August 2003
volume 1, issue 2



viii. beware the professionalization of social change

The worst thing that can happen to our movements right now is to settle for too little.
But tragically that is exactly what is happening. We are failing to frame the ecological, social and economic crisis as a symptom of a deeper values crisis and a pathological system.

Too many of our social change resources are getting bogged down in arenas of struggle that can’t deliver the systemic shifts we need. Most of the conventional venues for political engagement – legislation, elections, courts, single issue campaigns, labor fights – have been so co-opted by elite rule that its very difficult to imagine how to use strategies that name the system, undermine the control mythology or articulate values crisis from within their limited parameters.

One of the most telling symptoms of our colonized imaginations has been the limited scope of social change institutions. Most social change resources get directed towards enforcing inadequate regulations, trying to pass watered-down legislation, working to elect mediocre people or to win concessions that don’t threaten the current corporate order. One of the main reasons that so many social change resources get limited to the regulatory, electoral and concessionary arenas is the fact that much of social change has become a professionalized industry.

The NGO – non-governmental organization – a term made popular by the United Nations policy discussion process have become the most familiar social change institution. These groups are frequently made up of hard working, under-paid, dedicated people and NGOs as a group do lots of amazing work. However we must also acknowledge that generally the explosion of NGO's globally is a loose attempt to patch the holes that neoliberalism has punched in the social safety net. As government cedes its role in public welfare to corporations, even the unlucrative sectors have to be handed off to someone. A recent article in the Economist revealingly explains the growth of NGO's as "… not a matter of charity but of privatiziation."

My intention is not to fall into the all too easy trap of lumping the thousands of different NGOs into one dismissable category but rather to label a disturbing trend particularly among social change NGO's. Just as service oriented NGO's have been tapped to fill the voids left by the state or the market, so have social change NGO's arisen to streamline the chaotic business of dissent. Let's call this trend NGOism, that terrifyingly widespread conceit among professional "campaigners" that social change is a highly specialized profession best left to experienced strategists, negotiators and policy wonks. NGOism is the conceit that paid staff will be enough to save the world.

This very dangerous trend ignores the historic reality that collective struggle and mass movements organized from the bottom up have always been the springboard for true progress and social change. The goal of radical institutions – whether well funded NGOs or gritty grassroots group – should be to help build movements to change the world. But NGOism institutionalizes the amnesia of the colonized imagination and presents a major obstacle to moving into the post-issue activism framework. After all who needs a social movement when you've got a six figure advertising budget and “access” to all the decision makers?

A professional NGO is structured exactly like a corporation, down to having employee payroll and a Board of Directors. This is not an accident. Just like their for-profit cousins this structure creates an institutional self-interest which can transform an organization from being a catalyst for social change into being a limit. NGOism views change in reference to the status quo power relations by accepting a set of rules written by the powerful to insure the status quo. These rules have already been stacked against social change. NGOism represents institutional confusion about the different types of power and become overly dependant on strategies that speak exclusively to the existing powers – funding sources, the media, decision makers. As a consequence strategies get locked in the regulatory and concessionary arenas – focused on “pressure” – and attempt to re-direct existing power rather than focusing on confronting illegitimate authority and revealing systemic flaws.

Frequently political pragmatism is used as an excuse for a lack of vision. Pragmatism without vision is accepting the rules that are stacked against us while vision without pragmatism is fetishizing failure. Like a healthy ecosystem our movements need a diversity of strategies. We need to think outside the box and see what new arenas of struggle we can explore. The question shouldn't be what can we win in this funding cycle but rather how do we expanding the debate to balance short and long term goals?

Particularly as the mythology of American politics as free and democratic has been undermined by the blatant realities of corporate dominance, people’s confidence in the facades of popular rule like voting, lobbying and the regulatory frame work has waned. More and more activists have turned to campaigns which directly confront destructive corporations. This is an essential strategy for revealing the decision making power which corporations have usurped but unfortunately most of these NGO led efforts to confront individual destructive corporations are failing to articulate an analysis of the system of corporate control.

