When socialists gathered this summer across two events—the Socialism 2019 conference in Chicago and the national convention of the Democratic Socialists of America in Atlanta—among the buzzwords to be heard in the hallways, group chats, on social media and in theoretical articles was “NGOism,” raised as a specter haunting the growing socialist movement. How do we as socialist organizers avoid the trap of “NGOism”? What organizational structure, choice of campaign, or general approach to organizing threatens to fall into “NGOism”? Why is NGOism such a dangerous trap, anyway?
In a previous piece, I wrote about the problem of nonprofits (for purposes of this piece, I’ll refer to “nonprofits” as “NGOs” or nongovernmental organizations) at a time of growing socialist influence, and the implications for socialists’ work of growing a socialist movement composed of multiracial working class organizations. That piece dealt in a broad sense with the challenge to socialists of operating in areas where nonprofits of various types are already active, and the importance of having a strategy to deal with those conflicts, including connecting NGO workers to socialist struggle as a means of keeping NGOs accountable. In this piece, I want to look at one particular sector of the nonprofit industry—a trillion dollar industry—that represents a particular political challenge for the broader progressive and socialist movement. These are advocacy and organizing NGOs, meaning those nonprofit organizations that engage a constituency and move them towards political action, advocate for policy change, or a combination of both.
The NGO sector is incredibly varied. It includes everything from giant health care chains like California’s Kaiser Permanente, with a quarter million employees and $80 billion in revenue, to small neighborhood advocacy groups with budgets under six figures—and of course membership organizations like DSA itself, which is a 501(c)(4). What we are concerned with here are those NGOs that organize in poor and working class communities and advocate for policy change intended to improve their material conditions, at the local, state, regional and national level. Sometimes these are the groups that directly engage with the public, and sometimes they are “intermediary networks” that provide funding and technical support to those local groups.
And what we are concerned with particularly is the model that people refer to, however obliquely, as “NGOism” in a political sense, and its implication for a growing socialist movement that necessarily will be made up of formally and informally constituted, nascently “mass” organizations, including DSA.
When “NGOism” is used as an epithet, any number of things are being implied: a paternalistic attitude towards a particular community or the working class in general; an overly-centralized decision-making apparatus; a too-narrow “issue focus” or conversely a too-dilettantish scattershot approach to choosing “fights”; a deference to experts, professionals, and technocrats; an organizational culture that demands sacrifice by volunteers on behalf of “the impacted”; and placing too-high a value on connections to powerful people and institutions. These half-formed critiques are all rooted in some real element of what could be considered true NGOism and will be dealt with throughout this article, but for purpose of clarity, I will try to offer a generally useful definition of NGOism as it has been analyzed in substantive literature, by starting with the inherent contradiction at the core of progressive organizations operating within a capitalist society.
Whatever the specific details, NGOs are formal institutions with leaders generally drawn from professional milieus and financed directly or indirectly by foundations or other large institutions.
NGO leaders therefore struggle with a fundamental contradiction: how to actually embody the image they need to project in order to secure funding and have political legitimacy—that of being grassroots organizations run and directed by working class people–with the practicalities of subsisting in a capitalist system, which requires resources that come through connections to networks and conformity with legal and institutional norms.
NGOism is characterized by this tension, which is (1) to encourage participation from the people most impacted by the exploitations of capitalism while (2) maintaining professional management of the organization, not out of cynicism or hypocrisy, but in response to material pressure from funders, the state, and formal political power. This in turn compels them to conform themselves to those pressures. For example, pressures from contractual grant conditions impose practical limitations on how they set priorities and make decisions, and therefore the types of individual activists cultivated for leadership. In turn, managing participation in decision-making settings requires either careful control of processes, like meetings, or hand-selection of participants by staff, or both.
From this basic tension sprout numerous features of organizing NGOs that represent problems for a radical movement with the goal of creating mass, multiracial working class organizations capable of anchoring a broad democratic socialist movement. It is these features, I believe, that socialists and radicals observe or sense as warning signs of creeping NGOism:
- Limited resources in an employment context requires in turn a culture of rewarding overwork and demonstrations of personal commitment;
- i.e., because NGOs are employers, they are constrained by labor and employment rules setting work limits, benefits and wage floors, and the labor market, and so have to extract maximum labor-time through voluntary contributions of labor in order to secure and grow their revenue.
