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Ireland is taking the lead in creating a new style of managing Democracy - and not in a good way
NGOs are suddenly everywhere, and suddenly far more influential than they used to be. How did we get here, how does their interaction with the system work, and why are they such a useful tool for people in charge? In this piece I’m going to discuss that, with a particular reference to the Irish situation where NGOs have grown so overbearing it sometimes seems we’re perfecting a new approach to governing, with them at the centre.
What we really mean when we talk about NGOs
There are a number of definitions out there of NGOs, which I summarise as “a non-profit entity free of government influence but not government funding whose goal is to promote social or political change”.
To pre-empt the true observations that some NGOs do good and essential work, and that the line between Charities and NGOs is vague, I propose the following clarifying continuum.
An organisation – charity, NGO, whatever – that works to house the homeless is really good. An organisation that works to “advocate” for the homeless is maybe ok, depending on what advocacy means. An organisation that takes big bag of government money to advocate for the homeless by lobbying the government to relax immigration enforcement or introduce hate speech laws is really, really bad.
The last one is really what I mean by NGO – an organisation paid substantially from the public purse to press for social and cultural change that may not be in anyone’s interests other than their own; and which is in any case often ludicrously distant from their core mission.
Consensus Laundering & NGOcracy
The practical function of this type of NGO is in a process I call Consensus Laundering. This means is using the mechanisms of government, the press and NGOs to reach a pre-determined outcome with a veneer of democracy, so as to present changes to culture and society as driven from the bottom-up rather than top-down.
The government wants to do something; it pays NGOs to advocate this cause; the work of the NGOs is treated by government as being representative of the demands of civic society and the will of the people which must be legislated for if this “urgent” “need” is to be met. The media assists by treating advocacy of NGOs as newsworthy, credible and representative of a unmet democratic demand. The activities of NGOs, government and media act as a self-fulfilling cycle – the more money NGOs get, the stronger their advocacy; the more positive and relentless the press coverage; the more government will feel empowered to increase funding and legislative activity in the relevant area.
They are just beginning to be used but I suspect in Ireland a key final stage of this process will be Citizens Assemblies. Such assemblies have become a politically fashionable idea around the world for exactly the reasons described above. They provide the ideal a way of integrating the laundered consensus back into the system as law. People who work in media and politics (and indeed NGOs) often proselytise for Citizen’s Assemblies, which is understandable as the assemblies will only ever propose the sort of change they agree with.
This is not about whether any individual decision of a citizen’s assembly in Ireland or elsewhere has been wrong. But the way in which partisan NGOs are funded by governments, and their work amplified and legitimised by the media, means that such assemblies are incapable of proposing something the people want but the government doesn’t.
Why are NGOs so powerful in Ireland specifically?
It can be hard to articulate the extent to which NGOs have penetrated Irish life; the way they cast a shadow over the entirety of the civic world and the way they have become the sole source of authority on hot-button cultural issues like immigration and hate speech. Starting at 8:40 in this video, Gearoid Murphy provides some great insight into the way the resources of government-affiliated NGOs and charities were marshalled in support of laws supressing freedom of expression in 2019. This is a microcosm of what happens in Irish political life every day.
In writing about the explosion of NGOs, Angela Nagle recently noted that they are a symptom of Elite Overproduction, and their existence is primarily about expanding and maintaining the power of the class of people that staff them. She quotes on author who refers to “an expanding supply of credentialed professionals rather than a greater demand for their services… (leading to) the creation of auxiliary vehicles for maintaining their wealth and status.”
While I think this is substantially true, I think as with many other critiques from the left it underrates the extent to which people who staff NGOs want that work because of a sincere impulse to do good, which in many cases is fulfilled. (Of course, it’s easier to undertake moral work when it also provides a high standard of living and an increase in social status.)
The fact that NGOs really do good and important work, which would in many cases be undone, is a key factor in their usefulness in steering change.
The moral factor is key in the public perception as well. The decline of the church left unfilled need for a source of moral guidance in Irish life, preferably one which played upon existing Irish good feeling towards charities. Ask an Irish person of a certain age about Biafran children or Trocaire boxes and it’s easy to understand the default good feeling toward any charitable-seeming enterprise. (Someone pointed out to me recently the Trocaire box is almost the exact opposite of a modern NGO – in that it is bottom-up rather than top down phenomenon. Nevertheless these are the neural pathways which NGOs work.)
Ireland has a technocratic and managerial political culture: even more so than elsewhere Irish political leaders are happy to leave the thinking to more important people and to simply administer the resulting settlement, like regional branch managers of a big corporation. This provides the additional benefit of allowing them to pass off blame when something goes wrong or when the management of a given situation presents too many political no-win scenarios (although not NGO-related, Covid and the government’s relationship with health advisors has been a great illustration of this). The rise of NGOs have created a way for the regional managers to apply this strategy to cultural and moral matters as well as practical ones.
The problem that NGOcracy solves for the powerful
In Peter Mair’s essential book Ruling the Void, he describes how party democracy has collapsed over time, as a large amount of decision-making and authority has been outsourced to “neutral” and “expert” bodies beyond the reach of voters. Parties then vie to be administrators of the Status Quo rather than representatives. To use Mair’s phrase “the zone of public engagement is being evacuated” as decisions are moved from the direct reach of the people’s clumsy hands, or those interested in acting for them.
What NGOcracy means is that the Powers That Be have found a more morally satisfying way to do elite-oriented managerial liberalism.
NGOcracy and Consensus Laundering solve two problems with what Mair describes. One, that distancing people from the decision-making process looks and feels bad, for everyone; and two, that the technicians of the system want to apply the expert outsourcing approach to moral problems (how should be inculcate children with “anti-racism”; should we have hate speech laws) as much as practical issues (how high should tax rates be). NGOs are sources of moral authority, paid by the government to tell the government what it already thinks, under the guise representing national civic life. These views are then laundered into law. As with many other things, this is happening everywhere, but it’s worse in Ireland. We’re the laboratory of democracy, and not in a good way.