It's NOT the root of all evil!

Written by: Miri
June 3, 2022
 | One Comment

(Note from Miri: I wrote the below article a while ago and didn't get around to posting it - but after the foments about filthy lucre that bubbled over yesterday (see my FB page for the whole digital drama!), it seemed rather topical... Please note, it's a long one, even for me, as it's a subject I feel rather "passionate*" (*rantworthy) about...)

One of the most often misquoted phrases in the English language is that "money is the root of all evil", but this is an intentional mischaracterisation of the idiom, which is actually that "the LOVE OF money" is the root all all evil.

To a large extent, that's difficult to disagree with - it is, after all, the love of money that drives a lot of the most despicable behaviours of the current ruling elite - but, nevertheless, I think there's a contender for close second, which is "the lack of" money.

Lack of money is the number one reason people capitulate to tyranny. Why did so many in the NHS fold and get jabbed? So they could keep their jobs (e.g. money). Why are vulnerable families having to make a choice between heating and eating? Not enough money. Why do people sometimes do unspeakable, degrading things in dangerous and volatile situations? Because they need the money.

So, yes, having too much money can drive a lot of evil, but so certainly can not having enough.

I know all about not having enough money - as I'm sure many reading this piece do - because of the combination of the time in history I was born and the line of work I went into. I trained as a copywriter with a digital marketing agency in 2008, and by that time, it had become normalised to complete such training unpaid. At the time I completed this internship, I was in my early twenties and living independently with friends in London, not living with my parents (who lived elsewhere in the country). The "unpaid internship" is an example of middle-class elitism and closed-shopism, since, typically, only those with parents well-off enough to subsidise their adult children working unpaid for months are able to afford them.

However, I was determined to get into professional writing without having to give up my adult independent life and return home (why should anyone have to do that?), and so I worked in call centres for two years to save up enough money to be able to live in London for three months without getting paid. At the time, I was living in Lewisham, and the internship I secured was in Acton - pretty much as far apart from each other as you can get in London terms, so every day, I would get up at the crack of dawn for a near two-hour commute to begin a full day's work. I did full 40-hour weeks (sometimes more), plus long commutes, every day for three months for no money, hoping this would (as the cliché goes) be an investment that led to a good career and well-paid work.

Ha, I chuckle ruefully, at this woeful youthful naivete...

The experience I had was called an "internship", but in reality, it was not, as my writing was already of a high enough standard to be sent directly to paying clients - and it was, from day one. Every day of my internship, I churned out piece after piece to be sent to clients who paid for them, yet I never saw a penny of this money. Yes, I got some feedback from my "boss" and yes, my writing improved, but this wasn't an "internship" - where busy professionals were benevolently taking time away from their jobs to train up a green newbie - this was a strategic businessperson working out they could get skilled full-time labour for free by sticking the label "internship" on it - and many, many, many businesses within creative industries do this, and many run on a steady stream of what is - let's not dress this up - slave labour.

Newspapers are particularly bad for it and I won't support any publication that runs on unpaid labour. Newspapers have a multiplicity of income streams and there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever not to pay their staff - ALL their staff. To repeat: if you predicate entry to an industry on working for free, then only the privileged middle-classes can enter it, as they are the only ones who can afford to. It's not a meritocracy based on the best people getting the opportunities, it's solely determined on whether you can afford to work for nothing. In addition, I'm sure we all know the well-worn phrase "you get what you pay for". Are you going to get the best possible person for your business or service if you refuse to pay them? The answer is obvious.

I worked relentlessly hard at this "internship" for months, and, by the penultimate week, I got sick (probably because I was living on cheap fillers to make my money last longer - I became quite the connoisseur of porridge and peas). It was a Friday so I messaged my boss to say I was ill and so wouldn't be able to come in until Monday.

"No problem," she wrote back, quick as a flash. "Here's nine pieces of work for you to do from home."

