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The Nonprofit-Corporate Complex

An Integral Component and Driving Force of Imperialism in the Phase of Monopoly-Finance Capitalism

Efe Can Gürcan is a PhD Candidate in sociology at Simon Fraser University. He is the co-author of Challenging Neoliberalism at Turkey’s Gezi Park (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

According to Michał Kalecki, the imperialist system of the Keynesian era rested on a triangular structure that was composed of (a) state-financed military production (i.e., the military-corporate complex, often called the “military-industrial complex”), (b) media propaganda (media-corporate complex), and (c) a putative full-employment/welfare-oriented superstructure (Keynesianism) underpinned by the war machine, serving to justify it.1 Building on Kalecki’s work, John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney provided an updated version of the theory of imperialism of the monopoly-capital tradition by laying emphasis on the primary role of the above triangle in the restructuring and preservation of the contemporary imperialist system.2 Expanding on their work, I argue that one of the most significant changes in the triangular structure of contemporary imperialism is in its third pillar, particularly with the abandonment of the welfare-oriented paradigm and the adoption of the neoliberal globalization project.

Here the questions are: What has filled the empty place left by the demise of full-employment/welfare-oriented Keynesianism? How has it been possible to sustain such an imperialist system that fails to address the problems of unemployment and declining standards of living? How does the implicit threat posed by globalization reinforce a new neoliberal dialectic of militarism accompanied by accumulation by dispossession?

The first part of this article presents the imperialism theory of the monopoly-capital school and provides a short discussion regarding the recent metamorphosis of imperialism under financialization and neoliberalization. The second part offers a theoretical and empirical analysis of the development of the nonprofit-corporate complex as an integral component and driving force of contemporary neoliberal imperialism.

The Metamorphosis of Monopoly Capital and the Restructuring of the Triangular Structure of Imperialism

It is useful to distinguish between two turning points in the post-Second World War imperialist system, each with roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first was the decline of British hegemony over the capitalist world economy and the ascendancy of the United States, particularly following the Second World War.3 The rise of U.S. hegemony coincided with the establishment of the Bretton Woods institutions: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. Also using militaristic means and strategies, the United States prioritized the opening up of investment opportunities for U.S. corporations by facilitating their access to natural resources in the world economy. In other words, the hegemonic and military tools of U.S. imperialism have been used to increase the international competitiveness and profits of U.S. monopoly capital.4

The second turning point was the financialization and neoliberalization of the world economy, which gained steam in the 1980s under the leadership of the United States.5 Theorists of monopoly capitalism argue that the general economic tendency of late capitalism leans toward stagnation, chiefly because of a shortage of profitable investment opportunities. Due to the slowing down of economic growth throughout the 1970s, financialization and neoliberalism—the latter as the political counterpart of the former—emerged as partial solutions to late capitalism’s stagnation problem. Control over the economy shifted from corporate boards to financial markets, which made the world economy increasingly dependent on financial bubbles. Financialization, the speculative expansion of debt in relation to the economy as a whole, was increasingly institutionalized as a way of amassing wealth and indirectly spurring capital accumulation. Yet financialization is not in itself able to overcome the stagnation tendency, and overlays new contradictions on top of the underlying problem of overaccumulation. As Foster and Fred Magdoff demonstrate, financialization has not altered the real essence of the system at this stage, which manifests itself in the growth of monopoly capitalism as the dominant form of capital. The result is simply a new hybrid system of monopoly-finance capital.6

The theory of monopoly capitalism places a strong emphasis on the fact that imperialism—the system in its full global dimensions—constitutes a historical/structural formation that transcends the individual policies of certain states or the personality of policymakers.7 Drawing on Kalecki’s work, Foster, Holleman, and McChesney argued that the historically embedded structure of the imperialist system rested on three key and complementary pillars that allowed monopoly capital to retain and enhance control over raw materials and labor in peripheral areas and to generate surplus-absorption opportunities: the military-corporate complex, media-corporate complex, and the Keynesian employment/welfare state.8

As far as the military-corporate complex is concerned, Foster, Holleman, and McChesney pointed out that U.S. military spending is greater than that of any other country or group of countries. Between 2001 and 2007, U.S. national defense spending soared by 60 percent in real dollar terms, reaching a level of $553 billion (in acknowledged military spending), while today it has risen to more than a trillion dollars.9 This is a chief indicator of the extent to which military and corporate sectors are intertwined within the U.S. state and economy.

