Doing overtly what the CIA used to do covertly

By Stephen Gowans

Stephen Zunes continues to complain about what he calls unfair attacks from critics who, he says, lie about him and the work of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, headed up by Wall Street investment banker, Council on Foreign Relations member, and Freedom House supremo, Peter Ackerman.

Zunes doesn’t respond to all attacks – only those that offer him room to exercise his talents for diversion, demolition of straw men, forensic sleight of hand, appeal to authority, invoking of honorific titles (it’s Dr. Ackerman by the way), red herrings and the trotting out of his progressive credentials. In marketing it’s called blowing smoke.

Zunes writes a lot in reply to critics but steers clear of the main criticisms. When challenged to talk about what he’s doing today, he talks about what he did yesterday. When criticized for his current links to ruling class regime change organizations, he tells us he opposed apartheid and Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia. In all of this, what he doesn’t say directly is that he has no trouble with US regime change efforts – he just doesn’t always agree with the methods.

Zunes isn’t only a target of criticism; he doles out his fair share, too. Those who say nonviolent democracy activists are agents of imperialism, simply because they’re funded by imperialist governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals, are wrong. They’re promoting a conspiracy theory, he says. Foreign-funded “grassroots” activist groups have arisen spontaneously, and would have arisen in the absence of foreign funding. Besides, the funding they receive is too insignificant to make much of a difference. Those who try to discredit these groups by pointing to the groups’ sources of foreign funding are either misguided or lying.

If this is true, Zunes ought to lead a delegation to Washington to ask the NED, USAID, and USIA to stop giving money to regime change groups and media abroad. If the money makes little difference anyway and only brings these groups into disrepute and hands the local government an excuse to crackdown, surely the wisest course is to use the money for something truly progressive – like helping the victims of New Orleans, building decent inner city schools and funding a public health-care program, rather than squandering it abroad where it’s not needed. After that, he might set up meetings with Peter Ackerman, George Soros, Britain’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Canada’s Rights and Democracy, and Germany’s Heinrich Boll and Friedrich Ebert Foundations, to explain that the money they’re spending on regime change operations has little effect.

Zunes rails against the democracy promotion hypocrisy of Washington and says he works of behalf of democracy, whether it’s in Washington’s interests or not. But he fails to come to grips with the reality that nonviolent democracy promotion’s successes have come in countries where the local government is resisting being pulled into the US imperial orbit, never where it is already doing Washington’s budding. Were he to do so he would have to acknowledge that no matter what his intentions or positions on apartheid, Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia and the US invasion of Iraq are, the effects of his actions are decidedly pro-imperialist.

Another thing. Someone ought to explain to Zunes that overthrowing a government nonviolently to impose foreign domination is as imperialist as doing the same with tanks, guns and cruise missiles. What’s at issue isn’t how the struggle is carried out, but why it’s carried out, who’s directing it, and who benefits.

Zunes travels aboard to train non-violent democracy activists. Does he use his own money to finance these trips? Do the groups he brings his missionary zeal to pass around a tattered hat to raise the funds to avail themselves of his expertise? Or is the tab picked up by the same wealthy individuals, corporate foundations and imperialist governments Zunes says are an unavoidable reality of capitalist society, that realists, like himself, have learned to compromise with?

As to his expertise, does he have a track record at home that qualifies him to train people abroad? Where are the homegrown nonviolent democracy activists he’s trained who have accomplished anything of significance? Have they made even the slightest dent in the vast US war machine, slowed, even for the briefest moment, the juggernaut of US imperialism, or advanced, even one iota, the project of ending the exploitation of man by man? Given that the challenges loom so large at home, and that, in his view, pro-democracy regime change groups are popping up spontaneously all over the world, and don’t need US funding and expertise to be successful, you would think Zunes would be busily working at home, rather than jetting off to someone else’s country to do missionary work for his corporate patrons.

