Thursday, April 28, 2022

Voluntary service oversold (1989)

From the February 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Every year VSO recruits and sends several thousand volunteers to work in countries economically less developed than Western nations. This has arisen for a variety of historical reasons, largely to do with the exploitation of people and resources during the colonial era.

I am nearly half-way through my VSO posting with the Malaysian education department, and something I have suspected for some time has become very clear: "volunteering" is in fact another name for cheap wage slavery. In a social system where men and women are forced to sell their labour power in order to gain access to goods and services, VSO is able to provide the less successful capitalist nations with highly skilled workers from the West at a low price — they call it “low cost technological assistance". The word "volunteer" misleadingly suggests that we work for nothing. In fact, we are paid a wage which is supposed to be roughly equivalent to what a local worker with similar qualifications, doing a similar job. would receive. How this works in practice varies from country to country. The wage is paid by the employer in the country to which we are posted, although VSO does negotiate our salary, terms and conditions.

Most volunteers here earn a good deal less than Malaysian colleagues with similar qualifications. Furthermore, those of us working in East Malaysia, a very expensive part of South East Asia, with a shortage of qualified workers, find ourselves alongside teachers, doctors and engineers from other parts of the country who receive large allowances to encourage them to come and work here. Many of us have also found that our terms and conditions of work are far from clear. Only some volunteers know exactly what their working hours are, what sickness benefits they are entitled to and how much leave they can take. The only written agreement VSO have with the Malaysian Economic Planning Unit, which approves and administers postings. concerns pay. Yet like our unfortunate local colleagues we are expected, for instance, to apply for leave in triplicate months in advance and clock in and out punctually. Because we are foreign workers our behaviour is carefully noted and any signs of "irresponsibility" or disrespect can be held against us.

And so we are encouraged to believe that "development" is about redressing social, economic and technological inequalities in the world and, where VSO is concerned, particularly at the grass roots level. In other words, it is about using our skills and expertise to help some of the world’s poorest workers achieve greater self-reliance. The VSO logo states that “VSO sends men and women overseas to share their skills with the people of the third world" and one of the VSO objectives is that ‘‘Emphasis should be given to work which benefits poor and disadvantaged people and to enhancing the status of women" (VSO Volunteers Handbook). It is claimed that by volunteering we are doing more than just sharing our skills; we are also helping to undo some of the racist myths and stereotypes about people from Africa and Asia, to repair some of the economic damage inflicted on them during the colonial period. We are, according to VSO, helping to promote greater understanding between workers in different parts of the world and educating the people in Britain about the causes of third world poverty and inequality

In fact, this is all a VSO confidence trick. These vague, idealistic visions of development obscure the fact that organisations like VSO, along with the governments of countries who request volunteers, are firmly committed to capitalism — the kind of economic Development which will not bring about a world in which everyone has equal access to resources and technology and where there is mutual co-operation between people. The governments of third world countries are committed to perpetuating and developing a system where most of the world's wealth is owned and controlled by a minority. Its driving force is profit and even basic human needs will not be met unless it pays.

Organisations like VSO are committed to try and reform the system in order to bring about a more equal distribution of the world s wealth, but their effect is to improve the prospects of a rising capitalist class in the world scramble for profits. They also promote cultural and technological institutions which accompany the development of capitalism. In Malaysia, for example, VSO has provided a large number of volunteers to work in government social service departments, in the belief that this will help to bring about some improvement in the lives of Malaysia’s poorest — the mentally ill, handicapped, schoolchildren. What is overlooked is that workers only have access to social, welfare and health provisions for as long as it is profitable or in the interests of the owning class. For instance, although many diseases could be prevented by providing communities with safe drinking water, children still die because it is not profitable to do so. In Singapore, a rapidly developing capitalist state, workers are noticeably healthier than those in the neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore water can be drunk straight from the tap and need not be boiled before drinking; there is no malaria and the medical facilities are probably better than in many Western countries. But then, as Singapore is extremely short of labour, it cannot afford to have a sickly workforce.

Capitalism, then, only provides workers with what is profitable: children who do not have a nourishing diet are still able to buy Coca Cola! They may lack adequate hospital facilities but are taught how to operate a submachine gun. Low paid volunteers are recruited from the West to develop a country’s health services, while millions are spent on arms and foreign experts to train the military in their use.

Another aspect of development is the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated education system. A developing nation needs workers whose minds are trained in new ways, and VSO provides many teachers for schools and training programmes. We do not usually teach young workers skills to enable them to articulate grievances and improve conditions, although this may sometimes be a side effect.