To further complement this analysis, I suggest it is useful to distinguish between three main factors that lead to the formation and consolidation of the military-corporate complex: (a) the desire of U.S. monopoly capital to achieve world domination, (b) the scientific and technical revolution of the post-Second World War era that enhanced military production, and (c) the growing coalescence of U.S. monopoly capital and state elites.10

It is equally important to recognize two major complications caused by the aforementioned factors. First, to the extent that the military-corporate complex tends to be technologically intensive, it loses its employment stimulating effect. Second, following the disappearance of the USSR, the United States, as the sole remaining superpower has resorted to more naked, militarist and imperialist strategies in areas formerly within or near the Soviet sphere of influence. This aggressive recourse to militarism and war to extend geopolitical control can be seen as an attempt to check the decline of the global hegemony of the United States in the economic sphere. It can thus be readily perceived as a new imperial project in which the United States is seeking to use military power, the financial supremacy of the dollar, and other means (such as neoliberal policy and trade negotiations) to once again enhance its economic hegemony.11

Today’s military-corporate complex is an institutionalized reality inherent in capitalism’s own development and the particular political-economic context by which capitalism is shaped.12 According to István Mészáros, the military aspects of today’s imperialism are one of the most crucial components of monopoly capitalism. Considering the current state of military technology:

We have entered the most dangerous phase of imperialism in all history. For what is at stake today is not the control of a particular part of the planet, but the control of its totality by one hegemonic economic and military superpower, with all means—even the most extreme authoritarian and, if needed, violent military ones. This is what the ultimate rationality of globally developed capital requires.13

As for the media-corporate complex, Foster, Holleman, and McChesney contend that U.S. corporate-imperial media is among the primary beneficiaries of the U.S.-led neoliberal globalization—as their revenues outside the United States soar and as the government itself lends support to media monopolies in trade deals and intellectual property agreements. The essential role of the media-corporate complex consists of the depoliticization of the masses as well as the provision of ideological support for the U.S. war machine through all sorts of propaganda.14

As Peter Philips remarks, the U.S. media industry is being increasingly centralized and monopolized by less than a dozen media corporations that dominate the worldwide flow of news. The board members of the largest eleven media corporations in the United States (a total of 155 people) are intertwined with the top echelons of monopoly-finance capital, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other key sectors of the state apparatus.15 To the extent that the media is being increasingly monopolized—which the growth of the Internet has only accelerated—entertainment and news services are being intertwined to multiply profits of these global corporations at unseen levels, as perfectly exemplified in the case of Time Warner Inc., one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, whose reach includes television and film production, publishing, and cable channel services.16 As such, the media-corporate complex expresses itself most clearly in the extensive use of media during such “humanitarian” wars of aggression as NATO’s war against Yugoslavia, in the course of which Serbs were stigmatized and then assaulted, and the Iraq Wars, the most widely televised (and media-sanitized) wars in history. The media-corporate complex is also playing a role in weakening the so-called “rogue states” such as Venezuela and Cuba.

The eradication of Keynesian strategies (i.e., retreat of the state from civilian-employment promotion) and the insertion of neoliberalism into the imperialist agenda paved the way for the weakening of state autonomy vis-à-vis monopoly capitalism. The space left by the elimination of Keynesian state policy is thereby filled by a neoliberal development paradigm that brings to the forefront the nonprofit sector as a site for social engineering and the financialization of wider social spheres. Accordingly, a nonprofit-corporate complex (based in international non-governmental organizations, NGOs) dominating an array of social services, many of which were performed by the state in the past, emerged as the third pillar of the triangular structure of contemporary imperialism during the 1980s. It represents a kind of “Third Way” on the part of capital that privatizes state functions and occupies key strategic points within civil society (co-opting social movements) while seemingly outside the realm of private capital—thereby enabling an acceleration of privatization and reinforcing the hegemony of monopoly-finance capital globally.

According to Mészáros, the contradiction between the globalizing tendencies of monopoly capital and the continuing dominance of nation-states in the political field represents one of the most important limitations of contemporary imperialism.

We have reached a new historical stage in the transnational development of capital: one in which it is no longer possible to avoid facing up to a fundamental contradiction and structural limitation of the system. That limitation is its grave failure to constitute the state of the capitalist system as such, as complementary to its transnational aspirations and articulation, so as to overcome the explosive antagonisms between national states that have characterized the system in constantly aggravated form in the last two centuries.17

The nonprofit-corporate complex, which has arisen in this context, is dominated internationally by NGOs. Occupying a space marked by the absence of the state, it has become another vehicle for attempting to resolve on capital’s terms the contradiction between the globalizing tendencies of monopoly capital and the continuing centrality of nation-states—by substituting for certain aspects of the latter.

