About 20 years ago, in a conversation with a Bangladeshi organizer, the topic of NGOs* came up. He spat in disgust: “I hate NGOs.” At the time, I didn’t really get why he was so vehement about it. I knew NGOs had negative aspects, like siphoning off some revolutionary energy from the masses, but I also still half-believed their claims that their work was more helpful than not. Didn’t you have to be kind of a dogmatic asshole to denounce free health care and anti-poverty programs? But I didn’t yet fully appreciate how terrible they really are.
Since that conversation, NGOs have proliferated like mushrooms all over the world. First deployed in social formations dominated by imperialism, they’ve now taken over the political scene in capital’s base countries as well. They’ve become the hot new form of capital accumulation, with global reach and billions in revenue. So while ostensibly “non-profit,” they serve as a pretty sweet income stream for those at the top, while fattening up large layers of the petite bourgeoisie and draping them like a warm wet blanket over the working class, muffling their demands.
After much observation and experience both direct and indirect, I now understand and share that long-ago organizer’s hatred of NGOs. Just how terrible are they? Let us count the ways:
1) NGOs are one of many weapons of imperialist domination.
Along with military invasions and missionaries, NGOs help crack countries open like ripe nuts, paving the way for intensifying waves of exploitation and extraction such as agribusiness for export, sweatshops, resource mines, and tourist playgrounds.
Haiti is the most extreme example. Referred to by many Haitians as “the republic of NGOs”, the country had already been infested with 10,000 NGOs before the 2010 earthquake, more per capita than anywhere else in the world. 99% of earthquake relief aid was funneled through NGOs and other agencies, who made out like bandits, ripping off most of the money that people had donated in good faith with the expectation that it would actually help the masses affected by the catastrophe.
This shit is not new. Decades ago, USAID and the World Bank were already imposing export-led economies and concomitant “structural adjustment” programs on Haiti and elsewhere. Even 20 years ago, 80% of USAID money wound up back in the pockets of US corporations and “experts.” As the process matured, NGOs evolved into the favored entity of this parasitical form of accumulation, capitalizing and feeding on the misery created by “aid” in the first place.
In many dominated countries, NGO directors have become a fraction of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, using the state as their source of primary capital accumulation. For the past 20 years or so in Haiti, many of those who initiated and led NGOs also came to occupy political roles from President to Prime Minister to members of Parliament, including Aristide, Préval, and Michèle Pierre-Louis.
Now that capitalism is in a deepening global structural crisis, structural adjustment is being imposed on its core social formations as well. Like imprinted ducklings, NGOs follow in its wake. There are 30 new ones formed in the UK every day, and 1.5 million of them plague the US. They’ve become the survival option du jour for unemployed graduates navigating a global crisis economy.
2) NGOs undermine, divert, and replace autonomous mass organizing.
“What you resist, persists”—the cliché is not without strategic usefulness. Accordingly, instead of fighting the Left head-on as they once did, capitalists have smothered it in their loving arms.
By abandoning working class struggle, the Left had already set itself up for impotence—when it swings a fist it hits air; it can’t connect with the enemy. This weakened state made it vulnerable, liable to accept when the Rockefeller Foundation or some other capitalist entity hands it a check to “fight for empowerment and social justice and against corporate greed.” Boom: capitalists have neutralized their greatest threat. They’ve bought it, tamed it, pulled its teeth.
They’ve replaced it with a social phenomenon that appears to be (even sometimes declares itself to be) its opposing force, but which has become nothing more than a loyal and useful pet. Instead of going for capital’s throat, it (whatever it is, it should no longer be called “the Left”) nips playfully at its new master’s heels.
Let’s examine what this looks like on the ground.
You’re at a demonstration. How do you even know it’s real? You have a bunch of paid activists all holding pre-printed signs. They’re shouting slogans – but how do we know they even mean what they’re saying, when they’re following a pre-determined script? How can we trust that if their funding was cut, they would they still be there, that they would still care?
Sincere people often believe they will be able to “get paid to do good,” but it doesn’t work that way. Capitalists didn’t take over the world by being fucking stupid. They aren’t going to pay us to undermine them.
