The Non-Profit Industrial Complex
The non-profit industrial complex makes it possible for the capitalist class to not only contain the revolution, but to shut down revolution altogether.
“Liberation requires a spiritual, emotional and mental divorce from the U.S. empire and its non-profit industrial complex.”
Stressed-out directors of non-profits spend a lot of time hand-wringing and tossing and turning in bed because of a seemingly endless desperate scramble for funding. It seems almost mind-boggling that only a few short decades ago, the Black Panther Party operated: a youth center, a community learning center, free health clinics, sickle cell anemia screening centers, a free ambulance service, free breakfast for children projects, free food pantries, day care centers and much more.
Even more amazing is that they did all of this with small to non-existent budgets. To a large extent, the Panther programs were the prototype for the very large network of non-profit social service agencies and organizations that many now refer to as “the safety net.”
Community programs can be either an asset to the people’s struggle for liberation – as the Panther programs were -- or they can arrest the development of a community’s political consciousness and obscure what would otherwise be a clear revolutionary vision. The Panthers were quite clear about the role their programs played in the community’s life. Huey Newton said: “All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution.”
“Community programs can obscure what would otherwise be a clear revolutionary vision.”
The agendas of current non-profits do not include revolution and they never will. Recognizing the potency of organized, institutionalized struggles for independence, self-sufficiency and fundamental change, capitalists hijacked the community program concept and directed it into what many refer to as the “non-profit industrial complex.” Members of the wealthy one-percent have established foundations and other philanthropic organizations that work hand-in-glove with government to create the widely-held perception that any community-based project cannot be credible and effective unless it secures foundation and government grants. Receipt of this type of funding confers a badge of legitimacy on the organization and makes it possible for those who administer it to be accepted into the club of corporate and government leaders. This satisfies the egos of the directors and also holds out the tantalizing promise of ever-larger grants.
The non-profit industrial complex makes it possible for the capitalist class to not only contain the revolution, but to also misdirect revolutionary energy and to shut down revolution altogether. It works this way. On the basis of a whim or because of an issue that makes current headlines, the foundations announce their interest in funding certain types of projects. For example, a call might go out for applications for grants to address the “school-to-prison pipeline” problem. The disproportionate suspension and expulsion of African children from public schools in this country and the demonstrated correlation between exclusion from school and incarceration warrants serious attention and work. However, organizations that receive grants and begin to attack this problem may find that within a couple of years, before the grantees’ projects are fully established and making headway, the foundations change course entirely.
“Capitalists hijacked the community program concept and directed it into what many refer to as the ‘non-profit industrial complex.’”
The funding for school to prison work evaporates and the new issue du jour might be “mass incarceration.” The process repeats itself and leads to the foundations’ next fickle decision to abandon prison concerns and focus on immigration. Meanwhile, the potential for meaningful inroads to be made regarding these issues is squandered.
The control of non-profits is not limited to the control of funding. Receipt of grants is conditioned on the organization’s commitment to addressing a problem in a particular way. For example, an organization that hopes to address mass incarceration may prefer to pursue the abolition of prisons, but a particular foundation might be willing to fund only work that involves reform of conditions of confinement. Not only that, the use of grants is carefully monitored to ensure that funds are not used in ways not specified by the grantor.
What then to do about this? The answers may be rooted in the practices of first century Christians. Much like African people throughout the world, the dark-skinned peoples of first century Palestine also struggled against European imperialism. Rome dominated the region with iron-fisted oppression. Into this mix stepped Yeshua (“Jesus”). He came to wage spiritual warfare rather than flesh and blood combat, but he was drawn inevitably into the struggle for the material survival of his followers, many of whom were guerrillas called “zealots” who strategically ambushed Roman soldiers and urged resistance to Roman extortion that masqueraded as “tax collection.”
Jewish religious leaders who were jealous of Yeshua’s mass appeal sought to discredit him by publicly posing a riddle containing a trap. Specifically, they asked him whether the oppressed should pay taxes to Rome. An affirmative response would expose him as a sell-out, and the zealots and those looking for a messiah would abandon him. On the other hand, a negative response would provide grounds for his arrest for sedition by Roman authorities. Yeshua’s brilliant response confounded his enemies and also shed light on a strategy for how today’s oppressed communities might survive until the revolution.
Yeshua’s reply to the riddle was: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” In other words, Rome can have the coins it mints, but the souls and the loyalty of the people who labor for those coins belong only to almighty God and cannot be extracted at the point of a sword. In this, Yeshua was urging a spiritual, emotional and mental divorce from the Roman empire. Tax resistance was costly to the oppressed with respect to the energy, time and lives lost. It was a distraction from the central task of bringing into existence a new reality for an oppressed community. It is comparable to the distraction from revolution caused by the current scramble for foundation and government grants. Six and seven figure grants may look enticing, but liberation requires a spiritual, emotional and mental divorce from the U.S. empire and its non-profit industrial complex.
“Rome can have the coins it mints, but the souls and the loyalty of the people cannot be extracted at the point of a sword.”
Yeshua’s admonition to disconnect from the empire begged the question of how the community would survive. But he answered the question by instructing his followers to become autonomous, communal and self-sustaining. By the time of Yeshua’s departure from this realm this practice had become institutionalized. The Book of Acts describes how: “…all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” This practice was the forerunner of Karl Marx’s axiom: “From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” It was also the key to the success of the Panther survival programs.
The Panthers’ programs were designed to be funded and sustained by the communities that they served. Armies of volunteers went door-to-door to collect donations from community members. Food products that had not quite reached their expiration dates that were to be discarded by neighborhood grocers for reasons of quality control were gladly taken by Panthers who used them for their breakfast and food pantry programs.
To obtain larger donations, Panther members regularly explained to local businesses how the survival programs stabilized the community in a way that worked to the long-term advantage of these enterprises. Certain programs were located in neighborhood churches which eliminated the cost of rent and also made it possible for tax deductible donations to the churches to be used to cover the cost of Panther programs. Volunteer labor removed payroll costs from program budgets. Even though foundation grants were sought occasionally as funding supplements, the community essentially supported its own programs. This gave the Panthers the freedom to operate them as they pleased.
In a world without the non-profit industrial complex and other restrictions on movements for change, service organizations would stabilize the communities they serve and then organize them into a force with the capacity to bring the wheels of the capitalist machine to a screeching halt. But that’s not the world we live in.
The late distinguished activist and writer Bruce Dixon explained it best when he said: “There’s a very good reason sympathy strikes, non-economic strikes and general strikes are illegal in the US. All of these are illegal because they’re naked and unambiguous exercises of people power. The unfortunate truth is that our movements are nowhere near being able to pull those off, and we’ll never get there unless we can first build some new kinds of organizations to replace the movement’s abject dependence upon the nonprofit industrial complex and its corporate sugar daddies.”