Giving Back (Without Giving Up) In Neoliberal Times

15 Aug

A guest post from our sometime co-conspirator Wanda Vrasti. Wanda teaches social studies at the Humbolt University and international politics at the Feie Universitaet in Berlin. Her book Volunteer Tourism in the Global South just came out with Routledge. She has also written on the uses of ethnographic methods in IR (in Millennium, twice) and on questions of global governmentality (in Theory & Event and Review of International Studies). Her current interests (still) include the politics of work and leisure, social movements on the Left, and anarchism and autonomism. Images by Pablo.

UPDATE (9 Nov): Wanda is now happily a member of the Disordered collective. And thus, this is retrospectively no longer a guest post.


Last week my PhD dissertation entitled Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: How to Give Back in Neoliberal Times came out as a book with Routledge’s Interventions series. Publication usually marks the end or the completion of a research project, but in this case I feel like the puzzles that animated it are still very much alive in my mind. Rehashing some of these, at my blog hosts’ invitation (also considering that the book goes for a price I imagine not many people will be able to afford outside university libraries), is an exercise in keeping the thinking and writing that went into this book alive beyond its publication date.

In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic study of volunteer tourism projects in the Global South (Ghana and Guatemala specifically) with a particular focus on the kinds of subjects and social relations this rite of passage cultivates and the reasons why we attach so much value to them. The argument I make in the book is not very different from the common indictment against voluntourism seen in the media. The accusation is that volunteer tourism does more for the Western (in my case exclusively white middle-class) tourists who enrol in these all-inclusive tours of charity than for the impoverished communities they are claiming to serve. Volunteering programs, most of which focus on English teaching, medical assistance or minor construction projects, have neither the trained staff nor the organizational capacity to make a lasting impact upon the lives of developing populations. Often the commercial travel agencies offering these tours fail to deliver even basic assistance goods, let alone encourage grassroots community initiatives that could lead to more sustainable change. What they can offer, however, to Western customers willing to pay $500 to $2,500/month is the chance to travel to places outside the Lonely Planet circuit without being a tourist. A tourist, as we have all experienced it at some point, is a rather pitiable figure reduced to gazing at things or being gazed at, their only meaningful encounter being with the guide book. A volunteer, on the other hand, can live with a local family, get to know traditional cultures, and participate in the collective good. Not surprisingly, the formula has become a growing trend among high-school and college graduates hard pressed to find many opportunities for meaningful participation in the alienated (and austere) market societies they come from.

Sadly, the majority of volunteers I worked with in Ghana and Guatemala did not have their feelings of lack and longing satisfied on these tours. Besides having to cope with all sorts of cultural frustrations and racial tensions, the work we were doing felt boring and useless. Our tour organizers failed to provide work that was challenging and gratifying for the volunteers and socially useful for the local community. Still, most people returned home with an improved sense of self, feeling like these trying circumstances had helped them develop greater confidence and cultural awareness.

Volunteer tourism appears here as yet another form of aesthetic consumption designed to confirm the racial, economic and emotional superiority of white middle-class individuals who are able to afford it. Not only is volunteer tourism useless in terms of the goods and services it delivers to the global poor, in mobilizing fairly conservative fantasies of poverty, suffering and racial otherness to prop up Western tourists’ sense of self and status it is also reprehensible. Once you adopt this reading, though, it becomes hard to avoid chastising the people who sign up for these trips. The best one can do, it feels, is leave the decision up to individual moral responsibility, which is not a very good solution at all. In my book I shied away from this moralistic individual-level analysis and tried to focus more on the structural reasons that make overseas volunteering a moral imperative and educational asset for so many young people in the West. In other words, what kinds of things (values, goods, relations) do we expect from each other and our life in common to make us look so highly upon young people who travel to the Global South with the intention of doing good?

