Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Most Powerful Pacific Weapons of the New World Order

The political economy of transnational "human rights" NGOs, even better ones like Amnesty International, is essentially a racket that commodifies morality and privatizes politics. They are even less accountable to "[p]eoples, including future generations, whose rights we seek to protect and advance" (in the extraordinarily arrogant words of the International Non-Governmental Organization Accountability Charter to which AI is a signatory) than governments they criticize. Unlike governments, they can't be voted out in elections or overthrown through revolution.

They say, "Our right to act is based on universally-recognised freedoms of speech, assembly and association, on our contribution to democratic processes, and on the values we seek to promote." But democracy is undermined, not promoted, when transnational moral corporations headquartered in the global North, accountable to no people (much like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), promote their "values" in the global South. Even though a few of them have come to occasionally criticize problems (such as violations of prisoners' rights) of some governments of the North, a majority of their targets are still in the South. The ideology that the empire of NGOs cannot do without is one that would have us believe that people of the South need help of people of the North but not vice versa -- a fundamentally racist, imperialist ideology.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it memorably in their book Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000):
What we are calling moral intervention is practiced today by a variety of bodies, including the news media and religious organizations, but the most important may be some of the so-called non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which, precisely because they are not run directly by governments, are assumed to act on the basis of ethical or moral imperatives. . . . Such humanitarian NGOs [e.g., Amnesty International, Oxfam, Medecins sans Frontieres, and other orgs for relief work and human rights protection] are in effect (even if this runs counter to the intentions of the participants) some of the most powerful pacific weapons of the new world order -- the charitable campaigns and the mendicant orders of the Empire. (pp. 35-6)
While Hardt and Negri do not reject the empire and its "charitable campaigns and the mendicant orders" outright, we should.


bobw said...

I believe Negri and Hardt also observe that the NGOs have now become the only effective government in many of the most desparate parts of the world, the great slum cities in third world countries that have no resources to serve them.

Yoshie said...

Mike Davis (especially in Planet of Slums) has illustrated the growth of global slums and social and cultural trends there better than Hardt and Negri. I agree that slum dwellers, most of whom are unemployed or work in the informal sector, cannot be organized, and their lives improved, according to the model of industrial unionism and traditional Marxism. Therefore, social services to the poor are very important, which secular leftists have done less well than religious organizations. But it's not service work that I am criticizing here -- the problem is moral entrepreneurship of transnational "human rights" organizations, which call upon the Western public to sign this or that petition, express appropriate outrage against this or that Third-World government, and call for often ill-considered Western government interventions (including "peace-keeping" troops sometimes).

bobw said...

"Providing the services" and the moral authority to do so are two sides of the same coin, and as some have said (Negri and Hardt, perhaps) the NGOs are thus becoming a key part of global rule, along with transnational, non-democratic institutions and legal regimes like the WTO, World Bank and GATT.