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This Is What Bureaucracy Looks Like

This essay takes a critical look at the role Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) play in the growing movement against global capital.

This Is What Bureaucracy Looks Like

by Jim Davis (debonaire (at) mindspring.com)

This essay appears in a new book published by Softskull. The Battle of Seattle; The
new Movement against global Capitalism. Eds. Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose and
George Katsiafikas.

"I’m aware that it’s a lot more glamorous to be on the barricade with a handkerchief around your nose than it is to
be at the meetings with a briefcase and a bowler hat, but I think that we’re getting more done this way" -- Bono

This essay takes a critical look at the role Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) play in the growing movement
against global capital. The movement, which made its spectacular US debut in Seattle, has lent NGOs
unprecedented political influence. Leading thinkers and institutions of capitalist planning are desperate for allies to
appease their critics. As we will see the impulses of the NGOs and those of the movement are politically at odds.
While much discussion has concentrated on tactical differences, a more profound problem lies beneath. Lacking in
imagination and caught between the many-headed street movement and an impulse to negotiate directly with
power on its behalf, the specter of NGOs, as a device for the containment of political dissent, arises.

The government’s friend

There is no doubt that NGOs do vital work in any number of places around the world . From famine relief to
bringing clean water to rural communities throughout the South many such groups are at the front line of people’s
struggles to survive and gain a modicum of political rights. NGOs have inherited a tradition of charity work that has
been around since the earliest days of colonialism. More and more of them have abandoned the sorry history of
proselytism and missionary work in favor of a human rights agenda and, more recently, a clear political and
economic critique. In this regard the contribution of NGOs to the creation and maintenance of a space for political
discourse in many places is inestimable. The experience of Chiapas is one example where NGOs, among others,
organized in support of the Zapatistas and made an overt military solution an untenable option for the Mexican
State. In Seattle and Quebec groups like Public Citizen and Global Exchange made enormous organizing
contributions, mobilized formidable resources and infiltrated the corporate media with articulate and provocative
spokespeople and sound bites. But it is precisely for groups like this that the contradictions of institutionalized
radicalism become most apparent. To understand why this is the case we must consider the changes in the terrain
of struggle that Zapatismo and Seattle have wrought.

After having been denounced in the South for decades as an incubus, the World Bank the IMF, and their even
more odious offspring the WTO, are now pilloried even in the business press which feels it must distance itself
from them or risk contagion. The WTO has effectively put the overdeveloped countries on notice that their turn to
be ‘structurally adjusted’ has come and hence expanded resistance to the ‘first world’ also. George Soros, the
swashbuckling knight-errant of speculative financial flows, has even criticized the institutions and neoliberal
ubereconomist Jeffrey Sachs is back-pedaling madly. A legitimation crisis is brewing for international capital The
only question is, who will save them and how? Recent demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, Davos, D.C.,
Melbourne, and Quebec City, escalating in fierceness, and increasingly articulate, have left the capitalist planned
coup du monde a shambles.

To the media it seems that NGOs and protestors are virtually interchangeable and synonymous. In reality elite
decision-makers evaluate the NGO world with a quick and pragmatic eye and see potential allies in the delicate
work of diffusing this new opposition. The Economist took note of this in pointing out that when "assaulted by
unruly protestors, firms and governments are suddenly eager to do business with the respectable face of dissent."
Legitimation strategies are everywhere. In Business Week, "A double backlash is generating skepticism about the
ability of globalism to do good". All of a sudden we witness the recruitment of a moral philosophy absent from the
economist’s dictionary since the nineteenth century and along with it a pantheon of do gooders to show the way.

Among the re-imagers we find Bono, narcissistic Irish pop star, cultural carpetbagger, and supremely cynical carer
whose current promotions include a campaign to ‘forgive’ Third World debt. He has become a roving ambassador
for Jubilee 2000, an NGO which advocates debt relief as good business. Bono (born again) has met the pope (a
fan), Jesse Helms and ‘Jim’ Wolfensohn, the former World Bank boss. He has been coached in the intricacies of
global capitalism by Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs. In recent years Sachs has changed his colors and jumped ship from
his hard line of the 1980s and early ‘90’s. Having factored in political crisis he is now the liberal neoliberal barely
recognizable as one of the primary architects of ‘shock therapy’. That policy succeeded in prising the collective
wealth of Russia away, laundering it through the Mafia and the banking system, and recycling it as investment
dollars in the US and Western Europe. The shock has contributed to a fall in the life expectancy of Russian men
by six years in the 1990’s, among other calamities.

