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Capitalism Without Wages? by John Latham

Volunteers throughout the ages have realised that working for nothing is not such a bad idea. It seems perverse, but the “cash nexus” can make labour more tedious than almost anything else. Eccentric Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle noted that the relationship between employer and employee can be difficult. Without a strong union behind them, anybody can be subject to insidious forms of exploitation or discrimination.

If work is done for money rather than love the result can be a profound sense of alienation. The young Karl Marx observed that the power of money means that an ordinary paid labourer has almost no input into the shape of the work process. In less theoretical terms, we may work to live, but only live and breathe at the weekend. We can feel like the mere tools of a boss, aware that we are replaceable by machinery or robots. Worryingly, the ethics of some paid work is highly questionable. It is not only unlucky prostitutes who sell themselves for money.

However, volunteers cannot subsist on thin air. In the UK, the social safety net has been battered by politicians since the Great Recession of 2008. There is an abundance of things for volunteers to do, but there is far too little support for many of them in practice. Numerous charities have been badly hit by the relentless attack on local government funding. Hence many insecure people feel that they are being pushed into a cashless society which has little to do with the evolution of new technology.

Nonetheless, volunteers commonly stick at their roles. People are creatures of habit. The idea of helping others remains really attractive. Social activities are fun. Furthermore, engaging in party political activity can end in savage arguments whilst the voluntary sector can sometimes be a safe space. Some individuals also feel that volunteering may offer health benefits. At a minimum, voluntary activity may keep the brain active and achieve a change of scene. There is also a flexibility to working for nothing which is not there in Dolly Parton’s seminal ‘Nine to Five’: draining a professional “cup of ambition” daily might lead to a bitter taste.

As social problems mount in the UK, volunteers are in great demand. The difficulty of what they should eat remains. Of course, some volunteers are retired and can make their pensions last. Moreover, a few of their colleagues can polish their CVs and get back to the ordinary labour market in a hurry. But that simply means that more volunteers have to be recruited and trained.

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) seems to be the only prudent way of bringing back a sustainable Golden Age of volunteering. The scheme has had its moral critics. One concern is that an epidemic of laziness might break out. However, socialists like Paul Lafargue have refused to see that idleness is an evil. And if the UBI was set at the right level it would encourage a healthy mix of entrepreneurship, charitable action, and creative activity. There are those who would like to witness a massive social transformation. But the introduction of the UBI could be one of several progressive reforms to the largely idiotic way we live today.

For those who haven’t volunteered before, it might be instructive to look back at a positive personal experience. Stacking and pricing books in a musty shop proved to be a voyage of self-discovery. The fact was that the appeal of high quality literature to the clientele was limited. Hence there was always plenty to read. Whilst ‘true crime’ flew off the dusty shelving, classics of English and French literature lingered long enough to be highly affordable. It is unthinkable that most paid jobs would permit somebody the time to pick off the masterpieces of George Eliot, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf and Émile Zola. Nor was it a question of stealing—a small amount of money always changed hands.

While marketing seemed to be an art form, pricing was more of a science. Promoting a product relied on dubious insights from psychology. The history of advertising illustrated that it was a hit-and-miss affair. Pricing books relied on basic knowledge about the typical local consumer. However, a little subtlety could tempt people to make bigger purchases than they intended. For example, a 99p text would always sell much faster than one which cost a pound, other things being equal. Customers enjoyed thinking that they had bagged a bargain as it flattered their skill. And even if they hadn’t been swift enough to secure a three-for-the-price-of-two offer, they probably had done much better than they initially thought they would as they left the grubby shop. Ultimately, this was because the mysterious experience of reading might have transcended the squalid world of the cash nexus.



Older than he cares to admit, John spends his time feeling even older than he is. He produces content, while seeking quiet contentment. He supports Liverpool FC and Jeremy Corbyn, and likes the colour red. His blog Cheepcheepcopy is a scrapbook of political economy, with book reviews. Comments are always welcome.





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