I’m currently reading Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions (Bloomsbury, 2015) by the brilliant writer, Eve Poole. The book meticulously slays capitalism’s dragons in fairy dresses: the assumptions of competition, the invisible hand, ‘market pricing is just’, the supremacy of the shareholder, the legitimacy of the limited liability model and more. It is a very thorough and intellectually robust read. I strongly recommend it.
I did notice that the book doesn’t cover one key toxic assumption that capitalism appears to consider to be fact: writers neither want or need to get paid.
I cannot think of any other reason why anyone would consider it wise or fair to approach a professional writer to work for them for free. I also cannot think of any other realm of professionalism (outside of the creative sphere) in which mega profitable organisations expect to be able to extract labour and expertise for free.
Don’t cry for me -I am to blame for my own woes. I struggle to resist Twitter and often put ideas out there, like many people. Perhaps I accidentally gave the impression that I like giving away my labour for free. So, it should probably come as no shock that the source of my current bewildered disdain permeates from a tweet I wrote.
I was approached by a blue-chip multinational corporation to write a piece for them on the governments’ seeming push to regulate social media organisations in light of the racist abuse faced by England footballers.
Noticing they hadn’t mentioned a fee, I asked what it was. Their response:
“Sadly there is no fee for opinion pieces ☹ I am told it’s because it is the ‘foundation’ so it’s all meant to be charitable.”
I’d have no problem contributing my time to a charity. But context is critical here: the ‘foundation’ arm of a corporation that made $5.98bn last year asked me to clear my diary, research, write, rewrite, battle with my self-doubts (and demons), rewrite again and then send them a professionally written piece. For free. Or, as they put it, ‘for charity’. I passed.
The representative of the organisation came back to me and said: “That’s fair enough. I am fighting internally for opeds [sic] to be paid so I’ll keep you in mind in case it changes. Have a lovely day!”
At that moment the spirit of the great American scribe Harlan Ellison took over my bitter soul and I generously decided to offer something painfully elementary that I, nevertheless, believed would help win the argument within the company:
“I hope that works out well internally. I am part of an organisation called the Black Writers' Guild and we're very strong on this. Being a Black writer is often a double whammy - our labour as Black people and then as writers is often not valued. I understand this is a ‘foundation’ but I'm assuming everyone in your hierarchy is getting paid for their labour. Writers have bills too. If the ‘foundation’ wishes to contribute their proceeds to charity - that is admirable. But it is an unfair assumption that writers can afford for the fruits of their labour to go to charity. Home is where charity starts after all. And we won't have homes if we don't get paid for our labour.”
This is not the first or tenth time this has happened to me. I was once asked to come and spend half a day with another multi-billion-pound organisation. Upon enquiring about pay they offered me “five thousand dollars...”. ‘HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN THE SKIES ABOVE ARE CLEAR AGAIN!’ I thought... until I read the sentence in full: “…five thousand dollars… in Ad Credit… to a non-profit organization of interest to you”. Again, I passed.
If an organisation that is commercially savvy enough to generate billions of dollars cannot find it in their hearts or their heads to pass a few grains of salt (not slithers of steak) to writers (average earnings: £10,497 per annum) then the entire landscape of writing talent is threatened.
I concede I am either lucky, blessed or privileged – pick your poison. I have made a career out of my writing work and I don’t struggle for exposure – forever may this continue, amen. But this exploitative, predatory and indeed anti-capitalist behaviour cannot be condemned enough. Especially when it is carried out by the biggest beneficiaries of and town criers for our capitalist economic system. Or perhaps my own toxic assumption of capitalism has blown up in my face: maybe there really is no free market without ‘free labour’ (as my truly anti-capitalist friends have long insisted)? Or maybe I never ever imagined that someone, somewhere would consider me personally their ‘free labour’.
Perplexingly I wonder: are the few pounds a mammoth corporation will shell out to pay a writer really worth the very predictable and avoidable reputational damage that will result from that writer naming and shaming them as well as rallying other writers to not work with them? It would appear that they are.
It is critical that writers get paid – especially by corporations. It is equally critical for writers to walk away when there is no pay day – otherwise we just collaborate in our own subjugation and exploitation. We risk decimating our own industry.
If our ideas and our labour are worthy of a company’s website, page, screen, stage, speeches – they are also worthy of a slice of their profits.
Of course, I’d be honoured to be asked to write for free for a charitable organisation like the Big Issue, but big oil, big pharma, big tech, big finance or big media? Pay me or leave me alone.
Nels Abbey is a writer, satirist and media executive based in London. He is the author of Think Like a White Man (Canongate, 2018), a satirical self-help book. He is the co-founder of The Black Writers’ Guild. He is also a former banker.
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