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

The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

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Beyond the NPIC: The Lessons of Anti-Colonialism and “Decolonization”

As this anthology [The Revolutions Will Not Be Funded] attempts a critical and material intervention on the political stasis generated by the non-profit industrial complex, we can and should recall the recent history of socially disenfranchised and oppressed Black and Third World peoples whose demands for liberation and radical freedom (which I am distinguishing from the white bourgeois freedom that is hegemonic in the United States) have represented, for white civil society, the specter of its own undoing. I want to emphasize the importance of this contemporary liberationist lineage because I have observed a peculiar dynamic in the current political landscape that makes political fodder of this liberationist legacy. With increasing frequency, we are party (or participant) to a white liberal and “multicultural”/”people of color” liberal imagination that venerates and even fetishizes the iconography and rhetoric of contemporary Black and Third World liberation movements, and then proceeds to incorporate these images and vernaculars into the public presentation of foundation-funded liberal or progressive organizations. I have also observed and experienced how these organizations, in order to protect their non-profit status and marketability to liberal foundations, actively self-police against members’ deviations from their essentially reformist agendas, while continuing to appropriate the language and imagery of historical revolutionaries. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1995 to 2001, which is in many ways the national hub of the progressive “wing” of the NPIC, I would name some of those organizations (many of which are defunct) here, but the list would be too long. Suffice it to say that these non-profit groups often exhibit(ed) a political practice that is, to appropriate and corrupt a phrase from fellow contributor Ruth Wilson Gilmore, radical in form, but liberal in content.[19]

In this vein, Robert Allen surmises that the emergence of a white liberal hegemony over the non-profit industry during the 1970s was an explicit attempt–in fact, an authentic conspiracy of collaboration among philanthropists and state officials, including local police and federal administrators–to dissipate the incisive and radical critique of US white supremacist capitalism, the white supremacist state, and white civil society that was spreading in the wake of domestic Black and Third World liberation movements. What Allen does not explicitly state, although he does imply, is that the rise of the white liberal philanthropic establishment had lasting political effects that ultimately equaled (and in some ways surpassed) the most immediate repressive outcomes of COINTELPRO and its offspring. It is the paradigm-shaping political influence of the post-1970s white philanthropic renaissance that remains the durable and generally underanalyzed legacy of late 20th-century White Reconstruction.

My point, at the risk of stating the historically obvious, is that the production of the white liberal–and now ostensibly “multicultural” though still white liberal hegemonic–non-profit industrial complex has actually facilitated, and continues to facilitate, the violent state-organized repression of radical and revolutionary elements within the Black and Third World liberation movements of the late 1960s and early 70s, as well as what remains of such liberation struggles today. In other words, the symbiosis between the racist state and white civil society that I discuss above is not simply a relationship of convenience–it is a creative relation of power that forms a restricted institutional space in which “dissent” movements may take place, under penalty of militarized state repression (a political violence that has, through the pedagogical work of the state, won a broad approval from US civil society more generally). I should be clear in what/whom I am implicating here: I am not speaking narrowly of the openly conservative and right-wing foundations, such as the Heritage Foundation, that so many on the establishment Left unanimously agree are fundamentally reactionary or politically retrograde. Rather, I am speaking to the putatively kind, benevolent, humanist and humanitarian liberal-progressive foundations that this very same establishment Left relies on, that is, the same foundations that often fund this Left’s political work, scholarship, and activism–like Ford, Soros, and Mellon, for example. It seems that when one attempts to engage a critical discussion regarding the political problems of working with these and other foundations, and especially when one is interested in naming them as the gently repressive “evil” cousins of the more prototypically evil right-wing foundations, the establishment Left becomes profoundly defensive of its financial patrons. I would argue that this is a liberal-progressive vision that marginalizes the radical, revolutionary, and proto-revolutionary forms of activism, insurrection, and resistance that refuse to participate in the Soros charade of “shared values,” and are uninterested in trying to “improve the imperfect.” The social truth of the existing society is that it is based on the production of massive, unequal, and hierarchically organized disenfranchisement, suffering, and death of those populations who are targeted for containment and political/social liquidation–a violent social order produced under the dictates of “democracy,” “peace,” “security,” and “justice” that form the historical and political foundations of the very same white civil society on which the NPIC Left is based.

