The key to a more altruistic society? Working less.

May 18, 2020  |  By Luca Tiratelli, Policy Researcher, NLGN

If there has been anything heartening to come out of misery of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been the growth of mutual aid groups, which we have seen spring up across the length and breadth of the country.

But what has driven this outpouring of community spirit and neighbourliness? Well, according to people some key figures in the movement – who we’ve been speaking to for an upcoming piece of research – the answer, to a large extent, is the government’s furlough scheme.

On one level, this is fairly unsurprising. A large section of society (about 7.5 million workers at last count) have seen their working hours reduced to zero, and they now have a lot time to devote to other activities. But the fact that what many are choosing to do with this time is to get more involved in community projects – like mutual aid groups – is surely something worth thinking about.

For one thing, it seems to suggest that lots of us have some sort of unscratched itch when it comes to engaging in our communities. Rather than learn a language, perfect an instrument or write a novel – as social-media productivity gurus were encouraging us when lockdown began – it turns out what people really wanted to do was use their time to help their neighbours, rather than for self-improvement.

People who have never before been involved in their communities are becoming active. Many of the people we’ve spoken to, working at the sharp end of the community and voluntary sector response to the crisis, report having created networks of volunteers that go way beyond ‘the usual suspects’. One could reasonably conclude from this, that all that is stopping people being more engaged in their local areas in normal conditions are the stresses and time-commitments of work.

This seems tragic on two counts. Firstly, it suggests that huge numbers of people are being denied the opportunity to give back to others, and to create roots in their communities to the extent that they would like. This speaks of basic human, spiritual and dare I say political needs which are going unmet.

Just as importantly, the fact that it took furlough to unlock this community power reveals a massive wasted resource. Communities can, and want to, be so much more active, mobilised and vibrant. Who does it benefit to stop them? If we built a society in which the altruism in all of us could flourish, we could have a radically different type of state, different types of public services, and a reduction in so many social ills.

But what would such a society look like? I think one basic feature of this new world is that we would all work less.

The idea that human flourishing could reach a critical next stage if we could just free ourselves from the need for waged work has been around a long time. Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in 1928 in which he contended that the notion that work, productivity and busyness were virtuous was some kind of Protestant fetish, and provided a passionate argument “In Praise of Idleness”. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would mean that we could all be working 15-hour weeks by the year 2000.

Modern thinkers interested in Post-Work, such as the anthropologist David Graeber, identify “bullshit jobs”, and capitalism’s surprising feature of paying people to do totally unnecessary tasks as the reasons why Keynes’s prediction didn’t come to pass. Thinkers like these, and global campaigns for a four-day week, see no reason, why, with current technological advances, we shouldn’t be fighting to work less right now – and relatedly, why we shouldn’t be fighting for a more generous form of social safety net in the form of a universal basic income.

There is evidence to suggest that if we could all reduce the amount we worked, community life, as well as personal wellbeing, could blossom. Perhaps then, those of us interested in community power, and those interested in ‘building back better’ after the crisis, could come together to fight for us all to have more free time in our lives going forward. This could potentially unlock latent, altruistic forces within our society that could reduce demand on public services, build social capital, and enable true human flourishing.

Luca Tiratelli is one of the researchers leading a research project on COVID-19 and the Mutual Aid response. For more information and to be kept updated, visit here.