Sunday, 28 September 2014

CULTURE OF FEAR: Globalizing Conformity

Existentialist thinkers have described the 20th century as the age of anxiety and despair. The existential crisis that leads the individual to question whether life has meaning, purpose or value as priests and theologians insist did not emerge out of the blue because middle class European intellectuals were bored and felt a sense of void in their life, but in a historical context owing to developments in society and where it was  headed.
The study of existentialist anxiety and despair appeared largely because the Enlightenment-based rationalist order on which Western civilization was based collapsed after the First World War. What followed the rest of the century, from the Great Depression to WWII, Vietnam and Cold War proved very destructive in history. Literature and poetry, art and sculpture, philosophy and psychology reflect this existentialist theme of the 20th century that lingers into the 21st century, but at more intense levels owing to the globalization of a culture of fear that the political, religious, social, cultural, and economic elites cultivate. 

Some scholars have characterized the first two decades of our century as the age of paranoia rooted in fear of just about everything from street crime to fear of immigrants that neo-Nazis and right wing xenophobes target throughout the Western World because they need a scapegoat for complex problems confronting society. Not just in the 21st century, but throughout history in different societies under various regimes through secular and religious institutions the culture of fear was a tool that the secular and religious elites and government used to maintain social conformity and loyalty of the masses.

In our contemporary times, partly because of the 9/11 tragedy, partly because shock-oriented media and entertainment have conditioned the public, the result is inordinate fear on a mass scale. This has become a cultural phenomenon and part of the value system that has spread beyond the US and influenced other parts of the world, some reacting in sympathy others against, all with the culture of fear at the core. The culture of fear is especially strong in the US after Truman launched the Cold War in 1947 (Truman Doctrine). After the fall of the Communist bloc, the US replaced the Cold War with “war on terror”, constantly reinforcing it with new militarist adventures without ever addressing the roots causes of Islamic militancy.

Besides the US, the UK, continental Europe, Australia, and other developed and developing countries that follow in the path of “anti-terror politics” fall into a similar pattern as American society and with surprisingly similar results. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Brzezinski candidly acknowledged that the US “war on terror” was deliberately chosen to reinforce a culture of fear because "it obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue". This is an interesting observation from the man responsible for influencing US foreign policy toward a more hawkish orientation after the Iran and Nicaraguan revolutions of 1979. Nevertheless to say, because such analysis does not come from the Kremlin but from a former NSA official, it carries a great deal of weight.

The US-led global anti-terror campaign created “Islamophobia” at the core of the culture of fear now globalized with all its consequences of instability in the Middle East and Africa. In 2014, we have proliferation among militant Islamists who see unconventional war until death the way to fight the evil conventional forces of Western governments and their Middle East allies. If the war on terror had actually reduced instead of increased both the number of jihadists while lessening the culture of fear, then one could argue that it was worth the sacrifice of human rights and civil rights, of democracy and social justice. However, the war on terror has actually strengthened jihadists, while heightening Islamophobia and the culture of fear, leading to the conclusion that this was the goal after all.

At the same time, the ratings-hungry corporate-owned media in the US and throughout the world reinforces the culture of fear and places fear-mongering front and center in headlines. The eight years of the Bush administration are at the root of the new culture of fear that has intensified according to public opinion polls rather than diminished. When Obama became president there was the promise and hope of a new orientation away from fear mongering for political purposes. Progressive American voters and people throughout the world cheered that the Bush decade of fear was over and at last a president committed to put an end to military solutions to political problems.

However, it became clear that Obama pursued a multilateral foreign policy at a very superficial public relations level. The institutional structure – Homeland Security, “war on terror” unilateral foreign policy, and police-state methods that override all civil rights and human rights – remain in place in a country that calls itself a ‘democracy’ and committed to spreading its values, rather than its imperialism throughout the world.
While one expect a culture of fear in North Korea and a sociopolitical climate of tolerance and openness in the US and the US, fear is becoming stronger in the Western countries that pride themselves for promoting freedom and democracy. Americans and Europeans are more afraid today than they were right after 9/11. According to one poll, only 20-40% of Americans were immersed in fear one year after 9/11, while in 2014 the fear factor ranges from 47% -65%. It is ironic that the wealthiest country in the world is terrified by a culture of fear that the media, both conservative and liberal, reinforces. This is largely because the elites have succeeded conditioning the majority of population and the end result is an inward-looking population afraid to question the existing social order and political regime.

Rooted in fear of Communism during the Cold War and more recently in Islamophobia, US foreign policy reverberates across society and the world by inadvertently promoting intolerance toward those of different race and ethnicity and political, ideological, religious and cultural orientations. While the mass psychology of fear may appear counterproductive to those advocating pluralism, democracy, equality, social justice and creativity as core values in society, as far as the political, social and economic elites are concerned the culture of fear helps to engender conformity at all levels and helps to maintain loyalty to the existing social order and political economy that strengthens the hierarchical structure.

There have always been epochs characterized by inordinate societal fear imbedded in the dominant culture that the political, military, socioeconomic and religious elites used to exert greater control. This was certainly during the Holy Inquisition that began in the 12th century and it went through the era of the Black Death (14th and 15th century). The Inquisition and Black Death accounted for dictatorial rule, reinforcing the culture of fear which both the upper clergy and the nobility exploited to amass a great deal of property and wealth.

For one thousand years in the Middle Ages the Lords and Bishops used the fear of God to keep the serfs and peasants in conformity with a tyrannical system. Clearly, religion offered a reward of securing a place in Paradise for those devoted solely to a spiritual life and did not defy Church or state. When religious dogma did not work, there was the secular mechanism – local courts influenced by the church – and the Holy Inquisitions after the Crusades, and later the madness of witch hunts, all driving the fear of spiritual and earthly authority into the hearts and minds of the faithful.   

The French Revolution, which itself produced fear of radical elements under the “Reign of Terror” (Sept./1793-July/1794), was the major political movement to question the foundations of a civilization where the culture of fear in church and state was a catalyst. There was certainly enormous fear on the part of Europeans after the Great War because the foundations of their civilization along with their economies were collapsing. As if the fear of the decline of the West as Oswald Spengler called it was not enough, the Great Depression dealt an economic, social and political blow.

