Something happened recently that reminded me of a rich woman’s exclamation once in New York. “Socialism! But wouldn’t it do away with charity? And what would we do without charities? I love my work for the poor more than anything else I can do.”

— Lincoln Steffens

In 2015, Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed Jr made a sad pronouncement: if “by left we mean a reasonably coherent set of class-based and anti-capitalist ideas, programmes and policies that are embraced by a cohort of leaders and activists who are in a position to speak on behalf of and mobilize a broad constituency,” then “there is no longer a functioning left in the United States; nor has there been for a generation.”1 Not long after, the Left was jolted back to consciousness by the first Bernie Sanders campaign, but now, following a brief and jubilant period of populist revival, it has been chastened into disheartening sobriety. In the words of Matt Karp, “the Left, after Bernie, has finally grown just strong enough to know how weak it really is.”2

To understand the nature of this weakness, it is necessary to grapple not only with the broad political economic transformations of the neoliberal period that have made the Left’s work more difficult today but also with internal changes in the Left’s own composition and political orientation. As the organizations of the working class have declined in size and power, the Left has become increasingly dominated by elite groups, particularly the educated middle classes. Certain segments of the humanities and social sciences within academia have been one important pole in this shift; another related part has been the burgeoning NGO sector, which has expanded greatly in the last few decades, in the very spaces that unions, mass membership organizations, and political parties once occupied.

As many critics have noted before us, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) tend to cultivate a particular approach to solving social problems — often called “NGOism” or “activist-ism”3 — that coalesced and became influential in the 1960s as NGO funders and social movement activists became more friendly. Seeing a world in flux and wanting to guide it in the “right” direction, foundations became more directly interested in both remedying social ills and stoking “political action” (moves that led to the rise of the conservative foundations that liberals today bemoan).4 Leftist groups took the bait and began, in turn, to view nonprofit funding not only as a viable political strategy but also as a legitimating one.5 With money came influence, and with influence came a new political culture resulting in slow but assured domestication.6

Agreeing, as we do, with Michael Barker that there has been far too “little political attention on the left that has zeroed in on the detrimental impact of foundations [and in particular, liberal foundations] on the political realm,” we believe it is of vital importance for the Left today to identify the presence of NGOism, to minimize its influence, and thereby to break free from the subtle control of this understudied form of “money in politics.”7 In this vein, this article aims to define the particular features of NGOism, a concept often employed but, to our knowledge, nowhere systematically described.

Our basic argument is twofold: first, that NGOs function to amplify the influence of the private sector over social welfare institutions; and second, that their institutional logic generates a particular political culture that, while replete with radical rhetoric, does not and cannot challenge the basic structures of capitalism. We are largely in agreement with Joan Roelofs that the third sector provides a “protective layer” for capitalist society8 — by picking up the slack caused by industrial decline, providing goods and services that the market cannot, and muting criticism of the corporate world — and our contribution here is to explain how the internal constraints of the sector as a whole generate a mode of “solving” social problems (NGOism) that ultimately serves the status quo. The first section offers a basic history of the “third sector” in the United States. The second describes the structural incentives behind NGOism, and the third identifies its key attributes. We conclude with the implications for the Left.9

One final note: in this article we will use the terms “NGOs,” “third sector,” and “nonprofit sector” interchangeably to refer to institutions separate from government, on the one hand, and from for-profit industry, on the other.10 Large, multipurpose foundations are central to organizing the third sector, as seeking foundation grants is common sense in the nonprofit world. As Nina Eliasoph says of nonprofit workers, “organizational affiliation and funding [are] as important … as their names.”11 By offering the largest contributions around, as well as by acting as the key source of institutional networking and technical assistance, foundations have an undue influence over nonprofit projects.12 It is for this reason that we speak of the third sector as encompassing both nonprofit organizations and their foundation funders, though there are separate but related literatures on the two.

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