Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

Reprinted with permission from The Revolution Will Not be Funded (edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Boston: South End Press, 2009).

Perhaps never before has the struggle to mount viable movements of radical social transformation in the United States been more desperate, urgent, or difficult. In the aftermath of the 1960s mass-movement era, the edifices of state repression have themselves undergone substantive transformation, even as classical techniques of politically formed state violence–colonization and protocolonial occupation, racist policing, assassination, political and mass-based imprisonment–remain fairly constant in the US production of global order. Here, I am specifically concerned with the emergence of the US prison industrial complex (PIC) and its relationship to the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), the industrialized incorporation of pro-state liberal and progressive campaigns and movements into a spectrum of government-proctored non-profit organizations. In my view, these overlapping developments–the rise of a racially constituted prison regime unprecedented in scale, and the almost simultaneous structural consolidation of a non-profit industrial complex–have exerted a form and content to US-based resistance struggles which enmeshes them in the social arrangement that political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal names an “industry of fear.” In a 1998 correspondence to the 3,000-plus participants in the conference Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, he writes,

Americans live in a cavern of fear, a psychic, numbing force manufactured by the so-called entertainment industry, reified by the psychological industry, and buttressed by the coercion industry (i.e., the courts, police, prisons, and the like). The social psychology of America is being fed by a media that threatens all with an army of psychopathic, deviant, sadistic madmen bent on ravishing a helpless, prone citizenry. The state’s coercive apparatus of “public safety” is erected as a needed protective counter-point.[1]

I wish to pay special attention to Abu-Jamal’s illustration of the social fabrication of fear as a necessary political and cultural condition for the rise of the US non-profit industrial complex, which has, in turn, enabled and complemented the massive institutional production of the US prison industrial complex. As I understand it, the NPIC is the set of symbiotic relationships that link together political and financial technologies of state and owning-class proctorship and surveillance over public political intercourse, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements, since about the mid-1970s. Abu-Jamal’s “cavern of fear” illuminates the repressive and popular broadly racist common sense that both haunts and constitutes the political imagination of many contemporary progressive, radical, and even self-professed “revolutionary” social change activists. Why, in other words, does the political imagination of the US non-profit and nongovernmental organization (NGO)-enabled Left generally refuse to embrace the urgent and incomplete historical work of a radical counter-state, anti-white supremacist, prison/penal/slave abolitionist movement? I am especially concerned with how the political assimilation of the non-profit sector into the progressive dreams of a “democratic” global civil society (the broad premise of the liberal-progressive antiglobalization movement) already presumes (and therefore fortifies) existing structures of social liquidation, including biological and social death. Does Abu-Jamal’s “cavern of fear” also echo the durable historical racial phobias of the US social order generally? Does the specter of an authentic radical freedom no longer structured by the assumptions underlying the historical “freedoms” invested in white American political identity–including the perversions and mystifications of such concepts as “democracy,” “civil rights,” “the vote,” and even “equality”–logically suggest the end of white civil society, which is to say a collapsing of the very sociocultural foundations of the United States itself? Perhaps it is the fear of a radically transformed, feminist/queer/anti-racist liberation of Black, Brown, and Red bodies, no longer presumed to be permanently subordinated to structures of criminalization, colonization, (state and state-ordained) bodily violence, and domestic warfare, that logically threatens the very existence of the still white-dominant US Left: perhaps it is, in part, the Left’s fear of an unleashed bodily proximity to currently criminalized, colonized, and normatively violated peoples that compels it to retain the staunchly anti-abolitionist political limits of the NPIC. The persistence of such a racial fear–in effect, the fear of a radical freedom that obliterates the cultural and material ascendancy of “white freedom”–is neither new nor unusual in the history of the US Left. We are invoking, after all, the vision of a movement of liberation that abolishes (and transforms) the cultural, economic, and political structures of a white civil society that continues to largely define the terms, languages, and limits of US-based progressive (and even “radical”) campaigns, political discourses, and local/global movements.