The answer to this question is pretty obvious and, probably, familiar to all of us. What volunteers crave work that is personally challenging and socially purposeful, done in collaboration with other people, especially people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. If we were to use a leftist vocabulary, we could say overseas volunteering bears the promise (not the reality) of mutual aid, transnational solidarity, and socially meaningful action. This means that the guiding principles of volunteering not only stand outside the law of value, they also stand in direct contradiction to the idea that all our being, social relations, goods and resources should be assessed according to the law of value, i.e., neoliberalism.

What happens during and after a volunteering tour to the Global South, however, is that these implicitly anti-capitalist aspirations get turned into capitalist assets. Since these trips are fairly costly (a three-months volunteering trip can cost up to $10,000 including air fare and spending money), there is a great deal of pressure to make the experience “worth” something, in other words, to treat it as an investment in one’s future, an opportunity for expanding one’s human capital. Especially “graduates with no future” are susceptible to this. Trained to become the new professional elite but unable to find work appropriate to their skill level, college students and graduates are forced to come up with increasingly “creative” ideas to distinguish themselves from their peers. Sometimes the solutions are outright insulting, like unpaid internships, continuing education, out-of-classroom experience, or paid volunteer tourism (in academia we have the 10-month long postdoctoral teaching fellowships). These are acts of desperation as much as they are sources of pleasure. They channel economic anxiety into entrepreneurial initiative and excess desire into calculations of gain.

When brought into the fold of entrepreneurial reason, the empowering aspirations behind volunteer tourism are instantly turned into attitudes and modes of conduct essential to neoliberal life: the ideal of mutual aid becomes community building and social provisioning outside the welfare state; transnational solidarity stands for the multicultural competencies expected from flexible workers in a global economy; and meaningful work is code for work you cannot help doing despite what you get paid. This bait and switch would not be as effective were the moral virtues and emotional qualities of associational life not so highly prized by neoliberal capital. How and why this happens has perhaps been the central problem driving this project.

It is simplistic and erroneous to think that neoliberal market economy creates an entirely cold, callous and calculating social environment full of Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman types. These characters horrify us, despite the fact that their behaviour is systematically encouraged and rewarded by capital’s structural imperative to accumulate profit (measured in money, business cards or body count), precisely because market societies make enough room for ideals of social harmony and human progress to function as morality tales. From Foucault (and many others) we know that what distinguishes neoliberalism is that it makes the entire world work “as a kind of economic tribunal”. The market becomes, in the words of Italian thinker Maurizio Lazzarato, “the test and means of intelligibility, the truth and the measure of society”. This does not mean, however, that society is nothing but a collection of economic men. The homo oeconomicus model of action is a hegemonic ideal, not an empirical fact. In reality there are no actual economic men, only disciplinary strategies for pushing individuals to act in calculating, risk-minimizing and cost-effective ways. These injunctions have a powerful hold over our imagination, as we see in daily media coverage about “lazy” Greeks and Spaniards having to change their profligate ways, but they are never entirely successful. There always remain forms of sociality, creativity and affectivity that are essential but irreducible to market logics.

The classic explanation for this movement between excess and discipline is cooptation. According to Boltanski and Chiapello’s by now famous thesis, capital must periodically incorporate some of the values in the name of which it has been criticized in order to make itself tolerable. Examples of this logic abound from corporate social responsibility to fair trade, philanthropy and volunteer tourism, but they only address our discontents with capitalism in an individualizing, consumerist fashion. Autonomist Marxists, however, offer a richer perspective. Instead of capital incorporating something from “outside”, the penchant for communion, solidarity and collaboration already exists within (or beneath) capital. The basic autonomist claim argues that the source of all wealth and prosperity lies in our general intellectual abilities and the communication circuits that connect us, not in the managerial genius of technocrats or the investment patterns of entrepreneurs. Were it not for our abilities to come together as workers, neighbours and communities to exchange ideas and technical skills the whole system of production and innovation would grind to a halt. Neoliberal capital, of course, must constantly develop and make use of these capacities if it wants to sustain a borderless knowledge economy, but the co-called “general intellect” of workers is only tolerated as an individual asset with no collective strength or political power. Neoliberalism is all about breaking up the cooperative dimension of production into individualizing anxiety-inducing experiences, like private property, debt, consumer culture, incarceration, surveillance and so forth, which makes it “the most inefficient way of organizing communism,” according to David Graeber.

