Mutual aid in pandemic times

The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history. It was chiefly evolved during periods of peace and prosperity; but when even the greatest calamities befell men — when whole countries were laid waste by wars, and whole populations were decimated by misery, or groaned under the yoke of tyranny — the same tendency continued to live in the villages and among the poorer classes in the towns; it still kept them together, and in the long run it reacted even upon those ruling, fighting, and devastating minorities which dismissed it as sentimental nonsense. And whenever mankind had to work out a new social organization, adapted to a new phase of development, its constructive genius always drew the elements and the inspiration for the new departure from that same ever-living tendency. New economical and social institutions, in so far as they were a creation of the masses, new ethical systems, and new religions, all have originated from the same source, and the ethical progress of our race, viewed in its broad lines, appears as a gradual extension of the mutual-aid principles from the tribe to always larger and larger agglomerations, so as to finally embrace one day the whole of mankind, without respect to its diverse creeds, languages, and races.

Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

The proliferation of mutual aid groups and organisations, often literally so-called, in response to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s daily lives, invites reflection.

Their number and work is often overshadowed (when they are not directly harassed and prohibited) by State and established charity driven responses to the crisis. But these latter, by choice and/or inability, often fail, and equally as often, it has been through local, voluntary efforts to come to communities needs that these failures are mitigated. And the extent of these efforts have been impressive by any measure and they are the cause of justifiable praise and enthusiasm. Without these networks, the many tragedies playing themselves out today would be far worse. (The scale of the networks and the number of local groups in the united states can be gleaned at the mutual aid disaster relief organisation website, and in the united kingdom at the COVID-19 mutual aid organisation, or in spain, france, to cite but these examples among so many).

It’s been incredible to watch how many people, when met with a pandemic, have found ways to take care of themselves and their communities. We need to retain that energy as shelter in place stretches from weeks to months. Pacing ourselves is an important part of that process, as is taking care of ourselves. Many people are doing hobbies they never had time for before: baking, gardening, art, music. Others are committing to exercising for their bodies and minds.

Kitty Striker, I’m an Anarchist Who’s Always Prepared for Crisis — Now It’s Here

This enthusiasm however can blind, both by excess of optimism and by dour pessimism. The optimism sees a possible revolution in the making, something that renders a return to the previous “normal” impossible. We become better morally through the experience, a direct experience of “altruism in action”, and thereby unwilling to accept the continuity of current inequalities and injustices.

I believe the generosity and solidarity in action in the present moment offers a foreshadowing of what is possible – and necessary. The basic generosity and empathy of most ordinary people should be regarded as a treasure, a light and an energy source that can drive a better society, if it is recognised and encouraged.

The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity. An artist hunched over her sewing machine, a young person delivering groceries on his bicycle, a nurse suiting up for the ICU, a doctor heading to the Navajo nation, a graduate student hip-deep in Pyramid Lake catching trout for elders, a programmer setting up a website to organise a community: the work is under way. It can be the basis for the future, if we can recognise the value of these urges and actions, recognise that things can and must change profoundly, and if we can tell other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible.

(Rebecca Solnit, the Guardian)

The pessimist can only see charity on display, an immediate, urgent satisfaction of physical human needs that however points in no particular political direction. To the extent that some relative economic and social order can be promised and maintained by reigning authorities, the current experiences of mutual aid will fade.

For the optimist, mutual aid practices in response to the pandemic prefigure a new world. For the pessimist, these practices only provide the modest means for the “system” to ride out the crisis.

This opposition is simplistic, but it helps us to read and scale a series of judgements and evaluations made of mutual aid initiatives. And what this opposition may reveal is the relative failure to see the potentialities and limits of these experiences.

Those who criticise mutual aid groups do so on the grounds that they are just another form of charity, that they but fill gaps left by State assistance and charity aid, that they in the end only redistribute the fag ends of capitalist overproduction and thereby fail to create increased autonomy, and that they in no way challenge capitalism in the absence of any parallel politicisation.

If we take the anarchist Peter Kropotkin as the source of the concept of “mutual aid”, then we might be tempted to agree with the critics. For Kropotkin, “mutual aid” was both a descriptive notion – it characterised an essential feature of human life and evolution – and a normative one – it pointed the way to where humanity should go for its moral or ethical renewal. The State and appropriation in the form of private property have always sought to constrict the ancient relations of mutual aid, and in opposition (and if humanity is to have any future), mutual aid has struggled and must now assume this struggle as a universal ambition, by revolution if need be.

It is too easy to say that mutual aid groups are engaged in “solidarity, not charity”. If the practice of charity is criticised for leaving those who benefit from the aid in a position of powerlessness, in contrast to the providers of the aid, then the criticism may hold with some so-called mutual aid initiatives. And if we add to this that Kropotkin’s “mutual aid” implied direct action, decentralised political federalism, the destruction of relations of private property and the centralising State, and more, then the current “mutual aid” work does indeed seem a little thin.

Such a conclusion though is far too quick and betrays ideological commitments. Mutual aid groups are in sum criticised because they neglect or forsake revolution, when not the revolution? But what “revolution” is this that is being cast aside? Just to ask the question is enough to reveal the vagueness that hides behind the concept. If the enemy is Capital and the State, any notion of revolution against them presupposes an understanding of both. And without wishing by any means to exhaust the subject, we would claim that both constitute a complex web of social relations which serve, in ever changing ways, to produce and reproduce domination and exploitative means of appropriation of human creativity. Over the course of the history of modern capitalism, these means have been as varied as the politics, science and technology have permitted, and as diverse as forms of dissent, opposition and rebellion have allowed.

