Communication Front 2000 Book, "Crossing Points East-West"

The Art of Being Independent

On NGOs and the Soros debate

Geert Lovink

A fear is spreading throughout Europe: the creeping, existential angst of being possessed and ruled by new, unknown forces. For some, the dragon is called Brussels, for others it is neo-liberalism, the stock market, Asia, the Euro, globalization, or Soros. In circles of media activists and electronic artists there is an acute sensitivity towards emergent institutional powers. Active groups and individuals on the edge (and the margins) of Media Related Creativity are vulnerable to new economic and political formations. As temporary, freelance workers, we are both inside and outside of the culture industry. The critique of large-size capitalist and state structures from the perspective of small groups has been well known since the sixties. It would be easier to criticize Shell, MOMA, the Ministry of Culture, the local Telecom and McDonalds, as the lines are clear: they are bastards. Easy enemies.

These days the threat is coming from within, without clear frontlines. As we know from the theory books and seminars - power is nowhere and can pop up anywhere. For some it is located in the body. For others, power is concentrated in the media sphere. For again others power is in the hands of transnational capital. The process of simultaneous fragmentation and centralization of power leaves us with a confusing picture. Does our critique need a clear object anyway, an artificial, imaginary focus? With current technologies it is out of the question to be fully autonomous, particularly if you are working with computers. The rise of the Net will only make us more dependent on hostile forces such as chip manufacturers and large service providers. With complexity and interdependency on the rise, one materialization of this landscape is the decentralized, networked, cost-effective office culture, the Non-Government Organisation (NGO).

The first time I heard an NGO critique was in Germany in the late eighties. It concerned the case of Greenpeace. With my own eyes I had seen this organization become a megalomaniac structure of bureaucratic do-gooders. In the early eighties they were one of the first to 'professionalize', leaving behind the more indirect and blurry tactics of the 'rainbow' of ecological movements, a charming universe of micro-initiatives which to a 'communications/managerial expert' would seem lacking clear direction. The professional Greenpeace set up a chain of branches, raised membership, organized 'campaigns' and specialized in spectacular, advertising-like media interventions. The critique focussed on high overhead costs, internal power struggles and the misuse of funds collected by masses of innocent, well-meaning middle-class citizens. This process took place inside the ecological movement throughout the eighties, and soon this managerial 'corporate' approach would reach all 'independent' organizations dealing with arts, culture and politics. The global headquarters of Greenpeace moved to Amsterdam and got bigger and bigger. Still friends of mine work there. One or two. The critique of Greenpeace has not changed over the years. It is still making deals with big companies and governments and still wastes its money hiring corporate advertisement firms. Welcome to the world of NGOs. Don't cry betrayal. Just have your eyes open. Go beyond good and evil. In case of doubt re-read Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals.

Of course there are numerous academic definitions of NGOism circulating. They are very open and neutral, including everybody and everything, from fishing clubs to hobby healthcare societies. That's all true and very correct. I rather prefer a different view which emphasizes the roots of NGOs which are lying outside of its legal organizational structure. The NGO then would be a segment or crystal, a reverberation of an event or incident. Similar to Adilkno's definition of a movement as a memory of an event (as described in "Cracking the Movement"), we could state that an NGO is a memory of a movement. It comes at the end of a process of new social formations.

The Berlin Wall fell and numerous NGOs moved into Eastern Europe, copied from this 'corporate-style' model. There it became really visible what the NGO was in essence all about: downsized government replacing bureaucracies, typical to the post-ideological times of the digital. "We no longer work for the Party, we work for the Organisation" (New European saying). In Western Europe there was no NGO critique yet. Why? The autonomous movements of the 70s and 80s were falling apart and their remains had turned into small NGOs themselves. Not big bureaucratic structures like Greenpeace but nonetheless the same tendency. The past and present political strategists of the autonomist leftovers tended not to focus on the organizational forms of the 'struggle'. What counted was, and still does, is the debate around the use of violence (against buildings, police, corporations). Central questions as to the 'effectiveness' at a symbolical and eventually political level remain central.

