The selfish volunteer. (Or reciprocal versus philanthropic volunteering)

I live in a small village on top of a hill in the Pennines: population 500. Or thereabouts. It’s got a wider mix of people than you might expect for a remote village but on the whole not especially poor or rich. 

What’s really striking about it is that it sustains very few consumer facing commercial enterprises yet has a thriving civil society:

  • There’s an old Methodist chapel that hosts a range of activities: playgroups for kids, an occasional cafe, a history society, a role playing group, regular fetes and festivals 
  • There’s a volunteer-run co-operative shop that open every Saturday and sells local produce and crafts
  • There’s a school that is kept going in part because of a load of active parents who support the small number of staff
  • There’s a community orchard, a gardening group, and loads of other activities, plus a very active Google group for everyone living in the village

It’s these things which keep the village going and make it a vibrant place to live. And what’s interesting is just how volunteer run it is – nobody is paid to do any of these things, they just contribute to the village’s activities.

Why do they contribute? What motivates them?

It’s not really philanthropy. The same people might give up time to support Amnesty or Oxfam or Mind where their volunteer activity primarily benefits other people. But volunteering in their local village is more self help than philanthropy. By volunteering time to the various groups they help create and sustain an active scene in the village that benefits them and others in their immediate circle.

There is always the ‘free rider’ problem, and not everyone wants to or has time to volunteer, or even use the volunteer run groups or services on offer. But many do. And they do it because a collective effort is needed to make things happen, and if they didn’t volunteer then those things simply wouldn’t be there.

This draws attention, I think, to an overlooked kind of motivation for volunteering: volunteering driven by mutual aid and self help rather than philanthropy or, put differently, volunteering that benefits that person if – but only if – others also volunteer in that group.

Reciprocity and mutual self-interest rather than altruism is the driver of this kind of volunteering and it has been crucial to the development of a whole series of user run organisations which wouldn’t exist if they were run commercially, from informal mutual aid networks to user led mental health groups to the origins of friendly societies to amateur dramatics societies to community sports clubs… 
Most thinking about volunteering focuses on the philanthropic motivation but just important is to recognise that reciprocal volunteering as a form of collective self help sustains so much of what happens in civil society.


Lessons from Cuba

The death of Fidel Castro contrasts starkly with the election of Donald Trump. 

Among countless other differences, in one way they were similar: they were populist leaders. 

Both, that is, are leaders who appeal in some way to the popular views of a significant group or groups of people in a country, and do so by drawing a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

A progressive form of populism – one that could be developed to counter Trump in the US, the Brexiteers in the U.K or Le Pen in France – could learn a lot from Castro, and its worth reflecting on some of the lessons to draw. Five lessons from Cuba for a progressive populism are nicely articulated by DL Raby in Democracy and Revolution, where he evaluates Castro’s record fairly, identifying where his strengths were and where he ought to have embraced greater pluralism and openness.

  1. Extend democracy. A progressive populism needs to ensure democracy is extended beyond the limits of parliamentary democracy, into workplaces and communities. 
  2. A progressive movement needs to allow for a range of ideas, not have a single view of what it is trying to achieve. To be successful it needs to embrace a range of people and views.
  3. Debate and diversity is important, but at the same time there needs to be unity around certain elements; otherwise it isn’t a movement. The key here is unity, not uniformity.
  4. Just as Trump managed, the populist values being articulated need to chime with established cultural values and beliefs. Start where the people are, not where you want them to be.
  5. And, despite extending democracy and encouraging pluralism, there needs to be clear leadership and organisation of the kind Castro offered.

It’s the complex mix of grassroots activism and leadership, unity and diversity, that made Castro such a successful and popular leader, despite his many faults.

We certainly don’t want another Castro. But we must learn what we can from such an effective and transformative leader if we want to see anything like the deep rooted alternative he offered take hold.

Hegemony and co-operative strategy

 The economic consensus of the last forty years is coming into question. Supporters of an alternative economy over which people have control need a strategy to get it established. Here’s a broad approach, based on what worked for the neoliberal economists over the last half a century and the concepts developed by the theorists Laclau and Mouffe. 

Neoliberalism, with its emphasis on a small state and the extension of free market principles into all areas of life, is being brought into question like never before. The people who have been on the firing line of the reforms introduced by successive government are now raising objections in the few ways open to them – by voting for populist politicians and parties, like Trump and Le Pen, that supposedly promise the protection of the state. 

