From the October 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
When socialists advocate a society in which everyone will contribute their abilities to the community on a voluntary basis in return for having their needs met, we are often met with the argument 'it's a nice idea, but it would never work', yet millions of people every day give their services free of charge simply because their services are required.
Let’s make one thing clear at the outset. When we say “volunteer for socialism” we don’t mean the army-style procedure of one pace forward or you’ll be told what to do anyway. Nor are we referring to the capitalist trick of getting people to give their services freely so that wages bills can be reduced and more profit made.
Volunteering for socialism means choosing to replace the capitalist system with one based on all of us working directly to meet our own needs and the needs of others and on having free access to what we collectively produce by way of goods and services. In short, from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.
With capitalism there are three ways of getting people to work: they can be paid, they can be forced, or they can be encouraged to volunteer. Payment for labour is the economic basis of the capitalist system: owners of capital having made a profit from the past efforts of workers are able to pay for further work to be done which, on average, will yield further profit.
Forced labour is not a very efficient way of producing wealth, so it has gone out of favour except as punishment. But the third form of work—volunteering, or working for no pay—is highly regarded. We live in a society that decrees most people have to work for money to live, except the few who own enough capital to avoid that necessity. But it is not a society in which no work is done except for money. All employment involves work, but not all work involves employment.
Socialists are often accused of being unrealistic when we advocate a world in which people will work without the motivation of money. Yet even today men and women do work without financial incentive because they see their efforts are needed. There are some seven million unpaid carers in Britain—people (a majority are women) who help physically or mentally disabled relatives, friends and others on a regular basis. Not only do these people not get paid for their efforts, they often deprive themselves of other income-earning activities.
We don’t suggest that everyone is a potential member of a lifeboat crew or a mountain rescue team. But there is no reason to suppose that socialist society will lack such people, because capitalism usually doesn’t lack them today.
We speak of capitalism as the dominant economic and social system, but its dominance is not complete. Capitalist relationships are between suppliers of labour power and holders of capital, and between various other buyers and sellers. Socialist relationships are not just in the imagination of socialists today. In embryonic form they are in the many types of voluntary work that are done today.
Within most households (except those of the rich who have servants) domestic tasks arc performed on a voluntary basis. No charge is made to do the washing-up, the shopping, the decorating or the gardening (the “wages for housework” campaign is not supported by socialists, who see it as an unwarranted extension of capitalism, although this does not mean that we encourage anyone to exploit anyone else, with or without a money' system).
Outside the household men and women volunteer their services in a variety of ways. Hospital visiting, school governing, being on the local council, helping to improve the environment, are just some of the ways in which useful work is regularly done without the intervention of money by some 13 million people in Britain. Of course voluntary work in the capitalist world is not the same as all work will be in a socialist world. For one thing, there won’t be the need for the vast apparatus of collection boxes, adverts, appeals and the bureaucratic administration of the “voluntary sector”. All effort will go directly into meeting needs.
Capitalism distorts, even corrupts, the voluntary impulse which comes naturally to most humans. Charity, the raising and disbursing of money for “good causes”, is big business. As Frank Porchaska shows in his book, The Voluntary Impulse, today’s campaigns use the latest in technology and show business to extract the proverbial widow’s mite. Advertising agencies mastermind the product line of leading charities. The hard sell is delivered by dramatic ads of starving families in Africa or battered babies in Britain. The soft sell remains as intensive as ever, with the use of subtle pressures to promote fund-raising drives.
Charity and volunteering may be seen as mitigating some of the inherent nastiness in the capitalist system. But it remains a culture of winners and losers, based on buyer and seller relationships, with capital always holding the upper hand. Socialism means the ending of such a culture and such relationships. In their place will be an extension of the principle of volunteering which can be seen in the pro-social actions of men and women today.
Some cynic once said that people who volunteer to work when everyone else gets paid must be soft in the head. Today each of us has to try to sell our labour power for the best price we can get. But at the same time there’s nothing to stop us volunteering to join the socialist movement in helping to bring about the kind of world that expressed the best, not the worst, of what humans are capable.