New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and the State / Philanthropy in Sweden

Sweden as Exemplar of Scientific Planning Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: This HistPhil forum on philanthropy in Sweden opens with an essay by HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey. It will be followed by contributions from Lars Trägårdh, Johan Vamstad, Noomi Weinryb, Johanna Palmberg, Pontus Braunerhjelm, and Jaakko Turunen. Though planned for some months, we are publishing this forum right as a national conversation in the United States, spearheaded by Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig’s March 6th op-ed, centers on what it would mean to model the United States after Scandinavian countries such as Sweden. As this forum suggests, such an effort would not (as the current national discussion assumes) require Americans to embrace “socialism” or reject “capitalism.” Rather, Americans would need to appreciate a particularly Swedish point of view on democracy, a perspective that Trägårdh, Vamstad, Weinryb, and Turunen stress in their contributions to this forum.  

Ten years ago, I decided that the only proper way of writing a dissertation on Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944)—one of the most influential studies of U.S. race relations in the twentieth century—was to learn Myrdal’s native Swedish. This way, I would be able to understand the author’s starting points for the project and better access his and his wife Alva Reimer Myrdal’s archives in Stockholm.

A testament to the value of learning a language (and of the Fulbright program which supported my stay in Sweden during the 2011-12 academic year), I have gained much more than simply greater entry into Gunnar Myrdal’s perspective. Repeatedly pulled to Sweden over the years, I also have been able to connect with a developing community of civil society scholars eager to analyze the potential role of philanthropy and nonprofits in Sweden. Most recently in the summer of 2017, I joined a seminar on philanthropy and democracy at Stockholm’s Ersta Skondal Bräcke University College. This HistPhil forum on philanthropy in Sweden is a direct outcome of this seminar, with contributions from seminar participants such as Lars Trägårdh, Johan Vamstad, Noomi Weinryb, and Johanna Palmberg. New co-authors such as Pontus Braunerhjelm and Jaakko Turunen also have contributed to the forum.

To HistPhil readers, it will become clear that conversations on philanthropy and democracy in Sweden, much as in the United States, tend to assume that philanthropy aims to supplant the role of the state in providing public goods. From this perspective, the question then becomes: Is philanthropy a democratizing force in society or necessarily undemocratic? Irrespective of the answer, another question usually comes up: Can philanthropy be more innovative, creative, efficient, and thus, better meet the needs of citizens than the state? Assuming the answer is ‘yes,’ democratic citizens might excuse philanthropy’s lack of democratic accountability to the publics it serves. In this general conversation, though, the implicit belief among advocates and foes of philanthropy is that philanthropy necessarily will try to supplant—rather than complement—the central role of the state in allocating public goods.

From my archival research on U.S. foundations and Gunnar Myrdal, however, I have been able to appreciate how philanthropy once imagined a much more supportive relationship with the state. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, elite foundations such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller organizations tried to strengthen, rather than replace, robust bureaucratic states. Working toward bolstering the efficacy of centralized national (and as I detail in my forthcoming book, imperial) governments, they encouraged networks of social scientists and national policymakers to work together to address, craft, and realize comprehensive and scientifically-informed policy solutions to national and imperial problems.

Gunnar and Alva Reimer Myrdal are part of this global history; and arguably more than any other grantees supported by the Rockefeller and Carnegie organizations at the time, they were able to approximate most closely these organizations’ expectations for scientifically-informed planning. Particularly relevant for HistPhil readers, this history on U.S. foundations’ funding practices both within and outside of the United States during the 1920s and 1930s provides an opportunity to appreciate an earlier model of private-public cooperation that placed philanthropy as champion—rather than critic—of centralized bureaucratic states.

In Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (2016), U.S. sociologists Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell provide a historical overview of the evolving relationship between philanthropy and the state during the greater part of the long twentieth century. Specifically, they explain a shift from “contributory philanthropy” in the early decades of the century (where philanthropy took a lead role in providing public services such as libraries and public education with the expectation that the state would then assume control over these public goods) to today’s “disruptive philanthropy” (where philanthropy sees itself as a potentially better provider of public goods).

Like Horvath and Powell’s contributory model of philanthropy-state dynamics, the foundations I describe in this essay intended to expand the power of the state. However, instead of providing greater public goods, these foundations expected that the state would use privately-financed scientific research to create comprehensive and scientifically-informed public policies to address pressing social problems. These policies might, in the end, augment citizens’ social goods, but that was not philanthropies’ direct inspiration for this model of philanthropy-state relationship. More than increasing resources for citizens, they were motivated by a desire to help national and imperial governments stabilize problems within their populations through comprehensive state planning. For the sake of a catchy name to complement Horvath and Powell’s dichotomy between contributory and disruptive philanthropy, I will call this alternative model from the 1920s and 1930s “scientific planning philanthropy.”

