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Post Capitalist Philanthropy: Reframing Wealth in the Narrative Landscape

This article introduces a reframe strategy aimed at transforming how philanthropy operates, with the goal of aligning it with more life-centric approaches and re-calibrating the sector to play a deeper role in systemic change. This strategy is the second part of the Post Capitalist Philanthropy White Paper.

Published May 2, 2024

Introduction

In this article, we suggest redefining the role of wealth in society from one of acquisition, hoarding, extraction from the living world (including human labor), forced dispossession, expropriation and conspicuous consumption to one that acknowledges the historical, structural drivers of wealth accumulation in the first place. As we move from the neoliberal frame of personal wealth to a post capitalist frame, we can alchemize and liberate capital as a transition pathway. Part of the process is transforming the deep logics and narrative structures within philanthropy. However, this must also happen with a commensurate shift in philanthropic practices. Narrative without praxis is shallow; praxis without narrative is often ineffective.  

Transition pathways describe the process of moving from the dominant culture of neoliberalism, the driver of our current meta-crisis, characterized by fragility and systemic inadequacies, towards a more adaptive, ecologically-informed and justice oriented approach. This involves a three-stage process: acknowledging how and why the current system is collapsing; metabolizing the implications for social and ecological change; and finally, reimagining and implementing systemic changes that redefine the essence and function of wealth in society.

Wealth is reframed as a pathways for building a post capitalist worlds, including infrastructure (water, food, land, cultural, educational sovereignty), solidarity with social movements and shifting the narrative landscape and discourse. 

Transition pathways

Transition pathways act as both descriptive and prescriptive tools to diagnose our current predicament and chart out where we go. They represent the core “theory-of-change” of our narrative work. We can use them to measure our process. Transition pathways are archetypical three-stage processes for cultural evolution, moving us from a state of fragility and systemic breakdown, through a phase of critical reassessment driven by heightened awareness and justice demands, culminating in a transformative ontological reimagining.

The transition pathway for post capitalist philanthropy articulates a process where justice-oriented narrative communities are intertwined with concurrent shifts in ontology. These shifts are essential for achieving deep justice, as it moves beyond mere demands for social justice to a fundamental transformation in our ways of knowing, being, relating and interacting with the world.

An overarching umbrella is needed to harmonize and guide actors in their communications, in order to collectively propel the desired logics forward, while bespoke frames are needed for each community to enable them to “meet them where they are” and guide them through a journey towards the overarching reframe. 

From our research (link to white paper), our umbrella reframe is “Wealth as a Transition Pathway” which emerges as a beacon for reimagining the future of philanthropy. We will break this apart into the semantic frame, the underlying logic, and vivid conceptual metaphors that bring the frame to life. Together, the elements form a cohesive narrative.

Overarching reframe 
Semantic FrameWealth as a Transition Pathway
LogicTransforming the essence and function of wealth to build post capitalist infrastructure

Metaphors
Wealth as MyceliumComposting Hierarchies into RhizomesPhilanthropy as Ecosystem Cultivation

Semantic Frame: “Wealth as a Transition Pathway”

A semantic frame is a cognitive structure that organizes our understanding of a concept or situation by capturing the various elements and their relationships within that context, guiding how we perceive, interpret, and communicate about it.

In the semantic frame of “Wealth as a Transition Pathway”, wealth is understood as a transformative and evolutionary agent, guiding us towards post capitalist worlds. Wealth as a transition pathway means wealth can be an agent that is driving the transition from fragile, extractive systems to resilient, regenerative ones. This includes utilizing and alchemizing wealth, in the short period of time it is still valuable, to build post capitalist infrastructure. 

This transformative redefinition of wealth unfolds on two levels. Firstly, the function of wealth undergoes a radical shift: instead of perpetuating cycles of extraction and accumulation, often veiled by philanthropic gestures, it is redirected towards creating the infrastructure necessary for a post capitalist society. 

Secondly, the essence of wealth is expanded beyond its conventional market-based definition to embrace non-monetary assets like ancestral knowledge, quality of relations and access to essential natural resources such as land, food, medicine and water. This expansion of the concept of wealth changes the paradigms of its creation, ownership, and distribution.

This semantic frame helps organize and interpret the idea that wealth, if reconceptualized and redirected, can be foundational to societies and cultures that transcends capitalist and anthropocentric limitations. Emphasizing interconnectedness over division, collaboration over competition, and the collective well-being over individual accumulation, this frame not only challenges us to rethink our relationship with wealth but also to reassess our collective values and the envisioned future world we wish to create. 

By acknowledging the latent potential energy within wealth for profound societal change, we are called to harness this power responsibly and imaginatively towards achieving a regenerative and equitable global community.

Semantic frames can be thought of as a central organizing idea or storyline that provides meaning. The storyline that is evoked through the frame of “Wealth as a Transition Pathway,” is envisioning a future where wealth serves as the backbone of an attainable post capitalist, post-anthropocentric society that values interconnectedness over separation, collaboration over competition, and the well-being of the whole over the accumulation of parts. This semantic frame not only challenges us to rethink our relationship with wealth but also calls for a reevaluation of our collective priorities and values, and the world we want to transition to.  

Logic: Transforming the essence and function of wealth. 

The logic of a narrative refers to the underlying coherence that holds the component parts of the narrative together (e.g. a diagnosis of a situation, causes and solutions). In our work, we must identify the existing logics underlying dominant narratives and indicate how these logics will be changed in the reframe.

