By fatima and Alma
The role and rise of the non-profit sector has long been a critical debate among the Left. INCITE!’s 2007 anthology, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, takes up these questions more comprehensively than ever before. As two women who have worked for NGOs, we have both struggled with the relationship between these organizations and our revolutionary politics. For fatima, working in a social service domestic violence nonprofit, primarily with women of color, helped her make the connections between the problems with social service and reform-based work and the need for revolutionary organization. She recognized the bandaid nature of the nonprofit system, which did not provide the possibilities for liberation in the way organizing does. For Alma, her relationship with NGOs is less clear. She recognizes the profound ideological problems presented by NGOS, yet at the same time feels they often provide alternatives that revolutionary organizations currently do not. She has largely worked in legally based non-profits, and feels these organizations are often successful in directly attacking massive civil liberties violations, such as Guantanamo and illegal surveillance.
One important observation we have made is that the forced implementation of neo-liberalism throughout the world beginning in the 1970s is directly linked to the rise of NGOs. Where the state had once been present in providing many social services, suddenly it was absent, and in its wake, populations were forced to independently provide for all aspects of their lives. Identifying a void that desperately needed to be filled, NGOs stepped in. In need of financial support to offer what the state once provided, these NGOs increasingly became funded by big businesses, wealthy families, and grants. Thus, NGOs are in many ways a product of neo-liberalism, as they attempted to do exactly what the neo-liberal state refused to do. In turn, the question we must ask ourselves is – Why did the Left fail to fill the void, as NGOs did, and provide alternatives and solutions to the devastation wrought by neo-liberalism?
Other women of color bloggers have pointed to the important contradictions inherent in the NPIC. Kameelah makes good points on how universities pass on middle class ideals and expectations. She says, “I left [college] feeling like I spent 4 years fighting to not become a reformist without the opportunities to radically dream.” Cripchick takes up important questions of nonprofits and the disability community, including “Can we actively and militantly include young people and…create an expectation of community instead of individual gain? What can a movement that is not dependent on the non-profit industry/social service delivery/individual-based philosophy even look like?”
The Internationalist Socialist Review has reviewed The Revolution Will Not Be Funded and argues that while this book has launched an important debate, it is also problematic in certain ways. That may certainly be true, but the approach of ISR review seems to have some problems of its own. They suggest that the alternatives offered in the last section of the anthology are not radical enough, with which we would certainly agree. But, while they grant that the Left does not have the organizational answers, they do not begin to pose or ask, what are the feasible alternatives for radicals and revolutionaries?
The way in which the ISR article takes up the questions of race and gender is also problematic. The question of gender is entirely absent and yet it is a crucial component of the nonprofit system. Overwhelmingly, women are drawn to staffing nonprofit organizations. And while these jobs are primarily middle class, as the ISR review points out, they are also attractive to working class women of color who can fulfill the very real need to make a decent living for themselves, either to support their families or to achieve financial independence from patriarchal families, while at the same time putting them in a position to effect tangible and immediate positive changes in peoples’ lives. This dynamic is something that has seriously weakened revolutionary and radical organizations, by suctioning off women of color with dedication and leadership skills into the nonprofit sector. For that reason alone, it is strange that this issue is not being taken up by revolutionary organizations who are questioning the nonprofit system and asking themselves how they can pose serious alternatives.
The ISR article also criticizes the “identity politics” of many of the writers featured in the anthology. While they correctly observe that the Rainbow Coalition, or middle class people of color “community leaders,” have co-opted people of color nonprofits and community organizations for their own purposes, this dynamic points to a class struggle in different communities of color that needs to be supported and drawn out given the specific race and gender tensions of those communities. Again, the ISR correctly observes that white supremacy should be defined more clearly in terms of its relationship to nonprofits. But when they say that, “Class is the natural and correct framework in which to analyze the problem of the NPIC,” they have disregarded the role of white supremacy and patriarchy in shaping the NPIC system as well as the debates surrounding it.
Take, for example, the reason why INCITE! launched this project to begin with. They had received a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, who later revoked the funding after they reviewed INCITE!’s points of unity on Palestine. Given that the question of Israeli Apartheid exposes the contradictions of white supremacy on an international scale, the way almost no other issue does, forefronts the question of white supremacy in the ways nonprofits and foundations function. INCITE! had the integrity not only to refuse to liquidate their politics but to also actively and publicly take up the question of the disastrous effects of foundations and nonprofits on mass movements. Considering that the liberal anti-war movement during its height (which ISR refers to as a mostly white, nonprofit led movement) wouldn’t touch Palestine with a ten foot pole, this whole project speaks highly for INCITE!’s commitment to fighting white supremacy.
The question remains, what are the strong alternatives to the NPIC? What solutions can we offer? We have to ask the question- why are women and people of color attracted to nonprofits? How can revolutionary and independent mass organizations reproduce the benefits of a nonprofit job for committed organizers without the inherent problems? Liberals and the Right are highly organized and we will have to be, too, if we are going to build a strong radical movement. That won’t happen if we don’t understand and strategize around the consequences, both negative and positive, of the nonprofit system.