The new media venture from billionaire philanthropist Pierre Omidyar will enlist the muck-raking talents of Glen Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. Omidyar's record of promoting and funding "free-market solutions" to social problems is a good indicator of what the limitations of the project will be.
Pierre Omidyar is a Punahou school alumnus who holds a bachelor's degree in computer science. He is also the multibillionaire philanthropist behind Hawaii-based Civil Beat, a Right-Libertarian, pro-business, pay-walled media website that focuses its critique on the shortcomings of democratic governance and the public sector. Omidyar's Civil Beat offers analysis which seems to exist in a strange land without class conflict, where the ruling-class and the working-class struggle shoulder to shoulder against the forces corrupting liberal democracy. As a result, the editorial slant is marked by a distinct disconnect from the every-day lives of non-billionaire philanthropists, those who don't stand to gain from the schemes of Omidyar, the "classless angel."
Omidyar's latest project is to launch a media group whose roster of reporters will include the muckraking talents of Glen Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. To assess the potential for this new project, it is important to know his basic ideological outlook, which we can find in the projects he has participated in.
After striking it rich by helping to establish ebay, Omidyar decided to engage in targeted philanthropy to promote opportunity and a better world. He believes he earned his billions without taking anything from society, so his philanthropic impulse cannot be traced to a sense of guilt regarding his fortune. In fact it's the other way around: "To Omidyar, 'giving back' implies that, before philanthropy, you were taking away. Not so, says Omidyar, who believes that people succeed when they create value for society."
One of Omidyar's "value creating" projects has been to invest heavily in the micro-loan industry, through groups like Kiva which allows investors to profit off of loans to the poor, especially in impoverished regions of India. The ideology behind this business venture saw free markets magically lifting all boats where government funding did not. The actual results were often financial collapse, leaving the borrowers prey to lenders demanding repayment. "It is tough to find a household in this village in an impoverished district of Andhra Pradesh that is not deeply in debt to a for-profit microfinance company."
The Omidyar Network states on its website that it "is a philanthropic investment firm dedicated to harnessing the power of markets to create opportunity for people to improve their lives." Omidyar is often identified as an "economist," perhaps explaining his profoundly distorted idea of what markets do and how capitalism works. For him, markets seem to act as avenues which unleash people-power and democracy, especially when noble-minded entrepreneurs are navigating them.
But the misguided nature of Omidyar's philanthropy comes into sharpest focus when looking at his projects around education. He has given ten million dollars to the Skoll Foundation, a major backer of Teach For America", which specializes in placing undertrained Ivy League idealists in classrooms in underperforming neighborhoods. They commit to two years on the job after graduation, and are (perhaps unwittingly) deployed as part of an end run around teachers unions. TFA promotes legislation that seeks to undermine tenure, and "reward good teachers" while making it easier to fire "bad" ones. They promote charter schools as inherently superior to public ones, and advocate for a business-model-of-education with school principals acting more like CEOs than head teachers.
Opponents of Teach For America have pointed out, that TFA is an "incubator for the privatization movement":
TFA plays a key role in developing and connecting personnel, political support, and financial backing for neoliberal and market based policies, specifically charter school reform, the deregulation of teacher education, and accountability policies.
While TFA uses the rhetoric of justice and equity, these reforms in fact stifle democratic processes and are used to justify budget cuts and the takeover of public institutions by privately funded and privately run companies.
Jeff Skoll was Omidyar's business partner and the first President of ebay. Skoll was a major funder of the movie "Waiting For Superman" which featured Michelle Rhee as its protagonist, giving her a national platform to attack teachers' unions and promote her privatization agenda which has resonated with both Republicans and Democrats carrying out austerity-governance. Diane Ravitch's description of the movie (and related education "reform" films) shows how it is a perfect fit for Omidyar's vision of entrepreneurial genius coming to the rescue of a world mired in public sector programs that are alleged to have "failed":
The message of these films has become alarmingly familiar: American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit
The Omidyar Network is behind "Teach For All," the globalized version of the Teach For America model. A look at the Board of Teach For All, provides a clear illustration of both its detachment from the educational field, and the corporate world view it embodies. Its members include top brass from Rolls Royce, Visa, Goldman Sachs, the founder of Teach For America, and Dr. Rufus Black a "theologian and ethicist" who is presumably there to provide rationalizations for their atrocious attacks on working teachers, students, unions, and communities.
Especially appalling is the push by Omidyar and other corporate education "reformers" to link teacher assessments to their students' scores on standardized tests, and then to utilize those assessments in determining whether a teacher retains employment or not. This correlates to the "business model of education." A profile on the Omidyar Network states that "[t]he model of investing in social change organizations requires that measurable good flows from the investment, just as accounting methods tell executives whether a for-profit investment is producing profits." This is the lens through which corporate reformers like Bill Gates, the Broad Foundation, and Omidyar see the world. Numerical data will reflect the "measurable good" provided by a teacher, but the data will be detached from factors like poverty, student access to nutrition, problems at home, the level at which particular schools are funded and the educational resources they have access to, etc. These aspects will be abstracted out, as is the fashion in the neoliberal economics that underpin Omidyar's crusades to create social value. Teachers with students who are learning English as a second language, who have learning disabilities, or who face issues stemming from poverty, still the main determinant in negative educational outcomes, are assessed as "failing" if their students' scores are low.
