The Cult of the Volunteer

by Matt Bolton

The figure of the selfless volunteer is a symptom of the displacement of politics by morality, and disguises the ongoing reality of exploitation and capital accumulation.

First published: 12 March, 2014 | Category: Activism, Big Society, Class

A couple of days into a strike by Brighton bin workers last year, uncollected rubbish was piling up all over the city. The council had threatened refuse collectors with a potential £4,000 a year wage cut, and this five day stoppage – and the accompanying stench – was the response. Ben Steers, a manager at a Brighton pub, decided he’d had enough. He organised a ‘Brighton Litter Blitz’ group on Facebook, encouraging people to sign up for a sponsored litter-picking session to clean up the city. ‘At 1pm tomorrow,’ he wrote, ‘we’ll hit the streets with bin bags and brushes’.

Plenty of people signed up. But plenty more reacted with fury, bombarding the group’s page with messages calling the volunteers ‘scabs’ and ‘strikebreakers’. Steers’ reaction was one of bemusement. ‘I was just trying to do a good deed. Sorry to all those I inadvertently upset,’ he tweeted. ‘Still a bit gobsmacked about the whole thing kicking off like that. I was actually just trying to be nice.’ He closed the group down and cancelled the Litter Blitz.

Perhaps his confusion was understandable. Why would anyone have a problem with someone giving up time to help their local community at a difficult moment? After all, the stock of ‘the volunteer’ has never been higher. David Cameron might have dropped the Big Society rhetoric along with the ‘green crap’, but the figure of the selfless neighbour ‘pitching in’ that was so central to that rhetoric continues to be held up as the ideal. This beatified model citizen is in stark contrast, of course, to the ‘folk devil’ of the striking worker, ungratefully demanding more when everyone else has to ‘tighten their belts’. Perhaps this is why Steers’s ‘good deed’, unwitting or not, has tapped into something of a voluntarist strike-breaking trend. History students at Warwick University recently received a deluge of media coverage by setting up student-taught classes during a strike by lecturers. Unlike Steers, the group responded to similar ‘scab’ criticisms not by ceasing the classes, but by arguing that their actions were ‘not a political statement about the strikes’, but simply sought ‘to address the concerns of students who are missing lectures’. Meanwhile, Transport for London somewhat optimistically announced that ‘hundreds’ of voluntary ‘Tube Ambassadors’ would be running the underground network during a recent strike by London Underground workers.

The use of the word ‘ambassador’ by TFL was particularly – and deliberately – pointed, seeking as it did to associate the strikebreakers with the ‘London Ambassadors’ and ‘Games Makers’, the thousands of volunteers whose unpaid labour was the pink-tracksuited back upon which all of the London Olympics’ multi-million sponsorship and real estate deals were built. The ‘Games Makers’ have become the poster children for what remains of the Big Society, the apotheosis of what it means to ‘do your bit’. They stand at the centre of a ‘heroic’ voluntarist nexus which stretches from the various neo-Stakhanovite celebrities, worshipped in the media for half-killing themselves for charity, to the bourgeois #riotcleanup ‘broom armies’ who voluntarily gathered to sweep up debris after the English riots. This latter group were celebrated around the world as representatives of the ‘real Britain’, in contrast to the ‘feral rats’ who had caused the damage. It is the emphatically political nature – a political nature equally emphatically denied – of this pink-cheeked, exclusionary moralism which marks the connection between the brooms, the Big Society, and the return of ‘voluntary’ strikebreaking.

For all the immediate good that the voluntary sector does (and the standard caveats apply here – yes, to a starving family a volunteer-run food bank is certainly better than nothing), there is also a rather less worthy political history of voluntarism which is often overlooked in the rush to eulogy – with strikebreaking at the centre of it. And while there is certainly a distinction to be made between voluntary strikebreaking and volunteering at, say, an old people’s home, in political terms it is often less clear than might be assumed.