Within the Organisation activists are dealing with a specific kind of office management style, social code and media strategy imported from the United States into Western Europe (and then later into the East), without questions as to its ideological premise. We are surrounded by the Organization. They want our applications, CVs, budgets. They want to meet you, gossip and agree. Their style of dealing seems so completely self-evident. This 'naturalization' makes it difficult to see its specific shape and program. Do you also have friends who are 'playing office' and even dare to bother you with their formalism? No academic has yet written about this human set of behavior patterns as far as I know. It's time for a radical office anthropology.

Let's make a difference between the two neighboring models of the NGO, the 'movement' and the 'corporation'. The NGO of course positions itself as a 'neutral' in-between between these two. The movement is unpredictable, diverse, chaotic, apparently without formal leadership, full of informal structures and unexpected side events. Today, movements are even more fluid or even virtual than in the past. They do not seem to last longer than a few days or weeks. For an outsider, they look like a spasmodic uprisings, while underneath there are strong currents of cultural, media driven tribes, only noticeable to the connoisseur. Today's movements are the exact opposite of what one would expect: their appearance may seem temporal but in fact their direct roots go back years and years, even decades. That specially counts for the so-called post-Seattle anti-globalization movement.

Movements need to gather in space as physical collections of bodies - otherwise they cannot exist. There are no pure virtual movements yet, nor have any real social movements arisen in virtual space to speak of. The so-called "anti-globalization" protests could rather be called "mobilizations" or campaigns (as discussed during Next Five Minutes 3 in Amsterdam, March 1999 and at the Macba Barcelona meeting, October 2000). The model or idea of "movement" has turned into a nostalgic, negative utopia, with even dangerous aspects attached to it. If in the past the Party served as the symbol of unity, that role has now been taken over by the Movement.

The corporate model is in essence alien to the non-profit world of the late cold war period. It seems to be a tragic option to turn your work into a business operation - a sometimes fatal option at that. In times of ongoing government budget cuts in arts, culture and social services, starting your own company - so as not to rely on subsidies and grants - yet made the corporate option to appear an attractive and truly independent option. We have to distinguish here between corporate culture and 'business'. Every punk band is a business. There are hardly any activities in which money is not involved in some form. We are not talking about anti-business here. It is the urge and necessity of NGOs to copy-paste corporate culture into the organization which is under discussion here.

Most NGOs have elements of corporate culture. Take the standard glossy images, printed on expensive paper. This is the dictatorship of design. Marketing, public relations and human resource officers inside organizations. Yet, the opposite is not a real alternative. Without a legal structure, a bank account, letterhead and an office address you are truly non-existent. This even counts for virtual operations on the Internet. Friends suddenly turn into clients or employees. Without a critique on cultural companies, jealousy and bad feelings are on the rise and old friendships are being destroyed. The price of switching to other scales and circles, and possible 'success' (and some very temporary and virtual influence) is high.

Turning your efforts into a true venture has advantages, in terms of the possible creation of wealth, but is also producing envy, anger and resentment by those excluded. There are no examples of collectively owned structures that made a lot of money. Successful businesses are either owned by a few, or owned by nobody, as in the case of Linux and other open source projects where the work is done by volunteers. The GPL (General Public License) model for free software is an easy way to avoid the difficult questions of redistribution of wealth, which, by definition is always creation by a multitude.

In most East European countries there is little to choose or contemplate about. In the cultural non-profit NGO sector there is often only one choice: Soros. The subcultural undercurrents of the late eighties did not establish themselves or have dissolved over years after 89. A small scale alternative economy was not a real option anyway, mainly because there was not enough cash circulating. Most initiatives were too small, too weak to immediately turn themselves into viable companies. Without being part of an oppositional or subcultural movement, the NGO-style of dealing with the world appears to be the only one left.

The Soros Foundation has been the main money source, particularly in the field of culture and media. And they are the prime promoters of the professional non-profit institution. George Soros: "The foundations had to become more professional. It is a change I have had difficulty accepting. In the beginning I wanted to have an anti-foundation foundation and for a time I succeeded." But that's long ago. Now, most Soros officials criticize their own position of being the monopolist when it comes to 'charity'. A Soros critique, in my view, would first of all be a (self) critique on the inability of West-European society to deal with the tremendous changes after 1989. Why is there no British, French or German philanthropist like Soros? Why is there no flexible, decentralized plan from Brussels? The disagreement amongst the Europeans is an on-going scandal, costing thousands of lives, as in Bosnia and even now, in Albania.