This polemical essay attempts to dislodge some of the theoretical and operational assumptions underlying the glut of foundation-funded “establishment Left” organizations in the United States. The Left’s investment in the essential political logic of civil society–specifically, the inherent legitimacy of racist state violence in upholding a white freedom, social “peace,” and “law and order” that is fundamentally designed to maintain brutal inequalities in the putative free world–is symbiotic with (and not oppositional to) the policing and incarceration of marginalized, racially pathologized communities, as well as the state’s ongoing absorption of organized dissent through the non-profit structure. While this alleged Left frequently considers its array of incorporated, “legitimate” organizations and institutions as the fortified bulwark of a progressive “social justice” orientation in civil society, I am concerned with the ways in which the broad assimilation of such organizations into a non-profit industrial complex actually enables more vicious forms of state repression.

The Velvet Purse of State Repression

It may be appropriate to initiate this discussion with a critical reflection on the accelerated incorporation of progressive social change struggles into a structure of state accreditation and owning-class surveillance since the 1970s. Robert L. Allen’s classic book Black Awakening in Capitalist America was among the first works to offer a sustained political analysis of how liberal white philanthropic organizations–including the Rockefeller, Ford, and Mellon foundations–facilitated the violent state repression of radical and revolutionary elements within the Black liberation movements of the late 1960s and early 70s. Allen argues that it was precisely because of philanthropy’s overtures toward the movement’s more moderate and explicitly reformist elements–especially those advocating versions of “Black capitalism” and “political self-determination” through participation in electoral politics–that radical Black liberationists and revolutionaries were more easily criminalized and liquidated.[2] Allen’s account, which appears in this collection [The Revolution Will Not Be Funded], proves instructive for a current critique of the state-corporate alliance that keeps the lid on what is left of Black liberationist politics, along with the cohort of radical struggles encompassed by what was once called the US “Third World” Left. Perhaps as important, Allen’s analysis may provide a critical analytical framework through which to understand the problem of white ascendancy and liberal white supremacy within the dominant spheres of the NPIC, which has become virtually synonymous with the broader political category of a US Left.

The massive repression of the Black, Native American, Puerto Rican, and other US-based Third World liberation movements during and beyond the 1960s and 70s was founded on a coalescence of official and illicit/illegal forms of state and state-sanctioned violence: police-led racist violence (including false imprisonment, home invasions, assassinations, and political harassment), white civilian reaction (lynchings, vigilante movements, new electoral blocs, and a complementary surge of white nationalist organizations), and the proliferation of racially formed (and racially executed) juridical measures to criminalize and imprison entire populations of poor and working class Black, Brown, and Indigenous people has been–and continues to be–a fundamental legacy of this era. Responding to the liberation-movement era’s momentary disruption of a naturalized American apartheid and taken-for-granted domestic colonialism, a new coalition of prominent owning-class white philanthropists, lawmakers, state bureaucrats, local and federal police, and ordinary white civilians (from across the already delimited US political spectrum of “liberal” to “conservative”) scrambled to restore the coherence and stability of white civil society in the midst of a fundamental challenge from activists and radical movement intellectuals who envisioned substantive transformation in the very foundations of US “society” itself. One outcome of this movement toward “White Reconstruction” was the invention, development, and refinement of repressive policing technologies across the local and federal scales, a labor that encompassed a wide variety of organizing and deployment strategies. The notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) remains the most historically prominent incident of the undeclared warfare waged by the state against domestic populations, insurrections, and suspected revolutionaries. But the spectacle of Hooverite repression obscures the broader–and far more important–convergence of state and capitalist/philanthropic forces in the absorption of progressive social change struggles that defined this era and its current legacies.

