(Swans - May 21, 2012) "Astroturfing" is a term that has entered the popular lexicon of the politically educated, referring to the ability of largely unseen actors to mold and direct grassroots social movement. Awareness of this phenomenon is adirect fallout from the ascendancy of the Tea Party, as it became rapidly apparent that its transition from a protest movement to a legislative powerhouse was guided with the help of the now-renowned Koch brothers. These conservative-minded billionaire philanthropists, working through their interlocking family foundations, had invested vast sums of money into intermediary organizations that helped plan, facilitate, and execute successful protests, rallies, and political campaigns. Yet those who flaunt the term "astroturfing" -- namely, those on the left of the spectrum -- have shown a certain reluctance to acknowledge the fact that this same method is being applied to progressive grassroots movements as well, re-concentrating disenfranchisement with the dominant institutions of power into a manageable opposition capable of acting as a voting base. This is not a recent development; it dates back to the "Progressive Era" of American political history, and it forms a central apparatus of US foreign policy abroad under the non-descript diplomacy of "democracy promotion."
In a previous article for Swans Commentary, titled "Harnessing People Power: Co-Option at Work in American Today," I argued that the growing 99% Spring movement is in actuality just such an astroturfing campaign, designed primarily by MoveOn to co-opt the energy and imagery of Occupy Wall Street in order to promote moderate, as opposed to structural, political and economic change. Forsaking the wider socialist and anarchist-inspired mentality of its predecessor, the 99% Spring (as well as its sister movement, Van Jones's Rebuild the Dream), reflects a more Keynesian economic framework. It's highly recommended that one reads "Harnessing People Power" prior to this article, which is more or less an addendum that examines the extended links between the 99% Spring and the so-called "professional left" -- the sphere of players that straddle the lines between social change movements and the interchangeable networks of corporations, capitalist philanthropies, and political arenas. In order to do this, key organizations that have signed the 99% Spring's initial declaration examined, and in turn are used as a brief launching pad to peek into the network-like structure of the moderate left. (1)
350.org: Environmental Corporatism
The first organization to be looked at is 350.org, a climate change awareness advocacy organization launched in 2007 by the author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. McKibben's approach to environmentalism is positioned firmly in the ideology of "green capitalism," advocating a return to localized market economies while eschewing the notions of collectivization or wealth redistribution. Halting catastrophic climate change, he argues, "will not mean abandoning Adam Smith" and "doesn't require that you join a commune or become a socialist." (2) Espousing this moderate viewpoint has led 350.org's subsidization by large liberal philanthropies, primarily, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). This is an important connection, as RBF's current president, Stephen Heintz, is the founding executive director of Demos: A Network for Ideas & Action, a "non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization committed to building an America that achieves its highest democratic ideals." Deepening the ties, Demos, funded by the RBF and Ford Foundation, hosts 99% Spring material on their website and also counts Rebuild the Dream founder Van Jones on its advisory board. Furthermore, in 2011 350.org merged with another environmental coalition, 1Sky, where Jones can be found yet again on its director board.
In "Harnessing People Power" I argued that the center-left publication The Nation was intimately tied to the 99% Spring and Rebuild the Dream by summarizing the connections between the magazine's figureheads and the network. (3) It's certainly interesting to observe then that one of the most influential of The Nation's writers, Naomi Klein, announced in 2011 that she was joining board of directors of 350.org. (4) Klein's notoriety derives mainly from her well-known anti-corporatist treatises, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, texts in which she has analyzed the corrosive nature of neoliberalism on culture, national politics, and economics. However, a close reading of The Shock Doctrine reveals her glaring refusal to attack capitalism's production modes; instead, she prefers to refer to her "emergent Keynesianism" and waxes poetically about the days when "young men from Ivy League schools sat around commanding table... having heated debates about the interest rate and the price of wheat." (5) This vision of a benevolent technocracy is at odds, certainly, with the desires for true democracy that she expresses elsewhere in the text, and her longing for Ivy League-directed economics should be contrasted with the sociological analyses of the liberal contingencies of the elite establishment as presented by C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff. (6) While Klein's critique is undoubtedly vital to helping undermine the grand narrative of neoliberalism, it is ultimately deflective in nature -- did imperial ambitions (the Vietnam War, for example) not exist during the "heyday of Keynesianism," and was this economic system not wrought with its own internal tensions and structural flaws? Regardless, her discourse is completely compatible with viewpoint of the moderate American left.