The logic underpinning this frame recognises that philanthropy is a critical part of the machinery of the extractive economic model of late-stage capitalism where philanthropist’s ultimate aim is to continue to grow their endowments (e.g. through bonds and hedge funds) so they have a bigger pool of money to give away and “solve” the very social and ecological problems that wealth accumulation creates in the first place. In Post Capitalist Philanthropy (2022), this core issue is articulated as such:

“A small group of people have amassed large sums of wealth through an extractive system and then created a sector by which they can decide the agenda for civil society while receiving a multitude of publicly-conferred benefits (from tax breaks to lobbying power to social influence) that further concentrate private financial and social power.”

Alnoor Ladha and Lynn Murphy

Philanthropy, as it stands, shapes the direction and activities of social movements, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), policy-making bodies, and academic institutions. This influence is primarily due to the financial support that philanthropic entities provide, which comes with attached value systems and implicit power. 

These often manifest as specific metrics and desired outcomes that recipient organizations must adopt and follow. However, these value systems remain hidden and unexamined in the  everyday functioning of both the recipient organization and the donor. 

By redefining the fundamental nature and operational role of wealth, we have the potential to transform a whole range of initiatives that are positioned within the transition to post capitalist realities. To do this we must transform both the essence and function of wealth. Here, “essence” refers to the underlying semantic and meaning framework that defines wealth, while “function” pertains to the ways in which these definitions are put into practice through organizational and systemic behaviors.

Our perception of wealth and philanthropy plays a pivotal role in what could be described as the NGO-industrial complex. Recognizing this centrality, if we are able to shift the foundational concept of wealth from a focus on individual accumulation to a resource for systemic transformation and evolution, we initiate a profound change. This shift entails reimagining wealth not as a measure of personal financial status, but as a vital force for enabling change within social, environmental, and economic systems. By redefining wealth in this way, we aim to redirect its power and influence towards fostering more equitable and regenerative forms of existence. This transformation in understanding and approach could catalyze significant shifts in how philanthropy operates and impacts the broader transition.

Conceptual Metaphors: Enriching the Narrative

A conceptual metaphor is a cognitive tool that allows us to understand one idea or conceptual domain in terms of another, facilitating a deeper understanding of the first idea by drawing parallels with the more familiar second one. We employ conceptual metaphors to build the basic semantic foundation of the reframe. 

The following conceptual metaphors serve as examples or directions that can be employed in communicating and understanding the above reframe and logic.

“Wealth as Mycelium” vividly illustrates wealth’s potential to act as a foundational network, facilitating nourishment and connection across the societal ecosystem, much like mycelium in forests underpins complex ecosystems.

“Composting Hierarchies into Rhizomes” encapsulates the transformative process of breaking down hierarchical, toxic systems to fuel the growth of equitable, decentralized structures. This metaphor suggests a radical reconfiguration of power dynamics, where wealth is redistributed to empower horizontal networks of support and innovation.

“Philanthropy as Ecosystem Cultivation” extends the vision of philanthropy beyond mere financial contributions, envisioning it as the cultivation of vibrant ecosystems. This metaphor emphasizes the role of philanthropic efforts in enriching the societal soil, fostering conditions that allow for diverse forms of life and relationships to thrive.

The aim of these three key metaphors is to reimagine the essence and impact of the philanthropic discourse. First, “Wealth as Mycelium” illustrates how wealth, like the interconnected networks of fungi beneath the Earth, should foster connections, support mutual growth, and distribute resources efficiently and equitably across the community. This frame encourages us to see wealth not as a static hoard but as a dynamic, life-giving force that can nourish society at large.

“Composting Hierarchies” urges us to break down existing power structures and recycle their elements into more fertile, egalitarian forms of organization. Just as composting transforms waste into nutrient-rich soil, we can reconfigure the remnants of outdated systems into the foundation for new, more equitable ways of living and giving. This approach invites a reevaluation of traditional roles and relationships within philanthropy, promoting a culture of collaboration and co-creation.

Finally, “Philanthropy as Ecosystem Cultivation” emphasizes the role of philanthropy in nurturing diverse, resilient communities, much like a gardener tends to an ecosystem. This metaphor shifts the focus from mere financial support to the holistic development of communities, recognizing the myriad ways in which life is interlinked and interdependent. 

By adopting these frames, we call on the philanthropic sector to begin the hospicing process. Together, these concepts provide scaffolding for systems change.

Footnotes

  1. Ladha, Alnoor, and Lynn Murphy. “Post Capitalist Philanthropy: Healing Wealth in the Time of Collapse.” (2022)
  2. Buffett, P. (26 July 2013). The Charitable-Industrial Complex. New York Times.
  3.  The use of the term “composting” characterizes the transition from fragile to regenerative systems: we can’t fully rid ourselves of these fragile systems but we can accompany their dismantling, so they become fertile soils to create new ones. This focus on change, renewal and integrating the composted elements of the old system, rather than complete destruction of the old system, relates to the understanding of cycles of systems according to ecological and complexity scientists (e.g. in Panarchy): systems go through phases of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal (https://leanlogic.online/glossary/systems-thinking/). It also relates to the idea of  “hospicing”: capitalist modernity is beyond reform and in desperate need of “palliative care for a dignified death for the old system and assistance with the gestation and birth of new, potentially wiser systems. TRC, Post Capitalist Philanthropy Webinar 3: Hospicing Modernity. Tiokasin Ghosthorse & Vanessa Andreotti: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E95aXSY2CDo&ab_channel=TransitionResourceCircle