The protest business

Felicity Wade

Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2014 (200 pp). ISBN 9780745669489 (hard cover) RRP $111.95.

Over the last couple of decades finding ways to proscribe the activities of environment non-government organisations (NGOs) has become sport for a certain section of Australia’s conservative political parties. The emergence of the anti-coal campaign in Australia over the last couple of years has re-ignited zeal for this project. Cutting funding was an obvious place to start. In December 2013, community law centres and the Environment Defenders Offices had their annual federal funding of $10 million cut, and in May 2014 the $1.3 million grants program that kept small community environment groups afloat was also cut. Removing exemptions that allow NGOs to boycott environmentally damaging products was championed by Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck in April 2014 (Staples 2014) and in March 2015 the government launched a parliamentary inquiry to test whether environment groups deserved to attract tax deductibility for donations, based on their tendency to engage in ‘political’ activity.

The rhetoric of members of the federal government positions environment groups as a radical threat to business and prosperity. North Queensland Nationals politician, George Christensen, described donations to environment groups as ‘an insidious form of giving which aims not only to hurt but to totally destroy livelihoods and whole industries of national importance … . The giving I am referring to is of the deceptive Green variety’ (Christensen 2014).

This onslaught is a local Australian example of the processes that Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron describe in Protest Inc.: The Corporatisation of Activism. Dauvergne and LeBaron argue that activism, as a deeply transformative activity, is in trouble and that a key cause of this trouble is its ‘corporatisation’. The book explores three themes: the securitisation of dissent, the privatisation of social life and the institutionalisation of activism. It is a grim compilation of the pressures on collective, radical action.

While the three processes Dauvergne and LeBaron describe are certainly huge pressures, their book left me with a number of questions that are inextricably linked to their concern with the capitalist co-option of activism: What exactly is the activist project trying to achieve and therefore is co-option the appropriate charge? Whatever the aims of an activist organisation, surely an internal commitment to democracy is a key source of legitimacy for activist organisations? And isn’t the lack of viable alternatives to capitalism one of the key reasons why resisting the logic of capitalism is such a challenge?


Embedded in this book is an assumption that the task of activism is to question the fundamentals of the capitalist system and to move the world toward an alternative future. Yet many of the organisations that Dauvergne and LeBaron include in their definition of activism —‘sustained collective action with a political purpose’ (p. 7)—were never in the anti-capitalist game. And even those deeply critical of the way the world currently operates may not be in the business of ending capitalism. The mission and methods of a cancer research charity using corporate approaches and networks within the capitalist class and the Occupy movement cannot meaningfully be compared.

Conservative rhetoric positions environment groups as a radical threat to business and prosperity.

My long experience what Dauvergne and LeBaron call the ‘non-profit industrial complex’ (p. 116) is primarily in the Australian environment movement. The environment movement has a particularly internally contradictory relationship to the revolutionary project. Some activists are genuinely obsessed by protecting the endangered mouse at risk from some particular industrial process and have no critique of the system beyond that. The fact that, having protected the mouse, the logic of capitalism will inevitably mean the possum up the road will be under pressure soon enough is not engaged with. The example the authors use of the growth of International Fund for Animal Welfare (p. 111) is illustrative. A bunch of vets and scientists do not necessarily a revolutionary vanguard make. This is not the triumph of capitalism but the conscious terms of engagement for apolitical nature lovers.

A more fundamental internal schism in the environment movement is the approach to climate change. There are those who argue that climate change, and the imperative it poses for transformation of the energy sector, is an economic opportunity, which promises increased growth and innovation. They argue for no fundamental economic or social transformation but rather for a re-alignment of the system by virtue of the necessary switch in energy sources and the reversal of deforestation. This is not necessarily anti-capitalist but it is radical.

Others, most recently championed by Naomi Klein, argue that the consumer-fuelled logic of unlimited growth is the cause of the problem and that only remaking our economic and social systems can arrest climate change. In her latest book, Klein (2014) suggests that the challenge of climate change can be the catalyst to deliver a new kind of world, imagined but not fulfilled by the anti-globalisation movement she championed a decade or so ago. This time mass activism to stop fossil fuel projects, matched with small scale, community owned renewable energy are two key paths to destroying capitalism and its climate changing ways. There is limited evidence—bar the horrific nature of the threat—that the solution Klein posits will be any more successful than it was in its earlier iteration.

This complexity of aims and objectives of NGOs muddies the argument Dauvergne and LeBaron make. They address this by pointing out the way the whole system of NGOs impacts on each of its parts. However, their assumption of the sector’s transformative role is open to question.