Bono is an extreme example of those with whom the institutions would like to be associated. His naivete about
why he was at the Prague WTO meeting is almost endearing; at least other opportunists in the NGO industry
appreciate that without the demonstrations and the ensuing legitimacy deficit there would be no seats at the table
for any of them. Some of them will have read as much in The Economist who was in no doubt as to why "groups
such as Oxfam were all but co-opted into designing debt relief strategies".

The ideal for capitalism would be to create and co-opt a "responsible" leadership who could then negotiate on
behalf of the hordes and diffuse the movement while recuperating it. "Horst Kohler, the IMF’s new boss has been
courting NGOs. Jim Wolfensohn, the [World] Banks boss, has long fawned in their direction". Surely, they imagine,
there are some reasonable types who understand that we can’t go back to the stone age and that progress will
continue. Stephen Hellinger, president of Development Gap, one of the organizing NGOs of the "Fifty Years is
Enough" campaign, was successfully recruited by the World Bank. He works with them to review the effects of
Structural Adjustment and reflects on his experience in the Financial Times. "Wolfensohn has yet to take the
critique that is coming out around the world," he says and adds that, "It has been six years, the hopes we had for
him have yet to materialize." Incredibly Hellinger finds Wolfensohn to be the impediment to change, a different
boss and perhaps we could get somewhere. Ironic then that Wolfensohn got the chop for being too reform minded.

Is it mere coincidence that the implementation of the neoliberal project in the form of privatization, trade feudalism
and the attempted elimination of the welfare state occurred simultaneously with the emergence of NGOs as
central to its explanation and narrative? While neoliberalism as conceived by the Chicago boys (Sachs among
them) Thatcher, Reagan et al, was a strictly conservative strategy, its execution and implementation is a
Clintonian liberal project. "The principle reason for the recent boom in NGOs", according to The Economist, "is that
Western governments finance them. This is not a matter of charity but of privatization." In Africa and elsewhere
Western governments routinely recruit NGOs to distribute aid and administer development projects. Indeed The
Economist claims that governments rely to a greater and greater degree on "useful information" that NGOs can
provide. By way of example they state: "the work of Global Witness is actually paid for by the British Foreign

Supply and Demand

More profoundly NGOs can often be found in control of services formerly provided by Third World Governments
until debt and restructuring eliminated them. Caroline Fetscher has written of the situation in Bangladesh where up
to 5,000 NGOs are involved in literacy programs. Alex Demirovic points out that due to their mistrust of Southern
governments, Northern NGOs can become shadow bureaucracies parallel to Southern Nation State
administrations. These NGOs "often work as public service contractors with headquarters in the large cities, far
removed from the problems of the population, sturdily professional and apolitical. The agenda for the aid is, in
fact, frequently determined by the self-interest of these organizations". As these relationships become more
institutionalized the implications for democracy among the recipients, i.e. the poor of the Global South, are fairly

If Bono’s elite power is exclusively to do with the image then the NGO’s can more powerfully claim to be the real
fake. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt describe it, "these NGOs conduct just wars without arms, without
violence, without borders. Like the Dominicans in the late medieval period and the Jesuits at the dawn of
modernity, these groups strive to identify universal needs and defend human rights." In the new framework of
legitimacy that Negri and Hardt describe as "Empire" (and which the Zapatistas, among others, recognize loosely
as neoliberalism), "new articulations of the exercise of legitimate force" are demanded. The pattern is a familiar
one with the shibboleth of morality wheeled out to underline the economics of war and intervention. As such, Negri
and Hardt point out that NGOs, in this case Oxfam, Medicins Sans Frontieres and Amnesty International, are
precursors and perpetuators of imperial intervention. Kosovo is the most recent example where liberals cheered as
German planes dropped American ordnance on defenseless Serbs. And this after multiple fabrications announced
by NATO and the CIA but dutifully reproduced, reported and spectacularised by the media.

