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On ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’

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to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

On ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’

Ying-sun Ho

In ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’ (Issue One of Out to Win!), the Nonprofits and Revolutionary Strategy Study Team endeavor to examine how social movement leftists should assess their activity within nonprofit formations and how they should orient toward such formations moving forward. The question of what kinds of organizations and entities we need to build, and which forms best suit each, is important and fascinating. Forms differ in their ability to access different kinds of resources, their expected class compositions, their range of legal activities and legal liabilities, and more issues of potentially strategic importance for those looking to transform the political and economic systems. Full and robust discussion of these matters will be essential in our efforts to develop coherent strategy for the revolutionary left.

Unfortunately, ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’ has a number of interlocking weaknesses that leave it not only unconvincing, but unable even to advance such a full and robust discussion. I want to surface three primary, substantive weaknesses: a lack of empirical rigor; a lack of theoretical/conceptual rigor; and a lack of historical grounding. In doing so, I will try to offer some examples of lines of inquiry that might prove more fruitful in future examinations of these questions.

EMPIRICAL RIGOR: LAYING THE FOUNDATION OF THE ARGUMENT

One of the most glaring problems with ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’ is its failure to offer empirical or evidentiary support for the assertions on which it bases its argument. This is not an occasional error, but appears consistently throughout the article. 

Claims like ‘[w]ithout a nonprofit badge, ideological leftists and radical activists are sometimes pushed to the fringe’ have no supporting data. Historical narratives about the development of nonprofits in the U.S. (e.g., p. 129) cite no sources and give no concrete examples. While some assertions are undoubtedly true, some are demonstrably false (e.g., the owning class did not ‘captur[e] government power beginning in the 1970s’ (p. 130)). Many more are contestable, and the authors do themselves no favors by refusing to establish the factual basis for their arguments.

In the only real attempt to ground its analysis, the article draws on interviews with two of the authors about their ‘observations and experiences after working at three different social justice nonprofits in California’ to create a ‘case study’. A real case study, though, would certainly include more than anecdotes from one or two of the people who worked at these organizations. It would include an explanation of what these particular organizations did and why looking at them could be instructive in thinking about social movement nonprofits more broadly. It would look at documentation, both internal and external, of what the groups were trying to do and what they actually did. But this ‘case study’ has nothing like that. We have no reason to think, for instance, that these are radical formations claiming to challenge capitalism in some significant way and not liberal Alinskyite or service-providing groups. This information would be helpful in thinking about whether and how revolutionaries might find these examples instructive in their analysis and use of the nonprofit form.

THEORETICAL & CONCEPTUAL RIGOR: THOROUGH ANALYSIS WITH NO SHORTCUTS

Establishing a better factual foundation would help, but it would not save ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’ from its conceptual and theoretical sloppiness. Better definition and deployment of terms, calling on some applicable concepts and frameworks we have been studying, and avoiding awkward attempts to apply unrelated theory could all help the article shed light on what could be an important question of organizational forms in a revolutionary movement.

Defining and deploying terms

Obviously, the concept and category of the nonprofit organization is key to the issues here, as is what the authors call the ‘Nonprofit Industrial Complex’ (NPIC). Unfortunately, the authors’ imprecision in defining and deploying these terms leads to a cascade of slipshod reasoning. The resulting confusion is important because there is a substantive difference between the lessons offered by studying, for example, explicitly and intentionally bourgeois nonprofits closely aligned with the political class, and those we might glean from looking at grassroots, base-building nonprofits founded and led by revolutionary internationalists. Might the latter be riddled with structural limitations that render them completely useless to socialists? It’s possible. But by refusing to define the universe of organizations they are dealing with, the authors fail to make the case that their observations and lessons are applicable to conscious socialist forces’ orientation toward nonprofits.

Look at the authors’ choice to define an economic ‘sector’ and ‘industry’ by its tax status.1 In every other part of the economy, these words describe the actual work of an enterprise—‘automotive sector’, ‘entertainment industry’, etc. This is true whether the enterprise is an ‘S’ corporation, a sole proprietorship, or an LLC. So why does being tax-exempt put Kaiser Permanente, the San Francisco Opera, and Causa Justa/Just Cause all in the same sector or industry? It seems an obvious question worthy of exploration and not mere assertion.

When they do aim for more specificity, the authors still leave basic definitional and methodological questions unanswered. They state their intention to focus on ‘social movement nonprofits’—those that ‘would describe their work as doing or supporting community organizing, social justice, or social change work’. But they do not define these terms, or explain how they have determined whether an organization is doing such work. We have no clear idea of the constellation of entities the article is trying to study. Indeed, the only nonprofit the article actually names is the Center for American Progress, which few social movement activists or organizers would call a ‘social movement nonprofit’.