If we take seriously, for the sake of argument, the political analysis articulated by Palestinians struggling against the Israeli occupation, or that of imprisoned radical intellectuals/activists and their free-world allies desperately fighting to dismantle and abolish the prison industrial complex, or that of Indigenous peoples worldwide who, to paraphrase Haunani-Kay Trask, are literally fighting against their own planned obsolescence,[20] then it should become clear that the Soros philosophy of the Open Society, along with other liberal foundation social imaginaries, are at best philanthropic vanities. At worst, we can accuse the Soros, Ford, Mellon, and Rockefeller foundations, and their ilk of NGOs and non-profit organizations, of accompanying and facilitating these massive structures of human domination, which simply cannot be reformed or “reconciled” in a manner that legitimates anything approaching a vision of liberation or radical freedom.

While many professional intellectuals (academics, lawyers, teachers, progressive policy think tank members, journalists), community-based social change organizations, non-profit progressive groups, student activists, and others in the establishment Left pay some attention to the unmediated violence waged by state formations (whether official agents of state military power or its unofficial liaisons) on targeted individuals and communities, the implicit theoretical assumptions guiding much of this political-intellectual work have tended to pathologize state violence, rendering it as the scary illegitimate offspring of a right-wing hegemony. The logical extension of this political analysis is the notion that the periodic, spectacular materialization of direct relations of force are the symptomatic and extreme evidence of some deeper set of societal flaws. In fact, the treatment of state violence as a nonessential facet of the US social formation is the discursive requirement for the establishment Left’s strained attempts at political dialogue with its more hegemonic political antagonists: whether they are police, wardens, judges, legislators, or foundations. In this way, a principled and radical opposition to both the material actuality and political legitimacy of racist US state violence–which is inescapably a principled and radical opposition to the existence and legitimacy of the US state itself–is constantly deferred in favor of more “practical” or “winnable” campaigns and demands.

There is thus a particular historical urgency in the current struggle for new vernaculars that disarticulate the multilayered, taken-for-granted state practices of punishment, repression, and retribution from common notions of justice, peace, and the good society. Arguably, it is this difficult and dangerous task of disarticulation, specifically the displacement of a powerful, socially determinant “law and order” common sense,[21] that remains the most undertheorized dimension of contemporary struggles for social transformation. A generalized climate of (moral) defensiveness, political retreat, and pragmatic antiradicalism permeates the current critical discourse, such that the political and historical ground ceded to the punitive state and its defender-advocates mitigates against the flowering of new and creative knowledge productions. Antagonistic, radical, and proto-radical political practices–spurred by the desire to resist and abolish the normalized violence and undeclared domestic warfare of the American state–remain politically latent and deeply criminalized in the current social formation.

While the establishment Left conceptualizes its array of incorporated, entrepreneurial, non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations and NGOs as the fortified command center of progressive social justice movements within civil society, I remain constantly disturbed by the manner in which this political apparatus, the NPIC, perversely reproduces a dialectic of death. That is, the NPIC’s (and by extension the establishment Left’s) commitment to maintaining the essential social and political structures of civil society (meaning institutions, as well as ways of thinking) reproduces and enables the most vicious and insidious forms of state and state-sanctioned oppression and repression–by way of my previous examples, Israeli occupation, mass-based imprisonment, and the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples. I will conclude this essay with a historical allegory of sorts.

Albert Memmi, in his anticolonialist meditation The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965), centrally addressed the problem of presence that marked the typological white supremacist domination of the colony. The colonizer–historically and prototypically, the categorical white man to whom many such theorists refer–ultimately found the Native indispensable, and not just because he could siphon and steal the Native’s labor and other “natural” resources. The Native’s indispensability was found, rather, in his/her bodily presence, which was nothing less than the affirmation of life’s materiality for the settler. Memmi contends that it was through this very presence that whiteness found its form of articulation, its passage from the realm of the imaginary to the grittiness of material relation. Of the settler white man, Memmi writes,

He knew, of course, that the colony was not peopled exclusively by colonists or colonizers. He even had some idea of the colonized from his childhood books; he has seen a documentary movie on some of their customs, preferably chosen to show their peculiarity. But the fact remained that those men belonged to the realms of the imagination…. He had been a little worried about them when he too had decided to move to a colony, but no more so than he was about the climate, which might be unfavorable, or the water, which was said to contain too much limestone. Suddenly these men [sic] were no longer a simple component of geographical or historical décor. They assumed a place in his life.