The process of urbanisation, the breakdown of communities into family units and the increasingly alienated lives of working men and women are all part of the development of an industrial capitalist nation. Mental illness, drug abuse, crime and child-battering become increasingly regular features of daily life and expertise is needed to deal with these problems. A VSO staff member suggested that the level of development attained by a country could be measured by the kind of volunteer workers it requests. A less developed country would ask for agricultural experts and primary health care workers; a more developed country like Malaysia will request social workers, mental health workers, probation officers and teachers. This is an interesting indication of what VSO understands by development. It certainly does not seem to be something in the interests of the people at grass root level.

But at least we do not suffer high-flown statements about promoting international understanding and racial harmony! It is made quite clear that we are here to assist Malaysia's social and economic development by filling gaps in expertise, until such time as qualified Malaysian workers take over. There are constant reminders from the VSO and the Economic Planning Unit that we must be sensitive to, and accept, the Malaysian way of doing things. This means that we should not question the racially divisive policies pursued by the Malaysian government, to keep workers separate and subjugated. If we are seen to be taking too close an interest in politics we will be deported very quickly. VSO, despite all that is said in their literature, is working closely with a government which locks up workers who attempt to take industrial action to better their lot.

At best, VSO volunteers are foreign workers filling expertise gaps at the same rate of pay as local workers. This can be a rewarding and educational experience for both the volunteers and the local people with whom they work. At worst, volunteers are directly supporting the anti-working class policies of oppressive governments Occasionally, volunteers are recruited for posts when qualified and experienced Malaysian workers are available but rejected because of their ethnic origins. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the VSO's declared anti-racist position. . .

As volunteers we are learning another lesson in exploitation — our own and that of follow workers in other parts of the world. We are not putting an end to exploitation by promoting the development of a global community based on co-operation. That will only come about when a majority of politically conscious workers across the world challenge minority ownership and control resources. Socialists work to that end; we cannot leave it to organisations like VSO, who are in the "development business" merely to promote and perpetuate the profit system.

Blogger's Note:
Understandably, because of the critical nature of the article, this article was signed off as the anonymous 'K'. I understand that 'K'. was the SPGB Bristol Branch member, George Marcelo. He wrote further articles in the Socialist Standard whilst based in South-East Asia which have yet to appear on the blog. They will do eventually.

Also worthy of note, another member of the Bristol Branch of the SPGB during the same period, Naomi Roberts, also undertook VSO work and wrote about her experiences in Ghana in the pages of the Socialist Standard:

The Meaning of Freedom (1989)

From the February 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

What is liberation? The words which need most careful use are, usually, those which are thought to be above it. In an essay on George Orwell published in 1948, George Woodcock remarks how Orwell continually talked of brotherhood, justice. decency and so on without ever giving specific meanings: they spoke for themselves. A minute's thought over the everyday corruptions of those terms will show that they do nothing of the kind. Freedom is another. Assumed to be self-explanatory, it is all things to all men: hope, delusion, inducement, trap. What became of "the Four Freedoms"? Freedom fighters, where are you now?

In fact, freedom by itself is an insignificant word. Its importance comes with its expansion — freedom from what, or to do which. Freedom from may be considerable: its range can cover merciful release from some private burden, to the abolition of a political restraint. Nevertheless, freedom in that sense remains negative and limited to shifting a particular evil. It is, of course, the most popular sense, and the argument is often made that to pile up these removals of restraint ("extending areas of freedom") must in the end lead to total and therefore positive social liberty.

The line drawn
However, the pursuit of the piecemeal does not work like that. The man who has obtained relief from a disability or restriction is simply released into the general slavery of his fellow-men. That is why rulers seldom mind, in the end, giving freedom from: liberation is a means of creating more slaves. The cracker-motto "freedoms" set out by Churchill and Roosevelt in the war were of this kind. Leaving aside that they were part of the sham currency of wartime promises and so unlikely to be taken seriously when the fever was over, it is worth observing that freedom from hunger and insecurity is had. more or less, by people in prison.

Nobody pretends that freedom from privation is worth having on such terms, but the terms accepted in ordinary life are often surprising. The usual paternalistic saying is that society can approve "liberty but not licence", and it is interesting that “licence" is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as excessive liberty". What is being said, therefore, is that you may have liberty but not too much. The line of excess is drawn, inevitably, by the ruling class: and the liberty thus prescribed is already restricted to the limits of freedom from. Thus, to suppose that slices of freedom can be gamed within capitalism and put together to make a free society is naive in the extreme.