After the Second World War that devastated Europe completely and represented the ultimate form of fear and anxiety, it was followed by the political-ideological Cold War rooted in the US-Soviet confrontation and competition for global influence. In the West, the saying was “better dead than Red”, while in the East, people feared and dreaded the imperialist, militaristic and decadent West. In short, the first half of the 20th century was nothing but reinforcement of a culture of fear that political regimes and socioeconomic elites had created, as much in the West as in the East.

The eminent scholar Geoffrey Barraclough speculated that the revolt by the East against the West would define the second half of the 20th century. This was a logical observation, considering that the West had imposed imperialism on the East since the Commercial Revolution, and considering that the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions were shaking the foundations of the Western imperialist order that found itself in internal contradictions as the two global wars revealed.

Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order) had an updated version of Barraclough’s theme with a Muslim centered focus in the 1990s. In the last years of his career, Huntington became increasingly aware that the West was fundamentally caught in the contradictions imperialism. As far as the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America were concerned, the West was not a force of world stability but instability and disorder. Like many before and after him, Huntington recognized the inherent contradiction of democracy and imperialism and this is one reason that some of his positions were immersed in ambiguity.

It is unambiguous, however, to maintain democratic institutions at home on the basis of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, namely, supporting authoritarianism around the world because it maintains the imperial status quo. Not only does American “democracy” have no resemblance with the progressive social democracy of Norway, but the quasi-police state society of today does not resemble Jefferson’s democracy or FDR’s for that matter. While we do know how the US will evolve politically by the middle or end of the 21st century when China will be the preeminent economic power, we can speculate from the current trends that the orientation is toward more consumerist pluralism accompanied by greater direction toward police state methods intended to engender social conformity.

The US-led “war on terror” which replaced the Cold War has inflamed the passions of the East against the West, even among those who have nothing to do with radical Islam but who see US “war on terror” as a pretext to continue the same hegemonic policies of the Cold War. Using the ideological veils of anti-Communist and anti-Jihadist campaigns on a global basis entails that there are domestic consequences which include conformity not just to a foreign policy regime, but institutional conformity across the board.
Many are amazed that the middle class and many workers in the West not just tolerate, but support enthusiastically a world order rooted in veiled imperialism with domestic reverberations. 

Although the Cold War and the anti-terror campaign backfire economically because of the diversion of funds from the civilian economy to the defense/intelligence sectors, the culture of fear keeps the masses docile if not loyal to the institutional system. People forget how the Red Scare, the blacklisting of creative people ruined not just the lives and families of those involved but deprived society of the potential creative contributions of such people. All of this was carried out so that the culture of fear may prevail by demonizing the political enemy and sanctifying the enemy’s enemy. This was a new crusade and a struggle between good and evil, Armageddon of biblical proportions rather than a confrontation between different political, ideological, and socioeconomic systems.

Naturally, there was a cost associated with the Cold War as there is with the war on terror. Combined with a shift from social welfare and labor protection to a regime of corporate welfare, the cost of the war on terror has been the erosion of privileges the middle class once enjoyed not just loss of upward mobility for their children, but erosion in every respect including democracy. How do the middle and working classes of the West keep to loyal to a global order rooted in imperialism and a domestic political economy oblivious to the needs of all people and to social justice?      

Governed largely by irrational tendencies yield to fear, human beings yield to fear. This is exactly what the state and other institutions, especially religious, have used for centuries and they continue to do so, focusing mostly on determinism, if not fatalism on the part of the majority that benefit marginally or not all from the institutional structure. In all religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam included, there is a sense of fatalism at the core because man cannot possibly comprehend God’s grand plan of which man is but a small part. It is this unscientific mode of thinking that the state and institutions use to keep the masses in conformity.

How do people conform to the institutional structure, even under conditions when the status quo is overwhelmingly working against their best interests, and in some cases detrimental? It is very difficult to have people accept their own exploitation and it takes a great deal of work and skill on the part of the political, religious, and socioeconomic elites. It is not easy convincing people that it is for their own good to have low wages and fewer benefits, unaffordable health care, unaffordable college for their children, unaffordable elderly care, and constant raising of the age of retirement and work hours. It is not easy to convince people that poverty is a blessing of the Lord for the masses, but a status symbol for the top ten percent of the stockholder-citizens for whose benefit the state exists. It is not easy convincing people that it is “fair and just” to transfer income from the lower and middle classes through the fiscal system for the benefit of the top income earners.

It is amazingly difficult to convince people that it is good for them to have institutionally-induced  inequality created to make a small percentage privileged and the majority lesser citizens. Why do people accept that if a regime rooted in social justice comes to power it would be monstrous, while the existing elitist one has God’s blessing? To achieve the goal of brainwashing the public, the state and the institutional structure, from media to educational institutions, must perpetually keep the population conditioned that there is no alternative to the status quo, that the enemy is out there waiting to destroy like Satan lurking to snatch your soul, that societal institutions must remain static because only then can there be safety and security.

People instinctively realize that life itself is not static but dynamic, that change is natural as the laws of physics dictate. The contradiction arises because of the realization that change is part of the laws of physics, while the political and socioeconomic elites do not permit change in society.  While some argue that it is possible to apply scientific laws in society as they exist in nature, the majority immersed in the culture of fear are looking for scapegoats, for enemies to hate and destroy. There is a sense of emotional satisfaction that a segment of the population derives by knowing there are enemies out there to combat and destroy; as sociopathic and even psychotic as it may sound that people, especially elites are in perpetual search of enemies to eliminate.

During the Age of Reason or Enlightenment there was optimism that a better society was possible for the benefit of all people and not just a small minority. Because human beings are basically rational, according to John Locke and those who promoted rationalism in the 18th century, they conform realizing the rewards of living in an organized society where the state is like management of a company and citizens the stockholders. This sounds great, except that in society as in a corporation, not everyone is a stockholder to derive the benefits of a constitutional, legal and political system set up for them. Influenced by 17th century Dutch capitalism, Locke had in mind owners of property when he argued that the “people” must make the laws.  

