I’ve grown up in the bay area and my political development started when I worked for a nonprofit. I was about 19 years old, had gotten kicked out of my parents house for drug use and related family conflicts revolving around mental health, and had to find work in order to pay my newly acquired housing expenses. Not having many marketable skills aside from being bi-lingual, I turned to Craig’s List and eventually got a series of interviews that lead me to an after-school tutoring job at a public school in Oakland. The program was funded and organized through a social justice nonprofit.
It was through my work at this nonprofit that I met people who were politicized around issues in education, pedagogy, and racial justice. Though no one helped me develop my politics through direct mentorship, being around a scene of people who had radical ideas and were doing work with working class students encouraged me to follow my interest in working students to the point where I decided to finish community college and get a teaching credential. It was through this process that I started researching people like Paulo Freire and through this being opened up to the world of revolutionary theory and history . . .
How many people have become radicalized through nonprofits? Found them to be useful forums for expressing radical political energy? How many have found them to be incredibly limiting and de-politicizing after spending some time in them?
These are some of the questions that were raised during Peacock Rebellion’s first cabaret performance: Agen(c)y. The cabaret itself was a quality production; all the poetry, performance, and humor was clearly the result of a ton of effort on the part of the producers, and it struck at a nerve in the daily realities of workers participating in nonprofits, or the Nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC). Among these realities was that of privatization of public schools, queer sex with nonprofit coworkers, nonprofit conferences, fundraising, and issues of exploitation by nonprofit bosses.
In 2009 nonprofits employed 13.5 million, or 10% of the workforce. The conditions of labor that nonprofit workers experience at the workplace are an incredibly useful subject to explore through the performance arts, and for this I commend the folks at Peacock Rebellion. Their contribution over the past two nights at La Pena has been a clear reminder to many that the work carried out at nonprofits throughout the world, this country, and the bay area in particular, is problematic and not simply a site of political intervention and socially just action. For these reasons I am a fan of this group’s art, as well as a fan of many of the individual artists who performed at the Cabaret.
The cabaret also brought up some feelings of frustration in me as I watched the performances. I enjoyed experiencing the artists’ various works, and I really appreciated the humorous approach taken toward the subject matter, especially in the midst of so many people employed by nonprofits. But the frustration came over me during some of the more politically pointed parts of the evening.
Getting Paid to Overthrow the System?
One theme which came up was the idea that working class people of all oppressed identities need to make money in order to engage in political struggle. During Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poetry reading, she recited a line that went something like, “some of us needed a nonprofit to be our activism because we couldn’t do it [activism] without getting paid . . . I need that revolutionary 401(k).” This struck me. Hard. What about all the millions of people who’ve fought throughout history in places like Russia, China, Cuba, Angola, Vietnam, Poland, Iran . . . What about all the people throughout the past 100 years who have given their lives to challenge the state and capital. How were these people able to give so much and still not get a single penny for their actions? Surely many of these folks struggled with the realities of various health needs, disabilities, racial and gender oppression, and other dynamics which made life challenging. It does not do justice to the history of revolutionary struggle to situate ourselves, those of us here in the center of global imperialism, in a context where we need to get paid in order to struggle. Even in this country, this line of reasoning completely leaves out the thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants who have gone on strike at their workplaces and risked deportation (and worse) in order to engage in the class struggle. Consider the hunger strikers at prisons across the country who have risen up against the conditions of their incarceration, united across racial divisions, and fought their oppressors directly? How is it that so many have risked so much in order to fight, but have done so without being paid by a nonprofit to do this organizing?
Another one of the shortcomings of last night was the absence of the history of revolutionary organizing and organizations. During Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s performance, quotes from an article by Eric Tang were projected on the screen behind her. The main point of these projections, and of the article itself, was to emphasize the fact that the party-building cadre organizations of the late 1960s and early 70s alienated many women due to internal sexism within the organizations. This alienation lead to women leaving to join nonprofits in order to “do smart work, practical work, in a way that allowed you to survive. This was especially important after witnessing those who did not survive.”
According to Tang’s argument, party-building efforts were abandoned and their internal limitations set the stage for participants to seek out more democratic, inclusive, and non-exploitative spaces for struggle. These spaces were often nonprofits. The experiences of revolutionary women such as Elaine Brown and Assata Shakur certainly inform our understanding of the real gendered dynamics within the revolutionary nationalist/maoist/semi-marxist parties of the late 60s. But what’s not so clear is that the alternatives that were sought out, consciously and unconsciously, by the ex-party-builders maintained any of the political integrity of their former organizations. The implication of Tang’s argument is that the nonprofit spaces DID maintain the continuity of revolutionary politics, while changing some of the oppressive forms of organization and internal practices. Despite the power of the “autonomous movements” of the 1980s, the rise of neoliberalism after the crisis of the 1970s marked the decline of radical movements in the US, not their strengthening through more inclusive, democratic, and supportive organizations such as those that Tang describes.
The reason for this digression into the politics of Tang’s article is not irrelevant. His words were projected on the screen during a powerful performance of poetry and were the poems backdrop. In a symbolic way this can be seen not only as an endorsement of the argument presented in his article, but also framing his argument as an underlying base on top of which the poem gave a more personal story to illustrate his political points. Revolutionary organizations are critiqued – and critiqued for things very much worth critiquing – but there is no clear explanation of how the following organizational forms that the movement took maintained/did not maintain a continuity of revolutionary politics. In fact, it’s not clear what the operating definition of “revolution” or “movement” were throughout the cabaret.
