U.S. Conservatives Take Aim at NGOs: Reply to Tom O'Lincoln

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Fri Jul 11 03:04:09 MDT 2003

Reply to Tom:

Sociologically, you might say that NGO's are what you get when the workers
and peasants are robbed of the existing methods they had for
self-organisation, and do not yet have the confidence to become active again
en masse in terms of organising themselves, because they are not yet so well
equipped to counter the subtle and rapid ways in which attempts at
self-organisation can be bought off, ripped off, co-opted or neutralised. In
other words, it is middleclass activists operating in a situation where the
workers and peasants are not politically active and organised on a mass
scale, it is a sort of stopgap measure in the absence of proletarian
self-organisation.  But like you say, we need to view this dialectically,
and recognise that NGO's can play an important role in starting off that
self-organisation. If that wasn't the case, the rightwing think tanks would
not complain about it as subversive. Ordinary citizens are not allowed to
organise themselves. That is anti-democratic.

The "leftwing" Marxists condemn NGOs as middleclass rubbish, distracting the
workers from their revolutionary task. The ""rightwing" Marxists suck up to
the NGOs and think they are the most radical thing around. But neither
really grasp the contradictions of NGOs, and how they fit into the project
of building a socialist party.

The main criticism of people like James Heartfield here is, that the way
NGO's operate often does not show a heck of a lot of understanding of what
imperialism is about, and therefore that the methods, values and priorities
used, can be patronising and imply the de facto superiority of certain
cultures over others, without any good practical evidence or reason. At a
deeper level, what is confused is the ultimate goal of "helping" poor people
improve their lives, what criteria of progress are being used. Is it to help
them revolt against imperialism and capitalist exploitation, to be a
stimulus for a socialist transformation of society ? Or is it to help them
integrate more pleasantly in the capitalist world economy ? The NGO's
themselves would argue that posing such a dillemma is too schematic, since,
when neither the revolt nor the integration is occurring or on the agenda,
people still have to survive and still try to improve the quality of their
lives. The problem is however that they are not able to escape from this
dillema, even if they dismiss class politics as irrelevant, and that is
where the right-wing criticism seeks to hone in on.

It is exactly the same story everywhere. For example, when I studied
education, we had the neo-liberal argument about "middle class capture". The
argument was, that although public education was set up on the basis of
universal provision, with the intention of realising genuine equality of
opportunity, in reality the middle class had captured the institutions and
was using them to propagate its own kind; the poorer families had much less
chance of access to university education. And therefore you had created a
monster, which could only be killed by rationalising education on the basis
of market principles, so that a greater sense of purpose, equality of
opportunity, and accountability/responsibility would result. The World Bank
is now talking about "capture" in the context of corruption, in precisely
the same way as they did in education. There is always some evil group which
is capturing things to which they are not entitled, but this is not caused
by the operation of the market economy, but rather by juridical problems and
lack of individual integrity.

The real purpose of this "capture" argument is of course not to improve
education, or reduce corruption etc. Rather the purpose is to assist the
hard-nosed profit-oriented bourgeois to defeat the do-gooder, philantrophic
bourgeois, and the way they do that is by scratching around, to find
contradictions and inconsistencies in do-gooding or philanthropic arguments,
i.e. anything which might be a bit socialistic in the sense of suggesting
the possible existence of a collective interest or neighbourly love apart
from self-interest and possessive individualism. It is a very interesting
area, because the notion involved, namely that the capitalist class interest
is best served if everybody serves only their self-interest, has never been
rigorously conceptualised and modelled by game theorists of the analytical
Marxism variety.

In the case of NGOs. the rightwing argument is precisely that (1) NGOs are a
law unto themselves, that (2) they seek to impose rules on sovereign
government and fetter them, that (3) they undermine democracies, and (4)
that government resources are being used for the goals for which they were
intended. In addition they try to split the NGO's between "good" NGOs and
""bad NGOs".

