10 Rules for Understanding Civil Society Imperialism

By Stephen Gowans

Stephen Zunes, chair of the board of academic advisors to the US ruling class International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, and Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society at Durban, are regular contributors to Z-Net, Counterpunch and other left media. There’s nothing particularly new, interesting or exciting about their writing. When it comes to foreign governments that pursue a traditional leftist agenda of independent economic development outside the domination of imperialist powers they can be counted on to ape the New York Times and Washington Post, and by extension, the White House and Department of State.

Reading Zunes’ write about Belarus, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Iran, is like reading State Department press releases. “The best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world’s remaining autocratic states,” says Zunes, “comes from civil society” (1). In its reference to freedom and democracy in the abstract, Zunes’ language is evocative of the propagandistic bilge that gushes in rivers from White House and State Department speechwriters trying to shape public opinion. Bond, who claims an expertise on Zimbabwe based on proximity to the country (he runs a civil society center on the other side of the Limpopo River) is hardly better. Both mimic State Department charges against the West’s leftist and national liberation foreign policy betes noire, and, like the State Department, both celebrate civil society. Bond has gone so far as to naively dub activist groups in Zimbabwe that receive Western funding as “the main wellspring of hope for a Zimbabwean recovery” (2). It would be more apt to say civil society is the West’s main wellspring of hope to return Zimbabwe to a colonial past.

Bond and Zunes are formulaic writers. They cleave to a basic set of rules to guide their analyses of governments that have disrupted property relations that once favored Western investors, banks and corporations. Once you know the rules, you can predict what either Zunes or Bond are going to write with astonishing accuracy.

Rule #1. All governments are bad, especially those that pursue traditional leftist agendas of placing control of a country’s resources and productive property in the hands of its public, its government, or its domestic business class. The leaders of these governments deceptively employ socialist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist rhetoric to win and then to hang on to power. They enjoy enormous privileges secured and defended by corruption and abuse of authority. Governments, by nature, are corrupt, authoritarian and thoroughly rotten, particularly those that call themselves leftist and anti-imperialist. There has never been a truly leftist, anti-colonial or anti-imperialist government, and can never be one. All revolutions are betrayals and no one should expect that anything good can ever come from left and anti-imperialist forces taking power. The only good revolution is the one that has never happened, or the ones that have been financed by wealthy individuals and the US government.

Rule #2. Civil society is the main wellspring of hope. Non-governmental organizations funded by the US Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy, the US State Department’s USAID, Britain’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and other Western “democracy promotion” agencies, are independent organizations that are working to build a better world. Leftists should look to these groups to understand what’s going on in countries led by nominally anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and socialist governments. Zimbabwe’s Lawyers for Human Rights, for example, represents one of the main wellsprings of hope for Zimbabwe. Never mind that it is funded by the US National Endowment for Democracy (3) – an organization that does overtly what the CIA used to do covertly. Plenty of civil society organizations take money from wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments. Does that mean they’re not independent?

Rule #3. Decentralized, participatory democracy is good. It is the absolute good.

Rule #4. Process is more important than outcome. Zimbabweans becoming owners of their own land and natural resources is only half as important as the British parliamentary tradition in Zimbabwe being upheld; only a tenth as important as the freedom and democracy Zunes’ celebrates in the abstract; only a hundredth as important as civil society having room to operate to peacefully change the government. It’s not helpful to mention that peaceful regime change is often preceded by economic warfare and threats of military intervention and that non-violent activism and civil society are only part of a larger whole of regime change operations.

Rule #5. Governments that call themselves anti-imperialist or socialist or both are neither of these things and are as deplorable as imperialists and neo-liberals. Civil society, though drawing its funding from wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments, is the main wellspring of hope.

Rule #6. When writing about governments that pursue traditional leftist agendas, it is important to follow State Department narratives. This is equivalent to doing what the New York Times, CNN and other major media did when they amplified Washington’s lies about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction – an inconvenient reality, but skip over it. Charges made against leftist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist governments of corruption, human rights abuses, and betrayal will resonate with a left population primed for cynicism. Accordingly, it takes little effort to make the charges stick. Don’t bother to cite evidence. You don’t need to. Tap into what everyone knows is true, because everyone says it’s true, because the media say it’s true, because the State Department and White House say it’s true. Who will ask for evidence? Insist that the other side present evidence. If you don’t like the evidence, say it’s not from a credible source.

Rule #7. Never shy away from basing your argument on appeal to authority. If you live close to the country civil society is to promote democracy in, or have visited it, claim authority based on geography. “I’ve been (or live close) to Zimbabwe.” This, however, might backfire. Opponents can reply: “If geography is so important, I’ll accept as a higher authority the analysis of the leaders of the government you denounce, since they are long-time residents of their country, and not merely tourists and residents of a neighboring country.”

Rule #8. Make definitive statements. For example, assert with certitude that Bob Helvey has never been to Venezuela to train civil society to bring down the Chavez government. When you’re shown evidence that Bob Helvey has indeed been to Venezuela, say “I only found about it last week.” Never let ignorance get in the way of self-appointed authority.