If the state is the representative of stockholder-citizens, this necessarily means that the non-stockholders are the subjects of exploitation by those for whose benefit the state has been established. Regardless of what rhetoric promises, the non-stockholder citizens experience on a daily basis the absence of social justice. The exploited non-stockholder citizenry have always done everything to survive within the existing unjust system. A segment of the population breaks the laws established to protect life and property of the stockholders. Another segment dreams of rebelling to bring a new system that would include those outside the mainstream. The state makes certain that those defying the system are punished. The state does not rely only on punishment but also on mass psychology of fear that becomes an integral part of the culture and thus accepted as “natural” and people have been conditioned into docile mode to defy it.

From the end of WWII until the present, the state has used everything from traditional institutions like religion, schools, police, and courts to engender conformity to the existing system serving primarily but not exclusively the interests of the socioeconomic and political elites that are a mere minority in society. However, because the use of force is expensive and not always very effective inculcating mass conformity into the public, modern propaganda through the use of the media, and recently social media, as well as civil society organizations have become the new tools of imposing conformity.

Is the culture of fear and persistence of the status quo consistent with a dynamic pluralistic society, one that claims to be democratic? Can such a society flourish and best serve its citizens, make a contribution to the world, or does it hinder the progress of the majority so it can continue catering to the small percentage of the wealthy and at a great cost to the larger world community? If this is the case, then what does it reveal about human nature that there such wide acceptance of such a system? It is true that legitimacy and social acceptance comes from authority and people accept the culture of fear as part of the institutional system as though it were their own rooted in their beliefs, although it is manufactured by and for the elites. 

According to Erich Fromm, conformity is the result of people unconsciously embracing societal beliefs and modes of thinking as their own, thus deluding themselves that they are thinking for themselves when in fact they avoid doing so largely because of the anxiety-provoking elements in free thought. One could also argue that people are in fact intellectually lazy and yield to authority because they believe it is more comfortable and safe to conform than to question. Moreover, the individual’s identity with a larger entity, such as church, nation, political party, place of employment, favorite ball club, etc. affords a sense of timelessness and community lacking in the age of mass politics and alienation.

Because the individual internalizes the culture of fear as her/his own, the institutional structure can claim that if the individual has a problem with fear it is a psychological problem to be treated with therapy and medication. In the age of atomism, in the age of “selfies” that corporations have commercialized to sell everything from cell phones to insurance policies, the individual is conditioned to accept the societal culture of fear as her/his personal culture. This actually serves the purpose of distancing the individual from any sense of collectivist mindset, or even communitarian outside the framework of specific loyalty to nation-state and religious affiliation. Atomism is constantly what the mainstream institutions, secular and religious cultivate thus suppressing any collectivist tendencies of the individual with a sense of responsibility to all of humanity.

Fear mongering and reinforcement of the culture of fear retards and distorts community solidarity and class consciousness so that the elites remain safe and secure in their privileged positions. Considering that those who are part of the privileged political, economic and social elites are eager to retain their privileges in society, they use any political, legal, and other means at their disposal including mass propaganda that the existing order is “natural” and must be maintained without any changes for it would disturb the balance in society. This implied psychological warfare unleashed on the masses works for the vast majority who are motivated by fear and want to preserve whatever little role they have in their private universe. Preserving the status quo then becomes a top-down process where the masses that have everything to lose and nothing to gain by advocating conservatism find themselves defending the establishment benefiting the elites. In the absence of opportunistic and careerist journalist, intellectuals, lawyers, consultants, clergy, and a host of others that personally make a career advocating anything and everything surrounding the preservation of the status quo, it would not be possible to accomplish the goal of mass indoctrination.

We have known or a number of years that fear is also a determining factor in political and ideological orientation. Based on brain detection research, conservatives are much more prone to fear and lower cognitive ability than liberals and progressives. The propensity toward a defensive, status quo mode of thought is actually in part biologically based, as we have evidence that the lower IQ of conservatives follows a pattern of fear-based behavior, while the higher IQ of progressives is more accepting of risk and change and absence of fear arising from new circumstances in the environment.

American and European scientists have confirmed that the brain of conservatives loathes cognitive complexity. It is not surprising that conservatives and extreme right wingers prefer simplistic stereotypical explanations of complex issues ranging from foreign affairs and immigration policy to fiscal and social policy. One reason for this is the emotional satisfaction they derive vilifying the other, “having an enemy to hate” rather than trying to deal with ambiguities that present themselves in various issues.

Commercializing fear for political reasons works to the advantage of a political system that projects the image of equal representation for all people when in essence it represents the political economy of corporate welfare capitalism that benefits the owners of capital with derivative benefits for the professional and managerial class. The odd thing is that government, media, businesses, schools, and social institutions present the status quo as “natural” as the law of gravity. We ought not to be surprised by this because the Confucian Chinese intelligentsia for two thousand years believed the status quo was natural. In the 19th century, the British believed the Empire was natural. In the 20th century, the South African whites believed apartheid was natural. 

Psychologists maintain that there is a link between fear and aggression, though the former does not necessarily lead to the latter and the degree of both fear and aggression make a difference as much in the individual as within the cultural milieu. At the same time, researchers confirm that those with inordinate fear or living in a culture of fear have a propensity toward intolerance and dogmatism as well as aversion to risk and uncertainty. Therefore, conservatism best serves their psychological needs, no matter how they may justify their positions ideologically and/or politically.

Because most people have been conditioned into the dichotomy of good and evil, forces eternally opposed to each other, the culture of fear plays into this ethical framework already established in the minds of the masses. Fear of terrorism, economic recessions, crime, nuclear accidents, regional wars, epidemics, xenophobia, lawsuits, loss of job and/or income, loss of home, physical and mental capacity, and status in community are some of the phobias that overwhelm people, many of them on medication for such phobias. What does all of this reveal about the overmedicated culture of fear in Western civilization and whose interest does this serve? 

People are so ‘over-lawyered up’ and over-insured because of fear of just about everything. The culture of fear helps to keep the insurance companies and lawyers happy but it keeps society on edge. In a culture of fear that the political regime, businesses, entertainment (movies and video games), and media promote it is difficult to escape fear as a societal phenomenon and even more difficult to be free of fear of everyone in authority to the innocuous neighbor. Because fear becomes part of everyday life, the individual is no longer free to think for herself/himself but prefers robotic submissiveness to keep any possible harm away.