The most interesting thing about this controversy however is the leftwing
incompetence in replying to it. The typical leftwing response is to say
"yes, we understand what the arguments are about", and the learned
professors write pompous treatises on the historical origins and
permutations of neo-liberal ideology, showing how clever they are. But they
do not really understand what it is about, in part, (1) because they are
often far removed from the scene, from the production of these neo-liberal
ideas, (2) because they are personally implicated in the neo-liberal project
in some way, and and (3) their academic treatises are not direct political
interventions in the debate anyway.

What leftists generally FAIL to see and do, is trace out the specific logic
and themes involved in the neoliberal intellectual operations, correctly.
This is really quite simple to do, and you can simply (1) reduce it to
absurdity and (2) turn the whole argument on its head and (3) use the same
logic against those people. Instead, Leftists invent a systematicity and
rationality for neoliberal ideology which is NOT really there. The
neoliberals themselves are often quite grateful for it, because they did not
think of that themselves, the leftists go far deeper into the argument than
they would themselves.

Neoliberal ideology does not originate from the history of philosophy or
economic theory, rather it originates in real business activity, real
business practice and what that requires. It is based on the fundamentalist
dogma that private property, private enterprise and market economy is always
the best method of allocating resources in any possible world or situation,
and the more you have of it, the better it is. All the rest is just
variations on the themes and values which fit with private property, private
enterprise and market economy.

The persistence and sustenance of this dogma is explained by its material
basis, pure and simple. If you already own private enterprise, you own
private property and engage in market economy, if your whole life depends on
that, you do not need to get into controversy about it or think
self-critically about it. The dogmatic assumption in thought, reflects
material possession in reality, and the acquisitive drive. All you do is
harp on different sorts of themes, which may come up from time to time, as
the occasion warrants it.

As regards the material or class basis of NGOs, I can tell an anecdote. In
1988, my New Zealand group was invited to send a person to the international
cadre school of the Fourth International, and in fact Geoff Pearce went to
it. But interestingly, at least one and possibly more of the students at
that school session, ended up working for NGOs. Now, whereas I am personally
not against that (after all, we must all work somewhere, and we have a right
to work in a job we like), isn't it a funny thing, that if you have an
International with the stated purpose of aiming to build workers political
parties, that the students at your international cadre school might end up
working in NGOs which have nothing to do directly with your political
project of building workers parties ? It seems to me to be a confusion of
means and ends at the very highest level, and when I say that, I am not
joking, because some of the best people in the International came out to
teach them. Geoff sensed there was something wrong, so he repaired the
plumbing in the school building, did some carpentry work and general
maintenance, with a certain amount of disdain for some of the other students
who had fun and games of the usual variety.

Frank Furedi wrote an article years ago saying "it is not possible to
rebuild class politics today". What he meant by that really was that
bourgeois society was still in the process of "shaking itself out" in the
wake of the recession that followed the long boom of 1947-1973, class lines
were not so sharply (re-)defined yet, ideologies were in flux, myths of a
classless society persisted, and the situation was still rather "fluid" or
"liquid", to coin a phrase. There were still attempts to find some sort of
consensus, to integrate people, despite sharpening class contradictions, and
really the primary contradiction was between culture and the economy. The
employers would win the economic wars, and the Left could win the cultural
wars, so might as well concentrate on the culture wars, given the low level
of class consciousness.  The point however is that this "shaking out"
process I describe is a continuing, never-ending process, and the only thing
you can say about it is that at some points, there may be qualitative
changes in the form that it takes. In fact, I suspect the idea that it
wasn't possible to rebuild class politics today was much more a response to
the specific politics and class nature of the RCP, which although
intelligent, were not really adequate to the political situation. If the
NGOs are being "shaken out" for their political class stance today, the task
is not either to condemn NGOs or suck up to them, but rather to establish
how this situation might be conducive to organising a socialist political



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