Dauvergne and LeBaron describe brutal responses of the state to activism, particularly in the wake of the terror attacks of September 2001, which have allowed conflation of terrorism and legitimate, democracy-enhancing activism. They also argue that this not only stifles dissent for the obvious reasons of engendering fear and caution, but that it breeds a rift between the radical groups and those who are rewarded for their capitulation with funding and access to power and the policy process. It creates pressure for ‘civil society’ actors to remain ‘civil’ (p. 79). The authors quote Thomas Friedman, who argued long ago that ‘The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15’ (p. 63). The link between state sanctioned violence and capital may have ramped up over recent years under the guise of national security but it is as old as time itself and not specific to late stage capitalism. The book, however, provides an up-to-date catalogue of some of the worst examples of state crack-downs on dissent.

While the main focus of their discussion is the state’s increased brutality and criminalisation of activism, Dauvergne and LeBaron also touch on the other, more subtle ways the state delegitimizes activism and rewards those who play by the rules. A small, contemporary example of this is seen in an Australian Government booklet released in September 2015. Titled Preventing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation in Australia (Australian Government 2015), the booklet was designed to educate school students about the risks of ‘violent extremism’. Its release set off a social media storm in response to the inclusion of the story of Karen, the nice-girl environmentalist who descends into extremism. Much of the jocular social media outrage, using the hashtag #freekaren, focused on Karen’s rapid and farcical descent from decent kid from a ‘loving family’ through alternative music and into the clutches of radical, violent environmentalism. The more sinister aspect of the Karen case study is its constant confusion of non-violent direct action and violent protest. ‘Karen was arrested on numerous occasions for trespass, damaging property, assault and obstructing police’ (Ibid., p. 11). As a long term environmentalist I have a conviction for one of these crimes and have been threatened with arrest for another, and am proud of both. I have never however, assaulted anyone or damaged property.

I find myself wishing the government would get on with it and take away tax deductibility.

The most recent attempt by the Australian federal government to undermine environment groups using tax law, as mentioned earlier, is another example. The 2015 parliamentary inquiry has been directed to establish whether organisations deserve to be included in the Register of Environmental Organisations, a list maintained by the federal environment minister that confers deductible gift recipient status (DGR). DGR is the process where a person’s donation to an NGO attracts a tax deduction. According to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997, inclusion on the register requires organisations to have a principle purpose of ‘the protection and enhancement of the natural environment’. Conservative politicians have argued that political activity is not acceptable within this definition. As Queensland Senator Matthew Canavan, who lead the push for the inquiry, explained to the media:

We’ve got 100 to 150 groups that seem to have their purpose at stopping industrial development, not just mining, some of those developments include tourism developments or agricultural developments but engaging in what I would view as a political debate, not the environmental debate (Duffy 2015).

With the change of prime minister to Malcolm Turnbull in September 2015, early indications are that the inquiry will be buried along with many of the more ideological initiatives of the Abbott Government (2013–15). However, the inquiry’s effectiveness at proscribing legitimate action in the activist community has been clear. The environment groups have been made cautious exactly as Dauvergne and LeBaron describe. I was party to numerous conversations in which strategic decisions were influenced by the threat the inquiry represents to organisations. Numerous times the parliamentary inquiry was explicitly cited as a reason to alter course and act in less ‘political’ ways.

I find myself wishing the government would get on with it and take away tax deductibility. This would lead to a loss of income, but studies show that small donors are often not motivated by the tax break. According to internal research conducted by the Wilderness Society only 30 per cent of donors actually claim it (Wilderness Society 2014). And organisations like Australian net-roots group, GetUp!, continue to raise large amounts of cash without tax deductibility. Those who are much more adversely affected are those who rely on large donations. The increasing reliance on philanthropic funds is in itself part of the de-radicalising process Dauverge and LeBaron describe. It is not clear that limiting this path to funding is a heinous threat to the transformational mission of activism. It would allow environmental NGOs to return to their radical roots, advocating voting recommendations as they liked and crossing the line of ‘civility’ as they deemed appropriate.


Dauvergne and LeBaron’s catalogue of the processes of increasing atomisation in modern society covers established ground. Many of the relationships and group identities that created the fabric of society and supported political action—‘the infrastructure of dissent’ (p. 17) as Alan Sears has called them—have been eroded. This process began with the post war economic boom but has accelerated under globalisation. I like the authors’ brief detour to point out that the online ties of social networking do not in any way replicate the ‘trust, memories, camaraderie and solidarity characteristic of past social movements’ (p. 92). The book describes how the decline of ‘social citizenship’ has a clear relationship to the loss of communal political action and a causal relationship to solutions that focus on the individual and are either consumerist or facile. Lists like ‘10 things you can do to help stop world hunger’ are noted as examples of this (p. 97).


