Stop Being a Stupid Liberal pt. 2 of 7: Against Nonprofits

By David Boehnke

There is a belief that by working at a nonprofit one gets paid to help people, to do good. This is far from the truth. Instead of an exploitation free zone, nonprofits are actually the key force justifying oppression and preventing the growth of movements for underlying change. To understand nonprofits one must first recognize the role of the State in society. Reduced to its essentials, the modern State is constituted to legitimate, enforce, and expand corporate interests and power. Moreover, corporate norms infiltrate all of society via a whole collection of disciplinary apparatuses, via the media, schools, the family, police, not to mention the economic sphere proper, the realm of work.

The most obvious symptom of this is the twin currents of professionalism and dependence that define the relationships between the State and nonprofits and between nonprofits and their “clientele”. Nonprofits are dependent on the State (or corporations) for their funding, charter, tax status, etc. These criteria shape how they are run, what interests they serve, and who can run them.

The profundity of this dependence is deepened in the relationship between nonprofits and those they supposedly serve. ‘Professional’ requirements prevent people from learning to fish in such an exclusionary, bureaucratic pond, while the power of nonprofits access to resources systematically obscures community resources. And nonprofit resources extend beyond money to authoritative models legitimated through corporate best practices, grant criteria, and academic certification. These models undermine and delegitimize alternative visions and desires while focusing solutions on bandaging (with white-skin-colored band-aids) wounds created and policed by those communities benefiting from the bleeding.

Such a situation explains nonprofits’ participation in the defining of oppressed communities as inferior or deficient. Moreover, in their horror at the suffering in which they are complicit, nonprofit leaders constantly seek to expand State intervention—more funding, more bureaucracy, more studies of what is wrong.

This call for the expansion of State power depoliticizes and hides the source of oppression—the corporate State—while justifying the violence of the system as natural or endemic to minority communities. Moreover, it serves nonprofits self-interest, expanding their programming, making them think that they can do more good. In truth, it does the opposite, redirecting blame for oppression to the oppressed communities and justifying the expansion of the very power which organizes and enforces this oppression. In addition, this focus on organizational self-interest traps nonprofits into competition and niche markets, separating them from their goals, and each other.

A quick look at history, and the expansion of nonprofits to their present form in the 1960s demonstrates their insidious potential. Nonprofits and State violence, carrot and stick, were central in fracturing the radical demands that grew out of the civil rights movement. Moreover, the nonprofit sphere to this day is central in alienating activists from communities and subordinating radical interests to those of the corporate State.

Then and now nonprofits serve the corporate State as a channel that manages dissent, obscure and redirect the causes of oppression, legitimize power and its abuses, and calls for an expanded form of domination. Even worse, nonprofits uproot alternative sources for change by usurping, obscuring, and delegitimizing community resources, and seducing those who seek to end oppression into becoming its blind supporters.

Let us not be seduced. Let us not give up the struggle. There are plenty of alternatives to nonprofit organizing, like worker-run unions, neighborhood organizations, religious congregations, co-ops or networks of all kinds, traveling radical bands, and those who share or use essential skills against corporate/State oppression (farming, medicine, law, architecture, and war come to mind).

But most of all, it is time to consider work for justice as work, but not work that you get paid for; work that you engage with among your peers in your daily life or with your soulmates everywhere; work that allows you and your fellow humans to live as you would like; and above all work that is against the exploitation that we at Macalester are trained to enact and oversee, the gun-to-the-head necessity of work itself.

Welcome! to the seven part series entitled Stop Being a Stupid Liberal. I hope you enjoy it, after all, I wouldn’t be writing it without you. Unhappily not a zealot, I am pleased that most of you find politics dispiriting. It means you know shit when you see it and still have hatred for being forced to act like what we say when applying for jobs, or college.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what we enforce as appropriate, normal, even moral, when we refuse to have a position.
As such, I am writing these articles, and holding discussion hours in the Infoshop (in Kirk basement across from the computer lab). Next week’s discussion will be on Tuesday at 4:30pm.

Next week’s topic: Against Politics.