Why does Zunes travel abroad anyway? Are foreigners incapable of organizing their own nonviolent opposition, in the same way, according to Washington, Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans, Haitians and on and on are incapable of organizing their own police, military, elections and political system? How is it that in so many countries the talent to undertake basic political functions is absent, residing, it seems, exclusively in the US, Britain and other countries of the Anglo-American orbit? The dispatching of experts (the new missionaries) to organize political life in other countries is as much a part of imperialism as dispatching troops to topple governments. Zunes might reply that the ignorant of foreign lands, thirsty for democracy, asked for his expertise, but so too does Washington say Iraqis and Afghans, thirsty for democracy, asked to be occupied.

Zunes is no anti-imperialist. If the NED does overtly what the CIA used to do covertly, Zunes does overtly what CIA agents used to do covertly. But it’s not too late. If Zunes wants to become a true anti-imperialist, he should:

(i) resign his position as chair of the board of academic advisors to the ICNC and abjure all current and future connections to corporate and imperialist government-funded regime change organizations;
(ii) stay at home. Contrary to the paternalistic ideology that pervades the larger part of the progressive community, foreigners are indeed capable of organizing their own political affairs;
(iii) devote his energies, not to working with wealthy individuals, corporate foundations and imperialistic governments, but to working to change the system of which wealthy individuals, corporations and imperialistic governments are the masters and beneficiaries. This would truly do something to promote substantive democracy, not the hollow corporate brand Zunes does missionary work on behalf of today, as his CIA predecessors once did covertly not so long ago.

European Universalism

By Stephen Gowans

“The intellectual justifications that Sepulveda gave in the 16th century to justify the conquests of the Indian lands are,” says Immanuel Wallerstein, “almost word for word, the same ones used for colonization, and the ones that are given today for what is called intervention.” He continues: “At that time, it concerned evangelization and the expansion of Christendom. Today, these values are ‘freedom and democracy.’ But they are in fact the same thing.” (1)

George Bush, in his own way, underscores Wallerstein’s point. Freedom and democracy, he writes in his 2002 National Security Strategy, “are right and true for every person, in every society – and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people.” (2)

Stephen Zunes strays only millimeters from Bush’s universalism. “The best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world’s remaining autocratic states,” he writes, “comes from civil society, not the U.S. government.” (3)

The problem is that in what Zunes and the U.S. government call the world’s last remaining autocratic countries, the U.S. government and civil society are the same. In these places, explains the U.S. Department of State in a 2007 report, the U.S. financially supports “the efforts of civil society to create and defend democratic space”. It funds “international and local NGO programs that [promote] a wide variety of causes, including social welfare, democratic processes, human rights, peace-building, women’s and youth empowerment, and public advocacy.” And it supports “the efforts of the political opposition, the media, and civil society.” (4) That makes Zunes’ “best hope for advancing freedom and democracy” and Patrick Bond’s and Grace Kwinjeh’s “wellspring of hope” (5) functionally equivalent to the U.S. government and the corporate board members, corporate lawyers and investment bankers who dominate it.

Kwinjeh, a founding member of Zimbabwe’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and a regular guest on the U.S. government sponsored propaganda Voice of America radio show, Studio 7, is a beneficiary of the U.S. government’s support for the political opposition, the media and civil society in Zimbabwe.

Not without chutzpah, Kwinjeh presents herself as an “independent” journalist. Her co-author Bond, likewise celebrates civil society groups that are on the U.S. payroll as an “independent” left.

In their lexicon, “independent” means: not aligned with the “autocratic state” the U.S. is trying to bring its universalist values of freedom and democracy to — on behalf of corporations, investors and banks.

Janet Cherry is another universalist. She too believes that the countries the U.S. government calls the world’s last autocracies are indeed the world’s last autocracies and that civil society is the best hope for advancing the values of freedom and democracy in these places. She appears in the film “A Force More Powerful,” a celebration of civil society’s power to change the world. The film’s editor and content advisor was universalist Peter Ackerman, an investment banker who made a fortune on Wall Street and has authored a companion book by the same name. Ackerman heads up Freedom House, an organization which describes itself as “a voice for freedom and democracy around the world,” and whose directors have included cabinet members from previous U.S. administrations – they too mainly corporate board members, corporate lawyers and investment bankers like Ackerman. Ackerman also founded the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, which has been involved in training activists to bring down governments that refuse to do the bidding of the U.S. (the last autocracies of the world), including the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Latter day Sepulveda Stephen Zunes, who wants to use civil society to advance the universalist values of freedom and democracy, is the ICNC’s chair of the board of academic advisors. (6) Ackerman is also a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. ruling class organization dominated by directors of major U.S. corporations, corporate lawyers and CEOs. The CFR brings together executives, government and military officials and scholars to provide policy advice to the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. government advances its foreign policy goals under the guise of promoting freedom and democracy. “The name for our profits,” remarked singer-songwriter Phil Ochs in the 60s, “is democracy.” Were he alive today, he might say, “The name for our profits is civil society.”