How many times have you seen this scenario? Some atrocity happens, outraged people pour into the streets, and once together, someone announces a meeting to follow up and continue the struggle. At this meeting, several experienced organizers seem to be in charge. They say some really radical, bad-ass things that sound fairly awesome. They offer to provide training and a regular meeting space. They seem to already have a plan figured out, whereas no one else has yet had time to think about it. They exude competence, explaining (with diagrams) how to map out potential allies, and whipping out a list of specific politicians to target with protests. They formulate simplistic “asks” to “build confidence with a quick win.”
Anyone who suggests a different approach is passive-aggressively ignored.
Under their guidance, you all occupy some institution or the office of a politician, or you hold a march and rally. Your protest is loud and passionate and seems quite militant.
Next thing you know, you find yourself knocking on a stranger’s door with a clipboard in your hand, hoping to convince them to vote in the next election.
NGOs exist to undermine, divert, and replace mass struggle. They’re doing an excellent job. I recently spoke with a radical from New Jersey, who said that a protest she attended turned out to be the project of a graduate student, no doubt destined to be an NGO director in the near future. Sounding pretty shocked and pissed off, she said that since then, she doesn’t even feel like going to protests anymore because she doesn’t trust that they’re real. That right there is a win for capital.
In Miami, I’ve attended “Fight for $15” demonstrations in which the vast majority of participants were paid activists, employees of NGOs, CBOs (Community Based Organizations), and union staff seeking potential members. Black Lives Matter protests in Miami have been similarly led and largely populated by paid activists, who need to show they’re “organizing the community” in order to win their next grant.
At these types of mobilizations, when a previously unorganized person is spotted, they’re surrounded like fresh meat in a circle of hyenas, instantly devoured by activists looking to meet their recruitment quotas. The next time you see these new conscripts, they’re clad in the purple, red, orange, or lime green t-shirt of whatever org brand they’ve been sold.
These nonprofits pick up and drop campaigns not for reasons of conviction or long-term strategy, but strictly in line with the funding they receive, and confine them to the parameters dictated by foundations. Riding on the grunt work of trusting volunteers hoping to “make a positive difference,” many organizers achieve lucrative careers within the nonprofit bureaucracy, or use the experience as a launching pad to climb into high-level bourgeois politics.
Activism is being thoroughly capitalized and professionalized. Instead of organizing the masses to fight for their interests, these institutions use them for their own benefit. Instead of building a mass movement, they manage public outrage. Instead of developing radical or revolutionary militants, they develop social-worker activists along with passive recipients of assistance.
Not to sound like a cranky oldster, but once upon a time—believe it or not!—it was normal for organizers to not be paid. Revolutionaries took up the fight against The System from the perspective of international working class interests, from our conscience, and with a burning desire to crush the enemy and change the world. We understood it would be extremely difficult and involve hardship and repression, but would not be discouraged. A revolutionary militant gladly dedicates her/his life to this great cause.
Today, organizing without financial compensation seems to many like an alien concept, even a chump move. When I go out leafletting (yeah we still pass out paper leaflets), people often inquire: “How do I get a job doing that?” When I explain that I don’t do it for pay but out of conviction, their faces smush up in disbelief.
No wonder we’re so weak and scattered. The capitalist class, five steps ahead of us as usual, has been extremely effective at eating the Left alive. Until we break the NGO spell, we’re reduced to skeletons lurching around in activist purgatory.
The takeaway (to use nonprofit jargon—my eyes are rolling) is this: If capitalists are keeping us too busy and exhausted to organize our own shit, if we are reduced to being their foot soldiers working on their agenda instead of ours, then we are not going to win the revolution.
3) NGOs replace what the state should be doing.
So-called “aid” agencies funded by large capitalists and imperialist governments have taken over the functions of states in dominated countries that have been forced to cut social benefits as conditions of loans by those same imperialists. Conflict of interest much?
In the imperialist core and the periphery alike, NGOs are taking over state responsibilities to meet social needs. This “withering away” of state-run social programs doesn’t mean that capitalist states have become weak (sorry, anarchists and libertarians). It simply means they can devote more of their resources to conquest, repression and accumulation, and less to worrying about preventing the populace from rising up in mass discontent.