Robotic submissiveness is exactly what the guardians of the status quo want rather than free thinking individuals with a will of their own. Once we have a lock on robotic submissiveness in mass politics we no longer have democracy but a form of authoritarianism trying very hard to present itself as democracy. Just as tragic, the culture of fear intended to keep the masses docile results in stifling of creativity, allowing creative expression only within the existing commercial framework and nothing outside it or against it, no different than a totalitarian society of the 1930s. Therefore, the victims of the culture of fear are not just the individuals whose creative potential is stifled, but the open democratic society as representative of all people and not just the political and socioeconomic elites.

Right wing populism that is highly organized and commercialized in the US and a number of European and other countries has contributed to the culture of fear. One of the many studies on this topic, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right by Arthur Goldwag analyzes fear mongering by the populist right wing in the US. The situation is not very different in Europe where neo-Fascist and neo-Nazi parties have been gaining strength, largely because democratic institutions promise to serve the middle class and workers but in reality serve the socioeconomic elites.

However, there is not much distance between the extreme right wing one the hand, and the conservatives and neoliberals are on the other. To promote their brand of political economy that caters to a small percentage of the rich, the conservatives and neoliberals use the culture of fear as ruthlessly as neo-Nazis, warning the masses that there is no alternative to a political economy that widens the gap between rich and poor, leaves behind minorities and ignores social justice. The convergence of elitist views between the traditional conservatives and neoliberals on one side, and the far right wing fear mongering has strengthened the culture of fear to keep the elites safely in power.

As Jean-Paul Sartre noted, it is highly likely that elites will always be a part of society. This means that there will never be a utopian society where equality and social justice prevail. However, this does not mean that human beings must necessarily yield to fatalism and stop struggling for social justice. Taking office amid the Great Depression, FDR in his first inaugural address said to the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Coming from a wealthy family, FDR knew very well that market distortions and excesses created the economic depression. It would take a series of bold political decisions to undo the disaster of the political economy.

He could have argued that the depression was natural and people must wait until the economy recovers based on the forces of the same market that created the deep contraction. Setting aside fatalism and the powerful business and political forces of conservatism that warned of FDR leading the country toward Communism, he pressed ahead to save the system that fear mongers had crippled. FDR fought against the culture of fear that Republicans and large businesses had been cultivating in order to save capitalism not to destroy it as critics charged.

The persistence of the Age of Anxiety that started in the interwar era and has evolved in a culture of fear and paranoia best serves the ideology of the status quo that develops inherent contradictions leading to its decline and ultimate destruction. In the absence of the culture of fear, there could not have been a strong military-industrial complex in the US or a military-based economy in the USSR. Although exorbitant defense spending led to the fall of the Soviet Union, and it has contributed to the burgeoning US public debt, there is a large percentage rooted in the culture of fear that supports the continued militarization, even if it means ultimate economic ruin. That same percentage of people backing militarization, support rigid law enforcement targeting minorities and the poor, they are adamantly opposition to immigration from non-white areas of the world, and support gun ownership despite the violence generated.

Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Stalinist Russia, and varieties of military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the last once hundred years have ruled with the culture of fear at the core of their societies. With the advent of the Cold War in the late 1940s, the culture of fear became internationalized. Similarly, in the early 21st century, the US has globalized the culture of fear based on Islamophobia. Not only does this retard progress and the human potential for creative endeavors and freedom to live in harmony and social justice at home, but the entire world is infected by the virus of this culture whose goal is exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few.

The cost for such conditions is and will be social instability, contributing to existing fears and paranoia on the part of majority indoctrinated into this culture that personalize an external situation. All of this is justified because progress is defined by the invention of new devices such as cell phones, I-pads, laptops, videogames, and techno devices that have substituted direct contact with human beings and human compassion that goes with it. As long as there is progress in technology, science and industry, the political economic and social elites justify maintaining the status quo because they define progress on the basis of such progress rather than on the basis of social justice. Atomistic tendencies go hand in hand with the age of materialism in which the individual consumer is valued far above the citizen, the billionaire valued far above the humanitarian doctor working with the poor in sub-Sahara Africa, the famous movie star far above the soup kitchen volunteer. These values are constantly reinforced in everything from mass media to schools, popular books, and motions pictures that make up the dominant culture.

Is there a solution to the culture of fear that has been imposed top down and it is perpetually forced on the masses from politicians, generals, defense lobbyists, journalists, consultants, and corporations? The first step is to research and understand what forces produce the culture of fear and for what reasons. The second step is to accept that solutions cannot possibly be imposed by the elites to the masses, but can come from the grassroots level. This means that people must reject the internalization of this culture that is externally imposed to maintain a docile population conforming to an institutional structure catering to the elites while the rest of humanity pays the price.

Self-awareness is important but so is collective action from the neighborhood up because society changes from the bottom up.  The use of the web and various social networks make it possible to communicate with people across the street and across the world to pass on the message about fighting against the culture of fear that accounts for the absence of social justice. Nothing is going to change overnight, probably not in a century or more because the culture of fear has been with the human race for many centuries. However, if people begin to take steps for themselves this would be a form of defiance to the culture of fear that works to the detriment of the individual and society. As much as I agree with those who feel there will probably always be elites, fatalism, resignation, postponing action for rewards in afterlife, etc. are reasons for the success of the culture of fear.

Friday, 19 September 2014


What is the role of NGOs in society?
In the last three decades, a number of books and articles have been published about Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Some focus on the marginal impact the NGOs have because they work within an existing institutional framework responsible for the absence of social justice. While some works praise the kind of unique services of NGOs to people in need, others are critical, stressing that NGOs’ goal is integration into an international political economy and institutional structure rooted in inequality and injustice. While it is beyond doubt that there are NGOs serving worthy humanitarian causes and acting as instruments of alleviating misery among the poor, refugees, and others in need, there are many more such organizations acting as instruments of globalization, and in some cases aggressive neo-imperialism. 