- Focus on specific, timely issue areas (a “programmatic focus”) that orients the organizations around visible, “deliverable” goals within set time frames;
- This creates a pressure to rely on staff to show timely and pre-determined results, demonstrable in quantitative reporting, which minimizes the opportunity for sometimes time-consuming and potentially direction-shifting deliberative, democratic processes.
- Internal cultural definitions of “leadership” that maintains a fairly firm border between “public relations” roles for “members” and the formal operational roles of staff, who are often professional and academic class;
- A self-conscious obscuring of the role of “staff” and “the organizer” which ends up reinforcing the organizational power of the staff over the membership and encouraging a paternalistic attitude between the organization and working class constituencies;
- Cultivating personal rather than organizational relationships between staff and members to turn members out to public-facing events and lobbying/advocacy efforts that engender competition between staff organizers and paternalistic, even exploitative relationships between staff and members.
- Accountability, sometimes legal or contractual and sometimes institutional, is owed mostly directly to funders or other political sponsors, making binding, bottom-up democratic structures too risky or outright impossible.
- The absence of bottom-up structures to determine strategies, define a political vision, elect operational leaders and hold operational leadership accountable in turn requires that deliberative and self-reflective processes be intensely personal and fraught for lower-level staff—for example, staff and board meetings where people are asked to self-criticize.
- Because organizing NGOs are staff-driven, the key resource is financial—their ability to act relies on their ability to pay staff, so even ostensibly “people-powered” NGOs are in fact cash-powered. Revenue relies in significant part on the expertise and managerial control of professionals. By contrast, in socialist and “movement organizations,” the key resource is operational capacity—volunteer time—which relies on the ability of the organization’s agreed-upon political leadership to connect the membership to one another and mobilize them in an efficient and sustainable way. Therefore managerial control undercuts rather than magnifies the organization’s key resource (i.e., being excluded from decision-making, the membership tends to lose its personal investment in organizational priorities).
- Risk-averse political logic that emphasizes lobbying, public relations, limited direct action and relationship-building with figures in power.
- A need for professional-class technocratic management creating a cultural rift between leadership and working class constituencies, that is often also racialized between white and non-white.
I believe that these characteristics, taken together, characterize the bulk of advocacy and organizing NGOs, and are the features that radical organizers sense when they express concern about creeping “NGOism” into movement work and radical organizations. Sourcing these characteristics down to an essential contradiction is important because it allows us to discard moralistic critiques of “hypocrisy,” and vague characterizations. For example, we can see that while some say that having centralized decision making is itself inherently “NGO-like,” in fact it is undemocratic, or professionally-managed decision-making, that characterizes NGOs.
Can NGO Employees Build a Movement?
The central contradiction described above can actually be further boiled down to this: NGOs are workplaces. Because they are workplaces, they have to attract, pay, and keep staff acting as competitors in a labor market and subject to labor and employment laws. To do this they need money. And purely member-funded advocacy NGOs capable of maintaining a staff of any size are few and far between.
NGOs in other words need outside cash, and unlike social service or direct service NGOs, advocacy NGOs can rarely rely on state contracts or revenue from services—among the few examples being Planned Parenthood and CREDO Mobile. So the cash has to come in the form of grants, and grants impose enforceable contractual conditions, and are subject to professional management requirements—record-keeping, reporting, etc.—and are typically provided for a particular program, such as voter registration or advocacy for a certain issue. “General operating” funds are difficult to come by, and (somewhat paradoxically), funding for fundraising is especially rare, pushing the never-ending labor of raising money onto executive directors and board members.
Because NGO staff are often funded by programmatic grants—money given for a specific purpose or set of purposes—each staffer represents both a set cost and a specific revenue source; their work justifies the grant (and their performance could ensure securing the grant again next year) but their salary is also obviously an expenditure measured against that grant. They could not have their job if they did not get the grant to perform a certain function; and that function could not be performed without that staffer there to do it. This has two important effects: one, the organization has to be sure that that staffer’s labor is at least in part going towards the purposes of the grant; and second that only labor in excess of what is needed to satisfy grant conditions can go towards the broader organizational vision. These two effects have dramatic consequences for NGOs that are inimical to the vision of a mass, working class movement organization.
