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Full Marx Can NGOs challenge the power of capitalism?

The Marx Memorial Library considers the role of ‘civil society’ groups in agitation for change

VOLUNTARY organisations, especially the larger ones known as “non-governmental organisations” (NGOs), are extremely varied. 

Their number and significance has grown during the development of capitalism to the degree that they are sometimes known collectively as the “third sector,” standing between private capital (manufacturing, property and finance) and the state (the military, police, infrastructure, education, the NHS and other services provided by national or local government).  

The term NGO excludes trades unions, employers’ associations and other “political” organisations, as well as not-for-profit companies.  NGOs today play a political role that hardly existed prior to the mid-1970s.  

Some such as Oxfam, the Child Poverty Action Group, Shelter, MIND, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace espouse progressive ideals that are aligned with socialism. They bring pressure to bear on public policy, variously at national or international level, in addition to their own direct provision on behalf of their target groups.  

Others such as arts charities and wildlife trusts are arguably politically neutral though often implicitly support the status quo.

And many NGOs, despite claims of neutrality, are actively neoliberal, for example assisting the privatisation of education or health services or facilitating the market integration of marginalised peoples though microcredit schemes, particularly in developing countries. 

And dubious “think tanks” like the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEF) — in fact, an active right-wing lobbying organisation registered with the Charity Commission as an educational charity despite its refusal to reveal its funders — directly seek to challenge socialist ideas.  

NGOs are an important component of “civil society,” but there is debate about their overall role. Marx and Engels saw civil society as part of the ever-changing economic and social base of capitalism. 

Gramsci located civil society as part of the political superstructure, as a vehicle for delivering capitalist hegemony — the dominant but changing set of cultural and ideological norms that helps the existing system to address its own contradictions, adapt and survive.  

In Britain and Europe the “New Left’” of the 1980s held that civil society has a key role in defending people against the market and the state and in asserting a democratic will to influence public policy.  

Some went further to argue that the decline of organised labour meant that traditional forms of political activity were outdated and ineffectual, that the working class no longer had a leading role in challenging the power of capital and that social progress would be secured primarily though new social groupings based on sectoral interests and on “identity politics” outside the economic sphere.

Subsequent experience has shown this to be overoptimistic, to put it mildly.  

The political right, at the same time, sees civil society as a battleground. 

Right-wing organisations such as NGOWatch, established by the American Enterprise Institute, an organisation funded by major US corporations and right-wing foundations, seek to undermine and discredit what they see as “creeping socialism.” 

In Britain Tory legislation like the Lobbying Act, cynically billed by the coalition government as a brake on corporate lobbying, impacts hardest on NGOs by banning a range of “regulated activities” in the year before a general election — retrospectively!  

When Theresa May called her snap election in June last year, 50 charities, including AgeUK, Amnesty, Care, Christian Aid Royal British Legion, the Salvation Army, Save the Children and Sue Ryder complained of the “chilling effect” of this “unreasonable and unfair law which restricts our ability to contribute fully to a democratic society.” 

Greenpeace revealed that it had become the first NGO to be fined (£30,000) under the Act for refusing to register as a “third-party campaigning organisation” in the run-up to the 2015 election.  

The explicit intention is to restrict the space for social and political action, make civic engagement a force for subverting socialist ideas and at the same time encourage engagement in “positive” activities which do not challenge existing structures of class and power. 

This was a policy pursued successfully in the neoliberal transformation of socialist economies from 1989.  

In the UK a core threat to progressive NGOs is the appointment of hard-line neoliberals to the Charity Commission. NGO “political” engagement is restricted while that of bodies like the IEF goes unchallenged. 

Charitable status should be denied to bodies such as private schools that undermine public services while all registered charities should be required to reveal the identities of their major donors.  

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the self-proclaimed “voice of the sector,” pretends neutrality and is wary about its corporate connections but invariably sides with the status quo, shoring up neoliberal policies. 

Its CEO recently proposed a “new way forward” for civil society  which bears remarkable resemblance to the now defunct Big Society, a volunteer-based stopgap for unmet social and environmental needs. 

At the same time, big business enthusiastically forges links with NGOs which enhance its corporate image.

It has been argued that the National Lottery, itself described as a hidden “tax on the poor,” — 12 per cent of the lottery stake goes to the state — has reinforced acceptance of neoliberal austerity because many NGOs have become dependent on lottery, and other, project funding and been co-opted and compromised in the process, taking on functions that were previously the province of local authorities and other elected bodies.  

The “gilded web” of external funding for NGOs, particularly those in health, welfare, education and environment, poses a dilemma. 

To reject funding means that vital work does not get done and people, society and the planet all suffer. To accept it inevitably involves compromise and the ever-present danger of co-option, even collusion with the “austerity” agenda.  

A constant watch is required on NGO activities which, explicitly, covertly or by default, prop up capitalism.

At the same time many NGOs, and particularly those campaigning on issues of poverty, disability and the environment, offer individuals the opportunity to engage in social action, however modest, and in doing so many will come to a better understanding of why change is necessary. 

And within socialism, NGOs will play an important role in realising the potential of a society where the fundamental causes of exploitation have been removed. 


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