We are entering the second Holiday season since the pandemic hit us. We are also about to enter a brand new year, where, again, the uncertainty of the pandemic is still shivering down our spines. We know that this nightmare is most likely far from over. What’s worse is that the pandemic is not the only crisis we will have to deal with in the following years. The intensity of climate change is about to punch us in the face, and when it does, we must be ready to help each other in order to survive. Surprisingly, among all this chaos, ever since the pandemic started, there has been a surge in the organization of mutual aid activities. Major media outlets, like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and even Teen Vogue have provided “101 guides” to mutual aid. What once was considered an “extreme” anarchist concept is now becoming extremely popular.
Its core remains anarchist though. At least if practiced right. The term “mutual aid” originates from Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”. Kropotkin’s book was a response to the upsurge of Social Darwinism in the 19th century, where he argued that solidarity, not competition, is the determinative factor that has enabled species to survive. In a modern context, Kropotkin’s emphasis on solidarity is still the basis of mutual aid. However, the term now connotes much more than its original definition did. Mutual aid is an organizational theory that promotes solidarity while working towards social change. Because of this emphasis on solidarity and its political dimension, mutual aid differentiates itself from the charity model.
To elaborate, charity usually maintains the status quo while allowing the wealthy to give to those in need, instilling a sense of superiority and paternalism in the patron. Dean Spade explains in his book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis and the Next, that “the charity model we live with today has its origins in Christian European practices of the wealthy giving alms to the poor to buy their own way into heaven. It is based on a moral hierarchy of wealth—the idea that rich people are inherently better and more moral than the poor, which is why they deserve to be at the top” (25). This moral superiority is also why a lot of charity programs come with eligibility requirements, like sobriety, lawful immigration status, lack of a criminal record, etc. Sometimes this moral superiority goes as far as to perpetuate eugenic views that try to dictate the amount of children poor people should have. For instance, as Spade exemplifies, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a federal assistance program supposed to help families in need, restricts families from receiving additional help when they have new children (25). He explains that in Boston, for example, if a second child is born, they cannot receive any help from the program (25). Even in cases where there are no eligibility requirements, marginalized people are still at risk because NGOs usually keep records that put undocumented immigrants and people with criminal records in danger.
Furthermore, non-profits depend on their sponsor’s approval, and as Spade explains, they often “compete to show that they are the best organization to win a grant, which means working according to the funder’s beliefs about the causes of and solutions for a particular problem” (27). Since billionaires are not really interested in addressing the flaws of the system that allowed them to be successful in the very first place, they choose to fund NGOs that are far from radical. Given that logic, it comes as no surprise that most billionaires in France decided to donate to Notre Dame in 2018. Worse, they do not even donate because they truly want to contribute to society but instead, because doing so creates a tax shelter. A New York Times’ article posted in 2018 addresses this exact problem and discusses how billionaires, like Nicholas Woodman (creator of the GoPro camera), form foundations that do not even contribute in any way. The article explains how Woodman created a foundation with a net worth of 500 million dollars, yet, there is no trace of the foundation; it has no website, no areas of focus listed, and it has not specified any grants (if there have been any) “made” to nonprofits. Moreover, because of his foundation, he avoided paying capital gains taxes on that 500 million worth of stock, and he was also able to claim a charitable deduction, saving him millions of dollars more. Spade similarly discusses this lack of transparency in most foundations, explaining that “foundations are not even required to give much of their wealth away: they give out only 5 percent a year and still reap the benefits of a tax haven for their money and the social cachet of being a philanthropist, and that 5 percent can still be used to pay friends and family to be trustees of the foundation” (27).
For the remaining 99% of the population, being “charitable” is also not exactly the best way to help. Those of us who are privileged enough to have some extra money to donate to a foundation once in a while or to volunteer in a shelter during the Holidays still contribute to the status quo in one way or another. Spade, once again, puts it best: “the charity model encourages us to feel good about ourselves by ‘giving back’, convincing us that we have done enough if we do a little volunteering or posting online. It is a great way to keep us in our place, keeping people numb to the suffering in the world and their own suffering, essential to keeping things as they are” (29). What’s worse is the selfishness and isolation that this way of “helping” has caused within us. Frequently, I’ve seen people, among the same social classes even, refusing to accept help from someone else because they do not want to “be receivers of charity”. These instances show how the act of receiving is stigmatized, and how for some people requiring help automatically subjects them to a lower position in the hierarchy of class. We need to be able to help and to accept help from each other, but before doing that, we need to realize that helping has to come from a place of solidarity and reciprocity. Luckily, this is what mutual aid is all about.
Mutual aid is a political, permanent, non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic exchange of resources. It’s transparent and simple. There is no place for paternalism because everyone involved in the process is seen as an equal. There are no leaders, no donors, or authorities. The internal structure of a mutual aid group consists of people who make decisions together, who exercise direct and deliberate democracy (as opposed to the classical representative one) by listening to each other and arriving at consensus. The voices of those in need are not only taken into consideration but also, they are an active and equal part of the group. After all, mutual aid believes that “our needs are best met by those with the most local knowledge” (Spade, 37). It is made by the people for the people, and everyone has something to contribute. A great example is Hong Kong’s response to COVID-19, where people, in the absence of government action, stepped in:
On the day the first COVID-19 case in Hong Kong was confirmed, people from the protest movement created a website that tracked cases, monitored hotspots, reported hospital wait times, and warned about places selling fake personal protective equipment (PPE). The protesters defied the government’s ban on masks and countered misinformation from the [WHO] discouraging their use. They set up brigades that made and distributed masks, specially making sure they reached poor and old people. They created a system of volunteers to set up hand sanitizer stations throughout crowded tenement housing and maintain the supply of sanitizer at the stations. They also created digital maps to identify the station sitesSpade, 10.
