Book Review: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Since the mid-1970s this country has seen the spectacular growth of what is increasingly coming to be called the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC)—a sprawling constellation of private foundations, service organizations, charities, and institutionalized movement groups operating under 501(c)(3), a somewhat arcane IRS provision that exempts recognized organizations from paying income tax.

Christy Thornton

Since the mid-1970s this country has seen the spectacular growth of what is increasingly coming to be called the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC)—a sprawling constellation of private foundations, service organizations, charities, and institutionalized movement groups operating under 501(c)(3), a somewhat arcane IRS provision that exempts recognized organizations from paying income tax.

According to the National Council of Non-Profit Organizations, the U.S. nonprofit sector had in 2004 combined assets of roughly $1.6 trillion (enough to place it among the top five largest economies in the world) and employed one out of every 15 citizens—demonstrating a tremendous realm of influence at home and abroad.

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex, Edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, 2007, South End Press, 256 pages, $18 paperback

The worldwide impact of the most powerful of the NPIC’s actors, private foundations, has been the subject of criticism from the left since before the Complex began to take shape, notably in the early pages of this magazine, in a 1969 exposé on the “Rockefeller Empire,” as well as in Robert L. Allen’s classic Black Awakening in Capitalist America, published that same year, which exposed the direct role played by the Ford Foundation in de-radicalizing black nationalist organizations in the late 1960s. The involvement of the CIA in directing foundation funding toward anti-Communist groups and fronts during the Cold War was later documented by Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War, her examination of the funding of cultural institutions here in the United States, as well as by Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett in their work on the funding of CIA-directed projects with indigenous peoples in Latin America and elsewhere, Thy Will Be Done. And Robert Arnove’s 1980 edited volume Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism deftly demonstrated the mechanisms through which the economic, cultural, and political interests of the U.S. ruling elite were being disseminated throughout the third world.

These and other critiques of the role of private foundations emerged from New Left scholar-activists seeking to uncover the emerging nongovernmental structures of power that, while operating under the rubric of “progressive” philanthropy, were working to undermine movements aiming for radical social change; they did so particularly in the name of containing Communism at home and abroad. Later, as global neoliberalism began to take hold, some scholars shifted the focus from foundations to the international NGOs that were growing in importance as the conventional wisdom of development theory turned increasingly to the market. In the mid-1990s, James Petras began to examine the role of NGOs in perpetuating systems of exploitation and directing movements and local organizations away from systemic critiques of their oppression and toward programs to incorporate the peoples of the developing world into the capitalist mainstream.

The scholarship of Petras and of those who critiqued the role of foundations before him informs, directly and indirectly, much of the work gathered in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. The collection sets out to examine the ways in which the NPIC as a whole—from the influence of foundations over the political agendas of movement groups to the very legal structures that define nonprofit status—constrains and even undermines work for radical social change. A number of factors are at play here, chief among them collusion with the state and the ruling capitalist elite, but the current that runs through each of the narratives is neoliberalism: at home, with the dismantling of New Deal/Great Society agencies that required nonprofits to shoulder more of the social burden; and abroad, as structural adjustment required NGOs to both provide services and to contain the unrest resulting from growing inequality caused by eliminating social protections. The result in the United States, argues contributor Ruth Wilson Gilmore, is the creation of a “shadow state” populated by nonprofits that are forced to “take responsibility for persons who are in the throes of abandonment rather than responsibility for persons progressing toward full incorporation in the body politic.”

Indeed, many contributors argue, the situation Gilmore describes is not an accidental development, but rather a concerted effort by the ruling elite to ensure that creating a broad-based movement for radical social change is functionally impossible. This is acheived through the legal requirements of nonprofit status and its attendant funding imperatives, which prohibit direct political activity; encourage organizations to adopt hierarchical corporate structures; require a focus on measurable programmatic outcomes rather than community and movement building; and foster competition, rather than collaboration, between organizations. As Critical Resistance’s Dylan Rodriguez puts it in the theoretical essay that opens the book, “Forms of sustained grassroots social movements 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 U.S. left.” As global neoliberalism has told us time and time again, there is no alternative—the NPIC is, he says, “a highly effective apparatus of political discipline.” From the black radical movements of the 1960s in this country to the Palestine liberation movement, the contributors, most of them activists involved in grassroots community struggles, detail the inner workings of this disciplinary apparatus and the consequences it has had for their movements.

But perhaps more importantly, they also describe the ways their movements and organizations have challenged this apparatus head-on. When INCITE! was confronted with the revocation of a large foundation grant because of its statement of support for the Palestinian liberation struggle, it reorganized itself and created a grassroots funding strategy that sees fundraising and organizing as intrinsically linked parts of a single movement-building process. When the Brooklyn-based organization Sista II Sista was faced, almost a decade into its existence, with staff burnout and a hostile post-9/11 funding environment, members decided to unincorporate their 501(c)(3) and return to working as a volunteer collective, answering only to themselves and their communities. This is not to say that this strategy is the best solution for all organizations—a chapter on Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide details the ways in which that organization works for radical change from within the 501(c)(3) model. Nor is it to say that this approach is not problematic, as Tiffany Lethabo King and Eware Osayande remind us in their chapter, “The Filth on Philanthropy”: Simply moving away from foundations and toward a grassroots fundraising strategy that is still supported by wealthy white individuals (a tactic frequently unavailable to movements in communities of color that have no access to such wealth) does nothing to dismantle the structural inequality that created that wealth in the first place.

Although The Revolution Will Not Be Funded presents no easy answers for those of us struggling both to make a living and to create social change, it exhorts us to put the consideration of our movements’ missions, and the way we fulfill them, before considerations of organizational and job security—and to regularly revisit within our organizations the question of whether the form and the content of our work are essentially compatible. In his seminal “NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism,” James Petras asserted, “The fundamental question is whether a new generation of organic intellectuals can emerge from the burgeoning radical social movements which can avoid the NGO temptation and become integral members of the next revolutionary wave.” The contributors to this volume, drawing on experiences from radical movements here and in Latin America, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, might well be just those people, forming a strong core of that revolutionary wave.


Christy Thornton is NACLA's director and publisher.
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