Neo-Marxist philosopher Antonio Garmsci argues that capitalists use non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as a new weapon to erase and transform characteristics of communism in the post-modern world. A very pragmatic example of this theory is found in Nepal where the communist parties are gradually being devaluated as NGOs. Particularly, after the 1990 democratic movement, mainstream communist parties such as CPN-UML started losing their mass-based characteristics and became more exclusive by adopting membership-based approach.
Similarly, philosopher Michel Foucault says that a hegemonic regime often introduces new mechanisms with different names to diffuse transformative forces. Most of the revolutionary leaders of CPN-UML, who sacrificed their youthful energy and time for democratic changes, later on started operating NGOs during the rule of the party-less Panchyat regime. They considered running NGOs as a means of bringing social and political changes. As time passed, CPN-UML cadres across the country considered being engaged in NGOs as an easy mechanism to work for the sake of social transformation. This led them to increasingly adopt less risky ways that also ensured quick and easy economic gains.
The implication of such an attitude can be clearly seen in the Constituent Assembly (CA). Despite having a two-third majority in the CA, we can barely hear communist leaders raising their voice for the benefit of proletariats. Most CA members prefer discussing issues in hotel-based seminars and interactions, organized by national and international NGOs rather than in the CA. With the rise in their standard of living, their ways of viewing ‘social justice’ issues have changed and they have become more focused on protecting their own interests and that of the middle- and higher-class groups rather than that of the proletariat.
This has disillusioned grassroots supporters who found the radical slogans and movement of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) more appealing. A large number of CPN-UML cadres joined the UCPN (M) who now hold mid-level posts at central and district levels, including the sister organizations. If this trend continues, what will be the situation after several years?
In the post-nineties period, de-virtualization and co-option of the leading communist party, i.e. CPN-UML, was essential for anti-communists and feudal agents to neutralize its transformative elements, which could have posed a threat to the dominant power holders. Thus, an emerging new wave of communism principled by bahudaliya janabad was brought to change the violent approach of traditional communists into a peaceful means for social and political transformation. This, however, inherently implanted Westernized values and principles of liberalism. That liberal principle and political approach continues to be the central guideline for NGOs to be groomed in. The reason why the NGO movement is similar to CPN-UML’s bahudaliya janabad is because both approaches do not at all differ in their stand and approach to social and political changes. It is an example of how a political principle provides room for NGOs who co-opted the political party by hijacking the party’s major agenda. This phenomenon can be studied further.
Turning their back to the Bangladeshi experience of NGOs’ minimal impact, a large number of CPN-UML central committee members continue to operate or support NGOs, mostly run by their offspring, kin and cadres.
Neo-Marxists perceive this tactic as the reproduction of the discourse through various channels in order to create and maintain social consensus around the interests of the dominant power structures. The assertion of the CPN-UML leaders that their party is the real communist party of Nepal contradicts with the Marxist view, which defines NGOs as soft powers created by the bourgeoisie to maintain domination. Incorporation, rather than exclusion is the best form of control. Undertaking this theory, the power-holders found NGOs as the appropriate means to transform the daily circumstances of the political agents in a poor country like Nepal. NGOs have been popularized as the major vehicles to raise the living standards of the lower class to a lavish and luxurious higher-middle class life.
It is true that both NGOs and the communist parties have the same objective to attain social justice; however, they are quite different in principle, origin, nature and characteristics. Only in the classical phase were political and civil societies defined as having the same elements. For example, John Locke made no separation between civil society and political society. Until the 18th century, civil society and political society were used synonymously in many instances. This trend continued until the Scottish Enlightenment where one of its leaders Adam Ferguson outlined a clear distinction from the perspective of accountability: Political actors are accountable towards the mass of people whereas an NGO has accountability towards a limited number of selected individuals.
Nepali analyst CK Lal, too, has rightly pointed out that Nepali Congress adopts a theory of ‘a closed-door meeting’; CPN-UML enjoys an illusion of seminars, whereas the UCPN (M) mobilizes the mass to gain political strength.
It is political force that makes a difference in the society while NGOs can facilitate the change process led by the mass. Consider the case of Bangladesh: Despite having the world’s largest number of NGOs, it has been witnessing gradual escalation of exploitation, gender disparity, poverty and violence. Only last year, the government disapproved renewal of about 20,000 NGOs in Bangladesh due to inconsistencies practiced by such organizations. Turning their back to the Bangladeshi experience of NGOs’ minimal impact socially, politically and economically, a large number of CPN-UML central committee members, including present ministers, continue to operate or support NGOs, mostly run by their offspring, kin and cadres.
This has had negative implications on party’s functioning and public image. The degeneration has contributed to raise frustration amongst veteran CPN-UML cadres and promoted dubious characters across the party line who are more concerned about their NGO affiliations and seemingly ignorant of its impacts on their political party. They also tend to overlook various local dynamics and inequalities embedded in traditions and cultural practices, particularly in terms of ethnicity, caste, gender and class.
Even the emerging youth political actors wrongly assume that they can make a difference in society by NGO-nizing their party politics. The ‘proposal culture’ has been spreading as slow poison and destroying the political ideology and sense of struggle of CPN-UML. More than 70 percent of Nepali NGOs are under the party’s direct or indirect control/influence; this has made the party appear as a civil society network rather than an intact political party.
Collaboration with externally-driven ‘peace industry’ and transformation of the living standards of Nepali leftist leaders have made the people view their slogan of ‘class exploitation’ as hypocrisy. Neither bourgeois social science nor classical Marxism can rationally outline a comprehensive image of variable political forces. However, the de-virtualized political purity has to be revived and political roots revisited to narrow down the growing radical left space as well as squeeze status quo of the so-called democratic alliance.
Non-class based social movements, politics of identity and revival of the belief in the need to build civil society have prevented left wing parties from becoming representatives of the oppressed people and true proletarians in Nepali society. If unchecked, CPN-UML will be threatened, on the one hand, with the prospect of being converted to a federation of various NGOs, and on the other hand, their cadres and revolutionary change seekers may opt to join Maoists or quit politics.
It could finally establish the arguments that socialism is not a perfect alternative to growing capitalism across the world, which is the only available option in the post-Cold War era. How left parties such as CPN-UML will get rid of their NGO-orientation to be truly class-based drivers of change is a major question of the day. Otherwise, it is sure that the transformation towards a central left will provide better reasons for revolutionaries to join radical forces instead.
Thanks Dipendra for such a true analysis. I am still not sure how many of UML leaders read this article but it is really useful for the people who like such an academic discourse which provides guidelines to the political activists and NGO operators. There is a need of critically looking at the issue and particularly the musrooming of NGOs in Nepal these days. Their partisan inks have devastated the true meaning of non-governmental organisations and their social service motto.