During this era, US civil society–encompassing the private sector, non-profit organizations and NGOs, faith communities, the mass media and its consumers–partnered with the law-and-order state through the reactionary white populist sentimentality enlivened by the respective presidential campaigns of Republican Party presidential nominees Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. It was Goldwater’s eloquent articulation of the meaning of “freedom,” defined against a racially coded (though nonetheless transparent) imagery of oncoming “mob” rule and urban “jungle” savagery, poised to liquidate white social existence, that carried his message into popular currency. Goldwater’s political and cultural conviction was to defend white civil society from its racially depicted aggressors–a white supremacist discourse of self-defense that remains a central facet of the US state and US political life generally. Though his bid for the presidency failed, Goldwater’s message succeeded as the catalyst for the imminent movement of White Reconstruction in the aftermath of US apartheid’s nominal disestablishment, and in the face of liberal reformist changes to US civil rights law. Accepting the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, Goldwater famously pronounced,

Tonight there is violence in our streets, corruption in our highest offices, aimlessness among our youth, anxiety among our elders and there is a virtual despair among the many who look beyond material success for the inner meaning of their lives…. Security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression, is the most elementary and fundamental purpose of any government, and a government that cannot fulfill that purpose is one that cannot long command the loyalty of its citizens. History shows us–demonstrates that nothing–nothing prepares the way for tyranny more than the failure of public officials to keep the streets from bullies and marauders.[3]

On the one hand, the subsequent exponential growth of the US policing apparatus closely followed the white populist political schema of the Goldwater-Nixon law-and-order bloc.[4] Law and order was essentially the harbinger of White Reconstruction, mobilizing an apparatus of state violence to protect and recuperate the vindicated white national body from the allegedly imminent aggressions and violations of its racial Others. White civil society, accustomed to generally unilateral and exclusive access to the cultural, economic, and political capital necessary for individual and collective self-determination, encountered reflections of its own undoing at this moment. The politics of law and order thus significantly encompassed white supremacist desire for surveilling, policing, caging, and (preemptively) socially liquidating those who embodied the gathering storm of dissidence–organized and disarticulated, radical and protopolitical.

In this historical context, COINTELPRO’s illegal and unconstitutional abuses of state power, unabashed use of strategic and deadly violence, and development of invasive, terrorizing surveillance technologies might be seen as paradigmatic of the contemporary era’s revivified white supremacist hegemony.[5] Contrary to the widespread assumption that COINTELPRO was somehow excessive, episodic, and extraordinary in its deployment of (formally illegal and unconstitutional) state violence, J. Edgar Hoover’s venerated racist-state strategy simply reflected the imperative of white civil society’s impulse toward self-preservation in this moment.[6] Elaborating the white populist vision of Goldwater and his political descendants, the consolidation of this white nationalist bloc–which eventually incorporated “liberals” as well as reactionaries and conservatives–was simply the political reconsolidation of a white civil society that had momentarily strolled with the specter of its own incoherence.

