Neoliberal Money-Giving and the Veal Pen

Published online 30 November 2009.

This is an oh-so-preliminary explanation of the problem of money-giving in light of the concept of the “Veal Pen” as elaborated most recently over at firedoglake.  It examines, through a recent piece of Bill Domhoff’s, the role of nonprofits in the sustaining of hegemonic neoliberalism.  This discussion will further sharpen what I advocated in my previous diary: stop giving your money to organizations which acquiesce before injustice, and start giving your money to organizations which push back.  There will, then, be an exploration of how such giving can be consistently accomplished.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

In my previous diary I explored the so-called “debate” about “bad Obama/good Obama” by suggesting that some of the frustration afflicting both sides of said “debate” had to do with the policy lock that one can observe in the enactment of some of the “big ticket” items, in which I argued:

What you can conclude, then, is that Obama will be with you on the small stuff, but the big-ticket items?  They will be decided by someone else, someone nonetheless backed by the authority of the White House.

Some respondents decided my last diary was a hit piece on Obama.  It was nothing of the sort, and said respondents need to go back and read more carefully.  Other respondents thought my piece unjustly praised Jane Hamsher, whom they hated.  I am not so much interested in evaluating Jane Hamsher as in discussing her ideas.  As with many of my more recent diaries, my last diary was basically an examination of the structures of power.  If you don’t want me to examine the structures of power, go ahead, attack me on that.

At any rate, in that last diary I argued (citing Jane Hamsher’s texts) that there was a sort of “Veal Pen” phenomenon occurring at the Federal level, in which the organizations which claim to defend our political interests are in fact merely defending the interests of others with wealth and power.  Thus, for instance, you have a “health care bill” which might have had some promise at some point, but which eventually became a mere mandate to buy health insurance with a subsidy of sorts, a few frills here and there and a significantly stressful band-aid period.  At each stage of the negotiations, the corporations won, the people lost.  This then, is the problem: wealth and power militating against the public interest.

*****

Here I’d like to direct you to the most recent discussion of the “veal pen,” by massacio over at firedoglake.  massacio wants to connect the problems progressives have been having in getting a “public option” to the power of big-money contributors to supposedly “progressive” lobbying organizations.  More importantly, massacio’s discussion introduces us to Bill Domhoff, professor of sociology at my alma mater UCSC, who has a recent piece in an academic journal (“American Behavioral Scientist”) titled “The Power Elite and Their Challengers: The Role of Nonprofits in American Social Conflict.”  Thus the discussion of the “Veal Pen” is linked to another discussion of how money buys political power.  This is what I’d like to explore in greater detail.

Domhoff’s analysis leads down the corridors which massacio says it does, to be sure.  Most of what Domhoff says is to follow the money, as it goes from wealthy donors to foundations to “liberal” organizations.  The nonprofits to which you give your money typically also accept money from huge foundations (MacArthur, Ford, Rockefeller) which arrange “moderate,” market-based (i.e. neoliberal) “solutions” to environmental and social problems.  So, for instance, you have the Urban League, the NAACP, the Children’s Defense Fund, MALDEF, Planned Parenthood, and so on, accepting bucketloads of corporate foundation money, as well as the NRDC, the Rainforest Action Network, and so on.

In the Domhoff paper I’ve linked, the analysis is necessarily given in terms of thumbnail sketches.  If we really wish to understand the phenomenon Domhoff is describing, we’ll have to follow the money ourselves, and with much greater rigor than he used.

There are actually two things to follow: 1) the money given out by the foundations, corporations, wealthy individuals and so on, and 2) the ideologies which are promoted by said groups.  American politics is in fact an ideological mishmash, and so we cannot see the American political landscape as uniformly neoliberal.  But what is common about all of the major ideologies is that they all defer, in some sense or other, to neoliberal policymaking when push comes to shove.

One interesting phenomenon we can research on the ideological front is the extent to which the foundations themselves are trying to co-opt alternatives to the neoliberal economic thinking they would otherwise promote.  Here is a foundation-money conference called “After Neoliberalism”; the tenor to such conferences is set by papers such as Dani Rodrik’s “After Neoliberalism, What?” which is mostly about how alternatives to neoliberalism should not reject capitalist economics.  And then, also, when you follow the money you can observe the big foundations with their fingers in the process of “democracy promotion,” described by Jessica Pasteiner, in which what is actually promoted is not fair dialogue but global neoliberalism. Jessica Pasteiner’s article in Corporate Watch describes this interestingly:

The aim of democracy promotion is to ensure that the loudest and most influential voices within civil society are those whose interests are aligned with, or do not directly challenge corporate capitalism.

The premise is very simple – identify suitable groups and individuals in the target country and channel money to them; the wider variety of groups the better. Some groups are targeted for ‘moderation,’ in which progressive tendencies are diluted or co-opted when allied with, or become financially dependent on, Western backing. The result is that any groups which dissent from the corporatist view of the world become isolated, financially and physically (in terms of resources), while those groups useful to the sponsor’s project develop a loud and powerful voice.

This particularly sneaky tactic – when used in conjunction with diplomatic, economic and, if necessary military power – has been proven to be very effective. It was involved in the overthrow of Allende in Chile, of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, of Aristide in Haiti and the brief deposition of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and is being used as an integral part of ‘development’ in states all around the world.

