Saturday 17 November 2018

Big Charity as Big Capital

1. Big charities discharge a number of functions. Their raison d'etre is the provision of some sort of service and/or support for certain groups of recipients. It may be a cold, grey, loveless thing as Clem Atlee put it, but unfortunately their works are often important and necessary. Especially when, for whatever reason, the state refuses to step in and charity makes up the short fall. Simultaneously, the cause is a charity's call sign. It exists because a need exists, and the worthier the need is perceived the more feted the charity becomes. It comes to epitomise a certain selflessness, almost a saintliness, and this serves, by accident or design, the shield big charity from criticism and critical analysis - something serial abusers are well aware of.

2. Fundraising is the infrastructure on which the superstructure of service discharge depends, and this is big business. Here, charities share a number of features with capital in general. For all intents and purposes, they look like capital, behave like capital, and competes like capital. It has to accumulate or go under. It must compete in the charity market place for funds. It is compelled to rationalise its organisation to maximise commercial performance. And it has to have commodities to sell, which would be the bric-a-brac of goods millions of people have donated to charities in the course of a year.

3. The separation of service and fundraising varies from charity to charity. Obviously, cause has to be central to the commercial operation. Donations are not given on the basis of preferring one charity brand over another, but because of what a charity does. The cause markets the charity.

4. A contract of employment is the legal right for an employer to make use of your labour power as they see fit in return for a wage. Your body and your mind are directed to ends that are not your own and wouldn't necessarily follow on your own volition. In this respect, a charity is an employer like any other. There is hierarchy. There is authority. And there is power. If you don't like this, the door isn't bolted. You can leave any time.

5. Charities don't employ people out of, well, charity. On the fundraising arm, employees campaign, fundraise, and manage commercial enterprises. These activities generate value over and above the value of their wages and salaries, and have to consistently to keep the show on the road. The specific details may differ from conventional employment, but what the wage relation obscures (or doesn't), how accumulation is embedded in surplus value, is very much present.

6. As employers, charities are no slouches when it comes to managerial reward. Because of the "marketplace", so the argument goes, even charities have to offer big salaries to capture top calibre professionals, and offer star fundraisers inducements to raise even more.

7. Meanwhile, the bulk of employed charity workers are low waged. Here, the ideology of cause is a useful technology for keeping the price of labour down. Asking for a wage rise means that's money not going to the hospice, or whatever. Replicating the hypocritical logics of labour markets generally, it's only those at the top who respond to and deserve material incentives. Those further down are expected to get on for the love of it.

8. Charities have and continue to be enthusiastic champions of agency work, zero hours contracts, and precarious work. In the name of accumulate to alleviate, charities can and do avail themselves of the most exploitative employment practices to hold costs down. And they get away with it knowing that, as a rule, they are more likely to attract applicants for vacancies who are drawn to them for the same reason why people donate money and goods.

9. Voluntary labour for charities is a boon, at least on paper. The problem is because this labour is freely given it is unstable. The absence of a wage does not tie the voluntary worker to managerial command because the means of their subsistence lies outside this particular "employer"/"employee" relationship. For every golden, solid, punctual volunteer there are others who are not dependable, refuse to take direction at work, and/or prove very difficult to manage. Their 100% surplus labour is mitigated by the episodic, chancey character of their exploitation and by soaking up time in supervision from the employed members of staff.

10. In the 1990s various commentators used to talk about the rise of the campaigning charity. It would have been more accurate to have described that time as the coming of the neoliberal charity. However, neoliberalism has developed into a sort of Keynesianism for charities. As the state has withdrawn and created markets in a number of areas of service provision, charities have bid for and won such contracts. These public contracts gradually become a more important and secure means of securing funds. This begets dependence, it begets submission to the state's regulatory mechanisms, and before you know it they are operationally independent but de facto part of the state. Like other sections of big capital, big charity becomes fused with it.


Brett said...

Charities often exploit the group's that they often represent. A lot of disability related charities will often employ the slowed down black and white footage with touching piano music to tug the heartstrings and make people empty their pockets.

This disempowers disabled people, reinforcing the common view of disabled people as passive recipients of charity.

Charity is oppressive

jim mclean said...

Working for an NGO is an essential in kick starting a political career these days, not enough TU jobs. Like the Macedo phrase "Poverty Pimps" says it all, (Literacies of Power:)

Jason said...

Re: 9, Charity shops employ legions of little old ladies, few demographics more stable.

John said...

Thanks for this. It is very interesting - and on a topic which few people take seriously. I agree with you in relation to many charities which are delivering social care, or services identified as a part of the welfare state. The recent Mencap case, in which the charity actively litigated in order to prevent sleep-in staff from being paid the minimum wage, is a core example of your argument.

An issue, however, is in the word 'charity'. It covers a wide range of organisations. This levelling effect is, of course, part of the rhetoric of charity ('it is called a charity so it must be good'). But note that it does include organisations which are much more meaningfully separate from the state (e.g. religious groups).

It also includes organisations which derive their funds from enthusiastic memberships (e.g. the National Trust) and so achieve a certain independence. Similarly, some organisations receive their funds from wealthy individual donors (e.g. Zuckerberg), and so while not independent from capital, they do achieve a distance from the state as traditionally understood.