Monday, 14 April 2014
I've had quite a bit of experience of voluntary work of various sorts, taking a fairly broad reading of that term. This has included conventional volunteering in the third sector, as well as unpaid self-organised activity like being involved in the housing co-op where I live and a period of activity in my local Friends of the Earth group. All of it inevitably raises questions about power and authority. At work, instructions are issued by the people who are presented as the ones entitled to issue instructions, and the people instructed are expected to go along with what their told. A lot of the assumptions underlying that process are treated as invisible most of the time. However stupid the instructed may think the instructions and the instructors are, to a greater or lesser degree, they tend not to openly question the authority of those doing the telling. And it sometimes appears to me that the people used to telling people what to do, at some level, believe that people go along with what they say because of their innate leadership qualities and the brilliance of their ideas, overlooking the influence of their capacity to impose various sanctions on the disobedient. But organisation on a voluntary basis or free labour, lays a lot of this stuff bare. If people are working together in a way where they have no coercive power over each other, the power to instruct crumbles. An instruction without the power to enforce it is just a suggestion. People in situations based on free labour often struggle to get out of worker and boss mode, even if they aren't used to being a boss. It's as if they can't easily drop the idea that somebody's got to be in charge, then feel hurt or at least puzzled that people aren't going along with their ideas. They apply the structures of the workplace, or sometimes those they're familiar with from other areas of life. More than once I've heard people referring to the group they're involved in as like a family. In practice this seemed to coincide with a view that one or two people should make the decisions while everybody else got treated like children and had to rely on pester power to exert any influence. So often, we're used to organising based on the principle that it's the singer not the song. It's hard work, (in fact harder work), organising things on the basis that everybody has the power to exchange information, ask questions and make suggestions, and that the ideas that get acted on are those chosen democratically on their merits.