Thus the big foundations, and their “liberal” lobbyist recipients, are in the business of what Antonio Gramsci called the “war of position,” the culture war.  Only for the big foundations, the culture war is conducted to promote neoliberal “solutions” to problems, regardless of the ideologies being promoted by the nonprofits.

Since the central piece of this diary is Domhoff’s recent piece,  I want to conclude this portion of my diary by discussing Domhoff’s conclusion:

…there are limits to what challengers can achieve in terms of greater democratic participation and individual opportunity when they are beholden to a corporate-financed network of nonprofit organizations concerned with maintaining the current class structure and the huge privilege it delivers to the wealthy few. And even while the insurgent groups were making these limited gains, they were going backward in terms of economic equality

Read carefully.  The “corporate-financed network of nonprofit organizations” is the Veal Pen.  As the “progressives” continually donate money to the Veal Pen, their power actually diminishes, because the policy outcomes which occur in the absence of pressure from any Left you care to name are outcomes which favor the rich while driving the rest of us closer to bankruptcy.  Domhoff’s solution to this problem is also worth noting:

Until the liberal–labor coalition and the nonelectoral social movements can generate the compromises and new strategies that would make it possible to them to reach a larger number of people, and thereby develop greater political power, those who oppose corporate dominance in the name of greater democratic participation and economic equality will continue to be at a disadvantage in their dealings with the large armada of nonprofit organizations that are directed or financed by members of the power elite.

This, then, spells out what is to be done, and you can take it several ways depending on what you believe.  Here’s how I take it.  Neoliberal “disaster capitalism” is dismantling our planet’s ecosystems.  It’s already put enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to produce a catastrophic warming event.  It’s stripping the world of wealth in order to hand it to a few wealthy super-investors — we now live in a world society of 793 billionaires amidst a bottom half of humanity which lives on less than $2.50/day.  I want some push-back against this reality.

If we are to create agencies which will stop neoliberalism, we need to withdraw our money from agencies which participate in neoliberal “solutions.”  Before you can rewrite the social contract, you have to withdraw from the old social contract, because in no other way are you going to get out of those unsavory mass suicide clauses.

*****

So what kind of organization lies outside of the Veal Pen?

One commenter on my last diary asked this.  I suggested that, for instance, the ACLU lay outside of the Veal Pen.  Jane Hamsher:

Part of the ACLU’s independence is due to their financial structure. They aren’t easily financially crippled by one or two phone calls from powerful people to big donors. Their integrity would be seriously compromised if they tried to throw a fundraising bash headlined by the very people they are at odds with — especially if the price is dissembling to give them cover. But that’s because those in the civil liberties community would give them unholy hell if they did so.

So what distinguishes organizations outside of the Veal Pen is that they do not take block grants or huge donations and that they stick to their principles regardless of what sort of pressure is being laid upon them from outside each organization.

Given that, it is really up to you, dear readers, to decide for yourselves what sort of organizations lie outside of the Veal Pen.  It is also up to you to decide what kind of donations make your favorite organizations safe from the sort of manipulation you don’t want to see.  It should be obvious from what I’ve said what the problem with the Veal Pen is: even though the organizations which take all of this money are capable of doing a degree of good, they cannot say “no” to the corporations which feed them, and so the ability to say “no” to corporate paternalism, and to neoliberal capitalism, will not be theirs.

We will need that ability to say no, that progressive power of “no,” more and more often in the future.  I am saying this, of course, because I am an anticapitalist — I think that the capitalist system has outlived its usefulness to the human race and that we ought to be busy at this point thinking up some other system to help us live together in the medium-term future.  You, of course, have your own principles you’d like to defend.  You ought to be able to give your money to others who will defend those principles, even if they piss off the rich and powerful.  You especially ought to be able to give your money to such organizations as piss off the rich and powerful, because your opportunity lies in resistance to their domination.

I suppose that the reason I don’t have all of this “mapped out” is that I am an anticapitalist, and so there really aren’t a whole lot of organizations out there defending post-capitalist environmental design.  Oh, every once in awhile a science fiction writer like Kim Stanley Robinson tells us that “The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future.”  Robinson describes it with a conciseness that astonishes.  But our most successful organizations are corporations, which gain their strength from constant focus upon the next quarterly report.  Oh, sure, I’d like an organization of my own.

*****

When I was observing the debate about “health insurance reform,” occasionally there would arise this great “progressive” rallying cry: let’s primary the Blue Dogs!  Now, this is doubtless a natural reaction to being sold down the river by Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Blanche Lincoln and so on.  But nobody stopped to ask: do we have a general, nationwide campaign to primary the Blue Dogs?  The answer, from what I know so far, is “no.”  So why should the Blue Dogs be afraid of us, when the nonprofits to which we give our money are financing their re-elections?

In conclusion, I would like to ask you all: What do you expect from this sort of polity, in which big money pulls all of the strings and millions of gullible “progressives” donate to political organizations which in fact take their marching orders from the rich and powerful?  Well, the first thing we can expect, here, is that this wonderful moment in the sun we’re ostensibly supposed to be having, with a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress, appears to be a mirage, and one which will be ending quite soon.  Given no legislation to benefit them sufficient to overcome the ongoing economic crisis, the Democratic Party faithful will probably refuse to vote come election time next year.  Then the fun will really be over.  So now is the time.  Withdraw that money; create those new organizations, answer the challenge in Domhoff’s conclusion.

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