For one thing, staff’s ability to preserve their job relies on meeting grant conditions, and even in the case of more general operating grants, relies on the organization moving in a direction explained to funders at the time grants were made. It is difficult to square this with an organization being subject to drastic changes in direction as the result of democratic processes led by membership. This does not mean that any given organizing NGO is inherently undemocratic; but it does mean that there are floors and ceilings to democratic decision-making. We understand this intuitively: if an organization relies on paid staff to operate, and that staff is paid by grants for specific organizational objectives, the membership cannot both reappropriate those funds and expect to keep that staff. In other words, staff cannot quite work at the membership’s direction. This is a not insignificant democratic limitation; the implication is that an organization’s membership does not have true control over the activity of an organization’s staff.
Having a practical boundary to democratic decision-making can therefore warp ostensibly democratic processes. For example, the agenda for meetings, the range of decisions up for discussion and debate, and even who is invited to participate by staff cannot for all intents and purposes be left wholly open to democratic deliberation. They have to be managed by staff, because the organization exists within contractual and even legal boundaries. If this is the case, how does an organization define who is a “leader” within that organization? Can it be someone who organizes their fellow members, identifies political issues and builds consensus to guide the organization as to goals and strategy? Or more likely, will it be somebody identified by staff as commanding respect but ultimately loyal to the organization’s stated objectives? As a matter of fact “leadership development” in many advocacy and organizing NGOs is the inverse of what it is in mass organizations, because there is no organizational incentive for being able to articulate a political vision and build member consensus on a political strategy. In democratic, mass organization, it is primarily these traits that result in leadership because winning members over to a political vision and strategy inherently means membership support for that leader.
As to the second effect, that of the need for “excess” labor above what is necessary to satisfy programmatic grant funding, the mismatch with a working class, mass organization is more attenuated but serious.
For a for-profit company, if you need your staff to be more productive there are a variety of options at your disposal: you can offer financial incentives like raises or commissions or bonuses, you can offer promotions or perks, you can threaten peoples’ jobs, or most likely some combination of all of these. Something much less easily done is convincing people to donate their time to your company. For one thing, that would be (strictly speaking) illegal. For the vast majority of workers, there is no reason to give your time unpaid to help the company grow. For large and more sophisticated employers, to even accept this kind of work would open the company up to significant legal liability; the federal court system is replete with cases of workers suing employers who tried to make them work on their breaks or who fail to pay them for prep time.
For a “mission-driven” nonprofit organization, having staff work solely to grant objectives makes growth difficult; the idea is to grow the organization by taking on more programs or by demonstrating outsized productivity to grant makers. At the same time, financial incentives are difficult; since funds are tied to programs, discretionary money for incentive pay is limited if it exists at all. Professional incentives, like promotions, are also limited because staff has to be expected to work towards grant objectives, and the number of “higher-up” positions is typically small (thus the proliferation of “director” titles with no staff at small- to mid-sized NGOs). To get staff to work “above and beyond” therefore, there is a strong incentive to maintain an organizational culture of working ever-harder and demonstrating commitment beyond your job description. In a sense, it is a psychological pressure that to do “just enough” is essentially betraying a lack of concern for the organization’s mission and by extension the organization’s membership or constituency. Unable to offer what most employers would offer to their workforce, particularly “semi-professional” employers, many NGOs, without necessarily any malicious intent, resort to social and cultural pressure to get as few staffers as possible to pour in as much work as they can. Any employee of an NGO would testify to this dynamic, but it isn’t anecdotal—a 2011 study (with some methodological limitations, of course) found that as many as half of nonprofit employees felt themselves severely overworked.
An element of this cultural imperative is the community organizing cultural habit of denying that organizing staff are true “workers” at all. If they were truly workers, their self-exploitation would be intolerable. It is essential that NGO workers not think of themselves as workers subject to exploitation in the same way their “members” or constituents are workers being exploited, because the contradiction could lethally undercut the ability of the organization to achieve the type of productivity necessary to survive.
