Humans evolved as cooperative animals but capitalism has turned our better instincts against us. Volunteering and charity are used by governments and businesses to save money, erode working conditions and reduce the number of paid jobs.
The ability and inclination to engage in collaborative behaviour emerged even before the modern human species. For at least many tens of thousands of years our ancestors’ chances of surviving as individuals, dependent on food gathering or hunting, were vastly increased if they were part of a supportive and sharing group. This is a commonplace of modern anthropology.
Of course, we are not totally preprogramed by our evolutionary past. Culture makes a difference and human behaviour is incredibly flexible. We are capable of selfishness as well as selflessness. But the notion at the heart of mainstream economic theory – that we are fundamentally greedy and competitive – is nothing more than conservative ideology used to justify profoundly unequal societies.
Especially when facing disasters or the threat of disaster, people spontaneously seek to help those affected or threatened. They are willing not only to help and protect their own immediate communities but others in our much broader continental and global society. Frequently, this happens despite the risk it poses to people’s health, well-being or income.
This is wonderful. What’s not wonderful is our identification with others being appropriated and distorted: harnessed to imaginary communities, especially races and nations, which undermines unity between the mass of workers and the oppressed. Cooperative, equalitarian inclinations, which should promote survival, are yoked into top-down discipline, which oppresses and destroys others. Importantly, this enables governments to off-load responsibility for the well-being of those under their authority onto individual charitable impulses.
Volunteer fire fighting is a prime example. Governments across Australia have long sacrificed volunteer fire fighters’ well-being on the altar of “budget control”. Just as in any other job, firies deserve decent incomes and working conditions while they are performing the crucial and life-saving work of fighting fires. The standard set by the professional fire-fighters’ unions over decades of struggle should apply to anyone engaged in this work.
Instead, governments pat volunteers on the back, praise them as heroes, throw in a few bucks (while the services remain dependent on community fundraising for survival) and take credit for the volunteers’ life-saving work.
And, as in the case of the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA), conservatives have played divide and rule between professionals and volunteers. This was apparent in 2016. The CFA bosses bullshitted that agreeing to the United Firefighters Union claim for unionists employed by that government agency, would harm volunteers.
The bushfire emergency across eastern Australia from November 2019, has highlighted the incredibly raw deal volunteer firies get. Their devotion and community spirit has been used to place the burden of the crisis onto their backs rather than on society as a whole, which means governments taking responsibility for properly funded firefighting infrastructure and labour.
It’s not just a matter of the long duration of the crisis, as Australia’s state and federal governments, Liberal and Labor, have argued. The principle is the same whether volunteers are on duty for an hour or a week. They should be paid at the same hourly rate, with the same conditions, including over-time.
Lifeline is another example, the phone line providing “24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services”. It offers people literally vital support. But it is sustained by donations and the labour of dedicated volunteers, who have some training but are not professional counsellors. Paid, professional workers would be less likely to put callers’ lives at risk and less prone than volunteers to suffering trauma themselves.
Because of inadequate funding by governments, public hospitals, libraries, museums and art galleries now have major fundraising programs and use volunteers instead of paid staff to push tea trollies, staff information counters, conduct routine clerical work and guide groups of visitors.
States’ reliance on charities for the performance of some services goes back to periods before capitalism. It has continued and expanded in our neo-liberal age, taking the form of contracting out services to charities and other non-government organisations.
This reduces direct state responsibility for the delivery and quality of services. In the scandalous treatment of many nursing home residents, for example, the prime focus has been on immediate service providers, not so much on states’ guidelines and arrangements for enforcing them. And still less on the fundamental scandal, that governments do not provide crucial services for the elderly, as they do schools for the young and hospitals for (some of) the sick.
Charitable institutions reduce the financial burden on governments, and employers indirectly through the taxation system, of funding crucial services. Charities raise at least a chunk of their own funds and volunteer labour is cheap. Nor are charities, the most important of which are themselves hierarchical bureaucracies, organised in ways that are fundamentally distinct from businesses or government agencies.
There’s a double-bind. On the one hand, charity (inadequately) fills big gaps in government provision. On the other they provide an excuse for governments not to fill the gaps themselves.
The way out is neither to condemn all charitable activities nor to embrace them as satisfactory solutions. There is a distinct kind of volunteer labour, which sustains unions and other organisations struggling against oppression and exploitation. Generalising such struggles into a successful one against this system, whose fundamental logic is production for profit, and the states which are an integral part of it, will make charities redundant.