Many people – from Kim Phillips-Fein to George Monbiot – have noted that the success of neoliberalism in establishing itself so thoroughly stemmed in large part from neo-classical economics being developed as an intellectual model and an effective political device in a host of influential university departments and think tanks, meaning that it was easy for politicians like Thatcher and Reagan to pick up and implement the ideas. The thinking of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School was in this way transformed from a minority radical vision to a political and social consensus. 

It strikes me time and again that the co-operative sector, and more widely the idea of a commons-based or solidarity economy, is such a long, long away from here. Aside from occasional references by the likes of ResPublica or IPPR, and a few academics working in a few universities, there is a limited intellectual base behind the co-operative sector. Where there is research it is scattered and doesn’t form a body of evidence.

What the co-op sector needs to achieve is what the neo-liberal school managed: hegemony. This is an ambitious aim, and one that will take time, but it’s something we should be aiming for. 

One way to think about how to achieve this is with the political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who developed a set of ideas or terms to understand what a political strategy to achieve hegemony might look like in there book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. In light of recent events Mouffe has reiterated some of this in an article arguing for a left populism to counter the right wing populism gaining ground. There are three core elements. 

First of all we need to acknowledge that our aim is to some extent to achieve ‘hegemony’. This is term coined by Antonio Gramsci and developed by Laclau and Mouffe to refer to the way in which certain ideas and certain patterns of behaviour are conformed to and consented to, regardless of whether or not it is in the interest of those consenting to do so. It’s a form of power, but one that works precisely without coercive force or explicit domination. To put it in other words, it’s an ideology, a way of seeing the world, that people use. 

Second, they point out that there are ‘empty signifiers’ in our political discourse that need filling. What the neo-classical school of economists managed to achieve is hegemony around certain concepts and ideas that are core to modern societies but are contestable: individualism, government, democracy, freedom, equality, fairness, and so on. What this resulted in was a widespread agreement that people and businesses ought to be free get on with their lives left to their own devices, that government intervention hampered this, that fairness and equality were about having the opportunity to flourish, among other things. 

We need to attach a different meaning to these signifiers: that democracy is more than just a vote, but means having a say over the businesses that affect our lives, for example; that freedom to pursue our own ends in meaningless without equality that makes that possible; that fairness means that everyone is treated with dignity, not left to their own devices… The specifics we can decide; the general point is that we need a different meaning for empty signifiers. 

Third, a political strategy requires us to build a ‘chain of equivalences’. Neo-classical economists achieved hegemony not on their own but by forming alliances with a series of like-minded groups: traditional conservatives, libertarians, business bodies, politicians looking for a different message to resonate.  

It’s vital that we do the same. There are a host of groups and movements arguing for an economy and society in which people have voice and power, and in which there is greater equality of outcome and meaningful freedom. Tax justice campaigners, environmentalists, open source advocates, social enterprise proponents, many traditional political party members and of course co-ops. We need to build a coalition that recognises we are all arguing for a particular way of organising society. 

So, how do we do all this? What are the first steps? That is the hard question, but here are a few thoughts: 

  • Build our intellectual base. Let’s list out and bring together the range of academics working on heterodox economics and social policy that support a more co-operative society, identify key themes and begin to ensure we can present a systematic and evidenced case. 
  • Build our political base. Let’s identify where our current political support is and what the potential is for developing it. We should aim to put this vision of a different economy and society at the heart of a political vision, whether that’s among political parties or the host of thinktanks and policy wonks that inform so much of policy.
  • Build our coalition base. Let’s identify a possible coalition of supporters who we can ally with in order to develop a wider movement of people for a different kind of economy. We can’t be purist about this; we need to find a broad sweep of like-minded partners to campaign with.
  • Build our message. And let’s identify the kinds of messages that not only the political base but also the people more widely want to hear. Many of those people voting for Brexit and the like are the most disenfranchised by the neo-liberal, global economy, yet they are also the least likely to support the kind of economy we are advocating. We need to find the message that works for them. 

This is not the only thing we need to be doing. We need grassroots organising on the ground of the kind we’re seeing on things like co-ops for creative workers, community control of local assets and so on. But achieving this cultural hegemony is also crucial to being about change of a wider scale. It isn’t easy, it will take time, but we need to start acting on this now if we want to see a different kind of country. 

Do we live in an aristocracy?

