Empty ethics: the dangers of a charity sector liberated from charity

A recent partner of charities who may not share a charity ethos.

Charities using coerced labour from workfare programs smells very off to the millions of people who see those programs as a poisonous attack on proper wages, on job creation, and on the right to eat whether you are working or not. These are charities, you hear people saying. Aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?

We could be charitable to the charities and assume they were being naive, thinking they would receive only genuine volunteers. In that case, they should relieve themselves of their naivety forthwith by reading the Boycott Workfare site and the personal testimonies of people coerced into work (for around £2 per hour) that can be found across the internet. They should also, perhaps, relieve themselves of their naivety about this government’s intentions. It fully intends to lower the cost of labour (i.e. make most of us poorer) for the sake of greater profits and anyone engaging with the government should understand this and ensure they are not playing a part in it. As an aside, workfare doesn’t work, if the intention is to get people into work. But the government is expanding the program. It’s almost like the main goal really is to provide cheap labour isn’t it?

But I think the issue is more than mere naivety. The charity sector has undergone two changes in recent years and both must have seemed like an improvement to the charities. One change was that with the growth of the EU, the arrival of the National Lottery and the (late) Office of the Third Sector, there has been more funding available from official sources. This has some apparently good effects but it also means – inevitably these days – the imposition of targets and monitoring. It is easy to mistake success against targets for success in making people’s lives better, particularly once your job depends on meeting the targets. It is easy too to start shifting your goals in response to the money.

The second change is the increased numbers of senior managers moving across, sometimes temporarily, from the private sector. This brings management ‘expertise’ into the charity sector but this is not a neutral expertise. Business-oriented managers are more likely to pursue growth for the sake of growth (since growth is all in the private sector) and they too are fond of targets. They are also more likely to make ‘rational’ economic decisions, like the alcohol dependency charity that takes money from alcohol companies. ‘We can make bad money good,’ the argument goes, blithely ignoring why the alcohol company needs them as a fig-leaf. The managerialism of big business frees those businesses from all responsibility to people – except the people they choose to please for sound business reasons. Is business management liberating charities from the need to show basic charity to people beyond their area of work?

The charities would claim, no doubt, that they have not lost their core ethics. And perhaps they haven’t. But many have lost their peripheral ethics, their all-round view. If you stick to a few ethical rules but decide to blind yourself to anything outside that then your ethics are empty. Charities should think hard about the damage this loss of a broader ethics could do to their reputation. They should think about the dynamics they are getting involved with when they agree to provide outsourced services for government, or when they partner with outsourcing corporations with goals very different to their own. They should think about more than just growth or targets. When someone offers them free labour from a pool of often-desperate people, they should perhaps take a moment to think about what they are getting involved in.

Meanwhile the rest of us should all think harder about who we give to. We now face a far worse prospect than targets-obsessed charities slipping into being feel-good employment schemes for middle class professionals. Some of them are in danger of becoming feel-bad unemployment schemes for us all.

A post all about our individuality. Sorry, YOUR individuality.

I didn't have a relevant photo for this post but I love Balinese temples.

It hardly makes sense to collectively describe individualism does it? Except that it is one of the problems of living in a society where people obsess about their individuality that the social constraints upon us are less transparent than in other times and places. These social constraints always exist, always place pressure on us, always influence our decisions, but because we are all pretending that we are heroic individuals we have to kind of blank out all this social influence in case we realise how little our choices have to do with ourselves.

As well as constantly talking of ourselves as atomistic individuals another weird way we use language is to refer to our ‘social lives’ and ‘work lives’ as different things. I know that by ‘social life’ people often mean what they do to relax with other people, but the distinction obscures something that would be obvious to an anthropologist or a native of a Brazilian basin tribe: that a work environment is a strongly social environment.

It follows then that a lot of the social constraints and pressures on us originate not from friends we chose, or from family or even the work colleagues we ‘socialise’ with, but from the constant social interaction in the working environment in which we spend 8-10 hours a day (less if you’re one of the new army of part-timers who can’t get more hours – this post should make you feel better).

But let’s think about what this working environment is: a top-down, internally authoritarian structure, often with a deliberately created organisational ‘culture’. It also has specific aims, and in the private sector and much of the targetted and monitored public sector, the aims are around constant efficiency calculations, constant cost-benefit analyses, and assumptions such as individuals needing to suffer for the sake of the organisation.