It is possible to associate the global NGO boom with a spectacular increase in U.S. funding to the nonprofit-corporate complex. The OECD data indicate that U.S. official development assistance fluctuated from over $3 billion in 1970 to more than $7 billion in 1980, $11 billion in 1990, $9 billion in 2000, and $30 billion in 2013, as net disbursements in current U.S. dollars.18 Similarly, total U.S. disbursements for U.S., non-U.S., and international NGOs increased by over 130 percent, from more than $2 billion to $5 billion (in current U.S. dollars) between 2001 and 2012.19

In his 2007 book entitled The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union, Mark MacKinnon traces the emergence of the nonprofit-corporate complex back to the Reagan administration and the prolonged effort of U.S.-centered monopoly capital to destabilize the Soviet Union and East European socialist regimes. MacKinnon claims that the George Soros Foundation and National Endowment for Democracy can be seen among the major actors in the formation of the nonprofit-corporate complex. Furthermore, he provides evidence of how Soros financially supported Solidarność, one of the major actors that served to weaken the socialist regime, along with Charter 77, one of the leading forces of the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution in 1989. The Soros Foundation’s dedication of millions of dollars to publishing non-Marxist textbooks and supporting Alexander Yakovlev is noteworthy as an indication of the development of the nonprofit-corporate complex.

These methods were replicated in the overthrow of the Slobodan Milošević government in Serbia (during which the Soros-funded Otpor! became an emblematic model of mobilization for regime change) and many other governments during the Color Revolutions in the former socialist countries throughout the 2000s. As depicted in Tamara Vukov’s interviews with Serbian NGO activists, it is conspicuous that Western NGO funding came with bags of cash rather than legitimate bank transfers, with the sole condition of engaging in anti-Milošević actions. Donors cut funding of those who wanted to diversify their actions toward larger issues, including human rights, education, and the judiciary. Moreover, project-based funding served to divert the attention of Serbian NGOs from longer-term strategies to short-term goals compatible with capitalist market adaptation.20

The National Endowment for Democracy is another important actor in the development of the nonprofit-corporate complex, associated with NGOs. It was created in 1982 as a nonprofit- and government-funded organization aimed at countering the spread of communism in the world with an annual budget of $18 million, which would reach a sum of $80 million in the first decade of this century. It contributed funds to the strengthening of such organizations as the Andrei Sakharov Institute, the Center for Democracy, Charter 77, and Solidarność, focusing on mobilizing dissidents to socialist regimes. Similarly, it supports the destabilizing efforts of dissidents in such countries as Venezuela and Cuba.21 The track record of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is no less impressive. The WikiLeaks documents and many other credible sources have unveiled how USAID as a “civilian foreign aid agency” transferred millions of dollars to Cuban and Venezuelan NGOs for pro-U.S. regime change.22

The Nonprofit/NGO-Corporate Complex in Theory and Practice

The nonprofit-corporate complex has established itself, in a variety of ways, as an integral component and driving force of today’s imperialism under U.S.-led monopoly finance-capital. It is worthwhile to consider how this NGO-imperial complex emerged and became entrenched in different parts of the world. Dylan Rodríguez defines the nonprofit-corporate complex as “the set of symbiotic relationships that link together political and financial technologies of state and owning-class proctorship and surveillance over public political discourse, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements, since the mid-1970s.”23 The nonprofit-corporate complex appeared as a response to the spread of revolutionary movements in 1968 and the rise of radical social movements—antiwar, women’s liberation, and queer liberation—throughout the 1970s.24 Rodríguez argues that the nonprofit-corporate complex is the “velvet purse of state repression.” It implicitly fosters the institutionalization of relations of dominance. He reveals how foundation-funded liberal-left organizations became co-opted by the state and transformed into non-antagonistic social service and pro-state reformist agencies that filled the empty space left by the decline of the welfare state.25

Under the nonprofit-corporate complex, the absorption of radical movements is ensured through the establishment of patronage relationships between the state and/or private capital and social movements. Ideological repression and institutional subordination is based on “a bureaucratized management of fear that mitigates against the radical break with owning-class capital (read: foundation support) and hegemonic common sense (read: law and order).”26 The crucial involvement of monopoly capital (for example, by the Mellon, Ford, and Soros foundations) in the nonprofit sector helps transform “political resistance projects into quasi-entrepreneurial, corporate-style ventures.”27 The net worth of such foundations rose by 400 percent between 1981 and 1996, to $200 billion in total.28 “In 2000, nonprofits controlled over $1.59 trillion in financial assets and had expenditures of over $822 billion.”29

The role of corporate foundations in the development of the nonprofit-corporate complex has become more important and pronounced. Christine Ahn explains that “with few exceptions, foundation trustees are extensions of America’s banks, brokerage houses, law firms, universities and businesses.”30 She also points out that the boards and staffs of most philanthropic foundations are composed of white, middle-aged, and upper-class individuals, who openly undermine the public accountability of foundations. Just twelve of the most prominent conservative foundations “controlled over $1.1 billion in assets and awarded $300 million in grants from 1992 to 1994.”31 Research, twenty years ago in 1995, indicated that “conservative multi-issue policy institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, the Cato Institute, and Citizens for a Sound Economy already had a collective revenue base of over $77 million.”32 The Heritage Foundation alone received over $28 million in grants from numerous conservative foundations from 1999 to 2001.