Before moving on, the last connections of 350.org to mention have more immediate relevancy to the 99% Spring. As mentioned above, 2011 saw a merger between 350.org and 1Sky. At the time, 1Sky's campaign director was one Liz Butler, who in turn is now sending out emails from the 99% Spring with subject lines beseeching recipients to "Become a 99% Spring Trainer." (7) Furthermore, one of 350.org's key organizers, Joshua Kahn Russell, has utilized his organization's e-mailing list to blanket the activist sphere calling attention to the 99% Spring and requesting people to volunteer as trainers. Important, Russell, prior to his work at 350.org, was affiliated with the Ruckus Society and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) -- two more organizations that are helping to launch the 99% Spring.
Ruckus, Rainforests, and the Color Pink
The Ruckus Society and RAN are two organizations that truly bare the hallmarks of being radical; Ruckus, for one, was instrumental in fomenting the Battle of Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization summit. Since its founding in 1995, it has raised awareness of environmental degradation and has provided networks of activists with courses in direct action tactics. Its "hell-raising" mentality has led it to be characterized by many as anarchist in nature, but while its training and support has certainly aided many anti-establishment outfits, its leadership is firmly situated in the foundation-supported NGO spectrum. For example, the current executive of Ruckus is also the national coordinator for the US Social Forum, which helped bring activists in contact with co-opting entities such as the Ford Foundation and the aforementioned Rockefeller Brothers Fund. (8) Ruckus has also secured funding from the Tides Foundation, which in turn can be linked (via Tides founder Drummond Pike) to the Democracy Alliance, a coalition of high-profile wealthy liberals that run the gamut from labor leaders, foundation directors, Federal Reserve bankers, and moderate economic think-tank members.
The Ruckus Society was founded by environmental activist Mike Roselle, who had also created the closely-linked RAN. RAN, in many ways, can be seen as Ruckus's more "mainstream" counterpart, adopting a willingness to work hand in hand with corporations in an effort to reform their operations. (9) To further these goals, RAN has been yet another grassroots organization to benefit from the philanthropy of the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. One of the outcomes of this indirect corporate funding, in one interesting example, was RAN's work with Goldman Sachs in forming their environmental policy. At the time Goldman Sachs was being headed by Henry Paulson, who shortly after left the corporation to head President George Bush's Treasury Department. While this conflict of interest has become common knowledge in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it has often been ignored that under Paulson (working in hand with RAN's emphasis on the environment), the megacorporation had become an advocate for cap-and-trade policies, which essentially made pollution a privatized tradable commodity in the form of "carbon credits." As journalist Matt Taibbi has demonstrated, Goldman Sachs owned a stake in the (now defunct) Chicago Climate Exchange, which would have served as the U.S.'s primary platform for trading carbon credits -- meaning that the corporation would have profited immensely from its "climate-friendly" advocacy. (10) Given the shady correlations between Goldman Sachs and the current administration, particularly in regards to the bailouts, perhaps it is worthwhile to take note that Barack Obama has previously served on the board of directors of both the Chicago Climate Exchange and one of its primary funders, the Joyce Foundation.
Despite their willingness to deal with corporations like Goldman Sachs, RAN, joined by the Ruckus Society, has recently begun to adapt a critical stance towards cap-and-trade policies, castigating it as a faux solution to earth's mounting environmental problems. This is a testament to the fact that organizations such as the Ruckus Society and RAN contain within themselves the essence of radicalization, but one that is subdued and reformatted by their leader's administrative duties, the unspoken mandates of funding, and the larger cultural climate in which they operate. Organizations such as this do mobilize for social change, but this change is conduct in the preconceived notions of how mature civilizations operate. Another organization along these lines is another 99% Spring backer, the staunchly antiwar group Code Pink, which, incidentally, interlocks with RAN's director board through its founder, Jodie Evans. Evans and Code Pink have adopted extremely progressive positions, arguing for indigenous people's rights, championing the Palestinian cause, and utilizing provocative and theatrical tactics to protest the US meddlesome wars in the Middle East. Yet when push has come to shove, Code Pink has not undertaken any attempts to reject the overarching power structures, opting instead to focus on the electoral system in the U.S. as the best platform for promoting change. Reflecting this, Evan was listed in 2008 as a "bundler" for the Obama presidential campaign, raising at least $50,000 for him. (11)
More Questions than Answers
This has been a rather brief foray into 99% Spring's extended structure, but it is essential to critically examine even the most progressive of institutions. Studying the networks through which opposition is expressed and how they interact with the elite classes -- be they the opposition, the benefactor, or in some cases both -- raises even larger questions about the nature of resistance to capitalism in the modern age. Activists have been quick to react rather cynically about efforts by corporations to rework their image from exploiter to socially aware vanguard (such as Starbuck's environmental awareness and donations to anti-poverty programs in the Third World, for example), but this is truly no different from the Ruckus Society's early back from Ted Turner, the media mogul behind CNN and Time Warner.