What Movement? And What Revolution?
During one of Manish’s improv moments, he highlighted the work that many of us do in “these movements.” This brings up another notion that was undefined during the course of the cabaret, and was undefined not simply because the performers did not define it but because the current state of nonprofit activists, staffers, and others of our generation lack a common language around important terms. The words “revolution” and “movement” are thrown around to describe anything that’s remotely progressive, radical, “good” or …doing anti-oppression/social justice organizing. This reflects a degeneration from the politics, language, and ideas present during the radical upheaval and organizations of the 1968 period. Despite their own limitations (stalinism, nationalism, bad gender politics, etc), the working definition of that period was drawn from the Maoist notion that:
A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.
— From Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan
The generation of people who have come up into political life in a world where nonprofits are filling in the social void left by a retreating welfare state, while at the same time attempting to fill the void left by the state repression of revolutionary organizations (COINTELPRO, etc). Our definition of revolutionary is now the opposite of what Mao wrote so many years ago – we include paintings, poetry, and lifestyle decisions in our definition of “revolution” and “revolutionary.” This is a problem that we need to confront head on by re-defining revolution as the overthrow of one class by another and by the overthrow of the state. The Nonprofit world has contributed to the confusion around our understanding of revolution, and our critique of nonprofits should extend into this realm. To the extent to which we do not explicitly do this, we are reproducing the same political confusion that the nonprofits and state have sown among so many young radicals.
Our critique of nonprofits should include a critique of the working conditions of nonprofit workers, and accounts of exploitation in the nonprofit industry. This is part of understanding the class composition of a huge layer of workers in the US. But we need to go beyond this and also critique the way that nonprofits truncate the development of a revolutionary perspective and strategy among young radicals. Left out of the equation is an actual understanding of the politics of people who are now put on t-shirts, purses, and posters. The images of Frida Kahlo, George Jackson, Fred Hampton, and Grace Lee are looked at as “movement” and “revolutionary” elders that should inspire us. However, there is hardly any mention of the fact that all these people were revolutionaries who devoted incredible amounts of time to training themselves and others in Marxist theory in order to improve themselves as revolutionaries. In fact, the nonprofit strategy often degrades theory as a “white” or “eurocentric” set of ideas rather than using it in the way that the people listed above used theory: as a guide to action and as a method of analysis used to unite the proletariat.
Rather than thinking about how to organize sectors of the working class, whether they be queer, black/brown, young, or old, against capital and the state, the social justice nonprofits consciously and unconsciously tend to limit struggle within the framework of existing capital and state institutions. Concerns over “safety” and keeping things “organized” take precedence over the political questions of the day. No doubt that keeping things secure for the most oppressed among those at actions is a responsibility of organizers, but the reality is that no radical social movement or revolution has ever been successful at challenging the system without pushing the boundaries of what people consider to be “safe” and “orderly.”
Others consider nonprofits to be a “tactic” within a larger struggle for radical social transformation. While this perspective attempts to complicate the assumed binary between working with nonprofits and not working with nonprofits, it fails to address the question: what type of strategy could a nonprofit organization be a tactic in? Strategies guide our actions, and our actions, interventions, and practices form an ensemble of tactics which move us forward in our strategy. If our goal is the overthrow of capital, the state, and the ending of oppressive social relations then we need a strategy that helps facilitate the development of a subjective force capable of carrying out these historic tasks. Theorizing this type of strategy, and reflecting on our attempts to carry out such an approach, is a task that many have been taking steps toward accomplishing, and is beyond the scope of this review. The main point for now is that we must not reinforce the notion that social justice nonprofits are the vehicle through which this strategy will be developed, practiced, and reflected upon.
What’s Our Mission?
We started off this review with an appreciation for the contribution that Peacock Rebellion’s first cabaret has made toward a critique of the “Nonprofit Industrial Complex.” Throughout this review there has been an exploration of the downsides and shortcomings of nonprofits as vehicles for radical struggle on the part of the working class and oppressed communities. While the cabaret did not explicitly state that nonprofits should be seen as the organizations needed to build a radical social movement, or to make revolution possible, the reality is that no alternatives were provided.
While the critique of nonprofits is a central focus of the show, what it most critically lacked was the posing of a revolutionary alternative. If there is no alternative to the critique that is put forward, in many ways it affirms the non-profit structure itself, as the only existing avenue for ‘revolutionary’ change.
This lack of strategy cannot be placed on the artists and producers of the show because this is a historic challenge that we face as young revolutionaries attempting to synthesize the lessons of the past with the new lessons that are being uncovered in the present. While no work of art should be held accountable for providing a total critique of the strategic problems that revolutionaries face today, when plays, poems, and cabarets attempt to directly address such issues and come up short, it’s the duty of members of our community to advance the questions that are posed in works of art.
The historic task of our age is to develop a revolutionary strategy for the overthrow of the imperialist state and the capitalist system that it reinforces. We must engage in the process of determining such a strategy collectively. It’s our generation’s responsibility to make a contribution to this process by building off of what those had done before us and keeping ourselves politically sharp, humble, and self-critical in the process. We must figure out what we’re trying to do – are we trying to eek out a better existence under capitalism, or are we trying to carry out the audacious task of overthrowing it? We must be clear. As Frantz Fanon said:
Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it . . .