Liberal foundations (such as the Rockefeller, Ford, and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations) are at the forefront in advancing the neoliberal imperial agenda. The role of the Rockefeller Foundation in promoting the so-called Green Revolution of agribusiness is exemplary of the ways in which liberal foundations work.33 Such foundations have played a key role in a worldwide strategy of implementing neoliberal schooling, designed to restructure education at all levels on corporate lines, with high levels of standardization, job control over teachers, and the financializaton of state educational funding.34

Another distinct trend within the nonprofit-corporate complex is the co-optation of radical social movements in the name of promoting the interests of “civil society.” Andrea Smith, who conducted interviews with Palestinian activists, found that the vast majority of NGOs and foundations adhere to a “two-state solution,” which legitimizes colonization and occupation along with the full control of Palestinian resources by the Israeli state.35 Many NGOs operating in Palestine avoid addressing the issue of occupation, and devote their attention to developing joint “Israeli-Palestinian” projects. In terms of stressing the extent of the connection between imperialism and the nonprofit-corporate complex, it is striking that 80 percent of the Palestinian infrastructure is funded by international granting agencies attempting to impede anti-capitalist sentiments and establish free-market mechanisms.36 As radical social movements are brought into NGOs, they are also absorbed within the imperialist system.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues that neoliberalism proponents welcomed the growth of the nonprofit sector based on a rhetoric of efficiency and accountability. The nonprofit sector gradually started to fill the vacuum left by state’s diminishing welfare role beginning in the 1980s. Gilmore cautions that the growth of the nonprofit sector ended up with the professionalization of nonprofit organizations acting as a “shadow state,” which coincides with a flurry of sectorial experts and the opening up of business schools, the entire curricula of which had been devoted to training high-profile managers.37 Nonprofits work to defuse social movements.

Paul Kivel highlights some of the negative implications of this move. Social-service work focuses on meeting the daily needs of individuals arising from exploitation and violence. Social movements are focused on social change, addressing the root causes of exploitation and violence.38 He contends that the undermining of social change and an excessive focus on social services and concurrent professionalization induce social movements to become defenders of the status-quo. Social services provide “social service workers” with jobs, and make them feel good about the work they do and their ability to help individuals survive in the existing system: “The existence of these jobs serves to convince people that tremendous inequalities of wealth are natural and inevitable. Institutionalizing soup kitchens leads people to expect that inevitably there will be people without enough to eat; establishing permanent homeless shelters leads people to think that it is normal for there not to be enough affordable housing.”39

Much of the funding support that goes to nonprofit planning is thus directed toward taking over the state’s former role as welfare agent and administrator public services. The expansion of the nonprofit-corporate complex tends to create a new privileged class of professionals, who serve the status quo, rather than working for social change.40Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande write that:

The non-profit structure is predicated on a corporate structure and hierarchy that rewards “bourgeois credentials” and “upward mobility”; the non-profit model makes it easier for young economically privileged people just coming out of college to start a non-profit than to engage in long-term established movements; the mode is obsessed with institution-building rather than organizing; and it forces social injustice activists to become more accountable to funders rather than to our communities.41

The process of NGO expansion is rooted in a problematic “humanitarian view of development.” Nik Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay explain that this position conceives of poverty as a quantitative problem, rather than viewing it as a product of social relations. As a result, development is considered purely a technical matter that should be isolated from ideology and politics. Under the nonprofit-corporate complex, social movements are swept into serving the imperial project. The massive NGO boom in the 1980s was supported by international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, and dominated by the U.S. Treasury and the departments of finance of wealthy countries. These institutions see NGOs as “ideal vehicles for tackling social costs” associated with the structural adjustment programs, leading to worsened levels of poverty and unemployment. NGOs became the preferred channel for the provisioning of welfare services that used to be assumed by the state. They are considered to be superior to the public sector in terms of their ability to provide more cost-effective and better targeted services, as opposed to the corrupted and inefficient state bureaucracy. Barry-Shaw and Jay are very clear that NGOs are not “value-driven” and “bottom-up” organizations working to serve people. Instead, they “are bureaucratic, hierarchical and professionally-staffed organizations,” serving imperialist interests.42

