Monday, May 12, 2014

The Charitable-Industrial Complex

Peter Dauvergne & Genevieve LeBaron, Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism

Greenpeace began in 1970 as a wildcat protest against nuclear tests in the North Pacific. Forty-some years later, Greenpeace has a corporate charter, a CEO, an investment portfolio, and strict rules preventing grassroots members from going off-script. Dauvergne and LeBaron boldly question: what costs do change agents pay by organizing along a capitalist corporate model? The answers they uncover are harrowing, but not particularly unexpected.

Though they return to the Greenpeace example periodically, our authors take an expansive view of organized activism. Many formerly radical groups have adopted structures modeled on Fortune 500 companies, including well-paid executive boards and diverse, aggressive investment strategies. This includes sinking donor money into capitalist enterprises, and permitting large-scale donors to demand “return on investment” for putatively philanthropic giving. Whether this facilitates real, fundamental change, matters little to paid leaders.

Corporatized charities thus become beholden to money and other status quo influences. Rather than demanding actual systemic, radical changes (radical, from Latin: root), corporate charities accept superficial changes while letting underlying conditions fester unchanged. Bigness, briefly, encourages activist schizophrenia. Groups like Greenpeace, World Vision, and Amnesty International promise revolution to street-level members, while essentially appeasing their corporate and government allies. Activists buy into the system they claim to oppose.

Dauvergne, a Canadian, and LeBaron, from Britain, come from political science backgrounds, but we’d more accurately call this book political philosophy. They have distinct ideas about what charities, NGOs, and other activist groups should do: such organizations should resist crushing forces of wealth, power, and cozy arrogance. And they perceive their beloved change agents failing in their tasks. Thus their book mixes manifesto, goad, and plan of action.

Traditional protests, like the Chicago Haymarket demonstrations or Civil Rights marches, demanded unified group action. But corporations see groups as conglomerations of individuals, and corporatized charity encourages what Dauvergne and LeBaron call “compassionate consumption.” Rather than act together, corporate charities encourage us to spend separately, which makes individuals feel vaguely ennobled, but makes real challenges, like global warming and financial malfeasance, look too imposing for real, meaningful change.

While large-scale corporate charities essentially sell themselves to “crony capitalism,” governments and private security forces increasingly treat rank-and-file protesters as terrorists. Nor is that an exaggeration: since 9/11, government documents openly characterize environmentalists, labor organizers, and urban monks as equal to al-Qaeda. Violence has become the first resort in handling demonstrators. The NYPD, with FBI connivance, used military tactics and technology to disperse #Occupy encampments.

This dualism has chilling effects—literally, as citizen passions dissipate. Large, essentially conformist groups get corporate and government assistance, including both manpower and money. Actual dissidents and True Believers can expect arrest, or worse. Thus the very principles of democracy, including Constitutional American guarantees of free speech and assembly, become hallmarks of outlaw insurgents; law-keepers violently terminate unauthorized but completely legal public gatherings. Demanding answers from elected officials becomes criminal.

Our authors never quite say it, but when wholly legal protests get treated as “national security issues,” governments essentially declare their people enemies of the state. This changes the very foundations of Western civic authority. Protecting the charitable-industrial complex while silencing civilian dissent, governments redefine us as customers, not citizens. We’re free to buy and spend, whether altruistically or selfishly; but we’re banned from questioning our government and corporate overlords.

But not everything feels bleak. Recent social changes (cf. Jeff Speck’s Walkable City) have gradually reintroduced community ties that encourage collective action. Authentic radicals are abandoning corporate charities for grassroots activism. Simultaneously, new leaderless protest models, including the geographically diffuse #Occupy model, encourage small-scale management, responsive to local needs. Fervor lives at the street level, and while maintaining that passion remains difficult, only such naked anti-authoritarian rebellion encourages real change.

Though the authors dance around the topic, they essentially confirm one of my pet issues: bigness and bureaucracy cause complacence. Small, community-level movements retain vigor. As they describe the push-pull between transnational, corporatized “charities” and grassroots protesters, Dauvergne and LeBaron describe the true movement of civic authority: leaders would concentrate power at the top. But real activists can re-channel energy by where they dedicate their loyalties.

Real citizenship requires every citizen’s active, informed involvement. Turning the impetus for change over to corporate charities has proven as numbing as entrusting such authority to governments or capitalists. Dauvergne and LeBaron demonstrate how free Western nations have lost the compass of true democracy; but we can reclaim our direction by exercising our wits, numbers, and legitimate citizenship. It’s never all lost; sometimes we just forget our own power.

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