In condensed form, this transnational history begins with the decision of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in the mid-1920s to support the social science fields in the U.S. and Europe. Encouraging the Memorial’s board to assume this funding practice, the new director and University of Chicago trained psychologist Beardsley Ruml argued that it was “becoming more and more clearly recognised that unless means are found of meeting the complex social problems that are so rapidly developing, our increasing control of physical forces may prove increasingly destructive of human values.” To understand Ruml’s anxieties about increasingly complex social problems and his tandem advocacy of the social sciences, it is important to note that the social sciences were relatively new fields at U.S. universities and that these U.S. fields were then moving beyond theory, philosophy, and historical analyses. They were moving toward firsthand empirical analyses of contemporary society, a research approach that was even newer in European universities. By supporting and exporting the developing model of the U.S. social sciences, Ruml and several of his contemporaries expected or at least hoped that the social sciences could achieve the scientific character of the natural social sciences; and thus too, that the social sciences could develop like the natural sciences to become reliable resources for public policymakers. Even more, the experience of WWI had alerted individuals such as Ruml that social problems across the Atlantic needed to be contained within national and imperial boundaries, lest they develop into transnational conflicts comparable in devastation to the recent European war.

As part of its support of the social sciences, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial maintained a fellowship program to support promising European scholars to visit the U.S. and thus learn about the developing social science fields. The Memorial, and then the Rockefeller Foundation which took over this funding practice with the consolidation of the Rockefeller organizations in 1929, expected that these European fellows would then return to their home countries, and with the continued support of the Rockefeller organizations, would strengthen these fields in their respective countries. These foundation leaders anticipated that fellows’ social scientific research not only would help develop expertise in these fields in Europe, but also help European governments stabilize tensions within their populations, and thus, prevent a second global conflict.

Gunnar and Alva Reimer Myrdal were two of these Rockefeller Fellows. During the 1929-30 academic year, just as the Foundation absorbed the Memorial’s social science program, the renowned economist and member of the Stockholm School of Economics traveled with his wife, a recent university graduate who was particularly interested in child psychology, across the Atlantic to learn about the U.S. social sciences. In the early 1930s, the couple then returned to Sweden. Gunnar Myrdal assumed a chair in economics at Stockholm University and became a member of the committee directing research at the Rockefeller-funded Institute for the Social Sciences. Alva Myrdal became director of the Institute for Social Pedagogy in Stockholm. As part of their newly developing interest in the applied social sciences, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal began work on one of their most celebrated co-authored works, Kris i befolkningsfrågan (Crisis in the Population Question, 1934). For the book, Alva later recounted that Gunnar wrote the “demographic and economic aspects” and that she authored the “treatment of social policy.”

Engaging with continental Europe’s anxieties about its decreased male populations after the First World War and the interrelated problem of decreasing population numbers, the Myrdals detected dropping fertility rates in Sweden and offered comprehensive policy solutions to solve it. In effect, they considered modern couples’ resistance for taking on the financial burdens of parenthood and proposed various policies that the state could assume—from free public nurseries, baby cribs and kindergartens to free health services and school lunches—to mitigate these extra costs. For many Swedes, the Myrdals’ policy proposals came to represent an important genesis in the evolving and developing welfare state in Sweden.

Already by the 1930s, the Rockefeller Foundation staff took note of the Myrdals’ successful attempts to apply social scientific research to national planning. In this vein, they discussed Gunnar Myrdal (if not Alva Myrdal, whom they wrongly dismissed simply as an extension of Gunnar) as one of the organization’s bright stars in Europe with one foundation director writing to a fellow colleague: “Apparently, in granting Myrdal an SS fellowship, the Foundation placed its money on a winning horse! I wish we might register a larger proportion of such notable successes.” Explaining this quotation, historian Walter Jackson notes that “Rockefeller officials admired in Myrdal not merely his brilliance as an economist but his effectiveness in applying social science research to legislation and public policy.”

Far from alone, the Rockefeller organizations’ interest in supporting the social sciences both as a means of increasing the scientific nature of these fields as well as a tool for state planning was shared by their colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation at the time. Not only did the Corporation commission Gunnar Myrdal to direct a comprehensive social scientific study with national policy ambitions in the U.S. (which, as I explain in my forthcoming book, became An American Dilemma), but it also financed comparably ambitious social science studies in colonial Africa. To be sure, these studies in the applied social sciences achieved policy impact in their respective geographies. However, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal’s work in Sweden was a particularly successful example in which public policymakers adopted the comprehensive policy recommendations that social scientists, funded by this network of philanthropies, offered. For this, the Rockefeller organizations celebrated Gunnar Myrdal; and largely for this reason too, their colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation selected him to direct a national study of black Americans some years later.

Today, these early-twentieth-century philanthropic leaders’ faith in the potential of scientifically-informed comprehensive public policy programs to stabilize tensions within national, regional, and global communities might seem naïve. And perhaps they were. After all, even with all of their efforts, a second world war indeed developed on the European continent. Yet, there are also lessons to be learned. One such lesson is that philanthropy does not need to be a competitor with strong bureaucratic states. Rather, there was a time when U.S. philanthropy imagined itself to serve a much more complementary role and looked to Sweden—and its developing welfare state—as one of its most successful efforts.

Maribel Morey, HistPhil co-editor




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