We’ve become conditioned to get our needs met by shuffling from cheap clinic to food bank to a myriad of other “civil society” agencies. Health care, food, water, shelter, childcare, and meaningful employment are basic necessities of human life. They should be provided by any decent society, but we’re being made to feel like humiliated beggars as we wade through red tape and argue with functionaries. This is bullshit. We deserve decent lives. We need to organize and fight for them together.
4) NGOs support capitalism by erasing working class struggle.
The structural placement of nonprofits in the economy (as vehicles of accumulation) make them incapable of challenging capitalism. They offer the struggling petite bourgeoisie (the so-called “middle class”) a way out, an alternative to proletarianization, by giving them jobs. They are Haiti’s largest employer. Everywhere they operate, they inflate the petite bourgeoisie as a buffer to overshadow and substitute themselves and their strivings for the struggles of the working class. NGOs seek to mitigate the most egregious effects of capitalism, but never to eliminate it.
The petite bourgeoisie, underpaid in the circulation of capital rather than exploited in production (as workers are), are dominated by capital but not in a fundamentally antagonistic relation with it (as workers are). Thus the natural tendency for the petite bourgeoisie, in asserting their class interests, is to fight for equality within the capitalist framework. The capitalist class relies on them to dampen working class struggle and divert it into reformism, into burying their struggles in establishment political parties and collaborationist unions.
Historically, whenever the working class opens its mouth to call for revolution, the soft pillow of the petite bourgeoisie has been willing to suffocate it. Capitalists always build up the petite bourgeoisie exactly to act as enforcement agents for capitalist domination of the working class. The challenge for the serious progressive, radical or revolutionary militant who happens to be a member of the petite bourgeoisie is to jump this imposed track, to consciously reject this role, and prevent being used (inadvertently or otherwise) for reactionary purposes.
The horrific effects of capitalism—oppression, ecocide, wars of conquest, exploitation, poverty—can’t be eliminated without eliminating their cause. If we really want to make the changes we say we want to make, we need to strip ourselves of any residual petit bourgeois loyalty to capitalism, and fight under the leadership of capitalism’s fundamental enemy: the working class.
A Note to NGO Employees:
I’m not questioning your sincerity. Many good young people genuinely want to make a difference. Jobs are scarce, and you need to make a living. It is supremely tempting to believe that these two imperatives can be combined into one neat package, allowing you to serve humanity while ensuring your own survival.
It’s a nice idea. It just happens to be untrue. An established structure will change you before you can change it. “The unity of the chicken and the roach happens in the belly of the chicken.”
Quitting isn’t the answer. We’re all trapped in the enemy’s economy. They’ve created these circumstances, compelling us to work in their industrial sector, their service sector, or their nonprofit sector. All of it is to extract value from us and reproduce their domination over us. We can’t simply decide to exit on an individual basis. The only way out is to organize with the aim of rising up together in revolution, and rupture the whole framework. Either we all get free, or none of us will.
What we must avoid in the meantime, though, is confusing NGO (or collaborationist union) employment with real autonomous organizing. Understand its nature: your job at an NGO is not to organize the masses, but to disorganize them, pacify them, lead them into political dead ends. So do your real organizing elsewhere.
Capitalism doesn’t assist us in destroying itself. Should we actually become effective in building an anti-capitalist mass movement, they won’t issue us a paycheck. Instead, they will do everything possible to discredit, neutralize, imprison and kill us.
Real revolutionary organizers don’t get paid.
* NGOs: Non-Governmental Organizations, or “non-profits,” usually in fact funded by governments and/or corporate foundations.
[Note: This article was initially solicited by Jacobin magazine, went through several versions of editing before being finally rejected by them. This is very close to my original version. Another version exists, which is co-authored—Vincent Kelley of Grinnell College joined the project to add his perspective and to help revise it according to the Jacobin editor’s requests. We attempted to do so without diluting the content. Their requests included making the language less informal and more “academic,” and culminated in what we both interpret as blatant attempts to erase the working class from its content (the Jacobin editor disagrees). When we refused to remove what we felt was our central point, Jacobin decided not to run the piece. The co-authored version is at http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/10/20/the-useful-altruists-how-ngos-serve-capitalism-and-imperialism/]