Geert Lovink on Tue, 13 May 1997 19:03:34 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> The Art of Being Independant

The Art of Being Independant
On NGOs and the Soros debate
By Geert Lovink

A fear is spreading throughout Europe: the creeping, existential angst
of being possessed and ruled by new, unknown forces. For some, the
dragon is called Brussels, for others it is neo-liberalism, the
stockmarket, Asia, globalization, the year 2000, or Soros. In circles
of media activists and electronic artists there is acute sensitivity
towards emergent institutional powers. Active groups and individuals on
the edge (and the margins) of Media Related Creativity are vulnerable
to new economic and political formations. As temporary, freelance
workers we are both inside and outside of the culture industry. The
critique of large size capitalist and state structures from the
perspective of small groups has been well known since the sixties. It
is easier to critique Shell, MoMa, the Ministry of Culture, the
Telecom and McDonalds, as the lines are clear. They are bastards. But
now the threat is coming from within, without clear frontlines.
Nowadays, power can be located anywhere. For some it is the body, for
others the mediasphere, or transnational capital. The process of
simultaneous fragmentation and centralization leaves us with a
confusing picture. Does our critique need a clear object anyway, an
artificial, imaginary focus? Current technologies make it out of the
question to be fully autonomous, particularly if you are working with
computers. The rise of the Net will only make us more dependant on
hostile forces. With complexity and interdependency on the rise, one
materialisation of this landscape is the decentralized, networked,
cost-effective office culture, the Non-Government Organisation (NGO).
The first time I heard a critique of a NGO it was the case of
Greenpeace. With my own eyes I had seen this organization become a
megalomanic structure of bureaucratic do-gooders. They were one of the
first to 'professionalize', leaving behind the more indirect and
blurry tactics of the ecological movement, a charming universe of
micro-initiaves which to a 'communications/managerial expert' would
seem lacking clear direction.  The professional Greenpeace set up a
chain of branches, raised memberships, organized 'campaigns' and
specialized in spectacular, advertising-like media interventions. The
critique focussed on high overhead costs, internal power struggles and
the misuse of funds collected by masses of innocent, well-meaning
middle class citizens. This process took place inside the ecological
movement throughout the eighties, and soon this managerial 'corporate'
approach would reach all 'independant' organizations dealing with arts,
culture and politics.