Since the NGO boom in the 1980s, the sector has become an integral component of neoliberal globalization. In OECD countries, the number of development NGOs rose from 1,600 to 2,500 between 1980 and 1990 alone. A similar trend has been observed in Canada where the number of development NGOs climbed from 107 in 1980 to 240 in 1990 and to more than 500 in 2005. The global South was not exempt from this trend. Bolivia registered a rise from 100 NGOs in 1980 to 530 NGOs in 1994. The NGO boom in Tanzania recorded a growth from forty-one NGOs in 1990 to more than 10,000 NGOs operating in the country by 2000. Similarly, Kenya witnessed a rise from 511 in 1996 to 2,511 in 2003. In the early 1980s, 100 million people were within the reach of NGOs. In the early 1990s, it was around 250 million. By 2007, it was more than 600 million.43 Barry-Shaw and Jay argue that NGOs have become an integral part of the “development industry” as well as that of the neoliberal project: “One study showed that by 2002 the NGO sector across thirty-seven countries had an estimated operating expenditure of $1.6 trillion. Other estimates are higher, with some studies showing an overall increase in the flow of funding through NGOs from 200 billion in 1970 to $2.6 trillion in 1997. The seven largest NGOs had a combined income of $2.5 billion in 1999.”44

Contemporary development discourse rests on a language of “empowerment” and “capacity building” through NGOs. However, reality is quite different. NGO programs that proclaim to generate empowerment and build capacity in the global South ended up disempowering civil society groups. These organizations are more accountable to donors and less responsive to their constituencies. While genuine social movements depend on gaining wider popular support to achieve an empowering practice, NGOs mostly depend on external donors and do not necessarily feel the need to win the support or to encourage the active participation of popular masses. The so-called “empowering” capacity building practices prioritize the acquirement of “the skills and organizational set-up necessary to meet the punishing bureaucratic demands of the donors” in order to create “(self-)disciplined clients of donor agencies.” For NGOs, empowerment corresponds to an apolitical process that reflects the donor’s desire to steer NGOs “clear of stances that might be controversial with their foreign patrons.”45 Building on the case of microcredit and micro enterprise, which usually end up fostering informal-sector activity in rapidly growing urban areas free of state regulation and welfare security, Barry-Shaw and Jay present the limits of neoliberal models of empowerment. These cannot offer options other than survival through the growth of vulnerable, unsustainable, and labor-intensive petty trading and other types of practices (such as vegetable stands, home-based repair shops, and street-corner hawkers) that fail to improve the situation of the poor.46

To illustrate the rise of the nonprofit-corporate complex in the developing world, an analysis of Haiti, Ghana, the Philippines, Turkey, India, Bangladesh, Palestine, and Afghanistan is necessary. Haiti, considered to be the poorest and most unequal country in the Americas, is among the countries where the devastation caused by neoliberalism has reached its highest levels. Haiti is considered the “NGO Republic,” as it has the world’s highest concentration of NGOs per capita, “with over 900 foreign development NGOs and an estimated 10,000 NGOs overall operating in the small Caribbean nation of 8 million inhabitants.” What are the results of the NGOs presence? “Nearly 80% of Haiti’s basic services (healthcare, education, sanitation etc.) are provided by NGOs.” In 2005, over 74 percent of all “help wanted” ads were for jobs working for NGOs or other international organizations.47

Ghana was widely advertised as one of the World Bank and IMF’s success stories in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1980s. Structural adjustment programs set in motion a growing popular discontent, which jeopardized the country’s economic future. The Program of Action to Mitigate the Social Costs of Adjustment (PAMSCAD) was created in 1987 as a counteraction against the popular opposition to neoliberal policies. PAMSCAD’s social funds, which amounted to $85.7 million, gave rise to a country-wide NGO boom; the NGO number increased from seventeen in 1987 to 120 by the early 1990s, and to 400 by the end of the last decade. While access to public services declined considerably, regime-friendly NGOs started to fill the empty place left by the state, contributing to the silencing and co-optation of the popular opposition in Ghana. Neoliberal policies eradicated public services: “Enrolment rates fell and primary school dropout rates climbed to as high as 40%. In 1990, 80.5% of children reached fifth grade, but by 2000 the figure had fallen to 66.3%. Visits to clinics and hospitals fell by as much as 33%.”48

