Accepted Paper:

Between self-sufficiency and survival: the commodification of "volunteer" labour on organic farms in rural Portugal  


Sharan Kaur

Paper Short Abstract:

This paper explores how leftist and environmentalist activists from the north of Europe attempt to build alternative livelihoods through organic farms in rural Portugal, but must exploit the new conditions of precarious labour which they themselves sought to escape in order to survive.

Paper long abstract:

In both hegemonic and counterhegemonic arenas, voluntaristic and cooperative workplace relations are currently promoted as a salve to the spiralling costs of living and decreasing job opportunities in the declining West. This paper problematises the assumption that the growing popularity of online casual labour agencies linking 'volunteers' and 'interns' with small enterprise owners around the world - such as WWOOF, WorkAway, and HelpX - inherently contributes to reformist or radical leftist visions of alternative, solidarity, social, or human economies. Instead I consider how the centralisation of "voluntary" labour to a primary form of social organisation in three organic and sustainable livelihood projects in rural Portugal comes to constitute a survival strategy for disenfranchised northern Europeans attempting to secure a meaningful existence under the new conditions. Specifically I explore how social relations between owners and 'volunteers' are marked by the "productivity, competition, and profitability demands of the hegemonic system" (Narotzky 2012: 247) whilst constantly seeking to exceed those constraints in efforts to prove that another world is possible. I argue that the owners' experiments with commodification of 'voluntary' labour relations reveals a common tension between social ideals in the green scene and the economic realities of life in the margins. In doing so I underscore the need for further historically and politically situating notions of solidarity, voluntarism, and cooperation within the wider hegemonic context of flexible and affective modes of late capitalism.

Panel P021
Entanglements of coping and resistance: precarious living in (re-)peripheralizing regions