The Uses and Abuses of Global Civil Society


Yesterday dmf linked an article here titled “Internet privacy, funded by spooks”, which advances the argument that through a series of intermediary organizations, federal money has been subsidizing the creation of whistleblower technologies and privacy tools like Tor and Open Whisper Systems. Alongside Crypto Cat, Global Leaks, and The Guardian Project, these systems receiving funding under the Open Technology Fund, itself run by Radio Free Asia (RFA). The RFA, in turn, originates from the Cold War-era network of propaganda outfits designed to promote the Western ideals of low-intensity democracy and capitalism as a counterbalance to the Communism promoted by the Soviet Union. It finds its compliments in the Voice of America program, World Net TV, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and all receiving funding from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), established in 1999 by President Clinton. As the article point out, these organizations had previously been funded through the CIA; under the creation of the BBG (which appoints directly to the Secretary of State), funding for these organizations increased considerably through the budgetary allocation of $721 million for the parent organization.

The article briefly quotes the BBG’s “2013 fact sheet for its ‘Internet Anti-Censorship’ unit:”

The BBG collaborates with other Internet freedom projects and organizations, including RFA’s Open Technology Fund, the State Department, USAID, and DARPAs SAFER Warfighter Communications Program. IAC is also reaching out to other groups interested in Internet freedom such as Google, Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance.

These implied collaborations are often, in reality, a near-synchronization of internal operations, personnel, and funding passageways. For example, Freedom House, a neoconservative-leaning NGO, receives partial funding from the National Endowment of Democracy (with which it maintains an extensive interlocking board membership), a quasi-NGO that is subsidized by the US government. In another instance, the media operations of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty often work in tandem with the Jamestown Foundation and the American Committee for Peace in the Caucus; each of these maintain nearly identical personal and management teams, and the America Committee for Peace in the Caucus itself operates through Freedom House’s Washington, DC offices.

On could lose days playing the connections game: expanding through agencies, organizations, think-tanks, philanthropies, and initiatives, one catches the glimpse of a dense network not often acknowledged in discourses on US foreign policy. This network is the structural backbone of America’s democracy promotion efforts. If the network has a center, it is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED came into creation through the Reagan administration’s “Project Democracy”, dedicated to fostering “the infrastructure of democracy around the world.” The framework came from the 1983 National Security Directive 77, which organized Project Democracy into three overlapping aspects: public diplomacy (psychological operations and propaganda), the expansion of covert operations, and the creation of federally-funded institution that would conduct ‘overt’ operations in conjunction with dissident groups around the world.

The evolution, history, and operations of the NED have been discussed elsewhere on this blog:

In his excellent study of the NED’s operations in Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, William I. Robinson digs into just how democracy promotion works, and what it means:

What US policymakers mean by “democracy promotion” is the promotion of polyarchy, a concept which developed in US academic circles closely tied to the policymaking community in the United States in the post-World War II years (the word was first coined by Robert Dahl). Polyarchy refers to a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choices in elections carefully managed by competing elites. The pluralist assumption is that elites will respond to the general interests of majorities, through polyarchy’s “twin dimensions” of “political contestation” and “political inclusiveness,” as a result of the need of those who govern to win a majority of votes. It is theoretically grounded in structural-functionalism – and behind it, the positivist focus on the separate aspects and external relation of things – in which the different spheres of the social totality are independent, each performing system maintenance functions and externally related to each other in a larger Parsonian “social system”.  Democracy is limited to the political sphere, and revolves around processes, method, and procedure in the selection of leaders. This is an institutional definition of democracy. Political scientist Samuel Huntington notes that the classic definition of democracy as power/rule by the people – rooted in the original Greek, power or rule (cratos) by the people (demos) – and “its derivatives and applications over the ages” have “sharply declined, at least in the American scholarly discussions, and have been replaced by efforts to understand the nature of democratic institutions. Huntington concludes: “Democracy has a useful meaning only when it is defined in institutional terms. The key institution of democracy is the selection of leaders through competitive elections.” In turn, polyarchy has been conflated to the staple definition of democracy in both “democratization” and “democracy promotion” literature. (pgs. 49-50)