In the Philippines, the colonization of civil society by NGOs goes back to the 1980s and ’90s, during which international institutions transferred tens of millions of development dollars to create a neoliberal nonprofit sector. As a result, the Philippines today enjoy the presence of tens of thousands certified NGOs. A 2009 World Bank report reveals that 75 percent of its loans and 87 percent of its country assistance strategies involve “civil society engagement.”49 Nowadays, 48 percent of NGOs are believed to rely primarily on foreign funding, whereas 12 percent benefit from corporate funds as their core-funding source. Sonny Africa highlights how mainstream NGOs are often partnered with counter-insurgency programs of the military, particularly in conflict zones, with the aim of inhibiting genuine grassroots initiatives and covering up human right violations. Rather than mobilize local communities against neoliberal policies and structural inequalities, mainstream NGOs act as charity intermediaries for cash transfers that are provided by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.50

The case of the Young Civilians (Genç Siviller) in Turkey serves as another example of the colonization of civil society by externally funded organizations that are part of a larger social engineering project geared toward undermining the revolutionary potential of the youth. The activities of the Young Civilians go back to 2000, but they were officially founded in 2006 as a “libertarian” and “pluralist” youth organization. They aspired to unite the youth of “communist,” liberal, and Islamic backgrounds and drew on eclectic influences such as Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, and Hannah Arendt. They attracted a large section of youth using fashionable symbols. For instance, the Young Civilians adopted Converse brand shoes as their logo to represent the “Americanized” rebellious and anti-authoritarian youth. Employing neoliberal terminology, they played on the word “Civilians” to superficially associate the “civilian” with democracy and civil society and the state with authoritarianism. Accordingly, they led a number of important mobilizations against the Turkish military and the so-called Turkish Putschism. The goal was to divert the youth’s attention from the threat of U.S. imperialism and the labor-capital conflict toward an artificial opposition to bureaucratic “state elites.” To confront this threat, they provided active support for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s governing party that is globally infamous for the violent repression of social protests, incarceration of intellectuals, and support to international jihadist mass murderers. The Young Civilians provided explicit support for the AKP’s referendum for constitutional change, presidential elections, Istanbul Olympics, and judiciary cases that target dissident intellectuals. In return, at the expense of contradicting their claim for “civilian projects,” they received large amounts of government funding for activities that included international press campaigns and a project on “active citizenship.” The Young Civilians voiced explicit support for foreign intervention in Syria.

Ultimately, all of this helps explain the organic ties of the Young Civilians and the Alliance of Youth Movements, a key actor of the nonprofit-corporate complex supported by the U.S. Department of State and USAID. Led by people like Jared Cohen, the former advisor to both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton when they were Secretary of State, the Alliance has played an active role in mobilizing initiatives of color revolution in countries such as Venezuela, Ukraine, Serbia, Egypt, and Georgia. It claims to empower “brave human rights defenders” in “closed societies” through its large network and resources. The Young Civilians, as an affiliate of the Alliance, have developed close ties with Hillary Clinton, who took part in one of their “civilian” protests for Internet freedom.

The cases of India and Bangladesh demonstrate that the colonization of civil society is not confined to urban areas. In the case of India, key NGOs that used to pretend to sympathize with anti-displacement movements, such as the Lok Adhikar Manch (LAM), have easily been co-opted by state and corporate actors by fear of being de-registered or blacklisted as “anti-industrial NGOs.” The co-optation of NGOs resulted in the formation of a pro-displacement forum in favor of the mining industry. LAM activists also complain that large NGOs engage in corporate espionage. According to the activists, it is common for companies to hire NGOs to conduct surveys and interact with the local population in order to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of communities for co-optation purposes. Workshops and other educational activities are used to create favorable opinions regarding capitalist industrialization, and local people are lured by material incentives such as free health check-ups, clothing, bikes, and microcredit.51

In the 1980s, Bangladeshi civil society was calling for land reform. A radical shift in public debate took place when millions of development dollars were transferred to NGO-led microcredit programs that propagated the idea that rural poverty does not emanate from unequal distribution of wealth, but from inadequate access to the credit market. “Today, virtually all of Bangladesh’s 2,000 NGOs are ‘involved in microfinance in one way or another.’” As such, NGOs have become one of the most popular job markets in the country.

In a way similar to the Bangladeshi case, the Palestinian example provides a convincing case for the role of the nonprofit-corporate complex in co-opting and weakening radical social movements that pose a threat to monopoly-capitalist imperialism. Barry-Shaw and Jay point out that the First Intifada, which erupted in 1987 as a non-violent popular uprising against the Israeli occupation, was led by a network of grassroots committees and left-wing organizations.52 The period following the First Intifada saw a far-reaching NGO boom that resulted in the redirection of the Western development aid for the co-optation of radical anti-Israeli movements.

