Knowledge is a weapon. So please consider contributing to build our arsenal. We accept no corporate or foundation funding whatsoever. Please make a donation.
The Intercept’s Interference: Notes on Media, Capitalism, & Imperialism | Part II: Non-Governmental Force Multipliers
April 6, 2014
In wondering whether Marcy Wheeler could plausibly claim legitimate doubt about the activities of Pierre Omidyar’s NGO in Ukraine, Tarzie asked whether an NGO could ever be anything other than an arm of soft imperialism. The answer to that latter question is actually yes, conceivably and even probably, although I can’t think of any such NGOs off the top of my head. The reason to believe that an NGO can be something other than a soft arm of imperialist power is that there are just so damned many of them. To shine a light on this, we have Eyal Weizman, to whose work I will return several times in this post. He offers specifics on the explosion of NGOs in just a few slivers of the world:
‘While in 1980 there were about 40 NGOs dealing with the Ethiopian famine, a decade later 250 were operating during the Yugoslavian war; by 2004, 2,500 were involved in Afghanistan.’
One must now imagine how many NGOs are operating worldwide. They serve a wide range of purposes, receiving money from a wide range of donors. The question as it pertains to Marcy Wheeler and The Intercept more generally is not about any old NGO; it’s about an NGO funded by USAID, a worldwide organization that shares funding and partnerships with the CIA and the State Department, and, in Ukraine, an oligarch, Pierre Omidyar. Therein lies the proper question: can this specific kind of NGO ever be anything other than the soft arm of imperialism? Of course not, I say.
A ‘transparency’ NGO against a rival regime of the United States plays a very particular role, which is why I mentioned multiple locales of NGOs in my last post about The Intercept. The meaning of an NGO funded by USAID in Ukraine is quite different from the meaning of a humanitarian NGO operating in the West Bank. The first is, in Ames’ words, ‘a force multiplier’ for the goal of regime change; the second is mainly a humanitarian agent, very often nominally aligned against Israel’s military occupation, or at least against the general spirit of it, but nonetheless tolerated by Israel. In both cases, the NGOs, as I mentioned before, obscure class consciousness; the reason is that the fascist state–as an absorber of superfluous capital and, through its police forces, protector of private property–is fundamentally opposed to the emergence of the communistic movements of the societies they are tasked with governing, by which I mean controlling and containing.
I’ll begin with the Israeli case and then work back to Ukraine. In the case of Israel, NGOs exist in lieu of the military policies and architecture that have ghettoized hundreds of segments of society within historic Palestine. Palestinians have been separated from Israelis; Druze have been separated from Palestinians; Palestinians have been separated from Palestinians (think of the distance between Gaza and the West Bank); Palestinians have been separated from Ethiopian refugees, which have in turn been separated from Israeli Jews, and you are beginning to get an idea of the utter fragmentation that Israel’s divide-and-conquer strategies have produced. But one more fragmentation must be mentioned, among the most crucial: class fragmentation, which includes even the strategic placement of the Israeli working and under classes in relation to the upper classes. In physically organizing its society according to relatively modern identities it’s helped to shape, Israel has thus far successfully thwarted communistic threats to its power (albeit not very often with ease), and that success increases if these respective identity groups embrace as political projects in themselves the various identities given to them by power. The political dilemma of identity cannot be ignored, as there are real differences between the marginalization of the Israeli working class and that of Palestinians under Israel’s racializing project. (As the Palestinians experience a more advanced form of alienation, it is the job of the Israeli working class to offer proper solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.) But this is not to say that the procurement of identity makes for a worthy political end goal in itself. Should these groups treat identity formation as a critique and a resistance in itself, they will, as subjects of Israeli power, from Israeli working classes to the Druze to the Palestinians, overlook the demands of their own struggles, as well as the possibilities hinted at by famed Palestinian revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani in a 1972 interview (a possibility again hinted at by the Qassam Brigades on November 17, 2012, as mentioned in the above-linked article by Max Ajl):
‘So you do see contradictions within the Israeli population which can divide them in the future, and provide the Palestinian resistance with allies within Israeli society?