Cherry wrote me to defend Zunes and Patrick Bond. She capped off her remarks with this: “As for Otpor – well, if only the opposition movements in Zimbabwe, both political parties and civil society, could organize as efficiently! Sometimes it is necessary to step back from self-righteous leftist rhetoric, take some action to break the impasse, and get rid of the dictator. Then ordinary people can, though ordinary democratic processes, find their own way forward.” (7)

Otpor was a youth group funded by the U.S. government and trained by Robert Helvey, an associate of Stephen Zunes, to work with NATO bombing and economic sanctions to bring down the Milosevic government in Yugoslavia. After getting rid of the elected “dictator,” Otpor failed to help the ordinary people of the former Yugoslavia find their way forward. Unemployment soared; publicly and socially-owned assets were privatized. Nato had signaled its intention to privatize the Yugoslav economy in the appendices of the 1999 Rambouillet Accord, which the Milosevic government rejected. The next day, Nato began a 78-day campaign of bombing.

Ackerman and others celebrated the ouster of Milosevic in the film “Bringing Down a Dictator,” attributing the fall of the Yugoslav president to a grassroots movement that practiced nonviolent direct action to bring “freedom and democracy” to one of Europe’s last “autocratic states.” The role of the U.S. government in engineering the possibility of an uprising by creating misery through economic sanctions and military intervention, its efforts to shape public opinion inside Yugoslavia by funding anti-Milosevic media, and its bankrolling of the opposition and Otpor, were skipped over.

“A Force More Powerful” and “Bringing Down a Dictator,” are useful for conservative forces at home. They create the illusion that the civil society-based nonviolent direct action that appears to work abroad can work anywhere to bring about social change. Scholars associated with Z-Net are advocates of this view.

But while seemingly effective outside the West, there are significant differences that make the model’s effectiveness in the West approximately zero.

1. Absence of funding. Civil society has been able to play a role in bringing down governments outside the West because it has been richly funded by wealthy individuals, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments. The same sources of funding are not available to groups and individuals in the West prepared to challenge the funders’ dominant positions. Reebok, an employer of sweatshop labor, will finance a human rights award and give it to Janet Cherry to burnish its image, but Reebok isn’t going to give money to groups or individuals working to overthrow the systemic imperatives that produce sweatshops. Ackerman won’t help nonviolent activists expropriate his wealth.

2. Public opinion. Outside the West, civil society has operated in a public opinion milieu shaped by wealthy individuals, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments through their funding of “independent” media inside target countries and propaganda broadcasts originating from outside. Independent media that seek to shape public opinion against wealthy individuals and corporations at home will never have access to the same funding and will never achieve the same volume and critical mass. It’s easier to rise up against a “dictator” when the information environment is shaped to portray the country’s leadership as autocratic and when “independent” media call for an uprising. Any media in the West that called for an uprising at home would remain perpetually under-funded and unable to achieve sufficient volume to persuade more than a handful of people.

3. Absence of external pressure. It is the explicit strategy of Washington to apply pressure to populations of target countries through economic warfare and military aggression. The intention is to create growing misery, if not to provoke a crisis, to prepare the ground for an uprising from within. While Western countries aren’t immune to growing misery or crisis, they are immune to growing misery and crisis engineered from outside.

In the absence of funding, a sympathetic media to shape public opinion, and growing pressure on the population created by economic warfare and military aggression – all necessary conditions whose creation depends on access to resources commanded by wealthy individuals, corporations, and imperialist governments – decentralized, civil society-guided nonviolent direct action becomes a means for diverting energy for change into safe and inconsequential avenues.