He cannot even resolve to avoid them. He must constantly live in relation to them, for it is this very alliance which enables him to lead the life which he decided to look for in the colonies; it is this relationship which is lucrative, which creates privilege [emphasis added].[22]

The white colonizer was consistently unsettled by the movement between the two primary requirements of the white colony and its underlying processes of conquest: the extermination of indigenous human societies, and the political-cultural naturalization of that very same (deeply unnatural) process. Memmi expounds on the dynamic and durable relationship between these forms of domination, ultimately arguing that the containment and strategic (social and physical) elimination of targeted populations is inseparable from the global ideology of Euro-American colonial domination that posits its sites of conquest as infinitely, “naturally” available for white settlement. Here, we might think about the connectedness between Memmi’s definition of the colonial power relation and the current conditions of possibility for white civil society in the alleged aftermath of the colonial epoch.

The forced proximity between settlers and natives, or white civil society and its resident aliens, entails a historically persistent engagement between categories of humans generally defined by the colonizer as existential opposites. This intimacy defines the core antisociality of colonial conquest and the living history it has constructed: that is, contrary to more vulgar theorizations, the colonizer is not simply interested in ridding of the colonized, breaking them from indigenous attachments (to land, culture, community), or exploiting their bodies for industrial, domestic, or sexual labor. Memmi’s colonizer (and liberation theorist Frantz Fanon’s “settler”) also desires an antisocial “human” relation, a structured dialogue with the colonized that performs a kind of autoerotic drama for the colonizer, a production of pleasure that both draws upon and maintains a distinct power structure.

Such is the partial premise for Fanon’s contemporaneous meditation on the war of social truths that rages beneath the normalized violence of any such condition of domesticated domination and structured political dialogue. For Fanon, it is the Manichaean relation between colonized and colonizer, “native” and “settler,” that conditions the subaltern truths of both imminent and manifest insurgencies. Speaking to the anticolonialist nationalism of the Algerian revolution, Fanon writes,

The problem of truth ought also to be considered. In every age, among the people truth is the property of the national cause. No absolute verity, no discourse on the purity of the soul, can shake this position. The native replies to the living lie of the colonial situation by an equal falsehood. His dealings with his fellow-nationals are open; they are strained and incomprehensible with regard to the settlers. Truth is that which hurries on the break-up of the colonialist regime; it is that which promotes the emergence of the nation; it is all that protects the natives, and ruins the foreigners. In this colonialist context there is no truthful behavior: and the good is quite simply that which is evil for “them.”[23]

Truth, for Fanon, is precisely that which generates and multiplies the historical possibility of disruptive, subversive movement against colonial oppression. The evident rhetoric of oppositionality, of the subaltern “good” that necessarily materializes “evil” (or criminal) in the eyes of domination, offers a stunning departure from the language of negotiation, dialogue, progress, moderation, and peace that has become hegemonic in discourses of social change and social justice, inside and outside the United States. Perhaps most important, the political language of opposition is premised on its open-endedness and contingency, a particular refusal to soothe the anxiety generated in the attempt to displace a condition of violent peace for the sake of something else, a world beyond agendas, platforms, funding structures, and practical proposals. There are no guarantees, or arrogant expectations, of an ultimate state of liberation awaiting on the other side of the politically immediate struggle against the settler colony.

We might, for a fleeting moment, conceptualize the emergence of the NPIC as an institutionalization and industrialization of a banal, liberal political dialogue that constantly disciplines us into conceding the urgent challenges of a political radicalism that fundamentally challenges the existence of the US as a white settler society. The NPIC is not wholly unlike the institutional apparatus of neocolonialism, in which former and potential anticolonial revolutionaries are “professionalized” and granted opportunities within a labyrinthine state-proctored bureaucracy that ultimately reproduces the essential coherence of the neocolonial relation of power itself. The NPIC’s well-funded litany of “social justice” agendas, platforms, mission statements, and campaigns offers a veritable smorgasbord of political guarantees that feeds on our cynicism and encourages a misled political faith that stridently bypasses the fundamental relations of dominance that structure our everyday existence in the United States: perhaps it is time that we formulate critical strategies that fully comprehend the NPIC as the institutionalization of a relation of dominance and attempt to disrupt and transform the fundamental structures and principles of a white supremacist US civil society, as well as the US racist state.

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  1. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has often spoken of the generally underexplored and undertheorized political possibilities in engaging organizing strategies that are “conservative in form, but radical in content.” She speaks of such strategies manifesting in historically conservative spaces, such
    as the church or mosque, while articulating a political critique and praxis that envisions radical social transformation. [Return to text]
  2. See Haunani-Kay Trask, “The New World Order,” in From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), 58-63. [Return to text]
  3. My use of the term common sense derives from Antonio Gramsci’s conception of the assumptions, truths, and general faiths that predominate in a given social formation or hegemony. [Return to text]
  4. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (New York: Orion Press, 1965), 7-8. [Return to text]
  5. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963), 50. [Return to text]