Rule #9. Defend civil society’s receiving its funding from wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments by saying, “A people’s revolution cannot happen by generous funding alone.” This sounds compelling. Of course, if this were true, we could also say, “Acceptance of a ruling class ideology cannot happen by the ruling class virtually monopolizing the media and schools” or “George Bush won his first run at the presidency through a groundswell of popular support that had little to do with his connections to wealthy supporters and the king’s ransom spent on his campaign.”

Rule #10. Some say civil society should not take money from wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments. Others say the reality that wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments shower many civil society groups with money tells you everything you need to know about these groups. These people are not helpful.

1. Stephen Zunes, “Nonviolent action and pro-democracy struggles,” February 17, 2008, http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16538

2. Patrick Bond and Grace Kwinjeh, “Zimbabwe’s political roller-coaster hits another deep dip,” March 11, 2008, http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2008-03/11bond-kwinjeh.cfm

3. Michael Barker, “Nonviolent Imperialism: A Major Revision,” March 10, 2008, http://fanonite.org/2008/03/10/nonviolent-imperialism-major-revision/

7 thoughts on “10 Rules for Understanding Civil Society Imperialism

  1. Z-Net changed Kwinjeh’s bio after I wrote to Chris Spannos about it, complaining the omission was deceptive.

    Bond, usually obsessive about rising to these kinds of challenges, hasn’t replied to the article above, or to the questions asked of him at the end of it.

    His most recent writing on Zimbabwe of which I’m aware (this time authored without the help of the US, British, and Australian government-backed MDC) appeared on Pambazuka News. Pambazuka News is directly financed by the Ford Foundation and billionaire speculator George Soros and indirectly by the Canadian government, the European Union and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

    You can’t help trip over Bond’s connections to corporate foundations and groups and political parties financed by imperialist governments. They fund his civil society center and pay for his junkets. Groups he urges leftists to look to as an “independent” left voice are bankrolled by the US, British and other Western governments. Is it any wonder he’s known as Bond…Patrick Bond….of Her Majesty’s NGOs?

    At one time, CIA spooks channeled money to left scholars like Bond covertly. Now, the funding is open, and the connections are hardly concealed.

    Incidentally, Spannos mounted a sophistical defense of Z-Net’s accepting Bond’s MDC co-authored Zimbabwe article. Explained Spannos: If Z-Net refused to accept submissions from people who are connected, in some way, to parties or institutions dominated and funded by corporations and imperialist governments, Z-Net would have to dissociate itself from most of the submissions it gets on a daily basis.

    This follows along the lines of a Stephen Zunes argument. Almost everyone, if they have a job, gets paid by capitalists or capitalist-supported governments, so what’s the fuss? The fuss is that few people get paid to undertake funded political activity. Equating a clerk who works for Sears and writes on Zimbabwe to Grace Kwinjeh, is like saying, “Just because George Bush is president doesn’t mean his views on public healthcare are more reflective of the interests of the US ruling class than those of Walmart employees, whose livelihood is also linked intimately to the US ruling class through their employment by a giant corporation.” Walmart employees, unless they’re in the PR department or boardroom, don’t get paid to represent Walmart’s political interests or those of the US ruling class. Kwinjeh, on the other hand, has a direct material interest in representing the interests of the MDC, and through it, the MDC’s patrons.

    Sadly, Z-Net, and Z-Net favorites, Bond and Zunes, have a penchant for this kind of specious nonsense.

  2. Looks like that Z-Net article mentioned above decided to correct their original … uh… little omission about Grace Kwinjeh being a founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change.

    Now the revised credits read:

    “Professor Patrick Bond is the Director of the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, and Grace Kwinjeh is a South African-based Zimbabwean journalist, political activist and founding member of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change, (MDC).”

    This original omission was just an honest mistake. Really. 😉

  3. I’ve edited Patrick Bond’s “rebuttal” for length. To summarize: Gowans’ article is “nonsense,” “more nonsense” and “utter crap.” If you would like to read his comments in full, send me a note sr.gowans@sympatico.ca or contact Patrick directly pbond@mail.ngo.za .You can read the line peddled by Bond on Zimbabwe in countless mainstream publications (though without the “revolution-betrayed” spin Bond gives it.) I see no reason to reproduce the dominant ideology on a blog dedicated to alternative views.

    If you would like to read the article that Bond attached to his diatribe (written by his colleague David Moore on why Mugabe is really an Anglophile after all), you can do so at http://www.zwnews.com/issuefull.cfm?ArticleID=18120 .

    The inevitable outcome of the US- and EU-funded and Bond-celebrated civil society achieving its aims in Zimbabwe is the installation of a neo-colonial government dedicated to reversing the achievements of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and blocking it from achieving its logical end. Were the Zanu-PF government to be ousted, a civil society-assisted flowering of participatory democracy, parecon, or social democracy would not be in the cards. For one thing, civil society funding would dry up. Western governments, George Soros, and capitalist foundations are only going to fund civil society to the extent it serves their interests. A civil society agitating against an MDC-dominated government that restored private property rights, reversed Mugabe’s Look East and economic indigenization policies and opened the door to unfettered Western foreign investment, would soon discover it could no longer feed at the imperialist tit. For another, it would be the West, not Zimbabweans, who would be firmly in control of their country. While it would seem to be obvious, it’s worth pointing out that radical democracy, parecon, and even old-fashioned socialism are not projects that Western governments, banks and investors have an affinity for. Civil society may feel emboldened today, now that it can rely on a steady flow of lucre, grants, and assistance from Western agencies and foundations that sport high-sounding democracy-promotion names, but wait until the spigot gets turned off.