Western funding for Palestinian “civil society” grew exponentially after 1993, and the number of Palestinian NGOs skyrocketed from 444 in 1992 to over 1,400 in 2005. Palestinian NGOs benefiting from the deluge of Western funding became some of “the largest, and therefore the most significant” organizations in the Occupied Territories. By 2005, the NGO sector employed more than 20,000 people, and NGO service provision covered 60% of all health care services, 80% of all rehabilitation services, and almost 100% of all preschool education.53

In 2000, Islamist groups that were outside the NGO sector drove the Second Intifada. Those affiliated with NGOs did not provide support to the movement due to fear of losing Western funding.54

Finally, the Afghani case is a clear illustration of how the NGO process leads to the eradication of state power and the formation of a new comprador class compatible with the interests of imperialism. NGOs assumed a key role in implementing the Karzai government’s development programs, particularly the flagship rural program called the National Solidarity Program, which was created in 2003 with Western funds. It was conceived as a “participatory grassroots initiative.” Barry-Shaw and Jay argue the NGO process creates a class who are dependent upon and support the imperialists: “University educated Afghan people (less than 1% of the population has any university education) working for NGOs and other international agencies were one of the few social groups that strongly supported the occupation forces. While government civil servants were paid $60 per month on average, Afghans working for NGOs earned an average of $1,000 per month.”55

An equally striking fact is how the military-corporate complex uses NGOs as a major vehicle for counterinsurgency and intelligence. The Canadian counterinsurgency manual clearly states the central role of NGOs in winning over the hearts and minds in the battlefield so as to weaken counterinsurgency tendencies. More strikingly, it has been revealed that 90 percent of the coalition forces’ intelligence in Afghanistan had come from aid organizations on the ground.56


Imperialism is a historical/structural formation whose existence emanates from the very logic of capitalism rather than the rule of a particular militaristic clique or grouping among state elites and monopoly capitalists. The imperialist system operates to retain and improve control over raw materials and labor in peripheral areas, to generate investment opportunities in a perpetual manner, and to expand the realm of accumulation. As such, it finds its expression in the polarization of the world economy into center and periphery. Contemporary imperialism is marked by the increasing financialization and neoliberalization of the world economy under U.S. leadership.

Monopoly-capital scholars argue that the imperialist system hinges on three key and complementary pillars which serve to satisfy the drive to improve the control of raw materials, labor processes, and investment opportunities: the military-corporate complex, media-corporate complex, and (in the case of my analysis here) nonprofit-corporate complex which increasingly substitutes for Keynesian state-based employment/welfare policies. The military-corporate complex in the United States, as the imperial hegemon, finds its essence in the military and corporate sectors within the U.S. state and economy. It is best illustrated by the fact that U.S. military spending is considerably larger than that of other countries (in excess of that of all the other permanent UN Security Council members combined). Despite the facts that the military-corporate complex has lost much of its employment-stimulating effect and has needed new justifications following the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it remains indispensable to the stability of the system, given the continuing U.S. hegemonic role. However, this points at the same time to long-run imperial instability and unprecedented levels of danger to the world as a whole as the relative power of the United States inevitably diminishes and more desperate means are employed to maintain it. U.S. imperialism tends to generate militarization at unprecedented levels. As for the media-corporate complex, it appears to be among the primary beneficiaries of the U.S.-led neoliberal globalization, as their revenues continue to grow under U.S. support, particularly in the negotiation of trade deals and intellectual property agreements. The general trend is the increasing centralization and monopolization of the corporate media sector by less than a dozen of media corporations, along with the fusion of entertainment and news services to multiply the profits of giant firms. Its imperial agenda depoliticizes the masses, provides ideological support for the U.S. war machine, and imposing cultural imperialism.

It is here that the nonprofit-corporate complex enters in, integrating itself with the military-corporate complex and the media-corporate complex. The retreat of the state from employment/welfare promotion under neoliberalism has been accompanied by a dramatic rise of the nonprofit-corporate complex, with an increasingly globalized role in the form of NGOs. The nonprofit sector has now grown to the point that it constitutes an integral component and driving force of today’s imperialism, constituting a kind of pseudo-global civil society. Hence, although often overlooked, the nonprofit-corporate complex has emerged as a third pillar in the formation of the triangular structure of contemporary imperialism.