Are all NGOs truly non-governmental and politically neutral, voluntary non-profit and humanitarian interested only in the poor, the refugees, the minorities, those unprotected by the institutional mainstream? Do NGOs serve society’s various needs at the grassroots level with the ultimate goals of promoting humanitarian needs, human rights, environmental protection, and social justice as they claim? Is the definition of NGO a grassroots non-profit local, national or international organization performing voluntary services for humanitarian purposes, or has it expanded to include what are in essence stealthy lobbying, media and communications, intelligence gathering, and business promotion groups?

Are all NGOs truly independent and practice transparency as they want the public to believe, or do they serve very sinister policy goals of big business and governments to the detriment of different countries and different segments in any given society, while preaching humanitarianism? How trusting should the public be when so many NGOs around the world have been caught in fraud and corruption, used as fronts for money laundering and other illegal activities, ranging from narcotics to arms facilitations or transfers?

Do NGO’s emerge at the grassroots level to serve emergency needs, and do they all have a progressive orientation as they want people to believe? Why did NGOs expand so rapidly after the fall of Communist regimes in the early 1990s, and how do they reflect the era of globalization under neoliberal policies of the past three decades? What role do NGOs play in molding public opinion and why do mainstream media present them as non-partisan when most collaborate with government and business to shape public opinion into accepting globalization, Western-style institutions and thorough integration into the Western spheres of influence?

In this very brief essay, my focus is on the top-down structure of many NGOs that have been established to serve the interests of specific political and business interests, thus playing a counterrevolutionary instead of a progressive role in society. Through the manipulation of mass public opinion in the age of social media and high tech communications, many NGOs are nothing more than agents of promoting globalization.

NGOs  - Humanitarians or covert agents of government and big business? 

Generally speaking, the average person reading or hearing about NGOs assumes that these are all about helping starving children in sub-Sahara Africa, providing clean water for the impoverished masses in rural areas of developing nations, setting up medical facilities to help the very poor in Central America and Caribbean, helping refugees out of Iraq and Syria, etc. It is true that there are many such organizations, including OXFAM, Danish Refugee Council, “Doctors without Borders”, and others across the world that are devoted to helping those in dire need, that are truly humanitarian and deserve the name non-governmental.

These NGOs deserve support of all people because they are delivering small miracles every day, miracles that governments and United Nations agencies cannot or would not deliver. These prototypes were the honest NGOs before the proliferation after the collapse of Communism that along with it created the massive wave of corrupt and sinister organizations hiding behind the NGO name.

Large segments of the public in many countries have little faith in government because it serves narrow socioeconomic interests. There is equal skepticism toward big businesses and the media that caters to the political and socioeconomic elites. This is the case as much in smaller countries as it is in the US where the poor and minorities do not feel that government represents them, while media is nothing more than a propaganda machine.

To fill the credibility gap that exists among the masses and to mold mass public opinion, NGOs have become a great way for government and business to promote their agendas. There are NGOs that governments and businesses set up, or fund in order to promote a political, military or economic agenda at home or abroad. With the advent of what the US in the early 1990s called the “New World Order”, namely a single integrated world market under the preeminent economic, political and military leadership of the US, there was an NGO explosion to help achieve those goals. The goals included spreading Western-style political institutions and ideology, preventing socialist or nationalist policies from taking hold to obstruct American-led globalization and neoliberalism, removing all obstacles to globalization by making use of the media and social organizations, including social networks in social media in recent years.

Because NGOs are rarely questioned and people assume they are non-partisan, and above nations and politics, what better way to pursue a covert agenda than through an NGO that is above suspicion? What better way than through an NGO, which people believe is progressive and humanitarian, to pursue a reactionary agenda intended to serve political and socioeconomic elites? This category of NGOs has a history of corruption, questionable activity with regard to moving money around illegally, transferring it if not laundering it outright from various sources, becoming involved in staged uprisings and rebel movements, utilizing social media and communications as part of elaborate covert operations to undermine or overthrow governments, and other such activities one would never imagine as the business of an NGO.

There are NGOs operating as fronts for US Agency for International Development (USAID) and major US foundations linked to billionaires whose goal is to secure market share around the world. Many of these NGOs were causing havoc in Russia until Putin tried to curtail their operations. However, Russia is hardly the exception, considering that NGOs with similar funding and goals operate throughout the world from India to Brazil, from the Philippines to Ukraine.

Using NGOs as fronts, the US and its allies have used anti-nuclear and environmental NGOs to stop nuclear plants. This is partly because the contracts for products and services are not awarded to Western corporations, but also because of geopolitical considerations. In July 2014, the Indian government announced that NGOs were fronts for foreign interests undermining the national economic interests and the country’s security. It is well known that India has a record of many human rights violations that the media has publicized. It is not as well known, however, that NGOs operating in India are using human rights, environmental issues and other very significant humanitarian matters to conceal their covert role in subverting the national economy as the finance minister announced in July 2014. 

One may argue that permitting NGOs to operate freely is a testament to a nation’s democracy. However, there is the question of drawing the line between pressure groups acting as lobbyists, and non-profits acting as humanitarian NGOs. Would the US permit an al-Qaeda-funded NGO parading as a human rights group defending the rights of Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo?  Would the UK permit an Indian NGO undermining its energy sector unless UK bought more equipment from India? Would the UK permit an Iranian NGO promoting a national nuclear energy policy?

In October 2012, NBC news published a story about a New York-based NGO claiming to oppose Iran’s nuclear development program. Calling itself “United Against Nuclear Iran” (UANI), it is staffed by former US diplomats and intelligence officers, as well as former Israeli intelligence agents. UANI presents itself to the public as a peace-loving and a non-governmental organization opposed to Iran developing nuclear weapons. However, UANI has no problem with the nuclear weapons of Israel. A US-Israeli propaganda and psychological warfare machine, UANI’s goal is to stop Western companies from doing business with Tehran, applying some of the same tactics as human rights organizations did when they opposed multinationals doing business with the apartheid state of South Africa before Mandela.