In conclusion, not only are we not as individualistic as we like to claim, but a lot of the influence on us comes from an essentially authoritarian environment that mandates particular ways of thinking and working. You can leave the organisation any time of course. But since most organisations – from charities through the public sector to academia – have deliberately adoped business methods in recent years, there aren’t many places to run to that would actually offer something different.

The point of this is not that we should all be more individualistic, simply that the hypocrisy involved in pretending to be individualistic while living most of your day in an authoritarian culture is enough to make anyone turn to working with trees.

Occupy and kicking out the management

Disgruntled with the management

The Occupy movement arose in part in reaction to what many people viewed as bad management decisions by those in power – bad decisions that led to a financial crisis in which the banks got bailed out but the people didn’t. Some people, particularly those without homes, are still miffed about this.

While many people active in the Occupy movement have what I might see as a weak crique of why those decisions were made (idiots in power, wrong-headed economics, greed) one of the great strengths of the movement has been the desire of people involved to get involved in collective self-management rather than just running begging to the people in power to set things straight.

But today I popped along to the Occupy London site in Finsbury Square and was reminded just how difficult self-organisation is. At the moment people at the camp are struggling with multiple issues arising from the evictees from St Paul’s moving into Finsbury Square. I also overheard a conversation in which someone fell quickly into the idea that labour should be divided between those doing technical tasks and those doing…er, thinking. At the welcome tent a man arrived and effectively asked for endorsement for a campaign in which he was involved, an idea that makes little sense within Occupy structures.

The problems of collective working in our society are often presented as the problem of getting people to stop thinking individually and start thinking collectively. This may sometimes be the case but I would attribute a lot of the problems to something else entirely: that we are used to being managed.

Much management emanates from the world of work but it is also noticeable that there is little difference between the management structures used in corporations and in governments: they are all top-down hierarchies. The purpose of these hierarchies is almost solely the management of resources. We get sucked into this system of management of resources, often with not much more significant a place in it than a barrel of oil.

The reason people do not necessarily notice the extent to which they are managed is that there is no one person telling them what to do. At work they might have a boss but the rest of the time they can ‘do whatever they want’. But the key to the collective management system we are caught in is that it is both decentered and hierarchical. It is without a head and yet is entirely dominated by organisations that do have heads.

We are caught in a network of organisations that control resources (including us) and every last one of them is a top down hierarchy with internally authoritarian working practices. It is inevitable that their ways of working seep into us, from work, naturally, but also from our involvement in other organisations across society, from transport organisations through corporations to governments.

What we deal with when we attempt to escape being managed is our own habituation to top-down management. What Occupy and other social movements strive for is more horizontal or ‘democratic’ self-organisation, but our habits – the management techniques – from ordinary life constantly seep into what we do.

Working together is not difficult because we are too individualistic to work together but because we are used to other people making decisions for us while we work together – we are used to authoritarian collective working. We are used to being caught within a network of hierarchies that shapes every part of our lives. The management is top down but it also schools our thinking because it depends on our complicity with the hierarchies, including our ability to manage each other and our acceptance that certain things should be left to experts we have no control over.

Having learned how to organise within top-down hierarchies but being used to other people taking decisions, we tend to fall back on learned management techniques once the hierarchy is gone. A guy I know who has been politically active for some years has a tendency to say ‘committee’ when he means ‘working group’, because that was what he was used to in older leftist organisation. He always has a bit of a chuckle at people’s annoyance when he makes the slip, and with good reason. He gets confused because they are pretty much the same. In theory a ‘working group’ is meant to be more more part of a horizontal democratic process than a ‘committee’ but the reality is often different – swinging between a complete inability to make decisions and someone taking it upon themselves to ‘manage’ the group.

I’m not writing this to offer solutions to the problem. I don’t think there are quick solutions. I just think we should stay aware of where our ‘instincts’ will lead us – either into paralysis or back to the management systems that we all know so well – if we don’t keep an eye on them. We need to resist the management within ourselves as well as within banks or parliaments.

Travel report: on cake and the idiocy of economists

The cafe of free exchange during a rainstorm the next day

As regular readers may or may not know I am currently on the road in South American. Normal service shall therefore be replaced with brief travel reports.