What could have been: Missed opportunities to apply relevant theory

Whether or not the authors had a clearer universe of organizations in mind, they should have interrogated their observations of those organizations rigorously. Instead, they missed the chance to use some key conceptual tools we have been studying, discussing, and developing in LeftRoots to help understand those observations in context. I will highlight two here: the movement ecosystem and Gramsci’s approach to civil society.

In LeftRoots, we have talked at length about the notion of a ‘movement ecosystem’—an interdependent and interlocking set of forces, each playing a different role that allows the entire ecosystem to thrive and succeed. Some of the roles we have identified within a healthy revolutionary movement ecosystem include base-building organizations; popular organizations; activist collectives; political parties; training and capacity-building institutions; left media and culture institutions; and cadre organizations. In particular, we have highlighted the need for cadre organizations (or ‘political instruments’) to provide analytic clarity and strategic direction for formations that would otherwise tend to drift rightward under bourgeois hegemony. Using this framework to look at the issue at hand, the authors could have looked at whether the malformation of the current left movement in the U.S., and the absence of an effective cadre organization in particular, is a key factor in any failures they have observed in ‘social movement nonprofits’. It would have been more fruitful to interrogate whether and how such movement conditions might be responsible than to simply assume that any limitations are due to tax-exempt status. Likewise, the authors do not look at the particular leadership of any of the unnamed organizations they discuss. Was the leadership communist? liberal? pragmatist? petty bourgeois? By not saying, the article begs the question of how instructive its conclusions are for the particular conditions of socialists analyzing or operating in nonprofits within a developing left movement ecosystem.

Here, it would be instructive to look at the movement ecosystem in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Briefly, the Bay Area had a small revolutionary cadre organization called STORM2 (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement) at that time, and several STORMistas had founded nonprofits3 that had different roles—training and capacity-building, activist campaigning, base-building, popular legal services—and worked in some degree of concert with one another and with STORM. These cadres understood the nonprofit form as a limited cross-class formation with bourgeois tendencies, and oriented themselves explicitly as revolutionary internationalists as they built these formations. The result? Vibrant youth-and-student and low-wage worker movements locally—with the STORM-adjacent nonprofits playing key roles, particularly in interfacing with the broader constituencies—that became a model nationwide, particularly for ‘hip-hop activism’. When STORM dissolved around 2002, the local movement took a huge hit from which it is still recovering. And without a local STORM analogue, many of the efforts to replicate what happened in the Bay Area sputtered.

Former STORMistas continued building their social movement nonprofits, though. Without a cadre organization to collaborate with, they ran into many roadblocks, but they were able to use revolutionary leadership to develop many militants that they were then able to leverage, with other comrades they had linked up with in intervening years, to start LeftRoots (which is not a nonprofit) in 2013/2014.

Movement conditions matter. Not examining them betrays a mechanical (non-dialectical) understanding of the nonprofit form that hinders our analysis. The same generally mechanical outlook is evident in the absence of any discussion of Gramsci’s approach to civil society. Gramsci posited that civil society was a key—and dynamic—arena of contestation for socialists. He thought it was strategically key for socialists to occupy the ‘powerful system of fortresses and earthworks’ (civil society) that protected capital before moving directly on the state (which was ‘only an outer ditch’). In our context, nonprofits constitute a key part of U.S. civil society, have an obviously cross-class character, and are the workplaces of many social movement leftists and progressives. The authors could easily have looked at this set of formations as a site of contestation requiring explicit, intentional, strategic socialist leadership. Instead, they opted for a purely instrumentalist4 view where nonprofits are tools that the exploiting classes use on the people and the social movements, which act as passive objects subject to the operation of these tools. This choice leaves the article unable to account for the more exciting and effective examples of revolutionaries operating within nonprofit structures.

Where the authors do attempt to apply relevant theoretical concepts, the result is often muddy and confusing. Their class analysis of nonprofits is interesting, and points us in a necessary direction, but is undermined by sloppiness and a lack of specificity. Where the definition of class the authors use from ‘We Believe that We Can Win’ relies on persons’ and groups’ structural relationship to the creation, realization, and circulation of surplus value, the authors never discuss the source of value within the nonprofits they examine. They never specify whether the class relationships they posit are connected to value created within these nonprofits; or the nonprofits ‘inherit’ those relationships from the larger political economy, or from people’s activities prior to entering the nonprofits; or the class analysis is actually a metaphor or an analogue to ‘real’ class relationships in the larger political economy.

Not all theory is relevant

More confusing are the attempts to apply theory that is simply not relevant to the matter at hand. In places where the authors would be better served by building greater evidentiary support for their claims, they instead invoke theory that, while impressive and important in its own right, does not illuminate the questions the authors are trying to explore.