Another problem of a radical Soros critique is his Jewish- Hungarian background. The only critiques so far have come from the nationalist, anti-Semite far right: all kinds of conspiracy theories have erupted to do with the takeover of media and the stock market through 'culture' by George Soros. It stopped all debate. Then there is the serious lack of (independent) information on what this huge and very diverse empire of OSF, OSI, OMRI etc. is doing. The few reports in Western newspapers only deal with Soros' financial strategies. The debate about his critique on capitalism in the Atlantic Monthly has hardly any reference to the Foundations and the work they do. Even his own book 'Soros on Soros' is poor in this respect. One gets a strong sense that the interviewers he wrote this book with have never been to Eastern Europe, and this might also be the case for all the finance journalists who report on Soros. Most Westerners have no idea about the extend of the Soros network and the variety of activities it has been involved in since the "changes". Let alone that they would be up to date about the latest rivalries between the different factions within each of the "Soros" empires. There are new leftists, corporate big shots, heaps of boring academics, American youngsters with no idea, fresh from one the ivy leagues, old cultural apparatskis, you name it.

This has all prolonged a unhealthy monopoly of the Soros Foundation. To break this partially imaginary power, alternative models need to be developed based on financial diversity. A Soros critique would begin with a critique on the NGO-model itself. Through the rejection of ritual professionalism we could then turn to specific Soros policies and examine them in detail. Within the Soros foundations there are dozens of different models (and failures) on how to work with the Net. The most common problem is the 'xs4us' policy, the so-called 'closed society' (see the interview I made with the director the Internet program, Jonathan Peizer, posted on the nettime list and published in First Monday). Their internet is only accessible for officials and 'organizations', not for individuals. This is the essence of the NGO ideology, not specific 'Soros'. The Zamir BBS system, and now B92's in Belgrade are encouraging exceptions to the NGO rule, although they are not fully operating as access providers. Within NGOs a lot of money is spent on expensive connectivity (with the money flowing away to western telecoms), thereby not creating an independent culture of internet providers, to facilitate public access and free content. A rich and diverse net culture should work with lots of models and ideas, not just that one seductive, seemingly grownup, very US-American, quasi-neutral and deeply bureaucratic concept of the NGO.

At the third "Next Five Minutes" conference of media activists and artists in Amsterdam, in March 1999, at the brink of the Kosov@ war, the term "Post Governmental Organization" was launched. The findings of the PGO debate can be found at the N5M web site. Taking up the threat where the "Soros" debate within the nettime circles (May 1997) had stopped, the conference outcome again proved how difficult it is to address these issues in public. There is a lot of self censorship - and a justified fear to lose funding. A truly intercultural, networked PGO without centralized power has yet to be invented. It is more likely that NGOs will become a mix of transnational corporations and international bodies such as the UN and the Red Cross.

The NGO-debate has yet to find terms to reflect its own position, both in the West and elsewhere. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's millennial work "Empire" could be a useful tool in further discussions. Their direct references to the NGO phenomena are brief and somewhat ambivalent. There is no general dismissal of the NGO model in Hardt & Negri's work. "The fact of being non-governmental or even opposed to the power of the nation-states does not in itself line these organizations up with the interests of capital." Yet, NGOs as a strategic or even unavoidable model of organization is not discussed in "Empire". That debate is still lying ahead of us. Instead of the historical urge to identify with a movement or party, today's phrase would be: "We are the Organization." The only opposition to this format is coming from "the Network", the appeal to become interconnected. The tension between formal and centralized organizations and informal, heterogeneous networks will therefor become the dominant struggle within the social, cultural and political formations of the foreseeable future. The organization is not the network.



<> (use the search engine to find the NGO-related debates)


Peter Wahl, NGO-Transnationals, McGreenpeace and the Network Guerilla, Peripherie, No. 71, 1998, reprinted in the N5M3 catalogue. You will find the original German version on the site of WEED Bonn.

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2000

(This is a reworked version of an essay with the same title, originally posted to the nettime mailinglist on May 13, 1997. It was written for the nettime free newspaper called ZKP no.4, produced and published in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in preparation of the nettime meeting there, called "The Beauty and the East").

Tazi statiq na bylgarski / This text in Bulgarian
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