‘Of course. But this will not happen easily. First of all, we must escalate the revolution to the stage where it poses an alternative to them, because up to now it has not been so. It is nonsense to start talking about a ‘Democratic Palestine’ at this stage; theoretically speaking it establishes a good basis for future debates, but this debate can only occur when the Palestinian resistance is a realistic alternative.
‘You mean it must be able to provide a practical alternative for the Israeli proletariat?
‘Yes. But at the moment it is very difficult to get the Israeli working-class to listen to the voice of the Palestinian resistance, and there are several obstacles to this. These include the Israeli ruling class and the Arab ruling classes. The Arab ruling classes do not present either Israelis or Arabs with a prospect of democracy. One might well ask: where is there a democracy in the Arab world? The Israeli ruling class is obviously an obstacle as well. But there is a third obstacle, which is the real, if small, benefit that the Israeli proletariat derives from its colonialist status within Israel. For not only is the situation of Israeli workers a colonialist one, but they gain from the fact that Israel as a whole has been recruited to play a specific role in alliance with imperialism. Two kinds of movement are required to break down these barriers, in order for there to be future contact between an anti-Zionist Israeli proletariat and the Arab resistance movement. These will be the resistance movement on the one hand and an opposition movement within Israel itself; but there is no real sign of such a convergence yet, since, although Matzpen exists, what would be necessary is a mass proletarian movement.’
Within the primarily Palestinian space of the West Bank, countless NGOs have cropped up, which leads to another Tarzie question: can’t the Israeli working class work with NGOs in the West Bank? The answer is, once again, conceivably, but that’s as far as it goes. This has not been the case, and we must account for the reasons. The first question worth asking is, why does Israel, a state that typically gets away with whatever brutality it wishes to exact, tolerate so many NGOs working nominally against it in territories under its direct military control? Answering that question requires another question: what do these NGOs do? There are two primary types of NGOs in the West Bank: humanitarian ones, those which offer general health supplies to the brutalized Palestinian population, and informational NGOs, those which provide the brutalized population with a space for political organization, things like publishing pamphlets and setting up lectures and panel discussions.
The humanitarian NGOs working in Palestine have, according to Weizman, adopted an essentially theological ethos to address the issue of suffering. (This would not be the first or only time social justice movements have adopted monotheistic tenants to meet the world’s problems; I hope to address this in a future post.) Weizman proposes that the main theological presupposition animating humanitarian impulse in an occupation situation is St. Augustine’s principle of lesser evil: lesser evils are to be tolerated when they are deemed unavoidable. More:
‘The lesser evil is the argument of the humanitarian agent that seeks military permission to provide medicines and aid in places where it is in fact the duty of the occupying military power to do so, thus saving the limited military resources. The lesser evil is often the justification of the military officer who attempts to administer life (and death) in an “enlightened” manner; it is sometimes, too, the brief of the security contractor who introduces new and more efficient weapons and spatio-technological means of domination, and advertises them as “humanitarian technology”. In these cases the logic of the lesser evil opens up a thick political field of participation bringing together otherwise opposing fields of action, to the extent that it might obscure the fundamental moral differences between these various groups. But, even according to the terms of an economy of losses and gains, the concept of the lesser evil risks becoming counterproductive: less brutal measures are also those that may be more easily naturalized, accepted and tolerated—and hence more frequently used, with the result that a greater evil may be reached cumulatively.’
So there it lies. A calculation that seeks to alleviate a suffering tacitly accepts the endurability of that suffering and ultimately prolongs it. The Israeli ruling class is, like most imperialists, not stupid; it knows that humanitarian NGOs pose zero threat, and so it tolerates them.