A species of this belief is the tenet of community organizing that organizing staff be “invisible,” that the public and political community are presented a manicured image of a member-run organization with member “leaders” who determine the political vision and tactics of the organization. If NGO workers were true “workers” different in type but not in basic character from the members they are organizing, then eliding the difference would be unnecessary, and they could make common cause with their fellow workers. For all the reasons discussed above, maintaining a hierarchical power relationship between especially managerial staff, organizing staff, and membership is an existential issue for grant-funded organizations.
A volunteer-staffed and membership-run organization cannot survive if the work is done by a too-small group taking on essentially a part- or full-time job on top of their actual job. There are various reasons for this, but the most obvious is that such an organization would lose its working class character quickly, since only people with the ability to devote significant time to the organization would be developing skills, making day-to-day decisions, and leading political strategy development. What’s more, a mass organization’s strength is not its highly dedicated staff, it is only its ability to move large numbers of people into action. For a socialist, working class mass organization, success is measured by the large numbers of people doing their part, rather than a small number of people acting for others. A cultural dynamic like that at many NGOs would precisely mark a socialist organization’s failure. Only when an organization is able to accommodate and coordinate a large number of people contributing a small amount of labor towards a common goal can it truly be a working class organization. And such a structure in turn requires open and accessible democratic processes, since (1) mutual decision-making can best encourage mass participation and (2) mass participation inherently requires delegation of decision-making along a chain of accountability.
NGOs as Challenge and Opportunity
In the end, in the final analysis, the name for what we want is a democratic socialist movement. That movement can be made up of housing organizations, environmental justice organizations, prison abolition organizations, but the thing we have to start saying out loud is that none of these separate movements can ever achieve their aims except within a democratic socialist society.
Social movements are made up of organizations capable of connecting people together and moving them into struggle. When radical organizers meet with one another across different groups and try to build coalitions around issues like housing, racist policing, workplace exploitation, whatever the issue area, we call each other to commit to building a social movement for democratic socialism, because we believe that only democratic socialism can ultimately deliver a lasting solution to these problems. Without democratic socialism, we are eternally taking steps forward and back.
If the movement for democratic socialism requires mass, working-class organizations, then those organizations need to be able to radicalize the working class to become aware of itself as a “class in itself” and bring working class people into positions of political leadership, so the working class can act as a “class for itself.”
But socialists today have scant, if any, examples of mass, working class organizations adapted to late capitalism in core imperialist countries. We can borrow bits from outside the United States and from the past, as well we should, but the reality is that the conditions of late capitalism in the U.S. are unique enough that pastiche won’t do; we have to build a new type of organization specific to our social conditions. (By way of example, the organization must be multiracial in the context of US racial dynamics; it must accommodate workers in a different mode of precarity, working numerous jobs; it must accommodate proletarianizing professional workers and service workers with irregular schedules; it must incorporate an analysis of ecological disaster; and of course, it must be sensible of the failures of past organizations).
For those working to build a mass socialist organization within a broader progressive movement, NGOs are important in two ways: first, they provide the most obvious existing model of low-resource organizations who organize in the communities relevant to the socialist movement and are a source of work experience and subject expertise for socialists organizers; and second, chapters of any growing socialist organization will want and need to partner or act in coalition with NGOs, and therefore engage in mutual decision-making and coordinated strategic planning, which can have a conforming effect in both directions.
To this first point, as a model NGOs are deficient for socialist organizations for several reasons, some of which were discussed above: i.e., the technocratic orientation in their leadership class; their nature as workplaces with specific set roles and domains of expertise; their culture of emphasizing excessive workloads. These features cut against open, democratic decision-making, which in turn undercuts mass participation. A sustainable social movement organization needs scale and a structure that allows for more people doing less—and all that entails (a big decision-making structure, broad coordination, and a culture of solidarity and encouragement). This is not because of some moral preference, but because absent a large paid staff, a mass organization’s power only manifests itself when large numbers of people voluntarily take action.
For these reasons, it is critical to be aware of tendencies in an organization that recapitulate the structures and cultures of NGOs. It is important to remember that this is not because NGOs are “bad” or even ineffective, but simply because their aims are not the same as ours. By definition, NGOs are organized for a specific set of purposes and are funded for particular objectives. Many of them do a spectacular job on a shoestring. But that is not the model of a mass, working class organization. We simply cannot accomplish what we mean to accomplish by adapting that model.