An ensemble of ‘supermen’

In the run up to the 1926 General Strike, around 100,000 volunteers signed up to the ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’, a group led by a handful of military generals, who promised to replace key workers in the event of a strike. Just like the Warwick students, the OMS proclaimed themselves to be ‘strictly non-political and non-party in character’, although this did not prevent numerous members of the British Fascists signing up. For all their media bluster and government support however, when the strike began it soon became clear that the resolutely middle-class members of the ONS didn’t have the first clue about running an industrial workplace. Their biggest strikebreaking contribution was limited to the production of the ‘British Gazette, the government propaganda newspaper edited by Winston Churchill.

Fifty years later, at the height of the industrial struggles of the 1970s, the voluntarist strikebreaking of the ONS was echoed by ‘Civil Assistance’, a slightly ludicrous organisation led by a General Sir Walter Walker. He claimed to have recruited, with the cooperation of leading Conservative politicians, 100,000 volunteers to what was essentially a private army who would ‘maintain essential services’ in the event of another General Strike. It was never called into action (there are doubts about whether it existed outside of Walker’s imagination at all) – but the election of Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader in 1975, which was in effect the legitimation of Walker’s far-right rhetoric by the next party of government, meant that it was no longer required in any case.

No doubt the Litter Blitz volunteers, or the #riotcleanup broom wavers, would find any comparison to far-right borderline-paramilitary groups utterly preposterous. After all, they ‘just wanted to do something nice’. Perhaps they would prefer to place themselves in the much more pleasant lineage of ‘mutual aid’ and ‘labour cooperatives’ – which is certainly how Labour MPs such as Jon Cruddas view the development of volunteer-run food banks. But while the form of the voluntarist action may have changed, dropping the anti-communist military dressing in favour of cuddly notions of ‘ethical citizenship’ and ‘helping out’, much of the content – with regard to its relation to the processes of capital accumulation at least – remains the same.

In 1933-34, Antonio Gramsci wrote a short text entitled ‘Voluntarism and the Social Masses’, in response to the common Fascist trope that the Italian state had been created by the actions of volunteers. For Gramsci, voluntarism had to be distinguished from genuine class-based, mass social action. Volunteers, he wrote, are ‘those who have detached themselves from the mass by arbitrary individual initiative, and who often stand in opposition to that mass’.[1] Voluntarist action views itself as being apart from, and above, class struggle, and ‘celebrates itself in terms which are purely and simply a transposition of the language of the individual superman to an ensemble of ‘supermen’.’[2] Rather than signalling a politically engaged society, a high level of voluntarism actually points towards the opposite: ‘Volunteer action and passivity go together more than is thought. The solution [to social issues] involving volunteer action is a solution of authority, from the top down.’[3]

Gramsci’s depiction of volunteers as ‘supermen’, attempting to change society through the accumulation of individual acts of heroism, rather than engage in collective class struggle, still rings true. The relation between volunteers qua volunteers is not one that becomes more than the sum of its parts. It is unable to form a collective subject, or exist as a class for-itself, because – unlike class solidarity - it is a relation whose basis is precisely limited to a recognition of each individual’s ‘arbitrary’ volunterist response to an external threat, and lasts only as long as each act of ‘heroism’. But whereas the volunteers of the Blackshirts or the OMS were motivated by an anti-Communist authoritarianism, voluntarism today is couched in the language of compassionate morality. The neo-liberal consensus that defines post-Fordist societies, even after the financial crash, means that social problems cannot be credibly blamed on rampant unions or communist plots. But neither can they be pinned on the exploitative relation that lies at the very centre of capital accumulation, a relation that is as invisible to the bourgeois eye now as it was when Marx was writing 150 years ago – and thus impervious to change. The limits of such an outlook mean that poverty appears primarily as a moral failing, not a contingent result of a capitalist economy.