As a mechanism for political change, civil society works when backed by military force, economic warfare, a sympathetic media and oodles of cash, but when these conditions exist, its purpose is to advance the interests of those who have established the conditions for its effectiveness. At these times, civil society marches under the flag of European universalism, its foot soldiers draw their pay from foreign governments, and its generals sit on the boards of foreign foundations. At all other times, it is a force less powerful.

1. Olivier Doubre, “European Universalism Is Used to Justify Imperialism: An Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein,” MRZINE, March 26, 2008,
2. George W. Bush, National Security Strategy, September 20, 2002.
3. Stephen Zunes, “Nonviolent action and pro-democracy struggles,” Z-Net, February 17, 2008.
4. U.S. Department of State’s account of its promotion of freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe, April 5, 2007.
5. Patrick Bond and Grace Kwinjeh, “Zimbabwe’s political roller-coaster hits another deep dip,” Z-Net, March 11, 2008, .
6. See .
7. Comment March 27, 2008 in response to Stephen Gowans, “Mugabe vote rigging allegations,” March 27, 2008.

State, media, and NGOs collaborate in shaping public opinion on upcoming Zimbabwe elections

By Stephen Gowans

A New York Times story published three days before elections in Zimbabwe provides an interesting illustration of how the state and mass media cooperate with agents on the ground to shape public opinion.

The aim of the March 26, 2008 article, titled “Hope and Fear for Zimbabwe Vote,” is to discredit the elections that the current president, Robert Mugabe, seems likely to win, in order to justify continuing efforts to replace Mugabe and his policies of land reform and economic indigenization with the pro-foreign investment, pro-private property policies of the US- and EU-backed Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe’s main opposition party.

Mugabe has provoked the ire of corporate executives, investment bankers, and those who have taken a leadership role in representing Western upper class interests by taking measures to invest Zimbabwe’s national liberation project with real content. His government expropriated the farms of white settlers and their descendants for distribution to the landless poor after former colonial power Britain reneged on promises to finance land redistribution.

Now the ZANU-PF government is proposing to place majority ownership of the country’s resources in the hands of indigenous Zimbabweans.

It’s all part of a program to achieve real national independence by turning Zimbabweans into owners of their own land and natural resources.

Zimbabwe has barred election monitors from the US and EU, but will allow observers from Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, South Africa and the Southern African Development Community to monitor the vote.

The barring of Western observers is pointed to as indirect evidence of vote rigging. After all, if Zimbabwe has nothing to hide, why won’t it admit observers from Europe and the US?

At the same time, it’s suggested that Zimbabwe is only allowing observers from friendly countries because they will bless the elections automatically.

By the same logic, one would expect that a negative evaluation is foreordained from observers representing unfriendly countries, especially those whose official policy is to replace the current government. Indeed, it is this fear that has led Harare to ban Western monitors.

With Western observers unable to monitor the elections directly, governments in North America and Europe are left with a public relations dilemma. How can they declare the vote fraudulent, if they haven’t observed it?

To get around this difficulty, the US, Britain and other Western countries have provided grants to Zimbabweans on the ground to monitor the vote. These Zimbabweans, part of civil society, declare themselves to be independent “non-governmental” observers, and prepare to render a foreordained verdict that the elections are rigged. Cooperating in the deception, the Western media amplifies their voices as “independent” experts on the ground.

The US Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy — an organization that does overtly what the CIA used to do covertly — has provided grants to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network “to train and organize 240 long-term elections observers throughout Zimbabwe.”

The NED is also connected to the Media Monitoring Project through the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, which it funds, and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which is funded by Britain’s NED equivalent, the Westminster Foundation.

The Media Monitoring Project calls itself independent, but is connected to the US and British governments, and to billionaire speculator George Soros’s Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

When the New York Times needed Zimbabweans on the ground to comment on the upcoming election, its reporters turned to representatives of these two NGOs.

Noel Kututwa, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, told the newspaper that his group would be using “sampling techniques to assess the accuracy of the results announced nationally.”

Yet, Mr. Kututwa also told the newspaper that, “We will not have a free and fair election.” If Kututwa has already decided the election will be unfair and coerced, why bother assessing its accuracy?