Informational NGOs in the West Bank are more so the hangouts of those foreigners too politically savvy to get caught up in the obvious pitfalls of liberal humanitarianism, which is really just so Daily Show and Obama ’08. Here is where young foreigners of a more radical bent can go to exchange political ideas with Palestinians, perhaps even to set up times and dates for attending demonstrations so that they can make themselves useful by obstructing an IDF’s soldier’s path when he attempts to arrest a Palestinian. And these young internationalist activists will likely help with lectures from guest speakers around the world and will help to publish pamphlets detailing the harsh realities of Israeli occupation. It is telling how these outlets are staffed so overwhelmingly with volunteers from around the world, as opposed to Israeli proles, but not necessarily surprising. This is the class makeup that can be expected in the wake of Israel’s forcible fragmentation of the society underneath it: the class makeup of the propaganda NGO is first of all a function of Israeli structure. After all, who can afford to take up life in the West Bank, an area deprived of water and job opportunities (outside these NGOs, of course) and right to movement? Not Israeli proles, generally speaking, but rather upper class students from the United States and Europe. And Israel tolerates this form of Palestinian political expression because it allows Palestinians a vent for their frustrations without forming the kinds of political bonds that can easily (if at all) upend the Zionist system. In this sense, these NGOs play the same role as state-sanctioned demonstrations in the United States, allowing people the illusion of impact because people are, at the end of the day, ‘doing something.’ There simply is no comparison between a bond formed between a Palestinian and an international student only in Palestine for a semester or two (and with a bright future to lose) and a bond formed between a Palestinian and an Israeli worker condemned to existence in Israeli society for the long haul. Not all bonds are equally dangerous.
The role of NGOs in places where the U.S. desires regime change is markedly different, because the situation is markedly different. Admittedly, when examining the situation in Ukraine, claims about U.S. regime change require more work to prove, because the policy there is less overt than was regime change in, say, Iraq. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is the main dilemma of detailing imperialism in the age of Obama. But it is worth noting still that even in those instances of overt regime change, brought about through land invasion and long-term occupation using ground troops, NGOs played an important role in U.S. policy. To quote Weizman once again, ‘After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, American NGOs funded via USAID were informed by the US Administration that “their cooperation was linked inextricably to America’s strategic goals.”‘ Weizman notes that Colin Powell referred to these NGOs operating in Iraq as a ‘force multiplier,’ which perhaps explains where Mark Ames picked up the phrase.
One way of knowing that Pierre Omidyar knew what he was getting into when he decided to share an investment with USAID in Ukraine is that USAID’s worldwide purpose is openly available knowledge, especially to those money men with a direct financial interest in USAID’s purpose. Powell and the ‘U.S. administration’ acknowledged it. If one fails to be satisfied by the open declarations of the U.S. regime, one can of course consult its ‘private’ correspondences about USAID, revealed in leaked Wikileaks cables. As with open declarations, the private dialogues of the U.S. regime are loaded with euphemism; ‘regime change’ is described as a ‘transition to democracy.’ Over at the Anti-Empire Report, William Blum quotes a cable mentioning USAID’s activities in Venezuela:
‘During his 8 years in power, President Chavez has systematically dismantled the institutions of democracy and governance. The USAID/OTI program objectives in Venezuela focus on strengthening democratic institutions and spaces through non-partisan cooperation with many sectors of Venezuelan society.’
Blum goes on to describe these initiatives as ‘a transition from the target country adamantly refusing to cooperate with American imperialist grand designs to a country gladly willing (or acceding under pressure) to cooperate with American imperialist grand designs.’ These initiatives were to be taken against Chavez and ‘his attempt to divide and polarize Venezuelan society using rhetoric of hate and violence. OTI supports local NGOs who work in Chavista strongholds and with Chavista leaders, using those spaces to counter this rhetoric and promote alliances through working together on issues of importance to the entire community.’ Eventually the cable becomes mercifully frank about the efforts USAID and OTI must take against this hateful rhetoric (also know as class conscious agitation): ‘1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez Internationally.’ Sounds like a recipe for regime change to me.