Today, in contrast perhaps to the delirious heights of the Thatcher era, those moral failings do not go unnoticed. The blame is usually split two ways. On the one hand, even rightwing politicians occasionally criticise the excessive ‘greed’ and ‘selfishness’ displayed in the banking sector, the stock markets and ‘consumerist society’. On the other, the morally-damaging ‘dependence’ on the welfare state, which has led to a lack of ‘self-reliance’, is seen as the root cause of working class poverty. As a moral problem, it follows that poverty and social problems can only have a moral, rather than a political, solution. Herein lies the confusion of the ‘litter blitz’ voluntary strikebreakers. Unable to see the uncollected rubbish as the outward manifestation of an underlying political struggle, they understand it only as moral issue (‘litter isn’t very nice’) which requires an equally ‘moral’ response (‘we’ll hit the streets with bin bags and brushes’). Similarly, the charitable act of the celebrity marathon runner, or the middle-class mentor of a working-class child, appears as a remarkable moral gift, a spontaneous act of generosity and sacrifice which exists outside of the forces of history – and, as such, can have no impact whatsoever on the accumulation of capital, the actual cause of the poverty such heroism purports to solve. The best the bands of voluntary superheroes can do is slightly rearrange existing distributions of wealth, tidying up the uncollected detritus of Post-Fordism a little, while beneath the surface the engine of capital accumulation and exploitation roars on unchallenged. That may be better than nothing – but it might also channel potentially political resistance towards toothless, ‘humanitarian’ ends, merely reproducing the conditions it seeks to alleviate. Here Gramsci’s link between voluntarism and political passivity comes clearly to the fore.

The ‘Moral Neoliberal’

This displacement of politics by morality is central to the creation of the modern day ‘ideal subject’, a figure Andrea Muehlebach has called the ‘Moral Neoliberal’. ‘The ethical neo-liberal subject,’ she writes, ‘is animated by affect rather than intellect, by the capacity to feel and act upon those feelings, rather than rational deliberation and action’.[4] A society composed of ‘ethical citizens’ acting on compassionate feelings differs from one based on class solidarity in two key ways. Firstly, a ‘compassionate society’ is one predicated on inequality. A society in which housing, healthcare, food, and education are regarded as universal rights does not need them to be mediated by heroic acts of personal sacrifice, or feelings of generosity or pity. They are taken as given. Equality is presupposed.  Secondly, a society animated by affect and morality alone, rather than understood as shaped by class interests, is one which can only exist as ‘the outer manifestation of an inner spirit’.[5] ‘Society’ here is not a totality of historically-situated relations which exist prior to, and relatively independent of, individual action, and which may contain internal contradictions. Rather, social bonds are now viewed as needing to be actively and continually produced by the ahistorical compassionate actions (or ‘spontaneous gifts’) of those individuals who are willing to participate in the building of ‘social cohesion’. In the society of a capitalist heartland, cohesion can only go one way – in the direction of capital accumulation. From this standpoint, political actions such as strikes should not be tolerated on moral grounds, as they threaten the ‘social cohesion’ upon which capital accumulation depends.

The idea of ‘social capital’, a pillar of Blairite ‘third way’ political theory, and in many respects the forerunner of the Big Society, appears as the logical conclusion of these assumptions. Social capital is a notoriously slippery term, but can be vaguely defined as the type of voluntarist social networks and levels of trust which grease the gears of economically well-off capitalist societies. As Tony Blair put it: ‘If we play football together, run parent-teacher associations together, sing in choirs or learn to paint together, we are less likely to want to cause harm to each other. Such inter-connected communities have lower crime, better education results, better care of the vulnerable.’[6] Proponents of this thesis argue that it is no coincidence that rates of ‘formal volunteering’ (via ‘official’ organisations) are almost twice as high amongst those living in the most affluent areas, as opposed those in the poorest.[7]

According to the logic of social capital then, communities with high levels of crime, worse education results and so on should be taught to mimic the voluntaristic behaviour of the more successful – by force, if necessary. It is no coincidence that the area of the UK with the lowest recorded level of ‘formal volunteering’, the north-east, has in relative terms the highest number of people on workfare schemes (many of course forced to work for free at charities). Nor is the growing trend for councils and housing associations to give priority on housing waiting lists to those who volunteer, a policy plucked from thin air. The entire concept of ‘free schools’ is based upon the conceit that voluntarist middle-class parents are able to provide a better education than trained teachers, purely by virtue of their ability to act like voluntarist middle-class parents. Middle-class mentoring of working class children follows the same logic. All of these policies derive from the insistence that society is merely the outer manifestation of inner feelings, that poverty is at root a moral, not political-economic, issue, and that goods like housing and education are not universal rights maintained by class solidarity but prizes to be earned by ‘heroic’ individual actions.