The second point, regarding cooperation and mutual conformity, is more immediately interesting.
Over time, institutional forces cause organizations to become similar to one another. This is a phenomenon that sociologists call “institutional isomorphism.” In her spectacular and exhaustive study of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a coalition of community groups headed by a former leader of a Chicago NGO, Michelle Oyakawa presents this phenomenon and how it operates within the broader “nonprofit industrial complex.” Oyakawa discusses how within this complex, the success of one organization puts pressure on others to ape their practices in hopes of securing grants from interested funders chasing the next big thing, demonstrating their “legitimacy” as recipients of funding or other support, and how the professionalization of the leadership creates conformity, pointing out that “isomorphism [also] happens when organization leaders go through a similar professionalization process that causes them to view problems and approach decisionmaking in similar ways.”
In other words, the very real need for leaders of heavily-regulated fund-raising operations to professionalize imposes conformity, and in turn, funders (and other influential institutions and individuals) come to view the credentials and pedigree of individual leaders as key indicators of the value of the entire organization:
Multiple funders and social movement leaders I interviewed described there being an official and an unofficial process for organizations hoping to get grants from foundations…The unofficial process involves networking with foundation and national intermediary organization staff in order to be seen as legitimate recipients of funding within the nonprofit organizational field. It is important for organizers and leaders of nonprofit social movement organizations to develop and maintain relationships with program officers at foundations because they often have a decisive say in which organizations get funding. (emphasis added)
One funder told Oyakawa,
“My belief, as a program officer now for 9 years, is that this really is all about relationships and knowing who’s running the organization, who is going to do the work and just having a feel for that and making sure that they’re really pursuing something that is of interest to my trustees.” (emphasis added)
So what can we tell from all of this? The contradictory tension at the heart of “social movement NGOs” is that they require staff and professional management while trying to empower constituencies to become political leaders; from this seed grows a complex ecology that even while it can sustain movements, also keeps them constrained.
“Institutional isomorphism” just describes something we intuitively understand: when organizations work closely together and have to engage in mutual decision-making and action within certain legal and political contexts, they will tend to start looking like one another. Given nature of the nonprofit industrial complex, this naturally can be considered a pitfall for nascent mass organizations.
For example, imagine several organizations working in coalition to support a particular piece of legislation. This will impose conformity as organizations set themselves up to act together. Each organization needs to align their political strategy, which in turn means they need to engage in particular types of tactics or avoid other types of tactics—for example something that would alienate potential political allies, like direct action or protests, or something that implicates the tax-exempt status of a partner organization. This puts pressure on organizational leadership to overcome or sideline pressure within the organization to engage in these tactics. When inevitable parliamentary horse-trading has to take place between legislators, the organizations will have to be able to respond nimbly, with policy decisions being made by a small group of people apprised of the minute-by-minute changes. Again, this requires a structure that affords an extraordinary amount of discretion to a small group, which can be useful at times but if it becomes a practice can undermine an organization’s participatory character.
This conformity can also happen in the other direction. One organization’s democratic processes can by virtue of the force of mass participation put pressure on other organizations to either follow along or similarly start to bring membership into meaningful participation. To make this less abstract, think of it like this: if one organizational member of a progressive coalition can not only mobilize large number of members, but if those members are bought into the program for which they are mobilized in a personal way, other groups have a comparative incentive to either follow that organization’s lead—because that organization is unlikely to change direction at this point—or involve their own membership more meaningfully in deliberative processes, in order to pull coalition or movement decision-making in their direction. These would be rational choices in either case; in the former, if a mass organization is going to move forward along a political axis, splintering from them only weakens you. In the latter case, each organization’s membership is presumably within the impacted constituency, and so having actual people in that constituency formally participating, in numbers, in a decision-making process pressures other groups to collaborate with them.
