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Smoke and Mirrors
Social change is not something we should expect to make a career out of. Yet this is the allure of the nonprofit-industrial complex (NPIC). As Andrea Smith writes in her book, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (South End Press, 2005), a career in the NPIC is invested in perpetuating the existing social order:
At the conference ["The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex"], … activist and scholar Dylan Rodriguez defined the nonprofit-industrial complex as a set of symbiotic relationships which link political and financial technologies of state to create owning-class control and surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements. He argued that the nonprofit-industrial complex (NPIC) is the natural corollary to the prison-industrial complex (PIC); the PIC overtly represses dissent, while the NPIC manages and controls dissent through incorporating the state apparatus.
Furthermore, I believe that if we are invested in our career, then advancing in our career path becomes the motivation, as opposed to focusing on advancing social change. I think we also begin to rationalize why we get paid. We come to see ourselves as an authority, a professional. We avoid radical work that is deemed too challenging, for it might make us look like less of a professional or turn off our wealthy funders. Hence, our career is tied up in the creation of owning-class control and surveillance over public ideology.
The NPIC contributes to a mode of organizing that is ultimately unsustainable. To radically change society, we must build mass movements that can topple current capitalist hierarchy. The NPIC encourages us to think of social justice organizing as a career – you do the work if you can get paid for it. A mass movement, however, requires the involvement of millions of people, most of whom cannot get paid to do the work. Or, as Arundhati Roy says, “Resistance does not carry with it a paycheck.” By trying to do grassroots organizing using a careerist model, we are essentially asking a few people to work more than full-time hours to make up for the work that needs to be done by millions of people.
Also, because funding comes from foundations rather than from the people we claim to represent, the NPIC does not have an incentive to increase “membership,” or the base. Instead, we become preoccupied with developing what Paula Rojas calls “smoke and mirrors” forms of organizing that looks good to [funders], but that do not really build power.
Many nonhuman animal advocacy nonprofit organizations on all levels claim to have “grassroots” programs, but these programs are not truly grassroots. The agendas and goals of these programs are managed and controlled by the NPIC and the professionals who design these campaigns around the interests of elite funders.
The “grassroots” programs do coordinate many local volunteers, but this coordination is intentionally structured to make the volunteers dependent on the NPIC, which really control and manage the campaigns. As opposed to building a base, these campaigns are exactly what Rojas calls “smoke and mirrors.” Volunteers are manipulated by the NPIC to get “winnable victories” that will impress big funders.
Smoke and mirrors examples I’ve come across include: A national organization using regional organizers to direct local “grassroots” volunteers to write letters, send emails, and make phone in support of some legislation. A national organizations managing a state-wide effort to get “grassroots” volunteers to collect signatures on a petition for some ballet initiative. An international organization using a so-called “international grassroots” program to gets volunteers to protest a multi-national fast-food or supermarket chain. And a national organization running an adopt-a-college outreach program to get “grassroots” volunteers to the distribution of leaflets. There are countless other examples. Basically, just try to think of an example of a nonprofit corporation directing “grassroots” volunteers.
In each case, movement building and community-based organizing are not a part of these supposed “grassroots” initiatives. The “grassroots” volunteers are not directing these campaigns themselves, as such it is not truly grassroots. Rather, these volunteers are being used as free labor to achieve some end for the NPIC (i.e., passing a specific piece of national legislation, getting a specific ballet initiative on the ballet, getting a specific chain to modify the weapons it uses weapons system of exploitation, getting evermore leaflets distributed). When accomplished, these “victories” help the nonprofit corporations maintain existing founders support as well as attracting new funding, which supports the career of those directing the campaigns.
None of these “grassroots” (smoke and mirrors) projects are about empowering the local volunteers to build community-based, self-reliant approaches for working towards social change. In fact, such empowerment is a real threat to the NPIC and, thus, the careers of NPIC professionals.