Changing the lens from cooptation to manipulation puts volunteer tourism in a completely different light. It shows that the injunction to develop one’s human capital would not be as effective did it not also appeal to some basic human penchant for communion, solidarity and generosity. This is what neoliberal capital does best: it takes our desires for meaning and fulfillment and turns them into assets that are good for business. This duplicity can be confusing and disempowering: everything that makes life worth living in common with others, learning a new skill, setting up a neighbourhood initiative, putting a dream into practice, risks becoming a selling point, an iPod app or a new method for expropriation (gentrification being the most obvious example). But let us not despair. Perverse contradictions like these are riddled with opportunities. The economic crisis is making it evidently clear, especially to the “graduates with no future,” that the immaterial skills and informational goods late capitalism apparently cannot live without are actually worth very little in terms of providing the basic necessities for life. This realization opens up the question of what wealth is and where it comes from in new ways. Suddenly, it makes more sense for a college student to look for purpose and community in the struggles against rising tuition fees and extortionist student loans at home than to pay several thousand dollars to experience life “authentically” in the fantastic non-West.

Although volunteer tourism is a fairly exclusive, niche phenomenon, I think it speaks volumes about neoliberal modes of subjectivization and circuits of valorization. I wanted to make this relation apparent in the book to both people who had never been on a volunteering trip and people outside the academic profession. So I chose to use an ethnographic method, hoping it would encourage me to tell the story in a more evocative and accessible form. This ambition was harder to live up to than I had thought. It turned out that my research questions and the intellectual genealogy they were referencing were already too dense and scholastic to have the mass appeal I would have imagined. Maybe a better writer, one with more experience in creative writing or journalism, could have done the necessary translation work, but as someone used exclusively to writing journal articles I found this task difficult and extremely time-consuming. On top of this, the PhD dissertation and the first monograph are probably not the best places for experimenting with writing. After all, writing is not just prose style, but also a way of constructing authority, the scientific method being the preferred one in academia. However, I still consider that there is a lot to be gained from going the ethnographic route even if it means re-learning how to write, publishing in less prestigious places, and giving up on “professionalism.”

One thing I’ve found the ethnographic method to be particularly useful for, especially in a heavily theoretical field like International Relations, where the state of IR theory can monopolize more conference dinner conversations than the current state of world politics, is that I could make knowledge claims “outside” what is deemed truthful or important in my home discipline. Ethnography, no matter if empirical or experimental, transfers the responsibility for scholarly research from disciplinary canon to the community you are doing research with. Suddenly, you are no longer studying how X event or example contributes to our understanding of IR staples, like sovereignty, the state of exception or global governmentality. You are not “filling gaps” in the literature or “adding” to expert debates. Ethnography proceeds from the other end. Because the primary task of ethnography is to arrange the pieces of the puzzle together into a more or less coherent story, its job is to constantly scan and scrutinize the usefulness of various scholarly products. What is at stake, here, is not maintaining the already colossal edifice of academic knowledge, but testing the explanatory, interpretative, and even emancipatory use value of what are often highly professionalized, hermetic knowledge-commodities. Particularly where research questions are grounded in lived experience and societal problems, ethnography becomes a tool for unlocking knowledge from its narrow professional function to hopefully become something useful and usable.

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One Response to “Giving Back (Without Giving Up) In Neoliberal Times”

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  1. Michael James Barker’s Weblog - August 25, 2012

    [...] Vrasti, Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: Giving Back in Neoliberal Times (Routledge, August [...]

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