Choice and responsibility
The context in which "freedom" takes on positive meaning is freedom to. Individually, innumerable extensions might be given: what they add up to socially is freedom to choose. This is the all—embracing denial made by the authoritarianism of a class-divided society. Under it, for the ruled, choice is directly refused or made impossible. One's station and way of life, loyalties, duties, means of expression are selected and hung on one. A free society is definable as such only in this way: in it. individual choice is sovereign.

All sovereignties have boundaries, however. The alternative point of view, the Stirnerite one which disfavours society itself for inhibiting the ego's absolute demands, is still practised by a number of anarchists whose cult it is never to answer letters or keep appointments as proof that they are free and spontaneous individuals not responsible to anyone. When the doctrine is stated like that, both its absurdity and its perniciousness are plainly visible: this is not freedom at all, because it depends on mutilating someone else's freedom. Freedom is relative always to the fact that we exist only as social creatures.

In simple everyday experience, every relationship or contract voluntarily made is a limitation on freedom. A person joining a political group or a recreational organization has "tied" him— or herself by the acceptance of obligations, including the recognition of rules and majority decisions.

The way to go
Freedom, then, means a state in which contracts are entered and obligations accepted, but by one's conscious choice not a predetermined one. The comparison to be made is between a free society and the authoritarian system where the obligations remain while somebody else imposes the choice. What must be recognized, however, is that the obligations are there in both cases. Indeed, freedom implies responsibility where servitude does not; having the choices imposed and the decisions made for one is tolerable to many people because it is easy. Part of the tyranny of capitalism is to make a virtue of that kind of mental laziness and extol bromides like "liberty not licence" to try and keep responsible thought in check.

Given comprehension of what freedom is, how is the free society obtained? The lack of freedom is not just a question of holding wrong outlooks. It derives from material conditions as much as from legal and moral restraint. The irony of the old saying that everyone is free to dine at the Savoy has innumerable applications. A poor or ill-educated person is not free to choose his work, or where he will live, or even whom he will mix with. Financial worries, insecurities, hostile circumstances of all kinds are obstructions to freedom.

But it does not follow that reforms of circumstances are the answer. That takes us back to the realm of freedom from, where capitalism's nature is to turn apparent gains into equivalent losses; at this, you can't win. The creation of a free society can be accomplished only by changing the structure of society. The disabilities and oppressions which are everywhere are aspects and consequences of the basic enslavement by capitalism, the class-ownership of the means of living. To replace them with freedom of choice and make responsibility instead of imposition the keystone of social life, common ownership is the prerequisite.

Freedom is the natural — and immediate — concomitant of the establishment of socialism. Nor is any abstract judicial freedom meant. The economic condition of socialism, production for use. means free access by everyone to the material wealth of society. That is emancipation. and from it arises the freedom to choose the sort of life one wants.

Revolution and resistance (1989)

From the February 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

The socialist transformation of society entails the dispossession of the minority capitalist class of their ownership and control of the means of wealth production and distribution. All of their lands and factories, mines, media and transport will be taken away from them. The machinery of production will become the common property of society.

In order for the capitalists to be dispossessed — or "the expropriators to be expropriated", as Marx put it — there is one prerequisite. The working class, who produce all the wealth and constitute a majority of society, must be conscious of what they are doing. The dispossession of the capitalists cannot be carried out by a politically ignorant workers, and nor can the task be performed for them by enlightened leaders. As The Socialist Party's Principles make clear, the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers' themselves. If the social transformation is carried out in an organised fashion by people who know what they are up against and what they want to establish as an alternative, then what can stop us?

A majority of politically conscious workers must democratically gain control of the state machine, which in this country means the conquest of parliament and local councils. The revolutionary mandate for such political action will not be like any given to MPs or councillors in the past. Socialists will enter the state bodies as delegates, not representatives or political leaders. They will be accountable at every move to the socialist movement and their sole purpose in entering the state bodies will be to abolish ruling class power. They will formally enact the abolition of class ownership; and in doing so will express the wishes of millions who have voted for socialism and nothing less.

It is crucial that the state, which controls the means of coercion including the police and armed forces, is not left in the hands of the capitalists it represents. But unlike previous contestants for state power, the working class will not seek to establish its own state: a workers' state or a socialist state. These are absurd notions. As Engels pointed out, the workers' conquest of state power will be the last act of the state. The state will be dismantled. Government over people will be replaced by the administration of things. A classless society, which will exist the moment that the capitalists are dispossessed and the means of wealth production and distribution are commonly owned and democratically controlled, must be a stateless society The Socialist Party rejects the suicidal tactic of insurrection. The idea of a minority taking up arms and shooting their way to socialism is foolish and dangerous. Even if the insurrectionaries won, they would be forced to become dictators over those they will have “liberated" against their will. The sorry history of Leninist coup d'etats is sufficient proof of that. If insurrection is advocated by those who envisage majority support for the socialist revolution, then why fight it out when we have available to us the far simpler method of expressing our decision? After all, if a majority cannot be persuaded to vote for socialism it is going to take even longer to persuade them to join an army and fight for it.