When the internship came to an end the following week, my boss took me to the pub and said, "thanks for everything you've done, I've really enjoyed having you here. You're welcome to stay on longer if you like... But I still won't be able to pay you anything."

If you think this is in any way shocking or scandalous, well, you're right, but this is just the tip of the iceberg for the kind of ruthless exploitation that is absolutely rife across all creative industries, and this experience certainly set the stage for what was to come. A career in an industry where I am relentlessly expected to work for nothing (hence why I have on many occasions had to return to telesales and call centre work). Nobody who engages in such behaviour thinks of themselves of being exploitative, of course. If you had asked my former boss to comment on not paying interns (I know she had several others after me), she would say, "I had expensive overheads. I couldn't afford to pay them. They were getting experience and a great opportunity."

Everyone who exploits others always finds an excuse for it because nobody wants to think of themselves as a bad person. But not paying your staff is bad - unequivocally. If you can't afford staff, then don't hire them until you can. This woman needed more staff because she couldn't keep up with the workload with her existing team, but deduced she couldn't afford to pay extra people. So, she cynically exploited the concept of the "internship" to get skilled labour for nothing. Even if it was a proper internship (where inexperienced people are being trained up by pros), this should still pay something, as apprenticeships always have. 16-year-old apprentice electricians are paid from day one of their training until it is complete. The concept of the "unpaid internship" - where less privileged people are manipulated into working for more privileged people for nothing - is medieval.

Needless to say, the expectation that others can afford to work for nothing comes from a place of exceptionally gilded privilege. My boss at the copywriting agency was a graduate of Cambridge University and from a wealthy family. When you tell people like this that you "can't afford to work for nothing", they hear "might have to sacrifice one of my three annual holidays" or "can't upgrade the Maserati for another year" = not "can't afford to pay my rent and eat if you don't pay me", which was precisely the position I was in. By the time my internship concluded, I was down to my last few hundred pounds and immediately had to take a telesales job or I would not have been able to pay the rent the following month. People who expect others to work for nothing have, typically, never been in this position - where eviction is a very real and looming possibility - and so completely lack any ability to understand this could be someone else's reality - including people who seem well-spoken and well-educated. Listen: not all of us have a magic money tree. If our work doesn't pay, we don't eat. That's most people's reality, regardless of their accent or where in the country they're from.

The reason that I got the internship at the copywriting agency, and the reason that I was pursuing a career in professional writing, is that it's something that I am skilled at, and I wanted to develop that skill to make a living, which is how work is supposed to work. Someone puts the time and energy (and not infrequently, money) into developing a skill that other people want, then those other people pay them for it.

Sometimes, people are kind enough to say that I am "talented" at writing, but I don't think that's really it, insofar as, I was not sprinkled with magical writing fairy dust as a child: rather, I developed this skill by putting in the hours. From the age of about eight, I spent hours every day writing: stories, journals, letters, you name it. By the time I was 17, I had completed four novel-length manuscripts (mercifully since lost in the mists of time and multiple house moves, but it was good practice!). I studied English at A-level, I did a copywriting 'internship', and, later, I studied Professional Writing at university. All this takes time, and training costs money. So, after decades of spending my time, energy, and money developing this skill to the best of my ability, it has been such a galling shock that so many people (SO many) think I should give this skill away for nothing.

They don't think they think this, of course (well: some do, and I have heard some iteration of "nobody should make money from the truth!" so many times. Right, so people should only make money from lies, then?). There's always some disclaimer in their minds as to why what they're doing isn't what I'm talking about above. That it's okay for them to ask me to work for nothing because they're asking "as a friend", Or because "it's a good cause". Or because they've given me some token other than money to show their "appreciation". (Here I am not talking about legitimate skill-swaps, which I am happy to engage in. I'm talking about people who want something from me and offer nothing meaningful in return.)

And all these people think they're the exception. That everyone else who wants me to work for them is paying a fair rate, so they're sure I won't mind just doing them this one little unpaid favour...