In a small town in a poor part of the Peruvian Andes I was sitting in a cafe eating cake (not, by most standards, particularly good cake – the significance of this will be revealed in a moment). An old Quechua woman, a campesina, came to the entrance of the cafe and sat on the step waiting to be served. The waitress ignored her for a good long time but eventually came over to her and took from her a bag of freshly dug potatoes. In return the old woman received a single slice of cake.

A whole bag of potatoes, probably dug by her own hands, carried on her bent old back, for a single slice of cake! It’s true the cost of the two would be similar back home, but there the potatoes would have been harvested in 2 seconds by a machine. Of course, even if prices were consistent across countries, ‘the market’ is not interested in how the potatoes were grown, harvested or transported.

An economist would say that what I witnessed was free exchange. And the woman had, at a particular point in time, chosen to exchange potatoes for cake. No-one held a gun to her head while she did it. But if you look at the history of Peruvian campesinos and the history of cake, the story looks a little bit different.

Cake is a nice thing and in the form sold in that cafe has spread across the world carried by rich people and the people who cook for rich people. It is something that people want to eat and those with cake-making capital have a certain power over those who cannot afford the ingredients for cake, or the oven in which to make cake.

The history of Peruvian campesinos meanwhile is the history of perhaps the most consistently oppressed people on earth. First the Incas, then the Spanish conquistadors, then global capitalism. The latter, while less obviously (it depends how much attention you’re paying) or constantly violent than the slave labour imposed under the previous two systems, prefers wi-fi in central Lima parks to installing water to campesinos houses.

The old woman presumably offered a bag of potatoes for cake because that was what she had to offer. That was what she had to offer because of various systems of violence imposed upon her and her ancestors since the beginning of recorded history. Can this – just because the woman wanted cake enough to offer something – really be described as ‘free exchange’? Surely the only people who could make free exchange would be those with a free history, if such a thing existed.

Economics – or the cultish form of it that dominates politics and academia – is full of facile notions like free exchange that take no account of power or history or, for that matter, reality. Economists are idiots. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that they have always had easy access to cake.

What’s this liberal doing in my head? And why does it think I owe something to society?

Workfare makes us free

This post is one in a series about being a ‘liberal’, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

It is one of those self-evident facts that we should all contribute to society – this is one of the ideas behind the current government policy of forcing people to work for free for large corporations. We will be assisted by society in the course of our lives, the logic goes, and we therefore owe something to society. This view is held by many people but some of those people are not interested in economic ‘justice’ of any kind and I can’t be bothered to address them. Instead I will address this to liberals who might be interested in some kind of increased economic equality but who would still rely on this logic.

The interesting thing about the idea we owe something to society is that what people often mean is that we should contribute to society by having a job (and never mind how pointless or actually unproductive the work might be, right?). Now, there’s an obvious flaw that many people can spot here. A lot of what we might call society is little to do with paid work. Reproduction of the human species, for example, largely takes place outside of the framework of paid labour. Yet presumably it does sort of contribute to society, right?

I am not (I think) moving towards the notion that you having sex is a contribution to the greater good (though it does, in many ways, add to the sum total of human happiness) but here’s a poser: is a mother who never gets a full time job a ‘burden’ on society? You could, rather, make an argument that the mother, doing one of the most important things in society, has an entire world of paid labour parasitic upon her efforts. People have commented that it is probably more common for human societies to regard the production of goods as playing a supporting role to human reproduction, rather than – as the assumption appears to be in our society – human reproduction playing a supporting role to the production of goods.

I could leave the argument there, perhaps add in something about the importance of the unpaid labours of art and love, and we could all reach some vague decision that society has its priorities wrong and has lost its spiritual connection with the essentials of human life. But that would (a) let the liberal in our heads off the hook much too easily, thus defeating the object of this post, and (b) wouldn’t get to the bottom of why ‘we’ might have our priorities wrong.

What is, if we might be so bold as to ask, society? Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in it so presumably we should. I think social interaction is a defining aspect of human behaviour and so, without getting too far into definitions, there is a ‘society’ of some sort. We need it, therefore we must owe it, right?

Except that it isn’t a homogenous entity, this society. It has structure within it, and one of the structures we can spot within it is the economic structure. And we can pretend if we like that all the wealth we collectively produced is produced between each of us, and that money goes into a big pot, and from that pot we get the benefits. And then we have to work out why some people get a much bigger piece of that than others.

