A crucial intervention into mainstream ways of thinking about political organization and social change.
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is a powerful book, forcefully stating and backing up its substantial thesis. The book, an edited volume with a dozen-plus contributors, is a reprint, having originally been released 10 years ago. It remains a crucial intervention into mainstream ways of thinking about political organization and social change. Unfortunately, as it was a decade ago, the book will likely be dismissed as too radical or too utopian to be taken seriously.
The central argument of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is that the current paradigm for pushing for social change in the United States is always already imbricated in the very system it seeks to change. No change can come from this paradigm. According to the book, the radical activism of the ‘60s gave way to the professionalization of protest beginning in the ‘70s in the guise of non-profit organizations. This professionalization was enabled by the existence of charitable foundations which are able to provide funding to nonprofits who deserve it. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded calls this collaboration between foundations and nonprofits the “nonprofit industrial complex” (NPIC).
The NPIC seems like a boon to social change organizations. It allows such groups to have stable budgets, hire qualified and committed workers to contribute to their goals and achieve a certain level of social legitimacy and respectability. But the book very convincingly argues that the opposite is true. The NPIC, in effect, buys off activists by rewarding status quo-maintaining behavior with financial sponsorship and punishing those who push too hard or too radically. The professionalization of activism precludes certain forms of crucial activism, such as supporting the Palestinian struggle for liberation, by rendering them a priori unacceptable. It also forces activists to be professionals working in offices rather than rabble-rousers organizing in the streets. When activism becomes a person’s job, it twists the logic of activism; if the problem gets fixed, the activist might just work herself out a career. It removes the necessity for community-building, which used to be the way organizations sustained themselves, and the contributors to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded persuasively argue that this is detrimental for those wanting real social change.
The first several chapters of the volume are theoretical in nature. They deal with the theory of social change and explain the ways efforts to build a better world are deformed by the NPIC. They also theorize the NPIC itself. Finally, these chapters historicize the NPIC, showing the nefarious policies that have allowed massive private fortunes to be perpetuated tax-free in the form of charitable foundations and how these, in turn, have birthed the modern non-profit and its stale and lifeless approach to improving the world. These theoretical/historical chapters are by far the most effective and convincing in the book, as they carry a hard-hitting edge and back up their ferocious claims with rigorous research.
The final two-thirds of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded are much more practical, providing testimonial-style explorations of various non-profit groups who experienced the epiphany that their funding structures were restraining their voice and holding them back. These chapters quickly get repetitive and often lack the basis in research or the clear articulation of a thesis that is worth the reader’s time. They may be interesting to people working in the nonprofit sector, but as rhetorical works they contribute next to nothing to the book’s overall efficacy.
The book has not aged much in the 10 years since its release; its critiques are even more salient today than they were during the Bush years. Unfortunately, the book would be more appropriate with a Clinton presidency, as its radical claims would prevent liberals from casually congratulating themselves on a job well done. Trump, on the other hand, has created a siege mentality in the nonprofit sector and the book’s searing criticisms seem a bit harsh.
The one way in which the book seems outdated is its theorization of neoliberalism. In the years since its first release, scholars and activists have expanded and deepened our understanding of neoliberalism, such as the way in which it shrinks the state. With the retreat of the state from its former social, medical and basic needs-supplementing roles, nonprofits have increased in size and importance to fill this gap in crucial services. Given the thesis of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, such a view of neoliberalism means that the NPIC is even more pernicious and destructive. Society now needs the NPIC, but the NPIC also restrains social change; rolling back the NPIC will cause suffering, but maintaining it will prolong suffering. It is a catch-22—continue as we are and no meaningful change is likely, transform the paradigm and create massive human misery—that will only be exacerbated in Trump’s America.
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is an important book that meaningfully describes a glaring issue in our society. And while it is a product of its time, it remains fully applicable today. Its theoretical chapters will surely benefit any reader’s understanding of the way the U.S. is structured to stifle challenges to the existing structures, even if the ultimate result of the book’s arguments is a paralyzing choice between two completely unacceptable outcomes.