… where powerful figures engage in constant public contests with one another as a way of rallying followers and gathering support. We now think of this as an aspect of democratic systems of government, but for most of human history it was seen as more of an aristocratic phenomenon… Aristocracy after all means ‘rule of the best.’

David Graeber – in The Utopia of Rules (pp176-7) – is very matter of fact, and even more accurate, in his interpretation of our politics, something made abundantly clear in an election contest between two candidates, one a multi-billionaire businessman the other an insider from an elite political dynasty.

Global capital is producing it’s own grave-diggers

Karl Marx is at his most prophetic and poetic when writing about the big contradiction of capitalism:

What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.


a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Marx was no doubt overly optimistic – and simplistic – in his thinking that capitalism, by creating an impoverished class of people, will lead to that group organising, rising up and overthrowing the system to create something new and better.

But if the last few years have shown anything (and I’m talking about Brexit and Trump, yes, but also the rise of European far right parties and religious extremism) it is that global capitalism has created anger and discontent that cannot easily be controlled.


Can giving people everyday power help stem the rise of reactionary politics?

Economic powerlessness is fuelling discontent and the rise of reactionary politics of which Trump’s election is the latest manifestation. The causes being cited are big— globalisation, neoliberalism, immigration — but I wonder if the solution is to think small, to give people more power over the things in the economy that affect their lives noticeably and directly on a daily basis.

Just a few days ago, the apparently remarkable happened: Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Or at least it would have been remarkable if something similar hadn’t preceded it in the United Kingdom a few months earlier: the vote to leave the European Union.

Now, everywhere you turn, people are explaining why it happened, explaining that the rise of right wing populism comes down to the large numbers of people who feel disconnected from the economy, out of control of key parts of their lives and lacking in opportunities to prosper.

The left behinds

Take the UK to start with, where the narrative is more established.

Theresa May, on becoming Prime Minister, gave a speech on the inequalities and injustices that are present in Britain — ones based on race, class, ethnicity, geography, and so on. The big issue, she said, is to ‘give people control over things that matter to them’ (their housing, their work, their kids’ education) and create a ‘Britain that works for all’.

Shortly after that, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published an in-depth report on the people who voted for Brexit, characterising them as those who had been ‘left behind’ — primarily people who lack the skills and opportunities to progress and prosper. And more recently the left-wing think tank the New Economic Foundation re-branded itself as a campaign to ‘build a new economy where people really take control.’

Over in the US the same points are being made. Bronwen Maddox puts it down, like many, to the anger of largely white Americans who feel left behind by an economy that offers them only stagnating wages and no opportunities. Alongside the significant number of people who didn’t vote at all, they were a big cause of Trump’s victory.

It’s no surprise that Michael Moore’s ‘Five reasons why Trump will win’ is now being widely cited for it’s accuracy. As he put it:

From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England — broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here.These are just examples of many instances of a new discourse that has emerged around the need for an economy that gives people control and takes everyone with them.

The first notable thing about this, I think, is that it has come so late!

Inequality has been on the rise for decades. Researchers, from academics to the World Bank, have been debating the ‘losers of globalisation’ thesis for decades, which holds that the rise of European far right parties, the increasing social conservatism manifested in the like of the Tea Party and Trump in the US, and for that matter the attraction to fundamentalist religious politics the world over, are all symptoms of economic inequalities that lead to some people lacking control, voice perceiving unfairness and finding an answer in a reactionary politics that aims to hand back power to ‘their’ people.

There are complexities and nuances to the debate on this idea, as Cass Mudde who has been studying this area for decades, wrote in the Huffington Post recently about Brexit, and pointed out in relation to the Trump vote too.

Nevertheless, Brexit was in some way an ‘event’ as Alain Badiou sometimes uses it: an occurrence that reveals some of the underlying truths that had been hitherto obscured (see his ‘Politics as a Truth Procedure’, in Metapolitics, 2005).

Global power

If part of the cause of the rise of more reactionary sentiments we see is the powerlessness that people feel in the global economy, then perhaps part of the solution is to find ways for people to have more power over it.

This sounds like a big ask. The ‘economy’ is the sum-total of billions of interactions and transactions. And in a market economy, as we have seen time and time again, attempts by governments or economists or traders to understand the dynamics of the economy, much less direct it, often fail.
Deeper levels of government intervention might offer an alternative way to reign the economy, in but it won’t necessarily provide people other than politicians with any power in the economy. In other words, if people feel powerless in the economy, attempts at the macro level to give them power are probably not a compelling solution.