Andrew Moyse, a regular commentator on Studio 7, an anti-Mugabe radio station sponsored by the US government’s propaganda arm, Voice of America, is quoted in the same article.

“Even if Mugabe only gets one vote,” Mr. Moyse opines, “the tabulated results are in the box and he has won.”

Moyse, on top of acting as a US mouthpiece on Voice of America, heads up the Media Monitoring Project. While part of the NGO election observer team the US and EU are relying on on the ground, he’s already decided the vote is rigged.

Kutatwa and Moyse are the only experts the New York Times cited in its story on the upcoming elections.

Both represent NGOs funded by hostile governments whose official policy is to replace Robert Mugabe and his government’s land reform and economic indigenization policies.

Both present themselves as independent election monitors, though they can hardly be independent of their sources of foreign government and foundation funding.

Both have declared in advance of the election that the vote will not be free and fair and that the tabulated results are already in the box.

Their foreordained conclusions happen to be the same conclusions their sponsors in the US and Britain are looking for, to obtain the consent of a confused public to intervene vigorously in Zimbabwe’s affairs.

It’s a symbiotic collaboration of media, state, and NGOs on the ground.

The target is public opinion, and ultimately, the poor of the world, and their struggles to break free from centuries of oppression.

(References to follow)

Who is Grace Kwinjeh (and why did Patrick Bond co-author an article with her)?

By Stephen Gowans

Patrick Bond and Grace Kwinjeh wrote on article on March 11 for Z-Net on the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe. Titled “Zimbabwe’s political roller-coaster hits another deep dip,” the article took the current government to task, predicted a Robert Mugabe victory “by hook or crook,” and declared civil society to be Zimbabwe’s “main wellspring of hope.”

Civil Society Center director Patrick Bond (as in Bond…Patrick Bond…of Her Majesty’s NGOs, as one wag put it) has been lambasting the Mugabe government for years as a self-declared “independent” left voice on Zimbabwe. Bond’s independence includes celebrating activist groups that receive US government funding as part of the West’s regime change program in Zimbabwe.

But who is Bond’s co-author, Grace Kwinjeh?

Kwinjeh is listed at the end of the duo’s article as a South African-based Zimbabwean journalist. But according to Kwinjeh’s blog, Kwinjehviews, Bond’s co-author is also “a founder member of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change, (MDC)” who “spent some time in Belgium as the MDC Representative to the EU.” At one point, Kwinjeh was the deputy secretary for international relations in the Morgan Tsvangirai-led Movement for Democratic Change. (She also says she is a South African-based Zimbabwean journalist. Since this matches the brief bio provided at the end of the Bond-Kwinjeh Z-Net article, I assume Bond’s Grace Kwinjeh is also Tsvangirai’s Grace Kwinjeh.)

Inasmuch as Kwinjeh’s and Bond’s analysis of the upcoming elections is highly critical of the current Zimbabwean government, it is hardly an insignificant point that Kwinjeh fails to disclose her connection to the MDC. This is tantamount to an IBM employee writing a scathing review of Mac computers and then presenting herself as a technology journalist without acknowledging her connection to IBM.

It’s no less significant that Patrick Bond should be caught up in the deception, given his history of promoting “independent” left voices that are hardly independent (and does so once again.) But, then, maybe that’s what a civil society center director does. See Talk Left, Funded Right.

The MDC, which soon became the favored party of white farmers in Zimbabwe, has manifold connections to the US and British states and EU. The leader of the MDC faction Kwinjeh was deputy secretary of international relations for, Morgan Tsvangirai, worries in the Wall Street Journal about the effect the current government’s land reform policies have had on foreign investor confidence, and favors a policy in which Zimbabweans compensate settlers and their descendants for land taken from them and never paid for in the first place. This is akin to insisting you pay a thief for the return of the goods he stole from your house.

The issue, here, however, isn’t the MDC’s politics, but the deception and Bond’s part in it. Readers of Kwinjeh and Bond ought to be aware that they’re being bamboozled when either writer says or implies he or she is providing an independent left perspective. Kwinjeh should acknowledge her ties to the US- and EU-backed MDC. As for Bond, he should stop misrepresenting groups and individuals linked to corporations, capitalist foundations, and imperialist governments as an “independent” left.