Simpler mutual aid examples include community fridges where people leave what they do not need and take what they want. These surged at the beginning of the pandemic in the United States since they are a great solution to food banks where people usually congregate together. Even though the effects of the pandemic have softened in certain areas, these food fridges continue to provide an important service as they help individuals without cars to reach food bank locations. Moreover, they are a great way to reduce food waste. According to the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, U.S. households waste 31.9% of their food. Having a community fridge could alleviate this food waste problem while offering a way to help those in need. Another alternative to alleviate the shortage of food is for neighborhoods to coordinate pick-ups/drops-off of meals. In Washington, for example, a group of people organized themselves in order to provide meals for the elderly and for children who were not receiving their usual meals because of the pandemic. The group also offers other exchanges of services between neighbors, like tutoring, eldercare, childcare, dog walking, and community gardening. The main idea is that everyone can contribute.
It’s important to note at this point that these are not “feel good” stories. Yes, it is heartwarming and inspiring to see people coming together and helping each other, but the reality is that the reasons why they are organizing should not even exist in the first place. The government should be doing something to help the homeless, those in hunger, immigrants, etc. Evidently, it is not, and most people who believe in mutual aid know that we cannot rely on the government. Yet, with or without the government, these conditions must change, and mutual aid is a way to make these changes possible, and that’s why mutual aid needs to be political. If the only differences between mutual aid and charity were to be the former’s principles of solidarity and reciprocity, it would be very easy to argue that it all simply depends on the intention behind the aid provided. This is why I maintain that the main difference between these two is their political dimension — charity’s focus is to conserve the status quo, while mutual aid’s focus is to dismantle systems of oppression.
An excellent example that helps to illustrate this point is the Black Panther Party’s work in the 60s and 70s. The Black Panther Party was an African American revolutionary party with the goal of protecting and serving the Black community by any means necessary. They created social and community programs for low-income and Black communities, providing free breakfast for children, free food for families, liberation schools, ambulance services, local transportation, free healthcare clinics with affordable testing for sickle cell anemia, and legal aid. What separates The Black Panthers from other mutual aid organizations though is that the Panthers not only saw their programs as helpful for those in need but also as a way to incorporate people into a broader political plan that sought to formally organize those who they were serving. This political element is why once upon a time, mutual aid was seen as dangerous and radical. For instance, the U.S government apparently felt so threatened by the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast program that the FBI attempted to destroy it on multiple occasions. One FBI raid in Chicago ended with smashing and urinating on the food for the Breakfast program.
Another great example and a contemporary one is the Anarchististche Groep Amsterdam (AGA), an organization that provides mutual aid and organizes multiple events. They have been involved in resolving labor conflicts for migrants, creating libraries, zines, book fairs, and participating in multiple protests, like the most recent Woon protest (housing protest). However, just like the BPP, they have encountered shortcomings and obstacles. The media and the state have labeled them as a “threat”, and multiple members have been arrested in the recent housing protests.
It’s evident that being involved in mutual aid is dangerous, and while I understand that that might be discouraging, I also believe that, at this point, mutual aid may be the only thing we have left. The corruption and self-interest of governments is ubiquitous. This problem is strikingly evident when we look at climate change. World leaders are refusing to do anything as the latest COP26 showed us. That’s why mutual aid insists on building networks where we can organize ourselves while we take care of each other. Obviously, the goal is to prevent ourselves from reaching the irreversible tipping point of climate change in 2030, but if we do, we must learn to prepare for collapse. I am by no means an accelerationist, I am strongly hoping we don’t get there, and I am optimistic that we won’t, but even if we manage to solve things before 2030, we cannot deny that the effects of climate change are already here.
This summer Europe faced severe floodings due to climate change, and if one thing was evident is that governments are not prepared to deal with the effects of global warming. Yet, this is why mutual aid is essential. It is likely that as the years go by we will encounter food and water shortage — therefore, we must learn to share resources while ensuring that everyone’s needs are met. Much of the food needs could be resolved by creating community gardens, helping to bring local ecosystems back. We must also learn to form a kind of “mutual aid” with the land, observing our local ecosystems and finding a spot where human and nature needs can both be met. This does not mean controlling, managing, or dominating the land, but instead, it means becoming part of the earth’s ecosystem, as we were meant to do from the beginning.
Last month I learned in one of my courses about a philosophical theory called posthumanism, which among many things, is about questioning anthropocentrism by seeing how everything, from technology to trees, is interconnected, proposing that ultimately, we are all assemblages — i.e. we are the result of all the relationships we have with everything that surrounds us. I think that real mutual aid, the one that even cooperates with the earth, is about that. Nature is composed of ecosystems where collaboration is essential. In fact, more and more scientific studies are arguing that cooperation, not competition, drives evolution. For instance, a 2016 study found that sympatry (speciation where species evolve and co-habit together) is more common than allopatry and that for sympatry to happen competition between species has to be low. This cooperation between species is precisely what Kropotkin observed 119 years ago when he explored Siberia and found that, among many examples, different species of birds helped each other in order to survive the cold weather. He did not argue that competition was non-existent, but he claimed that cooperation has been seriously underestimated by humans, explaining how the most intelligent species (because being sociable is a trait of intelligence) help each other in order to survive. Similarly, I argue against claims that state that human’s inherent social need is at odds with other human impulses (like competition). We are more intelligent than that, we know that those urges are pointless and that in fact, they are leading us to the destruction of our society and environment. The question is to what extent do we have to experience this destruction before we realize that the only way out is by helping each other?
Written by Emilia Barriga
Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual aid. Cosimo, Inc., 2009.
Spade, Dean. Mutual aid: Building solidarity during this crisis (and the next). Verso Books, 2020.