There is a common misconception that the capitalism of today is a rigid, stone-like monolith. Indeed, Naomi Klein has even referred to neoliberal economics as being "biased at every level towards centralization, consolidation, homogenization... a war waged against diversity." (12) This description is far more indicative of her preferred period of Keynesianism, when the state acted as the limited of capital and classes were harmonized by technocrats, when nationalism reached its zenith in the face of a fulfilled American Dream, and prosperity was denied to minority populations. Capitalism has rapidly changed since those days -- its geographical and legislative boundaries are unfixed, and capital flows and changing immigration patterns have altered Western culture into a more multicultural framework. Beyond this, the new flexible capitalism is willing to recognize environmental problems and the potentials of unrest swelling up from widespread wealth inequality. Of course, all of these elements of progression are acknowledged in a way for a monetary reward to be gleamed from them. As theorist Brian Massumi has written:
Capitalism starts intensifying or diversifying affect, but only in order to extract surplus-value. It hijacks affect in order to intensify profit potential. It literally valorises affect. The capitalist logic of surplus-value production starts to take over the relational field that is also the domain of political ecology, the ethical field of resistance to identity and predictable paths. It's very troubling and confusing, because it seems to me that there's been a kind of convergence between the dynamic of capitalist power and the dynamic of resistance. (13)
Widespread change operates in modern capitalism through the principle of repressive desublimation, the "liberation" of a repressed or oppressed feeling, concept, or necessity in a way that is beneficial to the prevailing order. (14) In doing so, the nature of what was repressed or oppressed inherently loses, both inherently and symbolically, what made it truly radical and adversarial in the first place. Does this not hint at the wider, underlying structural nature of capitalism itself? Is the marketplace not an extension of human needs and desires, formulated in a way that is manageable and profitable? Going to these more far-reaching perspectives, it could be argued that the desublimation of social movements is a naturally occurring component of the capitalist system, as it updates its priorities to rapidly increasing societal changes.
It is for this very reason that I believe it is essential that those who oppose the power institutions to question, examine, and formulate the nuances of articulating the need for change and conducting revolutionary action "within an order that is inherently self-revolutionising." (15)
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Edmund Berger is an independent writer and researcher living in Louisville, Kentucky. He is currently at work on a book detailing the history of American democracy promotion. He can be reached at Edmund.B.Berger [at] gmail.com. (back)
3. Some of the connections are as follows:
- The Nation has published segments of Van Jones's new book, Rebuild the Dream, which lays out the rhetorical designs behind his movement.
- One of the new writers for The Nation is Ilyse Hogue, having made her debut at the magazine in their "Occupy Spring" issue. Prior to this, she served in an administrative capacity at MoveOn and current works at Rebuild the Dream.
- Deepak Bhargava, a member of The Nation's editorial board, is an executive director at the Center for Community Change; this organization, in turn, helped launch Rebuild the Dream. (back)
6. In Mill's and Domhoff's "elite theory," the more liberal-minded members of the moneyed class (who are most frequently educated at Ivy League schools) are those with interests in international finance. Commonly dubbed as the "Eastern Establishment" for their typical geographical location on the northeastern seaboard of the U.S. (in particular, New York City), these individuals tend to favor a climate of economic stability to protect their business interests. As Domhoff has shown, members of the Eastern Establishment tend to express their power through elite institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, and high-level philanthropies such as the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations. Thus, this venue of analysis is central to this ongoing critique, as it provides an essential framework for understanding how and why "benevolent capitalism" can evolve. See C. Wright Mills The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 2000); G. William Domhoff Who Rules America? (Prentice Hall, 1967); and Domhoff The Power Elite and the State: How Policy is Made in America (Aldine, 1990). (back)
9. The moderate activities of the Rainforest Action Network are examined in Michael Barker's "Saving Trees and Capitalism Too," State of Nature http://www.stateofnature.org/savingTrees.html (accessed April 27, 2012). (back)