Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 16:57:55 +0200 (MET DST)
From: Geert Lovink

The Art of Being Independent
On NGOs and the Soros debate

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 would be easier to criticise Shell, the 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 dependent 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 against Greenpeace. With my own eyes I had seen this organization become a megalomaniacal 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 ‘independent’ 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 premise. 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 noticeable to the connoisseur. 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 truly 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 truly 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 criticize their own position of being the monopolist when it comes to ‘charity’. 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 erupted 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 (independent) 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 accessible 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.