The journey from
grass roots to
professionalism is one I have watched very closely.

The final cause Dauvergne and LeBaron identify in the corporatisation of activism is its professionalisation. They describe all the negative aspects of activism’s shift from its beginnings in church halls and living rooms to the highly professionalised and monetised sector of today. The creation of careers, the deals with corporations and financial and management efficiency are examples.

The journey from grass roots to professionalism is one I have watched very closely. I began work as the NSW State Campaign Director of the Australian Wilderness Society in the mid-1990s. The Wilderness Society had organically emerged from the passion of the community across Australia to stop the Franklin Dam in the early 1980s. With that campaign won, voluntary action groups decided to form a national organisation. By the mid-1990s the flimsy infrastructure of the voluntary approach ground to its inevitable end. Shops selling wilderness prints were each state’s main source of income and many went bankrupt, inexperienced office managers forgot to comply with tax regulations and forced closures, and systems could not provide members with the most basic of services. It was still a radical, grass roots organisation. Most were volunteers. For those paid, there was wage parity. Every employee earned $28,000 and all decision making was based on consensus. The organisation was struggling under its inclusive decision making and governance structures, experiencing the pain of participatory democracy with its slow decisions, prone to endless, undisciplined revisiting.

Over most of the next fifteen years the organisation professionalised. Various management consultants were employed, vision statements adopted, organisational ‘values’ debated and the corporate experiences of Johnson & Johnson and Kodak discussed as homilies from which an activist organisation could learn. Myers Briggs surveys were conducted and psychology insights delivered—often as judgements—on individuals. In recent years much of this management consultant mayhem has been abandoned. But the fundamentals of the organisation and the movement within which it operates have shifted. Campaigners are more likely to have an environmental science degree than a politics degree; that is, to be trained in narrow technical way rather than carrying skills to criticise patterns of power and influence. The money is better, the passion is less.

While it is easy to guffaw at the mimicking of corporations that has occurred as organisations shift from voluntary to professional, there is something activism loses if it rejects institution building entirely. Building institutions matters. One of the stories often told of the ascendency of the new right and neo-liberalism is that proponents took a long range view and built robust institutions over decades to propagate their ideas (Critchlow 2007). The similarities and differences between the right and the left’s task in creating platforms for change needs much more discussion than is available here, but institution building is not all bad. There are contradictions here, as everywhere. And professionalising has some distinct upsides. There are things that organisations get better at by being professional. Higher wages can allow also activists to remain practitioners over long periods of time and to hone their skills at undermining established power.


In their discussion of the institutionalising of activism, Dauvergne and LeBaron touch on the issue of legitimacy of NGOs and their relationship to democracy. It is hard to imagine any other source of legitimacy for activist groups apart from their role as representatives of community concern. And while the nature of the activist project is not as singular as Dauvergne and LeBaron suggest, the claim to be representative of a constituency looks common to all. Further, of all agendas that NGOs are pursuing, increased democracy would surely be a central shared mission. Without this, it is conceptually hard to imagine why activism matters.

Many NGOs do not seem to have any formal relationship to the constituency they claim to represent.

But many NGOs do not seem to have any formal relationship to the constituency they claim to represent. The right has articulated this in ‘public choice theory’ which argues that NGOs are just another unrepresentative interest group. Staples (2006, p. 4) summarises Prime Minister John Howard’s description in his 1996 Menzies Lecture, ‘Howard referred to the NGO sector as “single-issue groups”, “special interests” and “elites” and he promised that his government would be “owned by no special interests, defending no special privileges and accountable only to the Australian people”’. While this is crude, like most such attacks there is some truth in it. Dauvergne and LeBaron quote The Economist magazine making the same point:

The increasing clout of NGOs, respectable and not so respectable, raises an important question: who elected Oxfam, or, for that matter, the League for a Revolutionary Communist International? … In the West, governments and their agencies are, in the end, accountable to voters. Who holds the activists accountable?’ (p. 124).

The lack of democratic governance structures seems to me as at least as great a threat to the transformative potential of NGOs as the impact of corporatist models on NGO operations. It inherently limits their ability to be harbingers of genuine democratic futures.