    In the meantime, you can be sure that Patrick will be happy to enlighten you on Gowans’ nonsense and utter crap, between collaborating with MDC officials on programs to educate progressives in the West on Zimbabwe. Send him or Grace Kwinjeh a note. I’m sure they’ll be happy to reply or to let you know when a foundation-paid speaking tour will be bringing them to your town.

    Stephen Gowans

  4. Footnote 2 refers to an article by Patrick Bond and Grace Kwinjeh posted at Z-Net titled “Zimbabwe’s political roller-coaster hits another deep dip,” March 11, 2008, http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2008-03/11bond-kwinjeh.cfm . The article refers to Kwinjeh as a South African-based Zimbabwean journalist.

    Kwinjeh’s blog, Kwinjehviews, http://gracekwinjeh.blogspot.com/ , however, reveals that Kwinjeh is not just a journalist; she is also “a founder member of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change, (MDC).” This is hardly an insignificant point, and that the Z-Net article omits this can only be regarded as a deliberate deception. It’s like a Johnson & Johnson sales represenative writing an aritcle on the merits of KY Jelly, and then presenting herself as a journalist who writes on healthcare products without acknoweldging who her employer is. (Would a reader think differently of what he read — or of Bond — knowing that the article’s co-author is an MDC founder?)

    From the point of view of Zimbabwean politics, the MDC is hardly neutral. Given its manifold connections to the US and British states, it’s hardly neutral, from the point of view of imperialism, either. That Bond should be associated with the deception — and with an MDC co-author — is not surprising. As one wag summed him up…Bond…Patrick Bond…of Her Majesty’s NGOs.

  5. Right wing forces may not particularly like civil society, but in the West, civil society’s emphasis on changing the world without taking power makes civil society fairly unthreatening to the status quo, and a good deal more attractive to conservative forces than left wing and socialist groups which have a vocation for governing.

    In places like Belarus, Venezuela, Iran, and Zimbabwe, where governments stand in the way of free trade, free enterprise and free markets, the hostility of civil society to the nation state is harnessed to bring down anti-foreign investment, anti-free trade, anti-free enterprise governments. Civil society doesn’t replace these governments; pro-West, pro-foreign investment, pro-free-trade governments do. I suspect that once pro-West governments take over in these places, Western support for civil society dries up.

    Many left and socialist groups have often been imperialist in deeds and only inconsistently anti-imperialist in words. For example, the British Labour Party is a nominally leftwing, and, at a certain point in its history, avowedly socialist party. Even today, most of its members consider themselves to be leftwing, and some see themselves as being socialists, and yet the Labour Party’s record in office is a decidedly pro-imperialist one. Indeed, the attitudes of many Labour Party members have always been, and remain, imperialist on a number of points. There are plenty of left-leaning Britons, and Americans too, who thoroughly oppose the war on and occupation of Iraq, yet support the war on and occupation of Afghanistan, even though the latter is no less imperialist than the former. The issue isn’t whether the groups employ a socialist or left-leaning rhetoric but whether their actions facilitate the domination of weaker countries by stronger ones.

    Western governments are happy to work through civil society in countries with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist governments to achieve open markets and opportunities for investment, and, in the West, to finance civil society to bleed support from leftist groups that challenge corporate domination of the state and seek to take power on behalf of subordinate classes. You don’t have to agree with someone, to work with them, or to use them. (Churchill didn’t like the Soviet Union, but was willing to work with it to achieve important goals.)


  6. This attack against me, once again, is a total fabrication. I do not and have never singled out leftist governments for criticism; a look at my collected writings show that 99% of my critical commentaries are in regard to the U.S. government and U.S.-backed regimes. I have supported anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements around the world. I have opposed the agenda of “wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments” and never implied they were in any way a “wellspring of hope.” I have never followed “State Department narratives.” I have never defended the practices of the NED, the USAID, or other government agencies.
    There are other lies and misleading statements in this latest missive as well, but readers are welcome to check out my web site if they have any doubts of where I’m coming from politically. I only wish I could be criticized about things I’ve really said and really believe in than have someone criticize stuff about me he simply made up.
    Finally, I don’t much about Patrick Bond, but I do know he is well-respected by South Africa progressives and I can only assume that Gowans is making up the accusations about him as well.

  7. Hello,

    I came to this site purely by chance (I’m certainly no marxist) and found it fascinating because the ubiquitous Civil Society which you write about is generally perceived by the ‘right’ as being a SOCIALIST agenda, designed to undermine the authority of the nation state. (The EU is very big on CS)
    Whats going on here?

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