say, “Well, that’s just utopia; that’s just blue-sky thinking.” “That’s crazy, it’ll never work. You’re mad.” My work over the next couple of years is going to be along those lines, to say, well, here is both a theory and a practice of the new politics and economics and social activism, which are transformational in the sense that we’re talking about. Let’s look at real life examples and what we can learn from them.

XC: The staff at Transformative Change all read an article, “The Veil of Opulence,” which I sent to you as well. I was curious what you thought of it. I was taken aback a bit because the information in it suggested that the people in an election often vote against their own interests–and not because they don’t know the issues–but because they’re voting for their future selves. The result being, of course, that the difficulties they are having in their own lives are sometimes of their own making–because of what they are voting against or for.

In terms of societal transformation, how do we get past an obstacle like that? How do we help people see, that in fact, what they’re doing is hurting them?

ME: Well, I think one part of the answer is thinking about personal transformation practices–whether it is meditation, prayer, nature walks, selfless service, you know, whatever does it for you–and thinking about what those practices do for your appreciation of the wider issues, your relationships with the people you disagree with. We know that they enable people to be more open to contesting ideas. We know that they facilitate compromise, because you tend to see people less as the enemy and more as people that are part of the conversation just like you are. It makes sharing ideas across boundaries easier–the whole range of human capacities that personal change processes facilitate. As people develop those capacities you would expect that they would become more independent, self aware, effective agents of change in the political system. Less allied, in other words, to a single identity or party or a rigid set of views which they fight to the death for–which is a large part of the problem at the moment.

I think the second part of the answer though, which is more challenging, is that we often tend to think that transformation has a particular end point, that it’s going to look like this or look like that in terms of how institutions work and what they should produce and so on. I’m strongly attached to that view, but it’s wrong. Because I don’t think transformation is going to bring about a certain conventionally defined progressive paradise in which everyone agrees with each other on what needs to be done.

In policy terms, I think that’s unrealistic, because I think those differences are deeply rooted in society and inside human beings, and they’re not going to disappear through more conversations. So I don’t think transformation means handing down some grand design from the top with a progressive label. I think it’s a journey of both self-discovery and collective action, which will give rise to a new set of answers to old policy questions, which are neither Democrat nor Republican, which look different, and are different, than the conventional ones that we have been taught to think about politically.

I think the only other path is to imagine us as Tom Frank does (he wrote the book What’s the Matter with Kansas?) that people who don’t agree with the progressive line are basically idiots, fools, sufferers of false consciousness. And if only they could be educated out of that false consciousness, they would start to vote in the right way–the right way meaning vote for the Democrats.

My experience of working with people, real people in real communities, is that that is far too simplistic and actually quite arrogant, because it assumes that people who disagree with you disagree for irrational reasons.

Whereas, in fact, I have colleagues who voted for my wife, who was elected in November on the Democrat and Working Families tickets in New York, who are deeply conservative Tea Party members. Talking to them is actually quite interesting, because they have a lot of interesting stuff to say. It’s been a sort of an eye-opener for me to become more involved in the micro-details of politics in my own community.

I’m starting to see people in a different way, so I’m not completely sure if “The Veil of Opulence” article is right in the way it describes the problem, and certainly not the solution. I think in a hundred years time there are still going to be people who believe different things and probably believe them quite passionately. So the task of transformation is not to knock them in the head with a big stick and say, you have to do this or think that, but to work in a different spirit towards a conclusion, which may be surprising for both parties. And that is actually quite liberating in policy terms, because you don’t have to fit in with the way people are defining the policy world for you. Your task is to be as alive and as open as you can be in the process of co-creating different options for the future. I think that’s much more exciting. But I think it is quite threatening to the way in which we conventionally see the problem.

Some people say, “Well, that’s just weak. It means giving into the other side.” But you don’t need to abandon your core beliefs to have a conversation like that. You just need to be able to hold the conversation in a way that is less ego-driven. A lot of people think that you can’t have a new form of politics without dissolving into a soggy middle ground, which will mean that more powerful forces will win. But that’s never really been the history of social movements and the way in which people have tried to transform the political system.

They’ve done it from a position of real strength, but they have had the flexibility to go with that strength, which means you can gradually engage people in a different way. When you do, at least in my experience, nine times out of ten they appreciate it and they go with you, because you are giving them permission to remove themselves from the silos of the conventional system. You are giving them permission to say, “Hey, what are we going to do about pollution in the lake and/or the fact that our children are malnourished?” When you are meeting them on their own ground, you respect them for who they are. But you don’t abandon what you believe in the process, that I think is a misnomer.

You can follow Michael on Twitter @edwarmi and visit his website at futurepositive.org.

Interview continued in Part II

Learn More About Mike Edwards on Future Positive

Read Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World

Q&A | Why Business Won’t Save the World

Read Just Another Emperor






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