As I mentioned in my previous article, NGOs participate in PsyOps. Among the most common forms of PsyOp is the attempt to convince a subject population (or potential subject population) that the United States supports it. One way this is done is by providing aid to underclass populations; the example I provided was the aid Junglas provide to rural Colombians. As these PsyOps are simple and common, one can easily learn about them–and USAID’s role in them–by doing a simple Wikileaks search. Here USAID’s PsyOps efforts in Nigeria are described:
‘Nigerians reacting to Mission-sponsored media reports June – September 2003 on U.S.-Nigeria partnership successes on health, HIV/AIDS, agriculture, education, and conflict resolution, say they are amazed at the level of support given to Nigeria by the U.S. Government. They expressed similar sentiments on their assessment of media reports on the Ambassador’s Self-Help and the Ambassador’s Girl Scholarship programs, as well as the Widernet’s university interconnectivity program. The positive impact of the success stories was clearly evident during the recent defeat of stiff conservative northern opposition to the August polio vaccination rounds. Reactions have been very positive on USAID’s contributions towards revival of agriculture, especially gum arabic trade, and the LEAP program to upgrade primary educational standards in northern Nigeria. The Basketball for Peace Project is another success story that Nigerians say they value greatly because the program targets jobless youths in the crisis-prone Kaduna State. Radio listeners, television viewers and Hausa readers in 19 northern States, including conservative Muslim radicals in Nasarawa, Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto, Katsina, Borno, Plateau, Zamfara, and Jigawa States, say the success stories surprised them because they never knew the U.S. was doing so much for Nigeria. Hopefully, these images may change some of their negative views about the U.S.’
I especially like this example because it includes mention of a basketball program–my Colombia example included mention of basketball courts constructed for poor Colombian youth. So because the function of USAID’s programs is so obvious, it is reasonable to say that Omidyar knew what he was getting into when he decided to collaborate with USAID in Ukraine. So reasonable that it is not necessary to assume anything. USAID’s goals in Ukraine are clearly described in other leaked cables; they are economic goals in which any sensible billionaire would interested–the most salient example being intellectual property rights to be ensured by the World Trade Organization, that is, ‘types of intellectual property rights that will be protected by the State Customs Service… or the customs regimes in which Customs will intervene to protect these rights. Customs reform that is anchored into a modern code consistent with international standards, will be critical for greater market integration.’ In other words, in order for international investors to make profits off of investments in Ukraine, the legal standards must first exist by which corporate conduits can extract those profits and deliver them to individual oligarchs. If you’re wondering how intellectual property accomplishes this, do yourself a favor and read Kevin Carson’s definitive essay on the subject.
We know what kinds of interests Omidyar held in the Ukraine, and we know even more about the means by which he tried to secure them. But even if we didn’t know these matters exactly, we’d have enough information to reach reasonable conclusions about the activities of this billionaire. That some progressive journalists think we don’t seems to me, well, counterintuitive. Either that, or the effect of a billionaire buying progressive journalists is that progressive journalists cease to be skeptical of billionaires, which rather cancels out the ‘progressive’ part. It’s a matter of rich men removing ‘Eat the Rich’ from the political program, for self-explanatory reasons. In addition to that, the employees of rich men are marshaling group acceptance and ostracizing those hungry for the rich. More on that, specifically on our favorite celebrity journalist, Glenn Greenwald, in the next and final post of this series. See you tomorrow for that one, everybody.
Introduction: The Intercept’s Interference: Notes on Media | http://catsnotwar.blogspot.ca/2014/03/the-intercepts-interference-notes-on.html
Part 1: Financial Capital is Destructive Capital | http://catsnotwar.blogspot.ca/2014/04/part-i-financial-capital-is-destructive.html
Part 2: Above
Part 3: A Return to Conspiracy and Its Theories | http://catsnotwar.blogspot.ca/2014/04/part-iii-return-to-conspiracy-and-its.html