A Dialogue about Democracy & Capitalism with Naomi Klein and Stephen Heintz

In January, Confluence Philanthropy hosted a webinar with Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, and Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. A summary of that conversation first appeared on the Confluence Philanthropy blog and is republished below with permission.

We expected the conversation to diverge from philanthropy’s mainstream: our theme was a dialogue about democracy and capitalism and the speakers are two of the foremost thinkers around philanthropy and social change. But what we got was a soul-shaking wake-up call about the state of the world, as well as some surprising moments of hope.

Confluence Philanthropy CEO, Dana Lanza, who moderated the dialogue, dove right in, asking the speakers what’s keeping them up at night.

“I’m deeply worried,” said Heintz, “that we’re approaching a fundamental crisis.” Climate change, growing inequality, and eroding democracies intersecting together are putting at risk “the planet and the people who inhabit it,” he said. Heintz shared concerns that the way in which we are implementing our three core operating systems—capitalism, the nation-state system and representative democracy—are now showing signs of being obsolete against the challenges of the 21st century.

Klein concurred. “I don’t know how I could be more alarmed—we all are. The latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report didn’t help, Trump’s election doesn’t help, being a mom doesn’t help.” And, she said, she’s troubled by the way we can’t seem to make connections between these crises. “I see . . . rising seas and rising fascism as intertwined.” The marked increase in migration that’s fueling far-right political movements, Klein believes, is actually resulting from climate adaptation. “We understand there’s a connection, and that’s why we’re seeing the fortressing of the wealthy world.”

“So how do we create an economic system,” asked Lanza, “that ensures climate justice and fights the advent of fascism?”

“Climate change is testing our humanity,” said Klein. “It’s about what kinds of people we want to be, even in a future filled with shocks.”

Our first responsibility, she said, is to frontline communities. “Right now, the people who did the least to cause climate change are suffering and paying the most. We’d reverse that, so the polluters would pay for what they’ve done.”

Stephen Heintz agreed. “The climate crisis is really the forcing mechanism: it is so big, so existential, so serious,” he said. “But it reveals these bigger issues around humanity—the sense of fairness and justice and equality. Unless we reestablish an ethos of caring and sharing as a way of acting on this planet, we’re not going to solve this crisis.”

For Lanza, that raised moral and spiritual implications to these issues. “How do we reconcile our influence and privilege with the need to make more space at the proverbial table?”

Heintz suggested philanthropists actually must practice more humility, and that investors should broaden their definition of wellbeing to include whole systems, rather than simply the performance of their dollars. And, he said, the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. “We can be both good stewards of capital and also of what the dollars are doing.”

Klein suggested that philanthropy, in some cases, stalls change by under-funding the movement building organizations that challenge prevailing economic systems. “It’s not that there’s no role for philanthropy,” she said, “but how can grantmaking encourage more democracy and equity? How do we fund people who make demands for systemic change rather than those that craft incrementalism?”

She also took aim at the arrogance of philanthropists who go it alone—notably, at the moment, Michael Bloomberg, who had announced earlier in the day that he would “write” the Green New Deal.

“That’s extraordinary arrogance,” she said. “The idea is not to say that we know what the Green New Deal is, but to spend a year consulting with expertise that has been waiting for this tipping point.” Democracy and inclusion are key to drafting such a deal. If anything, she said, “We need help figuring out a democratic process [for this].”

Heintz said there was a lot of talk at Davos this year about capitalism’s flaws. “People recognize there’s something fundamentally flawed in the way capitalism is being practiced today,” he said. “This is a great opportunity. People recognize things are wrong and that we have to work together democratically for a brighter future.”

His words brought Lanza to a burning question: “Where do you each find your hope?”

Heintz finds a lot of causes for hope, including the rise of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements and the way that the American public has finally shrugged off climate denialism despite decades of misinformation efforts by the fossil fuel industry.

There’s political hope, as well.

“Just look at the midterms,” he said. “Ballot initiatives to fight gerrymandering and voter suppression, to give felons back the right to vote, to create automatic voter registration. And huge diversity was added to Congress for the first time.”

But when it comes to capitalism, Heintz feels strongly that we need to “move to a new economy—from obsolete capitalism to a wellbeing economy, a wellbeing society” that’s organized around equity and inclusion.

“We have the capacity to reach a kind of social tipping point. The question is, can we accelerate and reach that tipping point before we reach the climate tipping point?”

“It’s an extraordinary moment to be alive, because the peril is so great, but the promise is also giving me life,” said Klein. She believes the key is learning to envision bold systemic change. “I think science fiction is incredibly important in this moment,” said Klein, “because we need permission to dream together.”

While recognizing the limitations of the original New Deal, Klein said it’s time to offer bold plans like it again. “We’re going to remember a time when we worked together with vision and boldness, and we weren’t afraid to plan . . . FDR created 200,000 jobs for the Civilian Conservation Corps in first three months,” she said, “and that ultimately created two million jobs.”

“Roosevelt was accused of being a traitor to his class, a socialist,” said Heintz. “He said, ‘They attack us relentlessly, but I welcome their attacks.’ It’s important to remember that it’s a badge of honor to be attacked when you’re on the arc towards justice.”

Confluence Philanthropy advances mission-aligned investing. It supports and catalyzes a community of private, public, and community foundations, individual donors, and their values-aligned investment advisors representing more than $70 billion in philanthropic assets under management and over $3.5 trillion in managed capital. Confluence is an international organization, with the majority of members based in the U.S. and a handful in Europe, Canada, and Mexico. Our members represent a diversity of institutions, charitable asset types, personal and professional roles, and programmatic missions, but they all share a commitment to mission aligned investing. confluencephilanthropy.org