On working for free. My experiences and some thoughts.

Work. We associate it with receiving wages. Of course, nothing’s that simple (never has been), and it’s all becoming unstuck. Now unemployed, I’ve become a sort of ‘reluctant volunteer’ (even now, looking for new projects to get involved with). My experiences, the recent furore around workfare, and conversations about arts funding raise lots and lots of questions for me. I am interested in what they say about the meaning of work and reward. There are two different but entangled strands – working for free as a ‘route’ to something, and working for the love of it as reward in itself.

I’ve been happy volunteering at arts and music festivals – one-off occurrences that create temporary communities rather than endemic systems of unpaid labour. As a volunteer usher at unity theatre, I exchange my time to see plays. I have learned a lot, met good people and had some good times. Yes, I’m concerned about being complicit with ‘the big society’, but working unpaid can also offer opportunities to ‘resist’. (Most activism, is work, but unpaid.) I’ve spent some time at a centre for asylum seekers and refugees, probably through a (selfish) desire to atone for/work against the system I was part of for so long. It didn’t really work out for me and I feel guilty about dropping out. This destructive emotion plays too big a role in society; I know from friends working in public service, higher education but most especially charities that guilt’s overused as a tool for disciplining and getting more out of workers. Volunteering means a lack of clarity around hours, conditions etc, not having the contract or union support(!) of ‘proper’ paid work, and for a cause you want to succeed. As an experience, volunteering varies massively – Threshold was particularly enjoyable for me because of an inclusive relationship (knowing noone was really making any money protected me from feeling exploited). Being unpaid often puts strain on the enthusiasm though, as was made very clear by one of the bands performing. As The Double Negative put it:

 Relying on lashings of goodwill and in-kind support from industry professionals, those in the know will tell you to develop thicker skin. Said goodwill only goes so far, and there inevitably comes a time when people quite rightly want to get paid for their time and expertise. But what is the tipping point for this?

The changed employment terrain has had massive implications for ‘volunteering’ as a route into work. When I was a student, a minority of people did this kind of stuff for their careers. I think I know one person who did an ‘internship’. People who did CV-boosting activities (joining pretend job societies instead of learning interesting things, having fun, or campaigning for a better world) generally seemed to be wankers. For most it was enough just to get by. Students now – I’m astonished by them. They work at their degrees, still do paid jobs and mess around and that, but also volunteer and do all sorts to ‘boost their employability’. For example, a woman I met volunteering at AND not only blogs in several forums, but has set up an online magazine to showcase extra-curricular talents of fellow-students – and they have so many! They’re partly driven by fear, no doubt, as the chances of getting a job are much lower than when I graduated in the heady boom of 2004. A lot of them have anxiety problems; I’m not surprised.

I always said I wouldn’t do internships, unpaid work – these are exploitative, unethical practices, used to maintain and increase privilege. Even if I could afford to, I didn’t want to play along. Childish ideas about ‘desirable’ work went out the window in my teens – written off as ‘too competitive’, thanks to unpaid work experience (as well as low confidence). It became apparent, living in London, with friends on the edges of these professions – that there’s an army of young (often privately educated and wealthy) who want certain jobs and so will do them for no or low pay. Oversupply means if you don’t do free/cheap work in precarious, exploitative conditions, someone else will. I’ve even been turned down for unpaid work (a good candidate but there were just too many volunteers)! Lots has been written about these practices in the arts, charities, media, fashion… With the ‘Big Society’, this government wants to extend this much further. But professionalism means salaries. They also mean working class, non independently wealthy people can participate. A good historical example is the MP salary – integral to c19th radical democratic campaigns. Politics had been just another amateur diversion for the landed gentry (like other unwaged pursuits – philanthropy, art, and so on. Sound familiar?).  This one, funnily enough, probably won’t be rolled back – although if it takes public school, Oxbridge PPE and internships in party HQ or think tanks to get there, that £67k salary doesn’t look so open to all. Also, if pay isn’t your motivation, what is? (vital services carried out by charities, such as adoptions, sex & relationship education – surely no agendas to push there?)

Why pay professionals when you can use ‘the Big Society’?

The past few weeks, we’ve seen big noise about workfare. The government attack critics as ‘snobs’ and/or ‘the hard-left’ (in some hilarious pieces). Aside from the ridiculousness of those people deploying the word ‘snobs’ (see Suzanne Moore’s blistering piece), focussing on this small example risks decontextualising broader arguments. It’s just a tiny part of the picture of exploitation (as argued brilliantly here) and most people criticising this scheme are just as critical of other forms of exploitation. Where people are willing to do some types of work for free (museum) and not others (Poundland), I think there is some element of snobbishness (I include myself, by the way). But there is something alarming about shifting from ‘working for free to rise above one’s peers’ (elitist but sort of optional) to ‘needing to work for free to stay alive’. Politicians talk about making work more attractive than benefits by cutting benefits. They rarely consider the flipside: making work less unattractive. People have multiple needs and motivations for doing things. Most jobs don’t allow people to think, to exercise creative energies, and take up too much time to allow space to do that outside of work. Most jobs, especially in the South, barely (or don’t) cover living/rent costs. The way we demand human people ‘do service’ is often humiliating, made worse by this government’s dehumanising rhetoric. Employers often tread a balance between keeping a workforce just desperate enough to keep trying harder, and offering a few morale-boosting scraps to prevent mutiny. With rising unemployment, these conditions are no longer an inevitability. If, in “the current climate”, we’re all starving, we may as well be starving artists.

What does this do for quality and equality?

There’s a long-running tension between the romanticism of the starving artist vs the ‘freedom’ that money (and a room of one’s own) brings. I don’t think anyone could express that better than Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain:

Cosmo: Talking pictures, that means I’m out of a job. At last I can start suffering and write that symphony.

Simpson: You’re not out of a job, we’re putting you in as head of the new music department.

Cosmo: Well, thanks, R.F.! At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony.

In the face of funding cuts, ‘the arts’ face questions around work, reward and funding, whether the allocation of public money via bureaucratic, (and diminishing) routes, corporate sponsorship and the associated relations of power and complicity (with companies like BP!) or the commercialisation and privatisation of culture: intellectual property rights and the ethics of charging for (or pirating) a ‘cultural product’. Reliance on the state for funding comes with constraints (e.g. politically), but can relying on broader audience appeal discourage experimenting and challenging work too? (There’s a reason they call it ‘selling out’.) Plus, we want free content, and there are so many people competing who will supply it. It doesn’t guarantee quality, but actually some really good things are achieved that way. Liverpool is strikingly full of people just getting on and doing things they are interested in, without making much money from it (who likely wouldn’t be making money anyway). Perhaps they can be made commercially viable. Perhaps new models will emerge from these disparate practices (crowd-funding, for example). We’ll see.

All this free work, whether enthusiastic cultural production, well-meaning charity work, subsidised labour for big companies, or social reproduction, shows the cracks in the logic of the supposed free market. Ultimately, it takes a staggering unlogic to argue that making people work without pay will somehow change the fact that there are not enough jobs.

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One response to “On working for free. My experiences and some thoughts.

  1. Pingback: Arts cuts, communities and more cuts. | cake against cuts

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