A democratic organization with active member involvement in decision-making and a healthy structure will turnover leadership with regularity; this requires other institutions, elected officials, etc., to relate to the organization as a body, rather than primarily through individual relationships. This requires consistent engagement and developing an understanding for the broad principles and political dynamics of that organization, and maintaining consistent engagement. Leaders of a mass organization cannot be relied upon to steer it at their will towards or away from some issue or strategy; only some degree of internal political consensus can make that happen.
The reality is that for many community organizing NGOs, staff leaders speak for their constituencies, based on their calculation of what is in their organization’s material interest. It bears emphasizing that this is not because of some political miscalculation, hypocrisy, or maliciousness, but because the unique pressures on NGOs, as described above, allow for little else. Sometimes, that material interest is “a seat at the table” or access to resources that will allow the organization to grow. This doesn’t necessarily mean a negative or paternalistic relationship; often times there is member input. But the ultimate decisions are made by staff leadership either controlling a deliberative process or simply using their own discretion (or conforming their decision to funder conditions). An organization whose power to act rests on their financing—their ability to pay staff to move people—can afford to behave in this way. But an organization that can only move people into action if and when those people are convinced through deliberative processes to act cannot so afford.
Case Studies? The Bernie Endorsements
The recent chain of events involving endorsements of the Bernie Sanders campaign for president may provide some inkling of an example. In September, the Working Families Party, a multi-state organization composed of member organizations and individual members, polled its members to determine who the party should endorse. That poll was weighed with the votes individual members and those of the organization’s national committee—a group composed of 56 member organization leaders—and it was decided to endorse Elizabeth Warren. This outcome seemed inimical to many WFP members and member organizations, who saw Sanders as the natural “movement” candidate. The criticisms of WFP’s decision-making process was central in critiques of the substantive decision: where “rank-and-file” members were assumed to support Sanders, organizational leaders making decisions on behalf of their organizations as formal institutions, were presumed to prefer Warren. Various reasons were floated for this, including that Warren was more accessible and would be easier to influence; that Warren, not having a ready-built organization of supporters, needed them more and therefore they could more readily impact policy. As frustrating as this may have seemed to Sanders supporters, these are not at all bad reasons for making a decision. To the contrary, they are perfectly rational premises on which to base a decision.
In other words, that decision was not, as many alleged, unreasonable or unstrategic, but in fact perfectly followed the political logic of NGOs: as staff-driven and often outside-resource dependent organizations with a group of professional leaders, they rationally pursue substantive access to powerful policy-makers who themselves are reliant on the credibility community organizing NGOs can confer on them. (A similar calculation can sometimes apply to unions as well, as they are so intensely regulated by the state, and over-represented in the public sector, that relationships with politicians can be extremely sensitive.)
From the point of view of leadership, whether they can influence powerful institutions and individuals is a critical question. The take on Warren, who unlike Sanders did not have a ready-made base and was known for making personal calls to key professionals, is that she is “organizeable.” This was the view that Chicago journalist Kathleen Geier reported having heard in the course of her reporting; and it is likely not a coincidence that back in June, the Working Families Party tweeted this same word in reference to Warren specifically.
Understanding the pressures on leadership of these types of organizations explains much more than trying to sniff out psychological or cynical motivations. The pressure is, again, the need to involve their constituencies balanced against the need to professionally manage the institution; to effectively professionally manage their institutions, as we have seen, requires being seen as effective and influential individuals with access to important networks. A politician being seen as “organizeable”—i.e., subject to influence at the interpersonal level—would naturally be attractive to a certain type of NGO professional, and rightly so.
A more “mass-participation” organization has a different political logic. The leaders of such an organization—if it is organized properly—will change in composition regularly. The relationships with powerful individuals and institutions will depend on how those people interact with the organization as an organization. There is less mediation between the will of the membership and the actions of the organization, because in essence only the will of the membership can direct the organization’s action, at minimum because if membership aren’t bought in, the organization would not act with any effectiveness. There is no calculation to be made regarding outside resources or the comparative political power of individual leaders, who are required by professional and legal duty to do all of the fundraising and networking labor necessary to keep their organizations alive and staff paid.