Listen: if you are asking a writer (or a designer or a musician or an artist or any skilled practitioner of any creative discipline) to give you their professional skill for nothing, YOU ARE THE RULE, not the exception. We are all deluged with these requests constantly. If you want to know what the actual exception is, it's someone who insists on paying the going rate for our skill and provides reasonable working conditions and treats us with consideration and respect. THAT is the exception. That's the effin' unicorn.

I'm lucky enough to have worked for a handful of people who have fulfilled that criteria (you know who you are and thank you), but it's extremely unusual, and far more common is having to relentlessly battle to be treated like a human being by people I do work for. A human being with human needs, such as: paying the rent, bills, buying food, and having some semblance of a life. The way people finance these things is through working. If my work doesn't generate money, then I don't get any. Then I can't live. It's a pretty simple formula and I am astonished that so many otherwise intelligent people seem completely unable to grasp it.

In addition to this, working for free sets up a terrible dynamic between you and the person you're working for. We value what we pay for, it is a fact about human nature (you show me your bank statements and I'll tell you what you value). We do not value or appreciate what we get for nothing, and the more of it we get, the less we appreciate it and the more of it we expect. No matter what the rhetoric around this is from people who benefit from unpaid labour, the reality is, in almost all situations, once someone has had your work for free, they will never pay you your worth (and most likely will never pay you at all). This is the advice I would give to aspiring writers and creatives in general: if you're good enough at what you do that someone else wants you to do it for them, then you're good enough to be paid. Do everything you can to avoid the working for free trap, because once you are in it, it is profoundly difficult to ever get out of.

Indeed, this isn't restricted to what might be called creative industries, it happens in many others, too. Someone I know well used to be involved with the council, who ran a day-service for adults with learning disabilities. They had several paid staff and a single, very dedicated volunteer - she worked two full days every week, she was brilliant and thoughtful and really got on with everyone. When a full-time, paid position came up, she eagerly applied and everyone thought she would be a shoe-in for it. She didn't get it. Why? Because the council thought, "why should we pay her when we can just keep getting her labour for free?". They gave the job to someone else, who had never volunteered.

The reason this situation developed - where people think it's normal that others should work for nothing - is that, at some point in recent history and shortly before I entered the working world, people started working for free in certain industries, which is not a luxury any human civilisation had been able to "enjoy" before (well: not since they abolished slavery, anyway). Therefore, when I entered the working world, the expectation was that I would work for free, too.

For this reason, even if I could afford to work for nothing (which I absolutely, absolutely cannot), I conclude I have a moral responsibility not to do it, since all working for free does is create impossible conditions for those wishing to enter the field in question. If I, someone with 15 years' professional writing experience and who is judged by others to be highly skilled at the job, do the job for nothing, then what hope has a talented but inexperienced 22-year-old ever got at getting their foot in their door and developing a career - especially if they don't come from a wealthy background?

Like I said, though, this "work for nothing" expectation doesn't just exist in what might be considered more "arty" industries, but across many others, too. As some people know, my husband Mark has recently launched a new marketing agency, Blue Cashew, which I also help with. The agency gives various types of marketing support to small businesses, including websites, copywriting, social media management, and offline marketing materials.

An acquaintance of Mark's, who is in his late sixties and retired, expressed enthusiastic interest in such marketing support for the new business venture he was planning. He arranged a meeting with Mark, which went on for over two hours. He sent over multiple lengthy documents for us both to read. We prepared a detailed diagnostic for what we could offer him, and at extremely reasonable prices.

We didn't hear from him again, until we happened to bump into him in the nearby locality. He declared he hadn't bothered replying to the lengthy, detailed diagnostic we sent him since he was just "hoping to see us around". He then engaged Mark in another lengthy chat in which he declared that he was surprised Mark had attached a cost to his services, since he had assumed, since his new business venture was such a "good cause", and because he and Mark "go back a long way" (about two years), Mark would do it for nothing.