Presenting their groups as citizen advocacy with an altruistic agenda above governments and politics, NGOs are a very clever way to push through political, economic, strategic and other agendas that on the surface appear to be for “the good of society”. Enjoying the cover of legitimacy as guardians of people’s rights, it is very difficult to put an NGO on the defensive in the absence of hard evidence about its real agenda.
Despite the aura of legitimacy, there are NGOs that are conduits not just for governments seeking to undermine another regime, but for money laundering from government budgets going to the pockets of politicians as well as non-government individuals and organizations. Officials in India, Philippines, Greece and other countries have NGO’s used for money laundering and other fraudulent operations. Receiving NGO laundered funds as part of elaborate schemes in clientist politics is not nearly as unusual as it sounds. Even bankrupt Greek government was using NGOs of various types to reward financially certain politicians and favorite clients of the ruling parties.

Some of the NGOs publicly stated purpose was so ludicrous that it would be humorous if it were not criminal. According to a Greek government report on NGOs, nine out of ten of the 3000 organizations were engaged in fraud and corruption involving millions transferred from government funds into NGO budgets and back into the pockets of certain individuals linked to the ruling parties. The Greek foreign ministry funneled millions through NGOs for projects that never took place, including some that never took place. Some money apparently went to bribes for removal of land mines supposedly carried out in Iraq, Lebanon and Serbia, while other funds went for the purpose of reforestation not of Greece that can use it but of areas already fully forested!

The level of corruption that existed in Greece during the 1990s and 2000s also took place in other countries, including the Philippines. Receiving public funds, NGOs would then turn around and use them not for the publicly stated purpose but to line the pockets of politicians. Millions in public funds designated for agricultural development simply wound up in the hands of a handful of people connected with corrupt NGOs.  The situation in the Philippines appears similar to that of Greece, and both are similar to that of Brazil where the government began a crack down to distinguish between NGOs involved in corruption and public distortion and those doing an honest day’s work as they publicly stated.

The subversive use and manipulation of NGOs by governments and corporations is a distortion of publicly-proclaimed goals. For example, Israeli arms manufacturers sell land mines used in various conflicts. At the same time, the same manufacturers work with NGO's to have the land mines removed. This is example illustrates the nefarious use of NGOs, but it also reveals the unseen and unpublicized role of these organizations that are more complicated than they appear on the surface.

NGOs, the former Soviet Republics, China and India

We have seen just a few examples of NGOs in several countries where their role in society has nothing to do with the promotion of public welfare, the poor or the environment, but in essence all to do with money laundering, fraud, political, economic and geopolitical goals. This raises the question about NGOs as a counter-revolutionary force in society, rather than progressive as they claim. Is their goal to advance social justice and national sovereignty or to minimize social justice and national sovereignty, thus advancing the interests of large international and domestic wealthy interests and foreign governments' geopolitical agenda? Nowhere are these questions more significant to address than in the Ukraine and all the former Soviet republics.

NGOs with questionable goals and modes of operation are in many countries from the US to developing nations. Russia after the collapse of the USSR has at least 400,000 NGOs, and probably as many as one million – registered and non-registered - carrying out political commercial and other activity behind the cover of a non-governmental organization. Russian officials believe that roughly one-fourth of these NGOs are foreign funded, using the cover of human rights, environmental protection, and consumer advocacy to pursue their agendas unrelated to what they declare. Utilizing the connections with government agencies and mainstream media outlets, directly or indirectly-funded government NGOs essentially exert what some analysts call “soft power” – “co-opting through their organizations.

When the Communist bloc fell, the US and western European NGOs played a key role in infiltrating the newly-independent republics with the goal of helping to integrate them in the West and preventing their dependence on the Russian Federation, and to a lesser extent China and Iran. Western-funded NGOs were involved in manufacturing grassroots movements in the Ukraine so that the country dependent on Russia for energy and trade would become a Western satellite that would provide NATO with the stranglehold it wants on Russia’s border as part of a containment policy. Although the Western-funded NGOs actual goal is to secure Western corporate infiltration of the Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics, the alleged purpose is humanitarian and human-rights-oriented democracy. The publicly-stated goal used was and remains a cover to conceal the real goals of promoting globalization and geopolitical influence.

The Ukrainian upheaval of 2013-2014, culminating in the overthrow of president Yanukovych in February 2014, and the ensuing separatist movement by Russian minorities in the Eastern provinces has brought the role of the NGOs to the attention of some of the more discriminating analysts. The two-year old rebel movement in Syria against Assad also involved Western NGO’s working to fund and guide rebels on the ground, along with other players, including Saudi and Gulf States elements. The goal here was and remains regime change, even if it meant indirectly assisting jihadists that would eventually turn against the West. Similarly, NGOs are operating everywhere from Venezuela and Cuba where the US wants to see regime change to parts of Africa, Middle East, and Asia where the West wants to have a preeminent political, economic and military influence.

In March 2013, Russia decided to curtail the operations of NGOs by introducing legislation that would have them registered as foreign agents. Backing the legislation, Putin stated:  “Whether these organizations want it or not, they become an instrument in the hands of foreign states that use them to achieve their own political objectives. This situation is unacceptable. This law is designed to prevent interference in Russia’s internal political life by foreign countries and create transparent conditions for the financing of nongovernmental organizations.

The spirit of the Russian legislation is not very different from what India has tried to do facing somewhat similar problems with NGOs. More restrictive than India and Russia, China had several hundred thousand NGOs operating under different registrations. Like Russia and India, China has argued that the US and other governments use NGOs to infiltrate institutions, manipulate and mold public opinion, influence policies and destabilize countries with the sole purpose of economic, political, cultural and strategic advantage.
Not just in the former Soviet republics, including troubled, Ukraine, but in China and India NGOs have multiplied by the hundreds of thousands pushing an agenda on everything from varieties of Christian fundamentalism to commercial products, all under the convenient cover of freedom and democracy, and humanitarian assistance.

It is important to note that when European colonists infiltrated Africa, they sent in the clergy to convert the natives, then the merchants and finally the military to protect priests and merchants who enjoyed protection under a formalized colony. NOGs are the instruments of 21st century neo-imperialist policy with a soft front and a very hard core of commercial, political and military interests behind the soft face of human rights.
An example of the NGOs role in neo-imperialism is a case of Russian national Alexei Pankin who ran a USAID-funded media-influence program with $10.5 million coming from billionaire George Soros. 