Goldwater’s epoch-shaping presidential campaign in 1964 set up the political premises and popular racial vernacular for much of what followed in the restoration of white civil society in the 1970s and later. In significant part through the reorganization of a US state that strategically mobilized around an internally complex, substantively dynamic white supremacist conception of “security from domestic violence,” the “law and order” state has materialized on the ground and has generated a popular consensus around its modes of dominance: punitive racist criminal justice, paramilitary policing, and strategically deployed domestic warfare regimes have become an American way of life. This popularized and institutionalized “law and order” state has built this popular consensus in part through a symbiosis with the non-profit liberal foundation structure, which, in turn, has helped collapse various sites of potential political radicalism into nonantagonistic social service and pro-state reformist initiatives. Vast expenditures of state capacity, from police expansion to school militarization, and the multiplication of state-formed popular cultural productions (from the virtual universalization of the “tough on crime” electoral campaign message to the explosion of pro-police discourses in Hollywood film, television dramas, and popular “reality” shows) have conveyed several overlapping political messages, which have accomplished several mutually reinforcing tasks of the White Reconstructionist agenda that are relevant to our discussion here: (1) the staunch criminalization of particular political practices embodied by radical and otherwise critically “dissenting” activists, intellectuals, and ordinary people of color; this is to say, when racially pathologized bodies take on political activities critical of US state violence (say, normalized police brutality/homicide, militarized misogyny, or colonialist occupation) or attempt to dislodge the presumed stability and “peace” of white civil society (through militant antiracist organizing or progressive anti-(state) racial violence campaigns), they are subjected to the enormous weight of a state and cultural apparatus that defines them as “criminals” (e.g., terrorists, rioters, gang members) and, therefore, as essentially opportunistic, misled, apolitical, or even amoral social actors; (2) the fundamental political constriction–through everything from restrictive tax laws on community-based organizations to the arbitrary enforcement of repressive laws banning certain forms of public congregation (for example, the California “antigang” statutes that have effectively criminalized Black and Brown public existence on a massive scale)–of the appropriate avenues and protocols of agitation for social change, which drastically delimits the form and substance that socially transformative and liberationist activisms can assume in both the short and long terms; and (3) the state-facilitated and fundamentally punitive bureaucratization of social change and dissent, which tends to create an institutionalized inside/outside to aspiring social movements by funneling activists into the hierarchical rituals and restrictive professionalism of discrete campaigns, think tanks, and organizations, outside of which it is usually profoundly difficult to organize a critical mass of political movement (due in significant part to the two aforementioned developments).

In this context, the structural and political limitations of current grassroots and progressive organizing in the United States has become stunningly evident in light of the veritable explosion of private foundations as primary institutions through which to harness and restrict the potentials of US-based progressive activisms. Heavily dependent on the funding of such ostensibly liberal and progressive financial bodies as the Mellon, Ford, and Soros foundations, the very existence of many social justice organizations has often come to rest more on the effectiveness of professional (and amateur) grant writers than on skilled–much less “radical”–political educators and organizers. A 1997 Atlantic Monthly article entitled “Citizen 501(c)(3)” states, for example, that the net worth of such foundations was over $200 billion as of 1996, a growth of more than 400 percent since 1981. The article’s author, Nicholas Lemann, goes on to write that in the United States, the raw size of private foundations, “along with their desire to affect the course of events in the United States and the world, has made foundations one of the handful of major [political] actors in our society–but they are the one that draws the least public attention.”[7] As the foundation lifeline has sustained the NPIC’s emergence into a primary component of US political life, the assimilation of political resistance projects into quasi-entrepreneurial, corporate-style ventures occurs under the threat of unruliness and antisocial “deviance” that rules Abu-Jamal’s US “cavern of fear”: arguably, forms of sustained grassroots social movement that do not rely on the material assets and institutionalized legitimacy of the NPIC have become largely unimaginable within the political culture of the current US Left. If anything, this culture is generally disciplined and ruled by the fundamental imperative to preserve the integrity and coherence of US white civil society, and the “ruling class” of philanthropic organizations and foundations may, at times, almost unilaterally determine whether certain activist commitments and practices are appropriate to their consensus vision of American “democracy.”

The self-narrative of multibillionaire philanthropist George Soros–whom the PBS program NOW described as “the only American citizen with his own foreign policy”[8] brings candor and clarity to the societal mission of one well-known liberal philanthropic funder-patron:

When I had made more money than I needed, I decided to set up a foundation. I reflected on what it was I really cared about. Having lived through both Nazi persecution and Communist oppression, I came to the conclusion that what was paramount for me was an open society. So I called the foundation the Open Society Fund, and I defined its objectives as opening up closed societies, making open societies more viable, and promoting a critical mode of thinking. That was in 1979…. By now I have established a network of foundations that extends across more than twenty-five countries (not including China, where we shut down in 1989).[9]

Soros’s conception of the “Open Society,” fueled by his avowed disdain for laissez-faire capitalism, communism, and Nazism, privileges political dissent that works firmly within the constraints of bourgeois liberal democracy. The imperative to protect–and, in Soros’s case, to selectively enable with funding–dissenting political projects emerges from the presumption that existing social, cultural, political, and economic institutions are in some way perfectible, and that such dissenting projects must not deviate from the unnamed “values” which serve as the ideological glue of civil society. Perhaps most important, the Open Society is premised on the idea that clashing political projects can and must be brought (forced?) into a vague state of reconciliation with one another.

