New Internationalist

Big Society: volunteering or rip off?

Let’s face it – what the Con-Dem government are doing now is disincentivizing voluntary activity. There are millions of people who are involved in voluntary activity with altruistic motives who feel that they cannot opt out of what they are doing – and do not want to – because there are vulnerable people dependent upon them and because they are doing something valuable.

Yet to be encouraged to do what they do by a Cabinet of millionaires who are chopping public services in the interests of the bankers, as if the public as volunteers are to take on and continue these or ersatz roles unfunded or underfunded – is to feel yourself taken for a ride.

It’s quite straightforward – it’s an abuse of altruism. As we watch the bankers brush aside the attempts to control them in the so-called ’Project Merlin’ we can all see what is happening – the more we give, the more they will be able to take – and the more they will take. Well, not from me...

Bigger Society. Photo by Eric The Fish under a Creative Commons licence.

Big banks, big problems

At a certain point one can see that there is an implied social contract in volunteering – so that one is not having one’s altruism abused. When other people and institutions are re-creating huge social and economic problems and opting out of their social responsibilities and out of their contribution to society, then people who volunteer are being ripped off.

Having read the book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World by Nicholas Shaxson, I’ve had enough. You can read in that book how the Bank of England, the City of London and successive British governments have created unregulated and untaxed zones and secrecy jurisdictions in London, in Jersey, in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere, where responsible control of the financial system has been undermined and wrecked. You can read how the Bank of England and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office acted in ways that they knew helped dictators, irresponsible banks and organized criminal gangs loot the world. Once you start to delve, as Shaxson has, it is outrageous and blatant.

It was because these places effectively deregulated the world finance system that all sorts of shady and irresponsible practices brought the world economy to the point of collapse. It is these dens of thieves that have wrecked the world economy and now we are supposed to pay more, do with less public services, and do our bit of volunteering to help.

Stuff that!

The anger and the resistance to this is not some sort rejection of society; the real, the genuine Big Society is the society that comes together to fight this and fights the arrogance of the banks. And that means pulling them down.

That’s the number one pre-condition for a Big Society – a society where the banks have lost their power. There is a Banking Commission going on at the moment – yet another official charade to pretend to do something and then leave things just as they were. We can expect nothing from it – we already know that.

What most people don’t understand is that the banks actually create most of the money in circulation; they don’t just lend on something that the government has issued – no, they CREATE the money when they lend. Money in the form of bank deposits is backed not by gold, but by your promise to pay back your debt to the bank with interest, and most of this debt is collateralized in land and property. The more your house is worth, the more you can borrow.

Speculation on the value of land and property, where the banks encouraged imprudent borrowing and lending for property deals, pushed up the value of land and property beyond people’s ability to pay the rent for it. This is what brought us to where we are when it all fell apart globally. So we need a genuine banking reform in which the banks no longer have the right to create money to lend. We cannot have a situation where the transactions system, on which everyone depends for buying and selling, is in private hands.

More more more! Photo by _J_D_R_ under a CC licence.

The second thing that has to happen is that we have to find a new basis of funding the welfare state. In fact, when people re-mortgaged their houses over the last few years, they did it, in most cases, not to pay for frivolous holidays – they did it to pay for what used to be provided by the welfare state, like the higher education of their children. So the sort of Big Society in which one does not feel ripped off to be a volunteer is a society in which taxes on the wealthy are high and rising and used to pay the expenses of welfare and other priorities like transforming the energy system.

But there’s a problem: the rich have created tax havens and secret jurisdictions around the world to hide what they have stolen from us. Taxing them has got a lot more difficult. In 1966, the top rate of income tax on the really rich was 95p for every £1 income. Now, it’s only 50p. That’s largely because of the tax havens. That means we will need to tax things that they cannot take abroad – namely, the entire value of their land.

A tiny 0.3 per cent of the population of this country owned 63 per cent of the land here a few years ago. So we can start with taxing the rentals that these people get; that would also remove the incentive for land speculation that created the banking crisis in the first place.

Owned by whom? Photo by Neil Bird under a CC licence.

The free marketeers neo-liberal economists are forever telling us about the virtues of the market. The market works by incentivizing the production of more of something when its price rises. That’s the profit motive. But when the price of land rises, or when land rentals rise, you can’t actually produce more land.

That is exactly why the free marketeers’ favourite economist, Adam Smith, said that land rentals should be the main source of tax. As Smith pointed out, rentals didn’t actually serve an economic purpose except to enrich their owners. To take tax burdens off the rest of the economy, the best place to put taxes on was land values. It was a view shared by all the early economists, but today’s market fundamentalists have forgotten that. So too have our socialist friends, because most of them don’t realize that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels also said in their Communist Manifesto that land rentals should be taxed away and used for public purposes.

So they should. Let’s see the property barons take their lands to the Cayman Islands to escape a rental tax. Of course, they would not be able to.

Money is power? Greed never ends. Photo by Alex Brown under a CC licence.

Social contract

But before you catch me volunteering in a way that cheapens state provision, to the favour of bankers, I want the environment worked on, too; that’s also part of the social contract that would underpin a genuine rather than a fake Big Society. That means a society which takes the threat to our environment seriously, which means that we ban the sale of climate-toxic fossil fuels without a permit, that we reduce the number of permits every year and we make companies like BP buy these permits from the public – so we, the public, get the carbon rents, just as we should get the land rents from the rich.

In that kind of society I’d be happy to volunteer because I wouldn’t feel I was being ripped off. I would feel that I was part of a society that was trying to look after all its members and was really making a contribution to dealing with climate change and changing the energy system. I note that when the Egyptian people got rid of Mubarak, they started to clear the refuse off the street – because they felt pride in themselves and their country.

But that’s not what I feel now.

I’ve been involved in voluntary activity all my adult life, that is for 40 years. There are different kinds of voluntary activity and some of it is about stirring things up when people are being messed about, while some is about pioneering and providing a service that the public sector ought to provide but doesn’t, often because it is tied down by politicians whose understanding is superficial and whose budgets are tight. Now they are tighter than they have ever been, and it’s because we’re being robbed. There’s a bank robbery going on and I have never in my whole life felt less like volunteering than now, because no Eton rich boys are going to take me for a sucker.

There would be many who would feel they could not strike because they are actually trapped by the sheer essential nature of their volunteer roles: there are vulnerable people dependent on them. But I think that trade unions, councils of voluntary organizations, the NCVO, Volunteers Bureaus and other voluntary and community sector organizations should seriously think about organizing a volunteers’ strike to express what we think of what is happening now.

Of course, it would be a gesture, but collective gestures matter. They express what people feel. They express outrage when it needs to be expressed.

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