To simplify with a metaphor, NGOs are to imperialism what artist bohemians are to urban gentrification. For NGOs
authenticity is derived from their branding, or more accurately from the composite of their brand identity. As is the
case with the more traditional corporate brands authenticity remains a holy grail. Nike and Benetton derive theirs
from ‘Blackness’, diversity and the urban street credibility of their billion dollar illusions. NGOs generate their
authenticity from compassion extraction activities. For them cultural otherness and the mediation of abject
desperation is the foundation of moral authority. This is most obvious in the Fair Trade game, whereby NGOs
import, distribute and sell crafts and produce from the South. "Buy a basket from a typical crafts importer and the
peasant artisan receives a tiny fraction of what you pay. At the Global Exchange Fair Trade Craft Stores, you
know the producer got her or his fair share, around 15-30% of the retail price". Like World Bank and IMF activities,
the currency of fair trade is market rather than social relations.

As is the case with most valuable raw materials such extractions are located most often in the south. And like gold
and diamonds, ‘compassion’ and ‘authenticity’ mined in the South are most profitably consumed in the North. And
as with gold and diamonds the scarcity of compassion must be carefully managed owing to its natural abundance.
The compassion market is notoriously inelastic as was evidenced by the ‘compassion fatigue’ crisis suffered by
NGOs during the second Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. As brands go, the NGO sector has succeeded in
accumulating that most scarce of resources, compassionate capital. Like Lady Diana’s landmine campaign, their
moral appeal is absolute.


Elsewhere in this collection the notion of prefiguration in praxis is discussed. It is relevant to any discussion of
NGOs also. The movement against global capitalism is marked by political evolution from those movements that
have gone before. In its style it owes a debt to the women’s movement and its rejection of hierarchy and
charismatic oratory, to the peace movement of the seventies in its mass non-violent demeanor; to the European
black bloc of the eighties in its tactical probing for the weaknesses of a jack booted foe and to the radical
environmental movement for the joy with which it goes about its work and its emphasis on changing everyday life
for the better. The radically democratic nature of the movement is its strongest suit. Perhaps this is a lesson that
NGOs are incapable of learning if we consider that NGOs were granted a seat at the UN as consultants and
fundraisers when the charter was written at the dawn of the post colonial era. There is a political difference
between the movement described and the manner with which the majority of NGOs organize themselves,
particularly those with the profile and organizational ability to seize the moment.

And Miners

Hierarchical in structure and often led by careerist NGO celebrities, the industry is degenerate in its industrial
relations and, as is often the case with countercultural outfits, relies to an outrageous degree on volunteer labor.
In this arena too NGOs find ways to profitably invest political rhetoric. They exploit their workers using the
goodfight jargon just as sweatshops use motifs of ‘familia’ or nationalism to justify injustice or as IMF officers
argue for particular environmental or labor abuses by reference to general growth rates and so on.

NGOs might indeed operate in the moral economy ignoring the dictates of the surplus value theory of labor. One
can’t accumulate compassion in this manner without exploiting workers. Along these lines Ralph Nader, Trojan
corporation killer and the Elvis of reformism, has stated that the NGO business has no need of trade unions. Back
in the eighties at Multinational Monitor, a magazine he owned, he expressed the opinion that workers at the
magazine had no right to unionize. The editor, Tim Shorrock, was fired for attempting to organize. The following is
extracted from an essay by Nick Mamantas published by the Greenwich Village Gazzette (New York). "Public
interest groups are like crusades, Nader explains, you can’t have work rules, or 9 to 5." Workers should be treated
equitably, using the resources the "crusade" has, but anyone in a public interest firm in Washington "can leave and
double their income by going across the street. Shorrock, with his "union ploy," became an "adversary" according to
Nader. "Anything that is commercial, is unionizable," but small public interest organizations "would go broke in a
month," Nader says, if they paid union wages, offered union benefits and operated according to standard work
rules, such as the eight-hour day.

No surprise then that the majority of NGOs and Unions are reluctant to embrace street demonstrations and risk the
contagion of radical democracy infecting their workers and members. The crucial moment in Seattle came when
Union leaders steered the rank and file away from sites where demonstrators confronted police and succeeded in
derailing the meetings, a tactic employed once more by Canadian Trade Union leaders at the FTAA
demonstrations in Quebec City in April, 2001.

While the street movement in Seattle drew together a wide range of issues into a generalized critique, many
NGOs seem fixated with specialization. Salaried professionals rely on teams of researchers, media spinners,
accountants, import/export consultants, tax lawyers and all the poorly paid but very committed staff one would
expect from a professional operation. And incredibly they actually refer to these people, the majority of whom are
motivated young idealists, as ‘our staff’. "The danger of yuppie-NGOs (a jet-set civil society) forming at the global
level is not insignificant." This leadership of professional reformers acts as if in the belief that the head and the
feet are separate. A morbidity pervades this division of labor where everyday is casual Friday.