The Berlin Wall fell and numerous NGOs moved into Eastern Europe,
created from this 'corporate-style' model. There it became really
visible what the NGO was in essence all about: downsized government
replacing bureaucracies, typical to the post-ideological times of the
digital. "We no longer work for the Party, we work for the
Organisation" (New European saying). In Western Europe there was no
NGO critique yet. Why? The autonomous movements of the 70s and 80s were
falling apart and their remains had turned into small NGOs themselves.
These past and present political strategists tend not to focus on the
organisational forms of the 'struggle'. What counted was, and still
does, the debate around the use of violence (against buildings, police,
corporations). Central questions as to the 'effectiveness' at a
symbolical and eventually political level remain. With the Organisation
we are dealing with a specific kind of office management style, social
code and media strategy imported from the United States into Western
Europe (and later in the East), without questions as to its
ideological premiss.
We are surrounded by the Organization. They want our submissions,
faxes, letters, and want you to have meetings, gossips and agreements.
Their way of dealing with the world seems so completely self-evident,
according to their rules. This 'naturalisation' makes it difficult to
see its specific shape and program. Do you also have friends who are
playing office? No anthropologist has written about this human set of
behaviour patterns so far as I know. But let's draw a line and make a
difference between the two neighbouring models, the 'movement' and the
'corporation'. The NGO of course positions itself in-between those two
concepts. The movement is unpredictable, diverse, without formal
leadership, full of informal structures and unexpected side events.
Today, movements are even more fluid than in the past. They do not seem
to last longer than some days or weeks. For an outsider, they look
like a spasmodic uprisings, while underneath there are strong currents
of cultural, media driven tribes, only noticable to the connaisseur.
Movements need to gather in space as physical collections of bodies
otherwise they can't exist. There are no virtual movements.
The corporate model is in essence alien to the non-profit world of the
late cold war period. It seems to be a tragic option to turn your work
into a business operation, and a sometimes fatal one. In times of
ongoing government budget cuts in arts, culture and social services,
starting your own company -- so as not to rely on subsidies and grants
-- is constructed to appear an attractive and truely independent
option. Most NGOs are run like businesses nowadays. Everyone takes
seriously the standard glossy image (the dictatorship of design).
Without a legal structure, a bank account, letterhead and an office
address you are truely non-existent. This even counts for virtual
operations on the internet. Turning your efforts into a corporation
has some advantages, in terms of the possible redistribution of wealth,
but is also producing envy, anger and resentment (for those who have to
do it, and for those surrounding it), mainly because there is no
acceptable alternative in sight. Friends turn into clients or
employees. There is no radical critique on cultural companies, only
jealousy, bad feelings and old friendships being destroyed. The price
of switching to other scales and circles, and possible 'success' (and
some very temporary and virtual influence) is high.
In most East European countries there is little to choose or
contemplate about. There is still only one choice: Soros. The
subcultural undercurrents of the late eighties did not establish
themselves, and have dissolved over recent years. The small scale
alternative economy was not a real option, mainly because there was not
enough cash circulating. Most initiatives were too small, too weak to
immediately turn themselves into viable companies. Without being part
of an oppositional or subcultural movement, the NGO style of dealing
with the world appears to be the only one left. The Soros Foundation is
the money source for the time being, particularly in the field of
culture and media. And they are the prime promoters of the professional
non-profit institution. George Soros: "The foundations had to become
more professional. It is a change I have had difficulty accepting. In
the beginning I wanted to have an anti-foundation foundation and for a
time I succeeded." But that's long ago. Now, most Soros officials
critize their own position of being the monopolist when it comes to
A Soros critique, in my view, would first of all be a (self) critique
on the inability of West-European society to deal with the tremendous
changes after 1989. Why is there no British, French or German
philanthropist like Soros? Why is there no flexible, decentralized plan
from Brussels? The disagreement amongst the Europeans is an on-going
scandal, costing thousands of lives, as in Bosnia and even now, in
Albania. Another problem of a radical Soros critique is his jewish-
hungarian background. The only critiques so far have come from the
nationalist, anti-semite far right: all kinds of conspiracy theories
have errupted to do with the takeover of media and the stockmarket
through 'culture' by George Soros. It stopped all debate. Then there is
the serious lack of (independant) information on what this huge and
very diverse empire of OSF, OSI, OMRI etc. is doing. The few reports in
Western newspapers only deal with Soros' financial strategies. The
debate about his critique on capitalism in the Atlantic Monthly has
hardly any reference to the Foundations and the work they do. Even his
own book 'Soros on Soros' is very poor in this respect. One gets a
strong sense that the interviewers he wrote this book with have never
been to Eastern Europe, and this might also be the case for all the
finance journalists who report on Soros.

This all prolongs the unhealthy monopoly of the Soros Foundation. To
break this monopoly, alternative models need to be developed based on
financial diversity. A Soros critique begins with a critique on the
NGO-model itself. Through the rejection of ritual professionalism we
could then turn to specific Soros policies and examine them in detail.
For example: the regional internet program. Within the Soros
foundations there are dozens of different models (and failures) on how
to work with the Net. The most common problem is the 'xs4us' policy,
the so-called 'closed society'. Their internet is only accessable for
officials and 'organisations', not for individuals. This is the essence
of the NGO ideology, not specific 'Soros'. The Zamir bbs system, and
now B92's in Belgrade are encouraging exceptions to the NGO
rule, although they are not fully operating as access providers. Within
NGOs a lot of money is spent on expensive connectivity (with the money
flowing away to western telecoms), thereby not creating an independent
culture of internet providers, to facilitate public access and free
content. A rich and diverse net culture should work with lots of models
and ideas, not just that one seductive, seemingly grownup, very
American idea of the NGO.

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