Robinson argues that because the interests of elites is correlated more to the systems that empower them and exercise hegemony through institutional arranges (an argument that synthesizes Gramsci’s theories of hegemony with the elite theory of C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff), polyarchy is less a pluralist management of a population for the “common good” as much as it is a pluralistic management of the capitalist system itself. The issues increased in complexity following the movement from an international capitalist order – defined by large trading blocs bound by industrialization and regulated through the state – to a transnational capitalist order, flexibly organized through global networks, powered by uneven development and the retooling of the state into a neoliberal mode. The international system maintained the hegemony of national classes; through globalization, what we see is the emergence of a transnational capitalist class that must expand its powers while also ironing out structural contradictions that might undermine its power. One such contradiction is the emergence of a parallel global civil society alongside and below the transnational capitalist class. Robinson writes that

US “democracy promotion,” as it actually functions, sets about not just to secure and stabilize elite-based polyarchic systems but to have the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein assure control over popular mobilization and mass movements (that is, correct the “flukes” or “dysfunctions” of democracy). This is in distinction to earlier strategies to contain social and political mobilization through a focus on control of the state and governmental apparatus. Stephen Gill, in analyzing the Trilateral Commission report and the thinking in higher echelons of the US foreign-policy establishment, notes that the emergent model of “reconstituted democracy” corresponds “to the concept of civil society, and indicate[s] its centrality in the making of state policy.” Philip Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl note: “At its best, civil society provides an intermediate layer of governance [read: control] between the individual and the state that is capable of resolving conflicts and controlling the behavior of members without public coercion. US strategists have shifted attention from the state and governmental apparatus of other countries to forces in civil society as a key locus of power and control. The composition and balance of power in civil society in a given Third World country is now just as important to US and transnational interests as who controls the governments of those countries. This is a shift from social control “from above” to social control “from below” (and within), for the purpose of managing change and reform so as to preempt any elemental challenge to the social order. This explains why the new political intervention does not target governments per se, but groups in civil society itself – trade unions, political parties, peasant associations, women’s, youth, and other mass organizations. (pg. 69)

With the globalization of the internet and other information technologies, global civil societies were provided with increased means to organize themselves and mobilize bottom-up political power. The first breakthrough of this form came from the Zapatista uprisings, which quickly transformed from a Third World insurrection to a seething global network of dissident, with actors coordinating across the globe through information technology to give birth to the alter-globalization movement. This reality was soon picked up on by military tacticians at the RAND Corporation, giving rise to literature bearing titles like Networks and Netwar: The Future of Crime, Terror, and Militancy and The Advent of Netwar (Revisisted).

As this increased, so did the democracy promotion network’s own interest in information technology. In 2004, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, a private NGO closely linked to Freedom House as well as the NED’s efforts against Slobodan Milosevic, Alliance-of-Youth-Movements-sponsorspartned with defense contractor Lawrence Livermore Labs to “create and to explore what technologies would actually create advantages for civilian-based movements.” In 2009 the State Department’s Jared Cohen personally lobbied Twitter to allow its services to Iran to continue unabated, in hopes of empowering the dissenting sectors of civil society in their struggles against the theocratic regime. A year prior Cohen had been a key organizer in the Alliance for Youth Movements summit, which brought together State Department representatives, key players in the NED and Freedom House networks, and individuals from various telecommunication giants (such as Google, Yahoo, and MTV). This summit, incidentally, would be instrumental in the forming of the relationship between the democracy promotion networks and the grassroots struggles in Egypt, as I argued in an essay in the anthology Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent:

Perhaps most relevant to the current discussion is the presence of Sherif Mansour at the Youth Summit. At the time the program officer of Freedom House’s Middle East division, Mansour had been a longtime participant in ‘democracy promotion’ networks. He held a year-long fellowship at the Center for Islam and Democracy, which boasts a president who has served as both a member of CIPE’s Development Institute and the NED’s former program director for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Another critical connection for the Center for Islam and Democracy is the NED and AIPAC sponsored Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s membership of the board, which may explain Mansour’s own personal trajectory: before entering into the fray of the Center and Freedom House, he had spent time at Ibrahim’s pro-market Ibn Khaldun Center as the leader of an election monitoring coalition during the 2005 presidential race…

[A leaked WikiLeaks cable] revealed that one leader of the April 6 Movement, Ahmed Saleh, had been in contact with “unnamed members of Freedom House” and had planned to travel to the New York summit. Furthermore, Saleh reportedly had meetings with an “unnamed Amcit [American citizen] who advised him on potential Washington meetings and is working to include him in an early December dinner in New York with Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.” An additional cable contained references to Ahmed Saleh (although the name had been redacted upon publishing of the cables), describing his Washington meetings as “positive”, and revealed for the first time that “the Wafd, Nasserite, Karama and Tagammu parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya, and Revolutionary Socialist movements… [had] agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy.”