  1. Michael Kalecki,The Last Phase in the Transformation of Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972).
  2. John Bellamy Foster,Naked Imperialism: America’s Pursuit of Global Dominance (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006); John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending,”Monthly Review60, no. 5 (2008): 1-19.
  3. Foster,Naked Imperialism, 109.
  4. Ibid, 145.
  5. John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff,The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
  6. Ibid, 39, 67.
  7. Ibid, 13.
  8. Foster, Holleman, and McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. B. Pyadyshev,The Military-Industrial Complex of the USA (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 14.
  11. Foster, Holleman, and McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending”; Foster,Naked Imperialism.
  12. Pyadyshev,The Military-Industrial Complex of the USA, 14.
  13. István Mészáros,Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (New York: Monthly Review, 2001), 37, 99.
  14. Foster, Holleman, and McChesney, “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending”; Foster,Naked Imperialism, 25, 29.
  15. Peter Philips, “Media Ownership and Control,” inMedya ve Savaş Yalanları: Gerçekler Nasıl Karartılıyor[War, Lies & Videotape: How Media Monopoly Stifles Truth], ed. Lenora Foerstel (Istanbul: Yordam, 2007), 58–60.
  16. Lenora Foerstel, “Introduction,” in Foerstel, ed.,Medya ve Savaş Yalanları, 10; Robert W. McChesney,Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014).
  17. Mészáros,Socialism or Barbarism, 23, 28.
  18. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD Statistics, accessed February 25, 2015,
  19. United States Agency for International Development (USAID), USAID Database, accessed February 25, 2015,
  20. Tamara Vukov, “Seven Theses on Neobalkanism and NGOizatio,” in Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, eds.,NGOization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects (London: Zed Books, 2013).
  21. Mark MacKinnon,The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections, and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2007), 24-27, 42-45.
  22. Den Beeton, “USAID Subversion in Latin America Not Limited to Cuba,” April 4, 2014,; Jeremy Bigwood, “Why USAID’s Cuban Twitter Program Was Secret,”; Ryan Mallett-Outtrim, “Venezuela: Wikileaks Shows Us Use ‘NGOs’ to Cover Intervention,” April 15, 2013,
  23. Dylan Rodríguez, “The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” in INCITE!, ed.,The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Sector(Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007), 21–22.
  24. Paul Kivel, “Social Service or Social Change?,” in INCITE!, ed,The Revolution Will Not be Funded; Rodríguez, “The Political Logic.”
  25. Rodríguez, “The Political Logic.”
  26. Ibid, 31.
  27. Ibid, 27–28.
  28. Ibid, 27.
  29. Kivel, “Social Service or Social Change?,” 138.
  30. Christine E. Ahn, “Democratizing American Philanthropy,” in INCITE!, ed,The Revolution Will Not be Funded, 66.
  31. Ibid, 68.
  32. Ibid, 69–70.
  33. Ibid, 70–72.
  34. See John Bellamy Foster, “Education and the Structural Crisis of Capital,”Monthly Review63, no. 3 (July-August 2011): 6–37.
  35. Andrea Smith, “The NGOization of the Palestine Liberation Movement: Interviews with Hatem Bazian, Noura Erekat, Atef Said, and Zeina Zaatari,” in INCITE!, ed,The Revolution Will Not be Funded.
  36. Ibid, 177.
  37. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “In the Shadow of the Shadow State,” in INCITE!, ed,The Revolution Will Not be Funded, 45-47.
  38. Kivel, “Social Service or Social Change?,” 129–130.
  39. Ibid, 139–40.
  40. Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, “Introduction,” in Choudry and Kapoor, eds.,NGOization.
  41. Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande, “The Filth on Philanthropy: Progressive Philanthropy’s Agenda to Misdirect Social Justice Movements,” in INCITE!, ed.,The Revolution Will Not be Funded, 83.
  42. Nik Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay,Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs on the Road from Idealism to Imperialism (Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 2012), 7–8, 16–19, 23, 34, 35, 40, 68–69.
  43. Ibid, 16.
  44. Ibid, 16–17.
  45. Ibid, 76–78, 81, 85.
  46. Ibid, 35, 37–38.
  47. Ibid, 43–46.
  48. Ibid, 24–26.
  49. Sonny Africa, “Philippine Ngos: Defusing Dissent, Spurring Change,” in Choudry and Kapoor, eds.,NGOization.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Dip Kapoor, “Social Action and Ngoization in Contexts of Development Dispossession in Rural India: Explorations into the Un-Civility of Civil Society,” in Choudry and Kapoor, eds.,NGOization.
  52. Barry-Shaw and Jay, “Paved with Good Intentions,” 90, 105–9.
  53. Ibid, 92.
  54. Ibid, 95–96.
  55. Ibid, 215, 223.
  56. Ibid, 210–11, 218.
  57. James Petras, “Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America,”Monthly Review49, no. 7 (1997): 10–27.
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