Saturday, March 1, 2008

Who would work for nothing?

The Cooking the Books column from the March 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

"That would never work! A typical response, I imagine, to the description of a society where people work because they want to, on a voluntary basis". So began the lead article in last month's Socialist Standard.

The article was about the transformation which work would undergo in a society where it was no longer a source of income for workers and a source of profit for employers, but a means of producing useful things and providing needed services to improve the quality of our lives. But even under capitalism, these critics might be surprised to learn, many people already perform voluntary work.

According to nfpSynergy, a research group for charities, almost 19 percent of people do unpaid voluntary work in Britain (London Times, 21 January). This – nearly 1 out of every 5 people – is fairly consistent across all age groups. People volunteer for all sorts of jobs: driving people to and from hospital appointments, helping out in hospital shops, looking after people just out of hospital, teaching school kids to read or do maths, teaching English to immigrants, mentoring new parents, serving in charity shops.

If the critics of socialism were right in their view that it is human nature to be lazy and that nobody would work unless compelled to by economic necessity, this would not happen. Most volunteers under capitalism will be doing so because they want to do something useful and help other people. But even if their motivation was to overcome boredom or to meet and be with other people, that would still be a practical refutation of the view that people are naturally lazy. The reasons why people work, even for an employer, are much more complex than the simplistic assumption that that it's just for the money.

In fact, the government has adopted a policy of actively encouraging "volunteering" as it is called, as a means of saving money on providing certain services. In 2001 Gordon Brown, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, launched an initiative to encourage more over-55s to volunteer. As it happens, according to nfpSynergy, this proved to be a bit of a flop. But 16 percent of the 55-64 age group – nearly 1 in 6 – volunteering in 2007 is still fairly impressive. It is certainly enough to refute the view that, if the whip of economic deprivation was removed, nobody would do any work.

But capitalism distorts everything, even the readiness of people to work for no monetary reward. A whole paid profession has grown up – for which an organisation like nfpSynergy provides reports – of people employed to motivate and organise volunteers. And a large proportion of volunteers are engaged in fundraising for charities, a pretty useless activity in itself only necessary under capitalism even if done on an unpaid basis.

The widespread existence of volunteering shows that people are prepared to work for other reasons than individual economic necessity. Of course, as in any form of human society, in socialist society too arrangements will have to be made to provide what its members need to live. That will still be a necessity, but that does not mean that these arrangements cannot be based on people volunteering to work, for all sorts of reasons (pleasure, social recognition, wish to do something useful, social contact, even a sense of duty). Socialism could work without economic coercion.