U.S. Conservatives Take Aim at NGOs

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Thu Jul 10 20:28:31 MDT 2003

I suppose the real weakness of NGO's is... that they are NGO's, i.e.
ultimately they do not have so much real clout, lacking real levers of power
other than influence, networks and popular support.

The question is whether the undoubted expertise and experience of NGO staffs
can be integrated back where it belongs, in leftwing and socialist political
parties, or whether the NGO expertise is sucked into, and incorporated into,
conservative think tanks and policy units more closely regimented by the
state apparatus.

The NGO political stance is often contradictory anyhow: critical of
imperialist policies on the one hand, and implementing or mitigating those
policies in a more "enlightened" way on the other. A lot of NGO's originated
in New Left social movements founded in the 1960s and 1970s, and these
social movements themselves arose, because the institutionalised political
parties and trade unions refused to take up the issues and problems they
raised, or even take them seriously (at least not until the social movements
grew too big to ignore).

By the way, what is the institutional-democratic difference between
rightwing thinktanks and left-wing NGO's ? Why should the Right be able to
have its thinktanks operate freely, while more system-critical NGO's are
obstructed ? This is an interesting question for democratic theory.

The whole ideology is changing. In the era of Reaganomics and Clintonomics,
it was argued that only market economy could be the foundation of democracy,
and the market and democracy entailed each other. This is of course
completely mythical, no historian worth his oats can accept such a vulgar
falsification of the facts.

But now, increasingly, democracy is becoming an impediment to the "more
market" project of the capitalist class, in which case, you can no longer
propagandise the democracy-market identity. You tone that rhetoric down, you
no longer talk about constitutional rights. We could therefore expect the
discussion to focus increasingly on legitimate, and illegitimate, forms of
democracy, on the "appropriate methods" for decision-making.

Of course you cannot very well talk in bourgeois ideology about
"illegitimate" forms of democracy, because capitalism is supposed to be
naturally democratic and free. But you can talk about "excessive" democracy,
"inappropriate" democracy, "inefficient" democracy and suchlike, the idea
being, that you can have "too much" democracy, and that "too much" democracy
leads to bureaucracy, procedural fetishism, and impedes "good
decision-making". And you can focus on the astonishing abilities of
"experts"", "leaders", and "specialists" to make decisions for us all, on
our behalf, because their individual judgement is superior to the judgement
of the electorate. But what is democracy anyway these days ? Consultation ?
Focus groups ? Opinion polls ?

This whole discussion is of course taking place in the context of at least
two decades of growing voter apathy, i.e. declining interest in
participation in popular elections, political parties or trade unions.
Indeed, the NGO's have tended to jump into the breach, precisely because of
this trend, seeking to - as suggested -  mitigate the worst effects of bad
governmental decisions which are less and less democratically arrived at,
through alternative actions and advice.

I suppose the other side of the story is, that what political parties or
trade unions are able to achieve nowadays within the parliamentary setting
is in total less than in the past, since many corporate decisions which are
made, have a much greater impact, at least economically, than anything a
parliament could decide anyhow.

In my social analysis, this phenomenon is part of the problematic of the
"crisis of political leadership" - not just in the sense that the Comintern
or Trotsky used it, but the crisis of political leadership in bourgeois
society as such, a complex phenomenon which results in the increasing
absolute inability to co-opt various social strata politically.


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