In the ‘Orientation’ section, for example, the authors suggest that the article is an embodiment of ‘the Black Feminist principle that the personal is political’ because it is based in their lived experiences. But that important principle is an interrogation of the conceptual divide between the public and private spheres, and is hardly applicable to an examination of practices and experiences in the formal economy. Declaring the article an embodiment of a principle (‘the personal is political’) or a political trend (‘Black Feminism’) that most on the left revere, especially when that declaration does not hold up to scrutiny, reads as cynical. In seeking ‘to make sense of [their] experiences doing social movement work within nonprofit structures’, the authors would be better served by doing more thorough and helpful case studies of those experiences. Instead, ‘the personal is political’ here becomes a shortcut, a way to treat individuals’ anecdotal, atomized experiences as generalizable without doing truly rigorous analysis.

Later, the authors try to use some of the concepts that we in LeftRoots have studied in Raymond Williams’ writing5 to bolster their claim that ‘[t]he NPIC produces the cultural and ideological conditions that maintain racial monopoly capitalism by limiting the vision of the social movement left’. Williams’s critique of Marx’s brief discussion of the activities of the piano maker and the piano player is brilliant, but pulling it in here is odd and ineffective. Williams was discussing what human activities we should understand as ‘productive’ and ‘material’ when thinking about base, superstructure, determination, and related concepts. But the authors of ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’ are looking at the impact of workers’ commodified labor activities and their formal relationships to other class forces on the workers’ consciousness. Williams’ critique—aimed at those who see cultural and intellectual practice as immaterial and reflective of underlying ‘industrial’ and ‘productive’ activities and relationships, and thus limit their strategic imaginations to arenas of formal commodity production—is not germane. I would rather have read a more evidence-based examination of the authors’ claims that nonprofits produce ‘the cultural and ideological conditions that maintain racial monopoly capitalism’.

The theory developed by Black feminists, Raymond Williams, and other towering intellectual figures of the left is important and engaging, but trying to shoehorn it in where it is not applicable only confuses and dilutes any argument.

HISTORICAL GROUNDING: UNDERSTANDING THE MOMENT IN CONTEXT

Finally, I want to touch briefly on the orientation toward history in ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’. The authors offer a brief historical sketch of the emergence and development of social movement nonprofits, but they do not look dialectically or developmentally at leftists’ (and potential leftists’) positioning in, and relationship to, nonprofit forms in this particular historical moment. Instead, this sketch reveals an instrumental and mechanical conception of history where nonprofits are fruit of a poisoned tree, tainted endeavors that can never escape their original sin.

This conception of history is not just evident in the explicit discussion of the development of social movement nonprofits, but creeps into even small, seemingly non-historical assertions.

For instance, the authors state that ‘[t]he principle contradiction of doing social movement work within the NPIC structure is that the capitalist class will not fund their own demise’. This misses the fact that every successful revolution requires some resourcing from traitorous elements of the exploiting classes.6

The authors run into a similar problem in asserting that ‘tools and technologies are never ideologically neutral’ and, relatedly, that the nonprofit form is a tool that ‘is structurally and ideologically aligned with racial monopoly capitalism’. This ignores that a tool’s practical and ideological bias (its non-neutrality) is largely a function of how human forces use them, not of the tools’ own inherent, static nature.

Because ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’ has an insufficiently dialectical conception of history, it cannot effectively explore how to leverage our current positioning in the real world,7 and the historical motion that put us here, to create new possibilities for building a victorious socialist movement.

CONCLUSION

The authors of ‘The Nonprofit Industrial Complex Is a Master’s Tool’ set out with an admirable goal: exploring the possibilities and limitations of the nonprofit form for revolutionaries in the U.S. As the authors point out early in the article, some large proportion of social movement leftists are currently concentrated in the leadership and paid staff of nonprofits. This is why a strong analysis on these questions would be a significant contribution to a much-needed left conversation about organizational forms and functions in a revolutionary ecosystem. Instead, the analysis here needs more empirical specificity, needs to draw on more relevant theory, and needs a more dialectical and strategically oriented conception of history. As it is, the article’s weaknesses render it unable to move this conversation forward meaningfully. It can still, however, be instructive for us in LeftRoots as we continue to develop as thinkers, debaters, and writers. Though this particular article does not make its case successfully, it illustrates for us some of what we must do to conduct convincing analyses going forward. 


Notes:

  1. See p. 129: ‘nonprofit sector’, ‘nonprofit industry’.
  2. I write here in part from firsthand observation and experience as a former member of STORM and an activist within more than one of these nonprofit formations.
  3. Here I refrain from naming the organizations to protect the identity of former members of STORM, which was a closed organization and whose members were, by default, not publicly known as such.
  4. The authors write that nonprofits’ ‘function…is to leverage resources to advance neoliberal ideology and the interest of the ruling class in opposition to socialist liberation’; that they ‘play a social control function’; that they are ‘specifically shaped to advance neoliberal goals…and entrench neoliberal management structures’.
  5. See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1978).
  6. Aside from the historical error, this rare attempt by the authors to apply the dialectical method falls flat because it tries to name a principal contradiction but does not identify the opposing forces of the contradiction.
  7. This would require a more detailed and accurate accounting of leftists’ current positioning in and relationship to nonprofit (and other) forms.

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