Sunday, April 10, 2016

Volunteerism, or, Yes You Should Do Work for Free

I recently got into an unfortunate exchange on FaceBook that resulted in my "unfriending" an acquaintance that I met through politics. He'd posted an image from a Batman movie that I found particularly annoying and used the opportunity to work through why it bugged me. He responded with a call to "lighten up", which I refused to do.

The Offending Image

There are two things about this image that I find really annoying. First of all, I do not like Heath Ledger's portrayal of "the Joker" in the movie "The Dark Knight". I didn't like the movie at all. It was a reactionary fantasy about a world where the biggest problems that society faces are anarchic street criminals that a "politically-correct" and hopelessly corrupt government finds itself incapable of opposing. The problem with this portrayal is that it is ridiculous. The fundamental problem that society faces aren't bank robbers, it's the owners of the banks. And the worst criminals aren't criminally-insane people who dress-up in pancake make-up and create spectacular explosions, but rather psychopathic "snakes in suits" who are able to worm their way into organizations and twist them to their own ends. The way this movie (and the entire Batman franchise) plays on this reactionary trope came home to me after Barack Obama was elected president of the US. Almost immediately, my hometown was blanketed with the posters that portrayed him as the Joker.

Obama as Joker
Frankly, I found these posters offensive and racist. What was really annoying is that my town isn't even in the USA, it's in Canada. And Obama wouldn't even be considered much of a progressive by most Canadian political parties---let alone a "socialist". But the way right and wrong are expressed in the Batman world appeals to reactionaries, so it makes total sense that someone would use the Heath Ledger Joker portrayal to riff on the "Kenyan Usurper" motif.


Even worse, from my point of view, is the message that "The Offending Image" attempts to portray. I sometimes hear from "creative types" (artists, musicians, writers) that they are being horribly exploited in that they are sometimes asked to "work for free" and that this is a vile, awful idea. The argument is that no one expects anyone else to do stuff for free, so why the heck should they? How could I possibly disagree with such an idea?

My response is that the idea that no one should work for free is supporting the idea that every human interaction should be transactional in nature. Even if no money changes hands, people need to reciprocate in every interaction. This does tremendous violence to the way human society operates. Did you pay your mother for raising you? Did the people who led your scout troupe get paid? How many human institutions would collapse if everyone who worked for them expected to be paid? No more volunteer fire departments. No more food bank. No more soup kitchens. No more community orchestras. No more political parties. No more activist groups. Linux wouldn't exist. You get the picture.


Paul Mason
I recently heard a talk on the CBC show "Ideas" by Paul Mason about his book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. He argued, among other things, that a new society is coming down the pipes, one where non-transactional (my word) relationships will become more and more important. His argument is that modern technology is increasingly dominated by processes that are almost impossible to monetize. That is to say, the information economy is based on ideas instead of things, and by definition ideas are better given away for free instead of sold.

Science and technology only flourish in a world where information flows freely through journals and conferences. If you try to monetize it through patent protection, you stifle innovation and encourage the creation of "junk science". Open source software is inherently better because it benefits from the insight and creativity of everyone in the world who knows enough to participate rather than a very small pool of engineers who are being paid to work on it. Music and literature that exist as digital files instead of vinyl records or paper books can be copied and shipped all over the world for a fraction of the previous costs. The big issue for creatives is marketing, not distribution---which means the biggest problem for most artists isn't having your work copied and shared for free, it's seeing your work being ignored.

Reactionary and neo-liberal politics is increasingly all about putting this genie back into the bottle. For example, I understand that one of the biggest elements of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement involves patent protection. As well, increasingly professions have become arbitrarily exclusionary in order to allow "rent-seeking" by those members of society that are lucky enough to have the right credentials. That is part of the reason why, for example, the legal system has become so insanely complex---lawyers don't want it to be to simple enough for an intelligent person to be able to navigate it without paying a lot of money to experts. Fighting against these attempts to limit the
Pirate Party Logo
free flow of ideas and creative content has fueled the rise of groups such as the Pirate Parties of Europe.

Mason argues that instead of trying to fight against the new technologies that make it harder and harder to reduce relationships between people into monetary transactions, government should be working to make it easier. This isn't as startling as it sounds, as what we call the "free market" is actually a government creation that was put into place through centuries of government intervention. To cite one example, the legal artifact known as the "limited liability corporation" was specifically created by European legal systems to foster the creation of large trading companies. This was because the sums of money required to build fleets of ships to travel overseas were far too large---and the enterprise too risky---for even the wealthiest individuals to attempt. So the legal fiction of the "corporation" was created which holds the liability instead of the individual shareholders who are not personally obliged to "make good" on the company's debts.

One suggestion that Mason makes is that the post-capitalist society could be fostered by the creation of a guaranteed annual income. His concern is that unless the "safety net" becomes better we will see a stratification in society between the people who have paid employment and those who do not. Moreover, the ones that do have employment will become more and more militant about keeping it. The result will be a lot of "rent seeking" in society as people fight tooth and nail against efficiencies that would shrink the work force. And without a good safety net to protect against catastrophic failure, a lot of "ideas workers" won't take the personal financial risks necessary to devote their personal time into creating "the next great idea" on their home computer. Trapeze artists always develop new moves while using a safety net. Why shouldn't inventors and entrepeneurs have one too?


One of the important points that Mason emphasized in his talk is that we are the first society in the world that has solved the problem of scarcity. That is to say, there are no absolute reasons why people should find themselves living in poverty. Any scarcity that people currently find themselves in has been manufactured by human society instead of being intrinsic to the nature of existence. Artificial scarcity can come about for various reasons. One of which is simply because society refuses to redistribute wealth. Another is to create a society where people's wants have been artificially enhanced through things like advertising to the point where people feel that they are being deprived if they lack any number of unnecessary consumer goods. Another one is to design societies in ways that make it very difficult to live without wasting resources---such as housing people in suburban sprawl so people have to use personal automobiles instead of public transit. One last way is to refuse to control population growth so that any surplus production gets eaten up by creating a surplus of consumers.

If we are going to survive past the climate change "bottle neck" however, this creation of artificial scarcity has to end. Instead, we need to create social mechanisms to enhance the ability of people to live within the current abundance instead of feeling the need to always get "more". The creation of an economy based upon the free exchange of ideas is pretty important to that. And, I believe that this is an aesthetic that is at the core of the Daoist ideal. In Journey to the West there is an exchange between two characters where they talk about living a simple life. One of them has a poem about living the simple life of a fisherman who supports his family with the bounty of the lakes and streams. He says when times are bad and there are no fish, they can always eat the leaves of the Tree of Heaven. (I wouldn't recommend this as this could very well be an example of a bad translation confusing one type of tree with another.) The point being that the man of Dao lives in a state of abundance all the time. Partially, this is because he lives a frugal life. And partially, this is because his willingness to learn from nature (a kung fu) gives him the ability to adapt to and see resources that are hidden to the majority of people.

These two old immortals in Journey to the West are living a life of simple abundance because they have made the transition from the old transactional economy based on "things" to the gift economy based on "ideas". Mason's point is that our entire society needs to make this transition now if we are going to survive as a civilization. That's why I fundamentally reject the idea that all creative people need to be paid for everything they do. It is a view of existence that is fundamentally out of harmony with the Dao.

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