Instead of there being a dichotomy between open and closed, I see the open society as occupying a middle ground, where the rights of the individual are safeguarded but where there are some shared values that hold society together [emphasis added]. I envisage the open society as a society open to improvement. We start with the recognition of our own fallibility, which extends not only to our mental constructs but also to our institutions. What is imperfect can be improved, by a process of trial and error. The open society not only allows this process but actually encourages it, by insisting on freedom of expression and protecting dissent. The open society offers a vista of limitless progress….

The Open Society merely provides a framework within which different views about social and political issues can be reconciled; it does not offer a firm view on social goals. If it did, it would not be an open society.[10]

Crucially, the formulaic, naive vision of Soros’s Open Society finds its condition of possibility in untied foundation purse strings, as “dissent” flowers into viability on the strength of a generous grant or two. The essential conservatism of Soros’s manifesto obtains “common-sense” status within the liberal/progressive foundation industry by virtue of financial force, as his patronage reigns hegemonic among numerous organizations and emergent social movements.
Most important, the Open Society’s narrative of reconciliation and societal perfection marginalizes radical forms of dissent which voice an irreconcilable antagonism to white supremacist patriarchy, neoliberalism, racialized state violence, and other structures of domination. Antonio Gramsci’s prescient reflection on the formation of the hegemonic state as simultaneously an organizational, repressive, and pedagogical apparatus is instructive: “The State does have and request consent, but it also ‘educates’ this consent, by means of the political and syndical associations; these, however, are private organisms, left to the private initiative of the ruling class.”[11]

Certainly, the historical record demonstrates that Soros and other foundation grants have enabled a breathtaking number of “left-of-center” campaigns and projects in the last 20 years. The question I wish to introduce here, however, is whether this enabling also exerts a disciplinary or repressive force on contemporary social movement organizations while nurturing a particular ideological and structural allegiance to state authority that preempts political radicalisms.

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  1. Mumia Abu-Jamal, “The Industry of Fear,” open correspondence to Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, July 1998. [Return to text]
  2. Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (1969; repr., Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990). An excerpt from Black Awakening is reprinted in this volume [The Revolution Will Not Be Funded]. [Return to text]
  3. Barry Goldwater, acceptance speech, 28th Republican National Convention, San Francisco, CA, July 16, 1964. [Return to text]
  4. Some useful background texts include: Jael Silliman and Anannya Bhattacharjee, eds., Policing the National Body: Race, Gender and Criminalization in the United States (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002); Christian Parenti, Lock down America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York: Verso Press, 2000); Ted Gest, Crime and Politics: Big Government’s Erratic Campaign for Law and Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Jill Nelson, ed., Police Brutality: An Anthology (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000); Stuart Hall, et. al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978). [Return to text]
  5. See Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 1-62. [Return to text]
  6. See generally Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (New York: W. W. Norton,
    1992). [Return to text]
  7. Nicholas Lemann, “Citizen 501(c)(3),” The Atlantic Monthly 279, no. 2 (February 1997), [Return to text]
  8. George Soros, interview by David Brancaccio, Now, PBS, September 12, 2003, transcript, [Return to text]
  9. George Soros, “The Capitalist Threat,” The Atlantic Monthly 279, no. 2 (February 1997),!capital.htm. [Return to text]
  10. Ibid. [Return to text]
  11. Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks, ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1995), 259. [Return to text]