The Limits of Compassion

The flaws in these arguments scarcely need pointing out, but a few are anyway worth addressing. In the first place, working class people may have very good reasons not to trust bourgeois social institutions with their unpaid labour, nor have the luxury of surplus time and money required for voluntary work. Secondly, measurements of middle-class ‘formal volunteering’ do not acknowledge the everyday forms of social solidarity and support – looking after one another’s children, attending court with a neighbour fighting eviction, campaigning for social housing – that have managed to survive the neo-liberal onslaught on working class communities and institutions. And crucially, no amount of unremunerated volunteering or workfare is going to change the fact that the north-east has had the highest rate of unemployment in the country ever since its industrial heart was ripped out. Every one of the 24,000 people on Newham council’s housing waiting list can dig in a community garden until their hands bleed, but it’s not going to stop private landlords from making millions from sold-off council houses, nor homeless families being stranded in overcrowded B&Bs. The Evening Standard can run a hundred ‘dispossessed’ campaigns, with small charitable donations from banks such as JP Morgan trumpeted triumphantly on the front pages, but they are not going to stop mass fraud from banks such as JP Morgan crashing the global economy, and with it the living conditions of the working class.

The point here is not that all forms of self-organisation are ineffective, nor that the only alternative to the market with regard to goods like housing is the state. Neither is it to damn the intentions of all those who volunteer. Indeed, much voluntary work could perhaps be seen as a nostalgic liberal attempt to recreate the solidarity and universalism of the Keynesian-Fordist welfare state, an attempt distorted and alienated by the objective reality of a post-Fordist, post-welfare capitalism. The point is simply to say that the voluntarist tendency – in all its forms, from strikebreaking to Games Making – needs to be brought face-to-face with its own political limitations and implications. The distinction that Gramsci made between ‘the actions and organisations of ‘volunteers’... [and] the actions and organisations of homogeneous social blocs’ (a homogeneity that expresses a presumption of equality, rather than the elision of difference, within the class) urgently needs to be redrawn. The idea that personal feelings of compassion and pity can be a solution to the inequality upon which they depend must be discarded.

Nothing demonstrated the limits to the compassion of the Moral Neoliberal more clearly than the #riotcleanup broom army after the 2011 riots. As long as the objects of compassion remain silent and placid, suspended in a state of grateful thanks for what they are about to receive, then the Moral Neoliberal can remain magnanimous and generous. But as soon as the pitiful objects become actors, as soon as they move beyond the boundaries of ‘acceptable behaviour’ marked out by the ‘compassionate society’, feelings of pity harden into their inverse: rage, scorn, revenge. At a stroke, the ‘socially excluded’ are transformed into ‘feral rats’ and ‘evil scum’, selfishly threatening the ‘social cohesion’ of the broom-wielders with their inexplicable, ‘sick’ behaviour. The brooms become bayonets, pointed outwards to protect the ‘compassionate community’ within – the pink tracksuits the military uniform of an army whose ‘moral’ actions stop at precisely the point where genuine social action might begin. 

Matt Bolton lives and works in London.  He tweets @matatatatat.


[1] Gramsci, Voluntarism and Social Masses, in Prison Notebooks, Vol 1, p442

[2] Gramsci, p443

[3] Gramsci, p165

[4] Andrea Muehleback, The Moral Neoliberal, p7

[5] Muehleback, p132

 [6]Quoted in Alex Law and Gerry Mooney, ‘Social Capital and Neoliberal Voluntarism’,

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