When the Sanders campaign didn’t falter but instead gathered steam, it did so based on the stubborn cohesion of Sanders’ base of support, and the pressure that mass of people was able to bring to bear on individuals and institutions to join along with them. Endorsements from prominent elected officials whose authority derives from their mass of grassroots support (and small-dollar funding), like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and membership organizations with robust member participation like the United Teachers of Los Angeles and the National Nurses United, created a contrast with the WFP’s political calculation and showed the value of member political agency and responsiveness to mass, grassroots pressure rather than shrewd institutional calculation.
It is impossible to say at this stage, but this dynamic may have contributed to the decision of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a coalition of community organizing groups with a constituency of 600,000, to take steps to seriously gauge the temperature of their membership in making an endorsement decision. Despite being a key member of the Working Families Party, the CPDA ultimately chose to endorse Sanders, again creating a strong contrast with the WFP decision. The political logic may have been the same, but resulted in a different conclusion: Sanders’ popular support meant involving their constituencies in making the ultimate decision represented an opportunity to truly move their constituencies into action at a large enough scale that it outweighed any advantage of top-level relationships.
We can also look at examples on the smaller scale. In Chicago, many radicals watched with awe when groups including Assata’s Daughters organized to respond to the cover-up of the murder of Laquan McDonald, a 16 year old Black youth, by Chicago police. Assata’s Daughters, at that time an informally constituted volunteer-led collective, organized radical direct actions against incumbent state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, who had failed to promptly and vigorously prosecute any of the officers involved in the killing or cover-up. Assata’s Daughters anchored a loose collaborative characterizing themselves around the hashtag #ByeAnita. When no other organizations stepped up, Assata’s Daughters did; and they also declined to issue an endorsement of any of Alvarez’s challengers, instead focusing exclusively on imposing a political cost for the double standard applied to police killings. The example set by Assata’s Daughters has been followed by groups since, in several cases organized as loose collectives centered around hashtags, like #NoCopAcademy, an effort to stop the funding for a sprawling new police training facility, and #StopLightfoot, an effort to bring attention to the prosecutorial and police accountability record of then-candidate for Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Over the last year, the group Good Kids Mad City have spearheaded efforts to target politicians who fail to take up the fight against white supremacy and racialized capitalism and contributed to working class efforts to raise working priorities—such as their work with the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU 73 strike.
The member/volunteer-led nature of these organizations has a direct relation to their ideological clarity. The organizations’ demands are direct expressions of the impacted constituencies, and the ideological clarity results from that. Ideological clarity in turn acts as an attractive force for other organizations in the same field; when ideological clarity is demonstrated as a possibility, the political logic of attenuation and compromise become less palatable to the people most impacted by the exploitation of capitalism. There is no mediation between the political aspirations of the working class membership and the organization’s activity. That exerts a pressure on other organizations, particularly professionally-led NGOs that already deal with a tension between the personally-felt ideology of members and the institutional demands of existing within a network of funders and political relationships.
For a mass organization, when some degree of political compromise is necessary, it can only adequately be achieved through deliberative political education that members buy in to; thus the importance of internally-facing political education and policy education. Even with such programs, there is a degree of risk; ultimately, members may not agree with an analysis, or may arrive at different conclusions that can only be resolved through democratic deliberation. For professionally managed organizations, this is an unacceptable level of risk, since it could represent an existential threat—i.e., by jeopardizing funding or irreparably damaging necessary institutional relationships. These types of NGOs, which “speak for” constituencies through professionalized leadership, are likely to be critics of mass-oriented organizations that are reliant on volunteer participation, which have to grow slowly and through voluntary participation and cannot selectively center spokespeople or hire staff.
In many respects, these ideologically-focused, radical campaigns provide one aspect of a model of how mass organizations derive their power: unmoored from the institutional pressures on NGOs and purely member-led—relying on the volunteer labor of their members—these groups were able to exercise outsized influence relative to their size. This must be the goal of a growing working class movement.
True transformational change can only come when the working class is empowered to act on its own behalf and through that process develops the practical and political skills necessary to overcome the political forces of capital. This is not just an article of faith, it rests on a material analysis of how political forces are arrayed. Capital has a gravity that pulls armor around itself, in the form of the state. The working class can only crack that armor with immense numbers moving in concert. That requires a socialist movement composed of mass organizations with clarity of ideology and force of numbers that create a wake in which progressive allies either swim along, or risk drowning.