When the Left Get Funded

In October 2015, inspired anarchist cartoonist Stephanie McMillan published an excellent article (with a neat illustration) that summarised some of the many reasons why genuinely emancipatory social change will not be funded by the super-rich: no surprises there I guess. The article in question was titled “Why NGOs and Leftish Nonprofits Suck (4 Reasons)

When the left get funded

Stephanie begins with an anecdote relating to a distant conversation she had a Bangladeshi organizer that elicited the blunt response from her consort: “I hate NGOs.” That was twenty years ago, and although Stephanie was already familiar with many of the negative aspects of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), she adds, “I didn’t yet fully appreciate how terrible they really are.”

Since then, she says “NGOs have proliferated like mushrooms all over the world”; “fattening up large layers of the petite bourgeoisie and draping them like a warm wet blanket over the working class, muffling their demands.”

With rightful indignation, Stephanie sketches out four reasons why NGOs suck:

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.”

2) “NGOs undermine, divert, and replace autonomous mass organizing”; “instead of fighting the Left head-on as they once did, capitalists have smothered it in their loving arms.” “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.”

3) “NGOs replace what the state should be doing.” “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.”

Fightback we must, so Stephanie adds:

“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.” “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.”

Finally, Stephanie ends with “A Note to NGO Employees,” making it clear: “I’m not questioning your sincerity.” Everyone is “compelled” to earn a living, but as she observes, it is simply not possible to argue that paid work for an NGO is compatible with fighting for a non-capitalist, non-exploitative future world. If we can agree that the only way forward “is to organize with the aim of rising up together in revolution,” then we should acknowledge that work in the service of NGOs will not contribute to this emancipatory project. This is why Stephanie writes:

“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.”

This leads her to a concluding sentence: “Real revolutionary organizers don’t get paid.” And although this statement is largely true, especially with regard to NGOs, revolutionary political organizations should and do use funds raised directly from the working-class to employ revolutionary organizers! With time at a premium in our low-wage world, such full-time and paid organizers continue to provide a critical aid to our collective struggle to fight for a socialist alternative to capitalism!

A Short Note on Publishing

In a note accompanying Stephanie’s article, she explains that the…

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/]”

Here I would like to add, that in 2013 I published my own article on the web site of “One Struggle(which is a media project at which Stephanie plays a leading role) that also dealt with the problems facing the NGO-ization of social change. My article, “Questioning Labor Imperialism in Egypt: A Critique of the Solidarity Centre’s ‘Justice for All’ Report,” had actually been written for a special issue on New Worker Movements for Interface: A Journal About and For Social Movements. The eventual decision of Interface to reject my article resulting in Dr Magid Shihade — Interface’s editor for the Arab world — to resign from their editorial board in protest.


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