In part because they organize as businesses in a manner determined by capitalism, this is all they can do. A brand
will suffer in the market place if it lacks focus; the specialized niche is life or death. What is generalized is their
moral appeal and that is packaged as pity, condescension, remorse and self-righteousness.

Shortly after Seattle, The Economist bemoaned that in France, where blockades were happening over fuel prices,
politics was again being conducted in the streets. The Economist was remembering the derailment of the MAI, the
ritual slaying of the WTO, the incineration of French plans to get rid of guaranteed pensions through general
strikes in 1996 and 1997 and a litany of other ‘setbacks’ due to people power. They recalled the chaos of the
sixties when it was impossible to make 5 year business plans, when social movements in France and elsewhere
were ‘out of control’ and the demands on capital were intolerable. The Economist was one of the first to identify
the NGOs as potential allies in the war for globalization. Open any page of Foreign Affairs, read the output of the
British Treasury Department, or even The World Bank’s own literature and it will be found now as doctrine. Indeed
on the World Bank’s homepage NGOs appear in the `partners’ window alongside business and bond investors.

We are not without historical precedents, for it is the history of resistance and social movements which gives
capitalism many of its great ideas. A look back at the civil rights movement and the manner in which it was
co-opted and neutralized is indicative of the dangers the movement now faces. And few will need to be reminded
of the serial sell -outs in the chilling history of trade unionism, usually by its own leadership. The trouble with trade
unionism, remarked Winston Churchill at a cabinet meeting at the end of WW1, is that there is not enough of
it—that is, of the sound patriotic kind at least.

A further trait of the contemporary movement is that it levels its demands against capital in isolation rather than
against the state. Historically the state has mediated between the two, closeting its loyalty to employers behind a
rhetorical or legalistic impartiality. But the state has shored up its own position via a host of institutional defenses,
welfare and social work among them. In part globalization is the end of these as capital transcends its perceived
need for the state brokered compromise. Privatization was the answer to which a question had to be found and
simultaneously the discourse of entitlement was replaced by that of ‘responsibility’. In abandoning any notion of
social contract and by evacuating the space of ‘public good’, capital, via the state, has created a subtle symbiosis
whereby charity is the new welfare and NGOs are the new social workers. Structural adjustment has achieved this
in the South while Bush’s state sponsored religious volunteerism, combined with the philanthropic experimentalism
of Bill Gates, Ted Turner and George Soros, are its latest expressions in the North. The market economy and the
market society are indistinguishable…compassion in all things. "The international institutions, which clearly
recognize the problem of internationally controlling the financial and capital markets…are also aware of the need
for intermediary organizations. With NGOs they form complex political networks and negotiation systems. The
result can be described as global governance."

The implications for the movement are predictable. Those who most loudly condemned the militants of Prague and
Seattle are most likely to have their loyalty to the politics of the negotiating table rather than the street rewarded.
Indeed the more sober among them speak of ‘reforming’ the institutions rather than their abolition. Like Bono’s
generosity in ‘forgiving’ debt to those who never borrowed, not to mention reparations, among the NGO’s the
language of forgiveness is abject. Thus can Kevin Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange and prominent critic of
the World Bank intone that "If we really care about the future of the planet, we must struggle to transform the
World Bank." What we would transform it into is left unsaid.

The Last Bureaucrat

This posture, assumed by most of the leading NGO’s concerned with trade in particular and globalization in
general, belies a fascination they share with a gamut of capitalist functionaries throughout the West. Mainstream
economics is in theory as imperialist as capitalism is in reality. It has in the last generation become a theology.
Academically the discipline is contained within a system of imposed ignorance, its most interesting challenges are
excluded as ‘externalities’ (famine, pollution) or more glaringly as ‘market failures’, "Land has no production cost, it
is a free and unreproducable gift of Nature" proclaims a basic introductory textbook. War, the great engine of
accumulation, is dismissed as outside its remit though without it there would be no property, or at least no
destruction and regeneration of it. The contemporary economist is a number cruncher obsessing over the harmony
of equations as the bodies pile up around him. Yet NGOs, particularly their intellectual elites, remain under the
spell of professional economics, convinced that more sensible theories will prevail and that the World Bank needs
to reorient itself towards ‘micro loans’ to better deliver the theology of the market to those as yet ‘underdeveloped’.