These efforts seemed to have begun to pay off within a year of the summit: a leaked cable from 2009 finds Saleh hard at work networking in America on behalf of April 6. He told the State Department that his trips across the Atlantic were being financed by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and that he was operating in conjunction with Sherif Mansour at Freedom House to provide Ayman Nour with earlier electoral support.

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Jared Cohen would later leave the State Department and take up a job at Google, organizing the corporation’s civil society-oriented “think/do” tank Google Ideas. Julian Assange, in his essay “Google Is Not What It Seems”, sees Google Ideas as an expansion of the ambitions of the Alliance for Youth Movement summit. Noting the transition of the summit into, he writes that

 Google Ideas is bigger, but it follows the same game plan. Glance down the speaker lists of its annual invite-only get-togethers, such as “Crisis in a Connected World” in October 2013. Social network theorists and activists give the event a veneer of authenticity, but in truth it boasts a toxic piñata of attendees: US officials, telecom magnates, security consultants, finance capitalists, and foreign-policy tech vultures like Alec Ross (Cohen’s twin at the State Department). At the hard core are the arms contractors and career military: active US Cyber Command chieftains, and even the admiral responsible for all US military operations in Latin America from 2006 to 2009. Tying up the package are Jared Cohen and the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt.

After meticulously listing the points at which Google Ideas intersects the foreign policy establishment (which is not surprising in the least when one takes into account the history detailed in Nafeez Ahmed’s investigative piece “How the CIA Made Google”), Assange argues that the relationship between the two is an example of the hypocrisy of the US’s foreign operations:

…part of the resilient image of Google as “more than just a company” comes from the perception that it does not act like a big, bad corporation. Its penchant for luring people into its services trap with gigabytes of “free storage” produces the perception that Google is giving it away for free, acting directly contrary to the corporate profit motive. Google is perceived as an essentially philanthropic enterprise—a magical engine presided over by otherworldly visionaries—for creating a utopian future. The company has at times appeared anxious to cultivate this image, pouring funding into “corporate responsibility” initiatives to produce “social change”—exemplified by Google Ideas. But as Google Ideas shows, the company’s “philanthropic” efforts, too, bring it uncomfortably close to the imperial side of US influence. If Blackwater/Xe Services/Academi was running a program like Google Ideas, it would draw intense critical scrutiny. But somehow Google gets a free pass.

Google gets a pass because it is operating through the paradigm of soft power, as opposed to the hard power of forceful military intervention. It is the same reason that the NED, Freedom House, and other in the democracy promotion networks often get passed over: their work does operate in a progressive veneer, giving activists the money, tools, and training required to fight back against despotic governments and political isolation. Its cause is humanitarian, even if the end result is the expansion of hegemony and the consolidation of transnationalization’s contradictions. We should note that Joseph Nye, who first gave articulation to the idea of soft power in the 1970s, did not see it as diametrically opposed to hard power – instead, the two forces, persuasion and coercion, can work hand-in-hand. We can see this is the dichotomy in Reagan’s Project Democracy, with its dual focus on both overt, democracy promoting projects and clandestine, covert programs as part of ‘public diplomacy’. We can see it in the way that the NED went to work building up civil society in Iraq after the country was flattened by the hard power of war. We can see it everyday in our own internal societies, where the freedoms of the market run parallel to the profound unfreedoms, violence, and internal colonization that buttress these.

Any technopolitics for our time – and how could a dissenting political praxis today be anything else! – must take into account these types of forces. Civil society is both essential for generating the break needed to pierce the system, but it is also modeled, manipulated, governed by, and ultimately serves to amplify the powers of capital and the state. This isn’t cause to flee, for example, from things like Tor. Things like that are tools, which when held the right way become weapons. The holding, however, is where we need to focus our critical eyes, for it is a composition of social, governmental, and economic forces, deployed by agenda, bracketed by hegemony, and spun towards those using them might not realize. They are within, but they can be against.

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2 Responses to The Uses and Abuses of Global Civil Society

  1. dmf says:

    don’t think there is any telos/necessity to technology (just as there isn’t in the rest of existence) but as always foregrounding the enabling background/infrastructures is a vital start to any effort at reassembling/hacking (including of course understanding/incorporating/hermeneutics)

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