In a published interview, Pankin admitted that his NGOs included US intelligence officers. Russian police have cracked down on numerous non-governmental organizations receiving foreign government funding, an act that means they are in fact foreign agents by definition even in the US. One way that the US has used to circumvent the direct ties with NGOs is to establish funding through foundations including the National Endowment for Democracy, Ford, Rockefeller, Soros, etc. The money trail may start with the foundations, but behind them are the government and the largest multination corporations interested in the integration of former Soviet republics into the Western sphere of influence in every sense from cultural and political to economic and strategic.

The role of U.S.-funded NGOs in trying to impose regime change in a number of Latin American, African, Asian and Eurasian countries has been controversial because people have one impression of NGOs when in fact that impression has nothing to do with the reality. Although NGOs operate on a large scale in the former Soviet republics, their role is hardly known because the Western media does not conduct investigative reporting to expose their sources of funding, their tactics and goals. On the contrary, the media focuses on what appears to be grassroots movements for progressive change, without mentioning that behind the movements are NGO’s and that the movements often contain extreme reactionary elements. This is exactly what took place in Ukraine where neo-Nazis were part of the pro-West movement. 

Besides US and EU governments, the IMF and World Bank as well as large corporations funding private foundations are behind the NGOs in the former Soviet republics with the ultimate goal of thoroughly integrating them into the Western orbit of influence – militarily, politically, and economically. The International Center for Policy Studies in Ukraine, an organization devoted to integrate Ukraine into the West, takes pride that the country had more than 40,000 NGOs involving citizens that took place in the Orange Revolution. Needless to say, when a revolution is top down, paid for and manufactured, it hardly represents the grassroots and it hardly has a chance at success, as we have seen in the last two years in civil-war torn Ukraine. This raises the question of how the West uses NGOs to stage revolutions for counterrevolutionary purposes, while all along projecting the impression to the public that the goal is human rights, freedom and democracy.

NGOs can play a vital role in monitoring the abuses of governments and violations of civil rights and human rights. They can also play a significant role assisting in emergency situations with epidemics, famine, refugees, and environmental disasters, economic, social and scientific development, and other such causes that promote the welfare of people and the planet. No doubt, the people involved in NGOs come from the professional middle class and represent a value system and perspectives of the bourgeois society, while the people on the receiving end are invariably working class and peasants. As long as the needs of people are met, the civil society concept is fine. However, when the purpose is to coopt the masses into a political system and consumerist culture, when the purpose is to prevent progressive forces from achieving social justice instead of helping them, then civil society is nothing but an instrument of imperialism. 

The president of Liberia recently warned that although NGOs had financial and moral integrity problems, they were challenging the state's sovereignty on the same grounds. That so many NGOs have become everything from soft pressure or lobbying groups for governments and business, that others are in the business of spying that modern technology has made easier, or that they have sinister goals of undermining the public good in order to serve narrow interests is a distortion of the historical purpose of NGOs.

Monday, 15 September 2014


The decline of the European Socialist parties – France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Greece – represents the triumph of neoliberalism that the conservative European parties imposed on Europe in the last three decades. Not just the German elections of autumn 2013, but the complete embracing of neoliberalism by Francois Hollande and acceptance of austerity and monetarist policies has entailed that Socialism has no relationship to it ideological and historical roots. Not that the French Socialist Party has enjoyed much credibility in the last two decades, especially considering the corruption and scandals of its leadership, but only because the conservatives under Sarkozy were also corrupt and scandal-ridden, and were leading the country deeper toward recession did the voters turn to Hollande. However, the future for the French Socialists looks no brighter than it does for Socialists in the rest of Europe.
 Hollande’s decision to dismiss the cabinet in August 2014 after the economy minister criticized the German fiscal and monetary model imposed on all of Europe signaled the unmitigated submission of French Socialists to neoliberalism. The decision of the French Socialist government further signaled to the EU that there is no policy difference between the neoliberal direction and goals of conservative Germany and Socialist France that was once believed to be free of German influence. Announcing a new round of tax reductions to the businesses and cuts in the budget targeting social programs, Hollande, who has a mere 17% public approval, caved under the pressure of banks, financial firms and large corporations that support the German austerity model. This officially marked the end of Socialism in France as anything but a name used for public relations purposes to secure votes from those identifying with the party that once stood for class-consciousness based economic, political and social policies and its roots are in the Marxist tradition.

The popular base of the Socialist parties of Europe has shifted from the working class before WWI, to the lower middle class and upper working class (highly paid trade unionists) in the last half century. While the Socialists always worked within the parliamentary system and were never revolutionary, they at least insisted on political reforms that would provide greater economic, social and political benefits for the lower strata of society.

The Socialist reformist program (rationalizing capitalism under the state’s tutelage) had become part of the Keynesian model from the 1930s until the 1980s when Socialist parties began to abandon their reformist social welfare positions and increasingly moving toward the neoliberal model and globalization. In the last two decades, and especially in the last six years amid the global recessionary climate, European Socialist parties proved repeatedly that they are solidly behind finance capital without any sense of accountability to their middle class and upper working class constituency whose interests have been irreparably damaged by the massive transfer of resources from the social welfare state to the corporate welfare state and the decline of living standards amid double-digit unemployment.

Considering that European Socialist parties represent finance capital, considering their recent history of betraying voters with false promises, lying to them to win elections in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and even Germany, the question is whether European Socialism has a future and whether it should claim the name “Socialism”? It is true that European intellectuals and trade union leaders were always behind the European Socialist movements and political parties, and that this has been a top-down political organization and not grassroots. However, it is also true that those intellectuals were driven by idealism and not raw desire for power and wealth as the current leadership across Europe. Not only did the Socialist lose their way once they embraced nationalism and capitalism above loyalty to the working class across national borders, but they continued to deteriorate after the Bolshevik Revolution when they moved father to the right and became anti-revolutionary, in essence an integral part of the institutional structure of capitalism.