NGOs, however well intentioned many may be, are not a substitute for real social and political movements. Above
all, neither capital, the state, nor the NGOs should be allowed dictate who the movements leaders are. It should
be remembered that the Seattle victory was revised by many NGO and union leaders as the outcome of a great
collaboration between them. This clearly overstates the case and purposely overlooks the tensions between them
and the ‘street warriors’ who did the heavy lifting. But pragmatically many NGOs have valuable research and
mobilizing resources and, like the media, any serious political or social movement cannot ignore its relationship
with them. For the first time in 20 years real radical possibilities have opened up. Where once the committed had
few options but a professional NGO track there is now the inkling of a truly global anti capitalist movement to work
towards. Essentially the NGOs are a class of professional activists with whom the movement has a relationship.
They are often strong critics of the excesses of capitalism and are willing to commit resources and considerable
ability and talent to the creation of a just order. What is demanded of them will determine whether their political
choices have to do with the movement’s agenda or that of capital.

It can go either way. The following from Lori Wallach, a prominent researcher, writer and director of Public Citizen
in Washington DC, in a Foreign Policy interview, illustrates the contours of this political divide. She described her
work in Seattle; "[T]hese anarchist folks marched in there and started smashing things. And our people actually
picked up the anarchists. Because we had with us longshoremen and steelworkers who, by their sheer bulk, were
three or four times larger. So we had them just literally sort of, a teamster on either side, just pick up an anarchist.
We’d walk him over to the cops and say, this boy just broke a window. He doesn’t belong to us. We hate the
WTO, so does he, maybe, but we don’t break things. Please arrest him." This behavior is premised on a tactical
assumption that reassuring capital is "getting more done".

Wallach’s remarks underline a very important point. The conditions of negotiation between capital and the NGOs
are the unilateral disarmament of the movement’s tactics. This is the only thing the NGOs have to offer
neoliberalism; a special sort of police power and movement sabotage. In other words, the promise (articulated,
indicated or simply understood) that the politics of the street will be replaced by the politics of ‘heated’ negotiation.
But the potential exists for a genuinely radical movement to grow in opposition to capital itself, which has nothing
to do with this sort of politics. The movement in the streets has made apparent capital’s inherent irrationalism. In
going on a new offensive without first seeing to it that a spurious opposition existed it has overplayed its hand and
its vulnerability is exposed. It is now fighting a rearguard action to create one. NGO’s, who couldn’t get their calls
returned even three years ago, can now write their own contracts and are privy, finally, to policy making at the
highest levels. For Lori Wallach and her crowd it is almost like being a real cop.


The shape of the tensions within the anti globalization movement outlined above were manifest quite clearly here
in New York City last weekend. At least 15 000 demonstrators turned out to greet the World Economic Forum who
had been driven from Davos, Switzerland by fierce opposition at last year’s gathering. The total absence in NY of
Public Citizen, Global Exchange and The Sierra Club, among others, represents their retreat from both street
confrontations as a tactic and popular opposition as a strategy. The demonstrations were successfully organized
by that part of the movement most feared by capital and most despised by the movement’s careerists. While the
protests here were peaceful and disciplined they were above all united and radically democratic. Not only did the
NGOs effectively boycott the demonstrations but they refused to endorse or support them in any way. The
cynicism of this gang is only matched by that of the WEF; the Forum invoking the dead of September as the
pretext for coming to NY and the NGOs as a pretext for staying away. Synergy anyone?

Instead these organizations took their winter vacation in Porto Alegre Brazil where the "jet-set civil society" joined
with elements of the European ruling political class and all the candidates in France’s upcoming presidential
election. The specified absence of any armed groups but presence of the former Priista governor of Chiapas
illuminates the distinction being made between state violence and armed groups opposing the state. It reminds us
also of the antics of the NGOs and their absurd moral gymnastics in calling the cops on "bad" demonstrators.
Undoubtedly Porto Alegre increases the power of NGOs on the world stage and reinforces the likelihood that some
formal negotiations will be opened between the anti democratic organs of globalization and their crypto democratic
counterparts within civil society. Perhaps the WEF will consider Porto Alegre as the venue for next years Summit.

Meanwhile at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York Bono joined up with Bill Gates to increase the peace as the bombs
continue to fall in Afghanistan.

jd feb 5, 2001


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