‘Because it works’, is one thing people say, and I have posted on this before so I won’t elaborate on the dishonesty of that here. So instead I propose another hypothesis: that the entire economic structure was never designed for the benefit of most of us but for the benefit of a few. To keep it functioning some of the benefits have to be shared around, but that is secondary to the machinery put in place to generate great wealth for a few.

This idea has recently surfaced in the Occupy movement as the system being run for the 1% not the 99%. It is nothing new, and one of the effects of it is that the benefits to you are an expendable part of the system. This is why you can suddenly get poorer (as you probably are now if you live in Britain and don’t run or own a large corporation) even though you are not working any less.

So, much as society in some sense does exist, a homogenous society in an economic sense is a fiction. On some level we all know that the idea we are paid what we deserve is nonsense – our pay is determined rather by our power to ask for it. So the notion that this unfair system of pay leads to a fair system of us all doing our bit for society is a bit odd. The idea that your role is to contribute economically to the economic pool of ‘society’ is based on fiction – particularly when you discover what tax havens are doing in the world. You can’t owe something to a fiction, or if you feel you do you would normally be advised to seek help with your mental health.

Why is it that so many people see this fiction as ‘common sense’ then? I think that those who benefit most from the fake economic ‘society’ are good at justifying themselves, and paying others to persuade us to join in with their justifications. The idea that we owe it to society to have a job is an ideological tool for forcing people into work when it isn’t necessary. Sure, we get some benefits, but they are in the power of others to confer, and they mostly do it when they are scared of being hung from a lamppost for not sharing enough.

And yes, a lot of the work we do isn’t necessary. Once you start breaking down one fiction you often find a lot of fictions hiding behind it. As Western countries ‘we’ (not you and I obviously) have vast pools of excess wealth. And yet we ‘have to’ work. Everyone has to. Or we’ll all die. Or something. The threat is rarely spelled out. But it would be just awful.

It sounds instinctively wrong to say ‘I owe nothing to society’, but in the sense of paid labour we can and should say just that. But this is only a start – we do need each other and I think most people feel this on some level. The challenge is not just to act as an individual against a fictional economic ‘society’ but then to entangle our lives with others in a meaningful society – which will often involve things which go on beyond the realm of paid work. So we may end up feeling we have long-term obligations to people, but they will be willingly entered into, with a knowledge of the power relations involved. Not, in other words, based on fiction.

People often seem slightly put out when I say that I don’t want a job at all, that I wish I could do without one. They think I am lazy, or put it down to my middle class decadence. It’s true that I like single malt whisky and I don’t like paid work. Is this a slap in the face to ‘society’, or to those who want jobs and don’t have them? Perhaps. Or perhaps I think I and everyone else would be better off without a fiction that was designed for the benefit of a few.

A Dictionary of Terms for the Shafted: Part 1

A hive mind known to colonise other hive minds

This is the beginning of a dictionary of contemporary working life. I may one day write some further additions to it. Submissions welcome.

Freezing Bottom: the condition of an organisation in which wages are frozen, but only at one end of the salary spectrum. It is not considered polite to talk about it.

Totally Targetted: when an organisation replaces the pursuit of values, or active engagement with real problems, with a pursuit of targets. This is the beginning of the end. The real target is your self-directed working and any notion of cognitive independence from the hive mind. Run.

360 Performance Appraisal: you suck the boss while the boss scratches his moustache over your groin.

Effing Effed: Due to efficiency savings, your newly efficient job role now efficiently covers the work done by three people previously. You are paid the same, or accounting for inflation, less. You know that this ‘efficiency’ reduces the quality of your work but this appears to be of no interest to anyone.

Casualisation casualty: someone whose job and all future job roles have moved from permanent payroll positions to temp or contract work. You are expected to appreciate the flexibility, though it is left ambiguous who the flexibility is for. Say goodbye to buying a house.

Robot Rogered: When a consultant robot is asked to come in and improve things you are considered to have no expertise in – i.e. what you spend forty hours a week doing. These highly intelligent yet ignorant robots will, rather than consult you, apply the stand formula for process ‘improvements’ they apply everywhere, then leave you to sort out the mess. Robots are paid approximately five times more than you.