The cooptation of Socialist parties into the mainstream of capitalist institutions necessarily entailed embracing finance capitalism with some state controls to coopt the lower classes. The only question remained to what degree were Socialists any different than liberals or conservatives? Until the 1980s, Socialists claimed that they were the defenders of the middle class and workers because they believed in institutional protections for workers and maintained some commitment to social justice through human rights and civil issues. However, by the late 1980s to early 1990s, it was evident that Socialist parties across Europe were interested in “Clintonizing” their parties so that they would appear Socialist to their constituents, but in reality pursue fiscal, monetary, trade, investment and labor policies no different than their conservative counterparts.

The image of Socialism remained in the forefront, but the essence was gone. It took the austerity orientation that Germany has been dictating to the rest of EU since 2010 for many people to see through the farce of Socialist myths. If Sarkozy and Hollande are both equally committed to austerity and neoliberalism, then why should the voter choose Socialism that merely lies to the voters to secure power and serve finance capital? This meant that for those seeking an alternative neoliberalism, there is always the neo-Fascist alternative of Marine Le Pen in France, for example, or the Communist Party that has its own historic problems and lacks credibility more than the neo-Fascists. The same holds true across Europe, where voters are becoming increasingly polarized as the European Parliament elections demonstrated in 2014.

When Europeans watched the Greek Socialist Party PASOK take the lead to place the country under IMF-EU austerity in 2010, many argued at the time that Greece was the exception. PASOK had won with 45 percent of the vote, while it currently has 4 percent in opinion polls. Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus followed the same path; and informally, so did Spain, Italy and France. The pattern proved that IMF-German imposed austerity policies acceptable to Socialist parties of Europe was the norm, demonstrating that Socialism was hollow and represented financial capitalism rather than workers and the middle class. Just as prepared as the conservatives to do away with workers' protection ranging from social programs to maintaining wage rates, the Socialists argued and continue to do so that "there is no alternative", presumably to neoliberalism as though everything starts and ends with neoliebral policies.

The only choice of voters was where to cast their vote because the two-party system of Europe began to resemble the two-party system of the US where the differences between Republicans and Democrats are on the cultural issues and stylistics about the environment and similar issues rather than what core class interests each party represents. Has Europe become like the US where the voters know there are only stylistic differences on essential social, economic, and foreign policy issues? Has European Socialism lost its way from its Marxist origins to become even more apologetic of capitalism than conservative parties?
In 1912, Socialism experienced its zenith, declining very rapidly thereafter as it embraced the nationalist over the internationalist position on foreign policy on the eve of the Great War. The triumph of Wilsonian liberalism during the 1910s and the political realities of postwar reconstruction amid political polarization with Fascism and Nazism on the rise in the 1920s presented opportunities for Socialism to emerge in a leadership role across Europe. However, with the exception of France and Spain under the Popular Front in the 1930s, Socialism suffered setbacks across Europe, largely because of lack of cooperation with the Communists and other progressive parties, but also because it was increasingly a status quo party. The New Deal in the US, and the adoption of the Keynesian social welfare model that provided an institutional safety net for the lower classes essentially meant the Socialists were satisfied working with the system to promote capitalism that made modest concessions to the lower classes and allowed for the possibility of upward social mobility.

Using the argument that Socialist parties are committed to social justice, defending trade unions, defending the poor, defending minorities, defending collective bargaining, and guarding against the abuses of capitalism, Socialist parties were able to keep their popular base, while securing the support of capitalists who understood the significance of social harmony under a social contract where labor and the lower middle class enjoyed some benefits and believed the system served them as well as the capitalists. However, the triumph of the US over the Communist bloc emboldened the neoliberals interested in crushing even the remnants of Keynesian policies that were left over from the 1908s when Reagan and Thatcher had begun to dismantle the social welfare state in order to strengthen defense and the corporate welfare state.

In the absence of Communism, the conservatives turned their attention on Socialists whose policies were hardly any different than those of neoliberals. With the advent of environmental political parties, essentially bourgeois in every sense given that their commitment to social justice was as diluted as that of the Socialists, the attack on European Socialists came from different directions, including the far right. To preserve the institutional gains Socialist parties had made throughout Europe, they turned to the right, embracing globalization and neoliberalism, further alienating their voters who remained loyal to Socialism as it once was rather than it had evolved. Merkel’s monumental political success and Germany’s unquestioned economic hegemony convinced European Socialist leaders that their only option was to pay homage to neoliberalism and its austerity policies that finance capital advocated.  

After all, what choices did voters have but to remain loyal to Socialism no matter how far to the right it had evolved, considering that across Europe the conservatives appeared strong. The voters of course have signaled that they are willing to go to the far right, abandoning the two-party system representing neoliberal thinking. Not just Greece where neo-Nazi Golden Dawn ranks number three in public opinion polls, but in all of Europe from Austria to Italy the far right is making a strong return because the Socialist parties are even more bourgeois and neoliberal than the conservative, and most voter seeking an alternative have no faith in Communism, given its 20th century history. The political polarization of the European political arena is the result of the Socialist parties falling victims to cooptation by the capitalist system. If we examine individual Socialist leaders in Europe, we find that they are no less corrupt, no less clientist in their mode of operation, no less power hungry and unconcerned with the lower classes than conservatives.

One option for the future of European Socialist parties is to abandon neoliberalism and return to their ideological roots and unyielding commitment to social justice. Slowly, they may be able to rebuild their parties from the grassroots level, rather than accepting massive campaign contributions from capitalists and trying to pass out clientist political favors as a way to build a popular voting base. The other option, and much more honorable, is for Socialists to disband and declare themselves openly neoliberal advocates. Trying to fool people that they are “Socialists” has its limits and the very low popularity of Hollande as well as of all Socialist parties clearly indicates as much. 

There are leftist parties, including Greece’s SYRIZA that currently leads in opinion polls, as well as the Scottish Socialist Party, and others resisting conformity to neoliberalism and defending social justice that have no political baggage as the established European Socialist parties do. Perhaps these parties represent the new hope for those progressive voters looking for a party that pursues social justice policies and does not simply use the title “Socialist” to attract votes. It remains to be seen what the future holds for Socialist parties, but at this juncture things look as bad for them as they do for the Communist parties.