But what if the minority does not accept the majority will? We know very well that it is in the capitalists' interest to preserve their privileges against what they see as the unreasonable demands of wage slaves who ought to know their place. In The Communist Manifesto Marx predicted that some enlightened capitalists will come over to the side of the socialist revolution. Indeed, some might. They may recognise that a classless society will be better than the jungle system in which they are forced to behave as king brutes. Other capitalists may come over out of cowardice, realising that if the game is up it is better to be on the side of change rather than make enemies of the workers when we take power. So, some capitalists might support socialism. Others, who hate and detest what is happening, will just face up to the fact that the workers are in a majority and it would be futile to do anything but surrender. In short, they will take it lying down. After all. they have been "taking it" in this position for most of the history of capitalism.

But what about those who resist? How would a socialist majority deal with a recalcitrant minority? This minority may not only comprise capitalists: there may well be workers too who will be conditioned enough to retain loyalty to their dispossessed masters. Of course, there will be immense social pressure by the millions who constitute the socialist majority for the non-socialists to give the new system a try. Production solely for use and free access to all goods and services will be very powerful temptations to those who oppose socialism. There may still be some non-socialists who cannot bear the thought of living in a society of human co-operation. Well, would it be beyond the realm of possibility for socialist society to set aside some areas for these perverse characters, in which they could continue to live as if capitalism were still existence. They could exploit each other, tell lies to one another, dominate, submit... It would be hard explaining such eccentricity to children born into a socialist society, but as long as the non-socialists kept to themselves and were free to join the rest of the community should they wish, what would be wrong with that?

A recalcitrant minority might wish to carry the capitalist ethic of "To Hell With The Majority" all the way. What if they tried to use force to defeat the will of the socialist majority? By doing this they would be declaring themselves enemies of society. Only those prepared to accept the democratic will would be entitled to the community’s support. Such recalcitrants would have to be denied the freedom to operate. If they tried to form a counter-revolutionary army it would be starved into impotence. The right of free access would be denied to violent anti-democrats who. without petrol for their transport, without a munitions industry to provide them with bullets or bombs, would be brought to their knees in next to no time. If — and we here go further into the realms of hypothesis — anti-socialists tried to use violence against the socialist community, then they would have to be forcibly restrained. Without doubt, a socialist majority could never stand by while the violent tactics of the abolished capitalist system ruined socialism. As a last resort, the undemocratic minority would have to meet the fate which it will have created for itself; it would either surrender or be eliminated. We stress, however, that it will be much easier for a recalcitrant minority to be defeated by denying it access to the means of struggle, and that it will find it extremely hard to operate in conditions where the majority of people consciously oppose all that it stands for.

Compare the position of such a minority with that of today's undemocratic terrorists. The latter find it very hard to exist because most workers do not want to know them; many are willing to shop them to the police and most would refuse to endorse their acts of violence. But modern terrorist groups operate in easier circumstances than a violent, recalcitrant minority in a socialist society would. Under capitalism most workers are discontented. While they may not support terrorism, they might not be disposed actively to oppose it. In a socialist society anti-democrats would be up against determined men and women who, after centuries of class struggle, have gained control of society. Is such a community of socialists likely to accept defeat by a gang of arrogant ex-capitalists and deluded ex-wage slaves?

Opponents of socialism will have every opportunity peacefully to advocate the case against the new social system. If they are crazy enough they can argue for the restoration of capitalism, reminding workers of the good old days when nuclear weapons abounded and the corpses of malnourished children scattered the earth. It will not be in the interest of socialist society to ban ideas; those which conflict with material reality will be rejected, just as socialism, being in line with material reality, is on the agenda to succeed.

In a socialist society those who used to be capitalists will be free to live as social equals. They will be members of the community, expected to give according to their abilities and to take according to their self-defined needs. Some of them have very few abilities at the moment, as a result of a lifetime of parasitism; but if you can train a parrot to say its name, you can show an ex-millionaire how to do some socially useful work. In a socialist society humans will, for the first time in hundreds of years, be brothers and sisters: members of a free and co-operative society. Such freedom and co-operation will be difficult to want to fight against, much as they are hard to comprehend now by those who can only conceive of society as a collection of warring factions. That stage of history will be transcended with the establishment of a stateless socialist community, and the age of gunfire will have passed.
Steve Coleman