Reply to Zunes on 10 Rules for Understanding Civil Society Imperialism

Stephen Zunes has written a brief reply to my last article, 10 Rules for Understanding Civil Society Imperialism, which you can read here. The following is my response.


Let me address your points one by one.

1.You say: “I do not and have never singled out leftist governments for criticism.”

I guess that depends on what you consider a leftist government to be. I would surmise that your definition is different from mine. If I said, “You criticized government x,” you would reply, “But government x isn’t leftist.” You’re using a difference of opinion about what a leftist government is, to construct a straw man.

2. You say: “I have supported anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements around the world.”

I’m sure you have supported some anti-imperialist and some anti-capitalist movements around the world, but who says you haven’t? My comments concerned anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist governments, not movements. I suspect you haven’t supported anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements that take up arms, but that’s another matter.

3. You say: “I have opposed the agenda of ‘wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments’”.

I’ve never said you haven’t, but some would say you certainly haven’t opposed the agenda of Peter Ackerman as it relates to the ICNC and you certainly didn’t oppose USIP when you accepted a USIP research fellowship (i). These are good points, but they’re not my points and they’re hardly necessary points. Churchill opposed the agenda of the Soviet Union, but that didn’t stop him from working with it.

The issues, here, are: (1) Are you willing to take money from one or more of: wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments? And (2): Are wealthy individuals, corporations, capitalist foundations and imperialist governments willing to give you money to oppose their interests? The answer to the first question, judging by your comments on an earlier article of mine, is yes (ii); the second question can only be answered in the affirmative by the deluded or naïve.

4.You say: “I have never implied that (wealthy individuals, corporations…) were in any way a “wellspring of hope.”

Who said you had? The “wellsprings of hope” reference was to civil society (and Patrick Bond’s and Grace Kwinjeh’s description of it), not to the funders of civil society.

5. You say: “I have never ‘followed State Department’ narratives.”

I guess it depends on what you mean by “followed.” Maybe we should call it a case of simultaneous multiple invention. You can be Wallace to the State Department’s Darwin. The State Department talks about “democracy” and “freedom” in the abstract. You talk about “democracy” and “freedom” in the abstract. The State Department talks about Belarus as a dictatorship. You talk about Belarus as a dictatorship. The State Department talks about Zimbabwe as a dictatorship. You talk about Zimbabwe as a dictatorship. And so on. (iii)

But maybe I’m being too charitable. I’ve assumed you’ve aped the State Department narrative on places like Zimbabwe, Belarus and Iran because it’s easy to do. Perhaps I should be complaining about your false allegations and total fabrications about these governments.

6. You say: “I have never defended the practices of the NED, the USAID or other government agencies.”

Who says you have? Patrick Bond is wont to celebrate groups that receive NED funding as an “independent” left. I’m not sure whether that counts as defending the practices of the NED, but I have no information on your attitude toward these organizations. Accordingly, I have nothing to say about it. Claiming I have is (to use your language) a total fabrication.

7. You say: “I only wish I could be criticized about the things I’ve really said.”

If I said all the things you say I’ve said about you, I too would say they were total fabrications. But alas I haven’t said these things. You’re either misreading what I’ve written or you’re raising the straw man to an art form.

Stephen Gowans

(i) See point 11of your “A Reply to Stephen Gowans’ False Allegations Against Stephen Zunes” .

(ii) Ibid. You write: “The unfortunate reality in capitalist societies is that most non-profit organizations — from universities to social justice organizations to art galleries to peace groups (and ICNC as well) — depend at least in part on donations from wealthy individuals and from foundations which get their money from wealthy individuals.”

(iii) You write, “The best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world’s remaining autocratic states comes from civil society” and “Similar claims heard today that the United States is somehow a major force behind contemporary popular movements against dictatorships in Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Belarus or that the United States was somehow responsible for the successes of previous movements in Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine are equally ludicrous.” “Nonviolent action and pro-democracy struggles,” .

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,

2. Patrick Bond and Grace Kwinjeh, “Zimbabwe’s political roller-coaster hits another deep dip,” March 11, 2008,

3. Michael Barker, “Nonviolent Imperialism: A Major Revision,” March 10, 2008,