photo by SG

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Non-Profits and Class Forces

Because I'm still bourgie scum, I read Harper's when I can get a copy of it, having grown up stealing that magazine from my father as soon as he put it down. While it is a capital Left publication, its analysis is sometimes really illuminating and it frequently has great contributors. This month Naomi Klein has a fascinating article titled Minority Death Match: Jews, blacks and the "post-racial" presidency (which of course you gotta pay for to see online; guess Harper's hasn't caught up with the EFF yet).

While Klein's fundamental point is that the U.N. Conference on Racism functioned as a way of pitting Jewish concerns, primarily those of Israelis, against Africa and African-Americans by emphasizing the tiny minority of participants who are anti-Semitic instead of the massive ground-swelling of support for reparations for slavery, the article for me was an instructive point about the uselessness of NGOs. In the flap after the Durban conference and the Israeli lobby's subsequent rebranding of the conference as a "hate fest" instead of what it was, an attempt by third world governments and civil society to make the global North account for slavery by reinvesting money in large projects to close the gap between the African diaspora and the North, NGOs who initially supported the reparations project had to bow out. The article indicates that these NGOs, many of them U.S.-based, feared being tarred with the anti-Semitic brush by being affiliated with Durban or another conference and as such had to move backwards, further allowing anti-Semitic elements to step forward, as Iranian president Ahmadinejad proved when he took the stage at the second conference to denounce Israeli.

Klein illustrated how once an issue became controversial, these NGOs were forced to step back because those who remained close to the issue lost their funding. In an ironic twist, NGOs instrumental in the distortion of the conference's point, like the Anti-Defamation League, actually received a tremendous amount of funding from foundations like Ford which had been taken directly from those black NGOs who were too close to the repartions issue!

What's fascinating about all this is that it really has nothing to do with reparations on the surface. It looks just like one group forcing their issues which results in the distracting from another groups'. Clearly the first group is considerably smaller and more powerful than the second, but the point generally stands. What Klein makes clear, and what I think is instructive for radicals organizing (you knew I'd get there eventually!) is that it still was really about reparations. The U.S. government, under Bush as well as Obama, was basically searching for any excuse to not participate in a conference that would give it anything more than a moral obligation to apologize for slavery. When the Israel issue popped up, it was a smart move to please Jewish and right-wing constituents by stepping back from Durban and it allowed the U.S. to never have to face the possibility of being sued by blacks foreign or domestic for damages and reparations.

The point being that the NGO-industrial complex serves its purpose by being involved in this surface level politics. ACORN has become the whipping boy of the Right in this election, anti-union "public interest organizations" are increasingly being outed by labor and its allies as the corporate shills that they are. But this ideological level where they exist is just that. There certainly are material benefits in this superstructural plane, where certain ideologies can be given control over the discourse and governmental/non-profit resources. No one can deny that the fact that the Center for Union Facts has had a role in shaping workers' thoughts about unionism.

But these top-level operations ultimately only exist at the pleasure of larger, more complicated and deeper interests. When the U.S government did not want to have to deal with the potentially expensive reparations issue, it allowed NGOs and their foundation-based masters to fight amongst each other and quietly departed the fray. We should keep this in mind when we work with NGOs, even the most "critical" or radical of them. It's not just that as that old chestnut runs, that NGOs function as a recuperative wing of capitalism. While they often do that, they also function as a distraction from the real contradictions in society. By placing serious value in our connections with NGOs, we leave ourselves open for the inevitable betrayal that they will be forced to commit when our issue becomes too powerful to the forces that oppose it. NGOs, with no rank-and-file that make them self-sustaining, can never be as useful on the long-term as genuinely self-organized organs of working class power.

Though long-term relationships with them are tempting because of their access to funding, resources in-kind, and expertise, all these must be taken with a grain of salt. When NGOs leave us, and they will, our organizations will be forced into a position where we haven't developed these elements to a strong enough position and we will be open to attack. When the capitalists and state force our hand, NGOs will and must fall away. The story of Durban makes that abundantly clear: NGOs are meaningless when stronger forces move. If we're serious about revolution, we need to make our organizations into ones that can stand up directly and without their assistance.

There's clearly more to be said on this topic, particularly thinking about the theoretical implications of analysis of superstructure and structure and how they interact. I think there's also lots to be said about the interactions with these two levels and with the infrastructure of society, since so many NGOs focus on environmental issues. But that's for another day.