This is an extremely dangerous failure since in pursuing concessions or attempting to re-direct corporate resources it risks making multi-national corporations the agents of solving the ecological crisis. This is a flawed strategy because by their very nature corporations are incapable of making the concessions necessary to address the global crisis. There is no decision maker in the corporate hierarchy with the power to transform the nature of the corporate beast, and confront its identity as an extraction-profit making machine. The CEO who has an epiphany about the need to re-define her corporation as a democratic institution whose decision making extends beyond the limited fiduciary interests of shareholders will find herself on the wrong side of a century of corporate law. Beyond being ineffective these campaigns obscure the real democracy issues underlying the crisis and run the risk of legitimizing corporate control.

This is not to say that corporate campaigns and winning concessions is merely “reformist” and therefore not important. The simplistic dichotomy of reform versus revolution often hides the privilege of “radicals” who have the luxury of refusing concessions when it’s not their community or ecosystem that is on the chopping block.
A more important distinction is which direction is the concession moving towards? Is it a concession that releases pressure on the system and thereby legitimizes illegitimate authority? Or is it a concession that teaches people a lesson about grassroots power building and therefore brings us closer to systemic social change?

NGOism creates ripe conditions for going beyond mere ineffectiveness and into out-right complicity with the system. Time and time again we've seen the social change NGO's grow into becoming a part of the establishment and become a tool to marginalize popular dissent by lending legitimacy to the system. Whether its World Wildlife Fund giving a green seal of approval to oil companies or the AFL-CIO supporting the phony “war on terrorism”, NGO's can easily become an obstacle to transformative change.

The professionalization of social change requires extensive resources and thus in this cynical era of mail-order mobilizing and feel-good-from-your-armchair activism its become cliché to point out that NGO agendas can often get shaped by their funding needs. Whether NGOs are reliant on a membership base or institutional funders, NGO's are often forced to build a power base through self-promotion rather than self-analysis. Not only does this dilute NGO agendas to fit within the political comfort zone of those with resources, it fundamentally disrupts the essential process of acknowledging mistakes and learning from them. This evolutionary process of collective learning is central to fundamental social change and to have it de-railed by professionalization threatens to limit the depth of the change that can be created.

When a system is fundamentally flawed there is no point in trying to fix it – we need to re-design it. That is the essence of the transformative arena – defining issues, re-framing debates, thinking big. We must create political space to harness the increasingly obvious global crisis into real change towards a democratic, just and ecologically sane world.

Our movements must evolve past mere mobilizing and into real transformative organizing. Transformative organizing is more than just making the protest ghetto louder and bigger. It is the nuts and bolts business of building alternatives on a grassroots level, and creating our own counter legitimacy to replace the institutions of corporate society. Real organizing is giving people the skills and analysis they need to ground the struggle to reclaim our planet at both ends of the social change spectrum - the structural and the individual; the creation of new identities and the transformation of whole communities.

It is essential that we don't waste all our energy just throwing ourselves at the machine. Resistance is only one piece of the social change equation. It must be complimented by creation. Movements need institutions that can be the hubs to help sustain our momentum for the long haul and we cannot allow these institutions to be limited by the baggage of the "professional" world.

We have to actually plant the seeds of the new society within the shell of the old. Exciting work is being done around the concept of Dual power strategies. These are strategies that not only confront illegitimate institutions but simultaneously embody the alternatives, thereby giving people the opportunity to practice self-governance and create space for new political realities. Examples of inspiring dual-power strategies are taking place across the world, particularly in Latin America. From indigenous autonomists in Mexico, to the landless movement in Brazil to Argentina's autoconvocados (literally "self-convened") people's movements are resisting the corporate take over of their lives by defiantly living the alternatives.

In the creation of these alternatives - the holistic actions of community transformation that go far beyond any of the limiting boundaries of professionalized social change - we see a vision of direct action at the point of assumption. Actions that reveal new possibilities can challenge the assumptions of the corporate monoculture and create infectious, new political spaces.

We can fight the doomsday economy by devoking the apocalpyse with visions of a life affirming future. In doing so we lay claim to a radical's best ally - hope. But our hope must not be the naivete of denial but rather the foresight of transformative visions that through our work can become real.

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