"Then I'd be able to recommend you to others," he said.

Mark was shocked by this, but I was not. This is standard. This man - who, I repeat, is retired and, I happen to know, has a very nice pension - then stated that, regarding all the complex, time-consuming work he wanted us to do for him, "I could just do it myself, but I'm too busy."

So, let's summarise: a retired man with a generous pension expects two working-age people just starting a new business to give away their time and skill for nothing because he is "busy".

Again, if anyone thinks this is exceptional, it isn't. The reality is that it is endemic. And you could never confront this man with the fact that he is engaged in ruthless exploitation and has a level of entitlement that would put the aristocracy to shame, because in his mind, he is a "good person" doing a "good thing", and people expecting to be paid for helping him are the ruthless ones: evil, money-hungry profiteers.

What's particularly sinister about all this is that it is seamlessly paving the way for UBI. Once we all have an income unrelated to our work coming into our bank accounts every month, then what argument is there left for work paying?

We need work to pay so we can retain our independence and insulate ourselves from government tyranny. Every person who uses unpaid labour - whatever excuse they tell themselves about why it's ok - is contributing to the collapse of the current economy, where independence and self-determination can be pursued through work, and is instead complicit in supporting a regime where paid work isn't considered necessary because everyone's on UBI. At the moment, I can formulate a strong and compelling argument for why unpaid "interns" should be paid. Once they have UBI, that argument collapses. So, all these cynical businesspeople who think they're being oh-so clever and smart ripping off young (and not so young) people by not paying them, may get a rather rude awakening soon, when their own wealthy clients start refusing to pay because, "you've got UBI now, what do I need to pay you for?"

The most powerful political tool most of us have at our disposal is how we spend our money. If you want to support a future where people are free to pursue their own lives and ambitions without tyrannical micromanagement from the government, then you must never use or support unpaid labour (this is distinct from actual, genuine voluntary work where people are genuinely happy and in a position to work without remuneration). Check your newspapers and whether they use unpaid "interns". Boycott them if they do and tell them why you are boycotting them. If you can't afford to support adult children indefinitely whilst they complete endless unpaid "internships", then don't support industries that run on these expectations.

A final anecdote: a few years ago, Mark ran into an old schoolfriend who had become a barber.

"Oh great," said Mark. "I'll come to you for my next haircut."

This guy sighed deeply, looked at the floor, and said, "okay... I'll do you a freebie..."

Mark was shocked, and said, "what? I don't want it for free. I want to pay you what you charge. Why did you think I wanted it for free?"

Now it was his friend's turn to look shocked, and he said, "well, because whenever I see an old friend, they always want their hair cut for 'mates rates', meaning for free. I just assumed you would too."

Let's be clear on this (odious) term "mates rates". If you are a 'mate', a friend, you treat the other person with consideration and respect. You support their time and their skill. True mates rates are paying someone what they are worth, not using the fact that you know them to exploit their goodwill.

The love of money might well be the root of all evil. But like I said, the lack of it is a very close second. And - I know, I know - people who ask for unpaid work often have the very best of intentions, but to stick with the Biblical theme (it being End Times and all that), remember what they say about the paving structure of the road to the fiery place... Being "well-intentioned" isn't enough. It's the consequences of your intentions that matter.

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One comment on “It's NOT the root of all evil!”

  1. Thank you Miri. Very powerful piece of writing. This stood out: When the internship came to an end the following week, my boss took me to the pub and said, "thanks for everything you've done, I've really enjoyed having you here. You're welcome to stay on longer if you like... But I still won't be able to pay you anything."
    In fact this piece has caused me to feel almost sick. Sick with anger and frustration. Because I now exactly of what you write.
    Exactly. Thanks.
    I left my Spotify artist page as the 'website' - but it's hard even to give folk a free experience (of music in this case).

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