There are four main governance models I can identify in the Australian environment movement. There are a few national environment organisations that are still membership based, in which a yearly fee confers voting rights for the board—and hence some say in the direction of the organisation. These democratic structures, however, are not energised and seldom do members cause the staff-led organisations too much trouble. The international environmental NGOs have no broad based membership structure, preferring to ‘protect’ themselves from perceived take-over threats by those wanting to undermine their mission. You are a ‘donor’ with no voice in the way the organisation runs, even if you are called a ‘member’. The new Internet based campaign organisations tend to have opaque governance models. Most use a company model, and some of international internet campaign organisations even operate as money-making businesses. This suggests a world view that diverges from traditional, co-operative NGO models entirely. The fourth model that is growing is primarily reliant on philanthropic funding. These organisations’ only formal accountability is to their benefactors.

As I have said, some NGOs do not claim to be straining for anything beyond their immediate aims and objectives. However many, and probably all of the groups I have described above, would claim to be working to revitalise democracy. And here’s another anecdotal charge—often the more radical the organisation the more wobbly its relationship to democracy. The elite vanguard model of political change is alive and well among those who see society as regressive and in need of major change.


There is little clear articulation of the alternative to capitalism or the
path to it.

Putting aside those NGOs that have no interest in undermining capitalism, the three processes Dauvergne and LeBaron describe clearly impact the way activism operates and surely undermine the global movement of those committed to a safer, fairer future. A fourth factor—the lack of a viable alternative to capitalism—would seem to be an essential part of the picture of why capitalism’s habits and hegemony are so hard to resist. The strongest bulwark against capitalism’s constant colonisation is some clarity about the alternative. I believe this challenge is central to the de-radicalising of the activist project. Revolutionary socialism has been discredited: although it managed to pull down the odd capitalist state, we have no evidence of it rebuilding better and fairer societies. In the wake of this failure, there is little clear articulation of the alternative to capitalism or the path to it.

I found it hard to relate to Dauvergne and LeBaron’s melancholy about the failure of the Occupy movement. Their argument that its failure, and that of other mass protests, was related to the shortcomings of less radical groups did not make sense to me. The challenges these groups face is internal. Some commentators, such as Guy Standing (2011), see recent mass protest movements as the disorganised beginnings of consciousness formulation amongst the new exploited class of globalised capitalism. This may be true. Protest failures may also reflect the existential problem of what the plan is after the victory, what the phoenix might look like.

The themes that Dauvergne and LeBaron explore have been documented elsewhere, but this book sits them side by side, so that together they explain the unprecedented pressures on activism as a transformative activity. The three quite separate processes work together to wreak a toxic impact. It is a depressing catalogue. Dauvergne and LeBaron regularly repeat their qualification: ‘Once again, to avoid any misunderstanding: activists can—and are—resisting globalisation. … Nonetheless, this does not change the fact that sustaining radical activism of any kind under the pressure of economic globalisation is astoundingly difficult’ (p. 84). The processes they describe are clearly visible in Australia but so too is the resistance, often halting and incomplete, without monolithic solutions—but still bubbling up from within the contradictions and co-options of the NGO sector.


Australian Government 2015, Preventing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation in Australia, Attorney-General’s Department, Canberra [Online], Available:  [2015, Oct 10].

Christensen, G. 2014, Dawson – The Nationals Deputy Whip: Federation Chamber, Adjournment, Getup! Speech, Hansard, House of Representatives, Parliament of Australia, 19 June, p. 6823 [Online], Available:;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F699540ac-d990-4325-b983-f5353c43533b%2F0246%22 [2015, Oct 27].

Critchlow, D. 2007, The Conservative Ascendancy, How the Republican Right Rose to Power in Modern America, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Duffy, C. 2015, ‘Government MP steps up campaign against eco-charity tax concessions’, ABC News, 10 April [Online], Available: [2015, Oct 12].

Klein, N. 2014, This Changes Everything, Penguin, Australia.

Standing, G. 2001, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Staples, J. 2006, ‘NGOs out in the cold: The Howard Government policy toward NGOs’, Discussion Paper 19/06, ANU, Canberra [Online], Available: [2015, Oct 27].

Staples, J. 2014, ‘Step by Step, conservative forces move to silence NGOs’ voices’, The Conversation, 26 August [Online], Available: [2015, Oct 27].

The Wilderness Society 2014, internal memorandum, quoted in conversation with Wilderness Society Director, August 2015.

Felicity Wade has made ads for international NGOs, worked in and lost faith in the aid sector for its lack of a political agenda and run the NSW chapter of the Australian Wilderness Society. She had meddled in the utopian dream of taming capitalism through socially responsible investment and now runs the Labor Environment Action Network, an intensely pragmatic attempt to improve the world by improving the Australian Labor Party’s environment credentials.