Omidyar, and the other billionaire philanthropists who push top down, non-democratic crusades to empower the people, genuinely believe they possess the knowledge that the "best minds" have to offer. One problem is that their money gives them the right to engage in these projects whether or not they have any kind of relevant expertise, or even a grasp on reality. The corporate-philanthropist take on reality amounts to little more than ideology; specifically capitalist:
Property rights are the keys to economic security, identity, and wealth creation. ...Societies that enforce these rights benefit from greater economic growth, transparency, and political stability, as they encourage investment, promote the rule of law, and give people a stake in the future.
Any grounding of capitalism in history shows that, while it unleashed productive powers never before dreamed of, it cannot be a truly liberating force for humanity. Beyond whatever role it had in overturning feudal social relations, it came with inherent problems of its own, and the concept of "property rights" is one of them. From the English enclosures carried out by the landed gentry, enabled by laws created by the parliaments they owned, to the hangings of thousands of "vagrants" who had become criminalized via this process, capitalism's beginnings were brutal by design. Property rights as enshrined in law has mainly to do with preserving the ownership of the "means of production" in a very few hands while the masses own little more than their own labor power, which they must sell to a boss. For every gain made via capitalist production, so to have these inequalities of the class system been reproduced. The hangings were part of a ruling class pedagogy, because people had to be taught to respect the new restrictive capitalist property relations which made it so hard for them to survive. With this in mind, its hard to get on board with Omidyar's goal of creating value for society, when the system of value production he promotes as a panacea is the same one that reinforces the process of alienation.
The idea that property rights make people free should be especially offensive when Omidyar targets former colonies for philanthropic rehabilitation. With Teach For India, we see a project promoting markets as the savior of Indian social infrastructure. Unfortunately, the impact of the market system on India has a deeply disturbing history, completely relevant to Omidyar's present efforts. In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis has illuminated the incredible human toll markets unleashed on the subcontinent under British colonial rule: "Davis’ primary focus in fleshing out his story is the crown jewel of Britain’s colonial empire: India. Drought was the precipitating cause of the hardship faced by the Indian people. However, Davis demonstrates with statistics and anecdotes that it was the unregulated “free market” system imposed on India by Britain that led to the deaths of tens of millions in the mid-1870s and late 1880s."
Aside from his ideologically dubious philanthropy, Omidyar has also drawn outrage closer to his present Oahu home from the residents of the island of Kauai, where he has proposed to develop a mixed residential and low-density hotel resort. "Despite 5,000+ petition signers, strong, visible community opposition, and several attempts to dialog directly with Mr. Omidyar, the Oahu resident and billionaire founder of eBay has thus far declined to personally dialog with concerned Kauai Community leaders." It should be noted that Kauai's population is roughly 68,000, so 5,000 signatures is proportionally significant. A member of Save Hanalei River Ridge, wrote to Omidyar, complaining that:
To introduce multi-million-dollar homes sitting on top of the ridge looking down on Black Pot, would break the hearts of the thousands of people who live here and also those who come to visit and enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the River and the Bay. A resort development on this massive scale on the Hanalei River Ridge opens the door to letting it become more like Laguna Beach and less like Hanalei; this Garden of Eden that so well defines Kauai.
Despite the fact that his projects consistently put him at odds with the poor and working-class, Omidyar still sees himself as a benefactor of the people. The new venture, he explains "was fueled by his 'rising concern about press freedoms in the United States and around the world'." Natasha Vargas-Cooper hit what is perhaps a more telling note about Omidyar's interest in independent media when she wrote of Glen Greenwald in a profile of him for The Advocate. She believes that Greenwald's "obsession with surveillance and privacy issues have made him into an ideological pillar of the rather sterile, unfriendly world of civil libertarian politics, a group not known for its warmth and humanism." Omidyar's union-busting politics, his focus on private sector saviors, his backing of disruptive land developments, and his misnomered "social entrepreneurship" put him in that world.
Reading Omidyar's description of how his private sector experience will create success for his new media outlet, one would be justified in suspecting the blind spot toward working-class issues, so glaring in Civil Beat, will be replicated in the new venture: “Companies in Silicon Valley invest a lot in understanding their users and what drives user engagement. ...That process got me thinking about what kind of social impact could be created if a similar investment was made in something entirely new, built from the ground up. Something that I would be personally and directly involved in outside of my other efforts as a philanthropist.” Omidyar's idea of a community of readers empowered by truth is again seen through a commodified lens: "Users," (themselves a product to deliver to advertisers and others who can utilize information they generate about themselves) are driven to engage with his product, in this case news.
For the working-class, Omidyar's pursuit of freedom of both information and markets cannot be seen as inherently progressive. His top-down billionaire philanthropist/savior antics are as insulting as Andrew Carnegie's public infrastructure campaigns, which created public libraries and parks from the private fortune he'd amassed repressing wages and workers' movements. In Omidyar's world a classless civil society fights the powers that impede the market's ability to liberate human potential. In the real, historically grounded world there is an employing class and a working-class that "have nothing in common". No billionaire media mogul is ever going to be in the service of working people, no matter how much rhetoric about freedom of speech is deployed in the promotion of his or her product.
David Carr is an organizer with LaborFest Hawaii and a History instructor at Leeward Community College.