Autonomous Grassroots and Non-Profit Organizations

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

Eric Tang is a researcher, writer and trainer with a background in community organizing for over ten years in the South Bronx. He recently took a job in the African American Studies and Asian American Studies programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In this email interview, he discusses his contribution to the important 2007 book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (ed. INCITE! South End Press, 2007). Tang’s essay deals with the history of the non profit/501 (c) 3/NGO sector, how it came to be, and what it means for grassroots organizing today.

Daniel Tucker (DT)   You write about the idea that young people inherit the legacies of past social movements. What are the most prominent ideas at work today that you understand to have a direct lineage to a 20th Century social movement? What does that mean for our political imaginations today—what we think is possible and desirable?
Eric Tang (ET)   I think that the immigrant rights movement is one clear example of legacies. The “opening” of immigrations is often though of as an outgrowth of Civil Rights. And just as the Civil Rights is an unfinished liberation movement, so is immigrant rights. But our political imaginations have been all but crushed under the weight of pragmatic reform—the “get what we can out of this conservative administration and Congress” strategy. On the one hand, I think we do need to be political realists, but on the other hand I don’t think that should mean that we fail to talk about, or brusquely push aside, some real discussion on what a truly transnational community and immigration policy can look like. To be sure, the social movements that sprang to life 40 years ago talked a lot about living in a post-imperialist world, they attempted at times to illustrate it in their rhetoric and platforms. The Black Panther Party and the idea of revolutionary intercommunalism comes to mind. Granted, it was inchoate, but, hey, at least they weren’t afraid to think big and imaginative.
DT   What is the most prominent organizational structure that has been inherited? What are some of the implications of that inheritance?
ET   I’m not sure if inheritance is the right word. I think the structures we see many movement organizations adopting today to be the result of a historical rupture or disjuncture. The dominance of the non-profit model in social justice movements today is the result of a large gap that exists between the autonomous movements of the late-1960s and 70s and the activists that came up during the late 80s and early 199os, at the denouement of Reagan-ism. There are very few institutional bridges that connect the social movement left of the 1960s and 70s to the present. As such, the philanthropic wing of capitalism that stepped into the chasm during the late-1980s and early 1990s, introducing the new social movement activists to a new vocabulary: civic participation, advocacy, service, public-private partnership, etc.
DT   Many of the leftist organizations of the ‘68 era were either squashed by government intervention and/or destroyed by internal conflicts. Some organizations turned towards the process of building political parties with revolutionary as well as reformist agendas. What politically or economically shifted where the left began to take on more of a non-profit structure? What did that jump from collectives, alliances and organizations to Non-profits mean for the ideas? What did it mean for the work people were doing?
ET   I have a lot of respect for the baby boomers who came out of new left movements and then decided to shift into the non-profit system with a reformist mandate. I think they understood that, yes, a combination of state repression and bad sectarian mistakes are to blame for the decline of their movements, but this didn’t mean they were going to just give up during the 8os and 90s. in my view, what mattered most to them was continuing to make a contribution—to stay relevant. And if this meant starting a politically acceptable and respectable non-profit, or perhaps joining the biggest non-profit of all—the university—then so be it. Better to do that then take a purist path and be ineffective. That so many of us (and I include myself in this category as a scholar activist in his early-thirties), have continued to work in the non-profits, that it’s become all we have ever really known, is our problem, not theirs.
DT   Some baby boomers had (and have) loot (as you have stated in your essay for The Revolution Will Not Be Funded). That fact combined with the dismantling of the welfare state meant that people that cared about others people had to step up and form new and current service agencies. With time we’ve seen a consolidation of some larger non-profits social services and a disappearance of others. Where do you see social services going in the coming years? What would a radical program of direct-service along the lines of a Black Panther/Young Lords/Brown Beret/Young Patriot/etc “Survival Program” look like today? Is that what we need?
ET   I think the shrinking/collapse of the social state and the rise of neoliberalism in U.S. domestic policy is not rhetoric—it’s a firm reality. The question is: should our strategy be to put this thing in reverse? Are we simply to rollback on conservative gains and call for a new New Deal and Great Society? I’m ambivalent about this. I believe in the socialized state. But I don’t think it’s about going back so much as it is about re-imagining the state. The social welfare state can be preserved through acts of local autonomy and not just large bureaucracy. At the same time, I think that communities have to understand that there will always be aspects of their collective livelihood that the state shall have no monopoly over –the Panthers and Young Lords understood this well. They imagined and created survival programs that the state just wasn’t quick enough to implement let alone envisage. This gave the communities the confidence to run their own programs, redefine the citizenry in their autonomous zones. When the state finally caught up, they “bequeathed” the survival programs to the state, and then moved on to the next set of contradictions. This relationship between the autonomous movements and allied elements of the state is sorely missing today. ◊


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