Everyday power

However, while the economy is big, the powerlessness experienced by people is every day. It’s the feeling that no matter how hard you work and save, you’ll never get on the housing market. Or that the decisions made by your boss are stupid and make it harder for you to do your job. Or that you haven’t got the time to get better qualifications or do something you would enjoy because you’re so busy working and looking after the kids. Or that you end up travelling to do your shopping or buying everything online because your local high street is a parade of bookies and takeaways.

So perhaps rather than concentrating on the macro we should find ways to give people more control over the everyday. If people can control and have a voice over their workplace, the local housing market or what happens on their high street, for example, then the feeling of powerlessness may be limited. And if people had ownership of the assets and enterprises that generated profit — their workplace or local commercial developments for example — then that would be a step toward reducing the inequalities of wealth and opportunity that drive the disaffection.

This is not to say that giving people more power over the everyday is the entire solution — inequality plays a big role in driving discontent and narrowing that will require other actions too; likewise, questions about the movement of capital and labour need to be asked and answered in order to affect some of the global economic trends.

But alongside these, perhaps an important way to stem the rise of anti-globalisation reactionary politics is to introduce more ways for people to have meaningful control over portions of it, and it is everyday control that can deliver that best. This means giving workers, customers, local people a say; it means more co-ops and community owned assets; it means new ways to give people a vote on local economic issues.

Just as James C Scott has written about the everyday resistance by people who are marginalised and dominated by others, often unseen by their oppressors, so we can talk about an everyday power that people can assume in order to bring elements of the economy under control (eg, his Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 1990).

There’s no lack of experiments in co-operative and common ownership. People have been doing this stuff for decades — centuries in fact — but always at the margins. The issue is not what precise mechanisms can give people ownership and control over the parts of the economy that affect them. There are plenty to choose from.

The issue is will, both political will an wider recognition of how it can make a difference.

If we want to see these approaches spread more widely then they need support — with rhetoric from public voices, with a strategy to help them spread, and with practical action — to lift them from the margins, from isolated examples, to a central way to give people everyday power in the economy.

What Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism says about discourse on immigration

Re-reading Derrida’s essay On Cosmopolitanism, which examines hospitality and the treatment of refugees, what is most striking is how the mood on immigration has shifted so dramatically since it was written in 1997.

During the 1990s the ideas of cosmopolitanism and global human rights were relatively high on the agenda. In this context, Derrida argues in On Cosmopolitanism that when you deconstruct the concept of cosmopolitanism and how states should respond to claims for asylum or protection by refugees, it is divided between two poles.

On the one hand is a universalist normative ideal of hospitality which says everyone should be given refuge, regardless. On the other is the pragmatic consideration of the economic impact of accepting unlimited refugees. The principle is one of openness, of borderless-ness; the pragmatism is around what is financially possible. How these are negotiated, where the line is drawn, is the stuff of politics.
Derrida is aware in the essay, of course, that cosmopolitanism is not the only force driving nation states, and points to France as an example of a country that wants to be seen and understand itself as offering hospitality to exiles, refugees and migrants but also had started to crack down on migrants in order to control them. He refers to an ideal of ‘cities of refuge’ or ‘free cities’ as possible alternatives to state power, where we might see individual cities (he cites Strasbourg) offering hospitality to refugees regardless and despite what the state does.
Where we are today is light years from here – not just from these ideals but even the hopefulness that would allow someone like to Derrida to write this essay. The idea that the treatment of refugees comes from a negotiation between the universal of hospitality and the particular of what is possible seems almost impossibly utopian. Arguably, today the negotiation is wholly more negative.

On the one hand is the pragmatic need for a country like France to absorb migrants in order to ensure that the economy is viable. And on the other is the normative idea that there is an established nation with a people, an identity and a set of values that needs to be preserved. Debates about burkinis in France, Polish plumbers in the UK and Syrian refugees in Italy are all about borders and identity, with the concept of hospitality at best a marginal sentiment. Right wing populism, nationalism and borders are common currency now.

In typical Derrida fashion, On Cosmopolitanism is dense and at times obscure but ultimately sheds light – in this case on what was at stake when we were talking about ideals of cosmopolitanism. But more than anything it makes you realise that question being asked in parliaments and city halls around the world is no longer, given we have an obligation to provide hospitality how many migrants can we practically take but, given we need migrants to power the economy how many can we take without diluting out national identity.

It makes you realise, put more simply, that our thinking on citizenship and immigration has taken a turn for the worse.