In a climate such as that which prevails at the present time, with its general disenchantment and restoration of the absolute values of competition and capitalist efficientism, the demonstration of voluntary workers that took place in Rome recently shows, if nothing else, that there are still people around who represent the values of solidarity and equality. It is precisely this aspect, utopian in the better sense of the word, that attracts many young people to an involvement which if, on the one hand makes them feel better as it gives them a ‘different’ projectuality, on the other involuntarily makes them the accomplices of an overall project of power which needs them in order to complete itself in every aspect.
Let us explain.
Communities, coops, small shops, alternative groups who dedicate themselves to sectors of solidarity and social cooperation, are the main elements with which the economic and political system softens the blows of social injustice, precisely among strata where this is acute and risks exploding.
This sector has stemmed the flood of a whole generation of ‘revolutionaries’ who, since losing father party and mother ideology, now find themselves without ideas or leaders. And voluntary work has helped them get their feet back on the ground, preventing them from looking beyond their noses or risking finding themselves moving towards a new practice of social transformation that is really revolutionary this time. And as more and more violent and irrecuperable contradictions explode, this sector is acting as a stopgap, sometimes even intervening directly to manage the most extreme situations, using the same repressive methods as the State. Evidence of their institutional function is to be found in the fact that voluntary workers apply for funding through the legal framework of associationism: utopians, yes, but not stupid ones.
Voluntary work supplies a very important product: the feeling of doing something useful. So, to all those who feel bad because of the shameful injustice that continues to reign throughout a world where half the population are dying of hunger, buying original products in ‘alternative’ shops at an ‘honest’ price can let them feel at peace with their conscience.
It is precisely this sector that has spread the inauspicious solution of ‘copping out’, of considering oneself to be absolved from any destructive involvement by simply singling out a sector that is supposedly free from capitalist pollution. One deceives oneself that by investing one’s money in ‘alternative’ banks one is not speculating on the lives of millions of people, or fools oneself into believing that by buying in ‘alternative’ shops one is boycotting world capitalist production, using a channel that is exempt from involvement in genocide.
For anyone who has even the slightest notion of how the economy works as a whole, the fact of acquiring products at higher and therefore uncompetitive prices in the so-called third world does not in any way prevent the sale of the same products to the multinationals. On the contrary it favours them because the producers, having a slight increase in their profit margin (which is still minimal when you consider the number of alternative orders), can bargain with the multinationals and get better prices, which makes little difference to the latter’s huge profit margins in any case as such increases are minimal. On the other hand, the politics of higher revenue by both the alternative buyers and the multinationals cannot fail to produce locally a class who are better off and who inevitably end up improving conditions, not for everyone in the area, but for a restricted number of nouveau riche.
The above conclusions are not dictated by the logic of ‘the worse the better’, but by two assumptions: first, that it is not possible to speak of solidarity and equality within the capitalist system and, secondly, one does not help the third world by increasing its profits. The first is based on the fact that the capitalist system is a closed system with one logic that extends all over the world; any semblance of another is merely a means of integrating and recuperating particular phases of imbalance. The second assertion is based on the fact that a country with a very low pro capita income does not increase this (except from the statistical point of view) through a simple increase in exports. In fact there will always be a privileged class managing economic and political power who gain more and keep the rest of the population in the same poverty-stricken situation as before.
For these reasons, and others which we will have occasion to mention later, voluntary work is one of the most important outlets today for perpetrating the scourge of social injustice produced by capital at a global level.
[Original title: Aspetti involontari del volontariato, in “Canenero”, no. 2, 4 November 1994. English translation by Jean Weir published in "Let's destroy work, let's destroy economy", Elephant Editions, London.]