There has never been one kind of capitalism to overthrow, nor one way to do it, except in the tepid imagination of “vulgar leftists” (a tepidness masked by the violence of their political means). It is not even clear what “overthrow” might mean here, for capitalist social relations sink their roots deeply into every sphere and dimension of human life. We are Capital and the State and if we are to move beyond them, this can only be done by remaking social relations, which means remaking our-selves, our mutual ties and our ways of being in the world. That is, a new way or form of life, a new ethics, is called for. And there is no obvious recipe or blueprint for this last. It might be said that we know what we do not want (and even this is not certain), but how we are to move away from this, and towards what, remain (permanently) open questions.

As a consequence, ways of mutual aid may in fact be the most radical forms of anti-capitalism. If current initiatives should fade or be repressed, they nevertheless leave their mark. At one level, “revolutions” never fail, for they are moments of enthusiasm – moments of possession, rapture, ecstasy -, when the normal course of events is halted, when our identities are stripped away, and something other, other ways of doing things, become possible. And the lesson of mutual aid is that we can create and do things together in equality and freedom that we thought hitherto impossible. Such moments of rebellion – and mutual aid can be a form of rebellion, especially in times of crises – are not easily forgotten; they school, they resonate, and remain with us as enduring possibilities.

Collectively, we are caring for each other in this moment, whether it by checking in with a friend, running an errand for a neighbor, or simply staying home so others don’t get sick. May we all remember how valuable that is, and how good it feels—not just today, not just during this pandemic’s epicenter, but for the rest of our lives.

Kitty Striker, I’m an Anarchist Who’s Always Prepared for Crisis — Now It’s Here

This is all too optimistic, some will say. In some sense, this is so. But where is the realism in shrill calls for insurrection and revolution? And where have enduring rebellions ever survived in the absence of mutual aid?

The opposite, of course, may be said as well: rebellion creates spaces for mutual aid.

The criticism that some of the current initiatives are but charity in disguise are not entirely off the mark. But interestingly enough, it is sometimes anarchists who are guilty of charity in these endeavours: they come late into the effort (older networks of solidarity are decades old and in countries where daily life has always been a rebellious struggle for survival, the coronavirous pandemic is just one more menace), ill equipped and with few resources, and often acting as if they were the ecclesial order of political rectitude.

In the worst cases, it is as if the anarchists have just awakened to the fact that they should be anarchists, and not just ideologues.

And why abandon a word such as “charity” to the institutions of order and the pastoral management of the poor? The word traces its origins to the latin caritatem (nominative  caritas), meaning “costliness; esteem, affection,” from carus “dear, valued,” from PIE *karo-, from root *ka- “to like, desire” (online etymological dictionary), which in turn translates, in christian use, the greek verb agapan “to greet with affection, receive with friendship; to like, love”. (online etymological dictionary).

There can be no revolution without care, friendship, love, for it is these that bind communities of solidarity together. Poor is the person who is alone. And in our enforced and State desired social distancing, our poverty may become that much greater.

And it is the dimension of friendship and love that carries mutual aid beyond facile charity; it is that which creates worlds in which to live is not to destroy the other.

Capitalism has increasingly sought to colonise the affective sphere of human relations. The politics of the control of the coronavirus pandemic risk intensifying this colonisation. Mutual aid is a form of resistance to this violence.

Mutual aid initiatives must be read close to the ground. Ideology, as always, makes us fools. For this reason, we share an important testimonial and analysis from a New Orleans based mutual aid group published with the Roarmag collective. And because mutual aid is the ground for struggling for the autonomy of our caring relations, we close with a short essay by Raoul Vanneigem, passed on to us in a translation by the notbored collective.

Emancipatory mutual aid: from education to liberation

PReP/Neighborhoods (Roarmag 21/05/2020)

A New Orleans radical mutual aid group organizes with and within communities to help transform the conditions that created the crisis in the first place.

he COVID-19 pandemic has strained and even overwhelmed the public health, medical care and disaster response systems where governments and state agencies were ill-prepared to contain and suppress infectious outbreaks. In countries where emergency lockdown measures have been adopted without accompanying policies to guarantee income security and housing tenure, there is the additional problem of economic hardship. Already existing and newly formed non-governmental organizations and associations have mobilized to fill the gap.

These formal and informal groups assist people forced into the margins by government neglect with free meals, grocery and medicine deliveries, safe housing and even cash. They are going beyond traditional voluntary charity disaster relief to provide personal protective equipment (notably face masks?), COVID-19 symptoms monitoring, accurate information about locally available COVID-19 and antibody testing facilities, emotional counseling and more. In some cases, these organizations partner with public agencies, including in situations where state institutions are both omnipresent and capable and voluntary associations are essentially licensed subcontractors of the state ?— as appears to be the case, but only in part, in the People’s Republic of China.

In other contexts — particularly where robust social safety nets are lacking or where austerity has undermined any expectation of government assistance — people have done what they have always done in a crisis: attempted to stem the tide of misery with the resources they have.

In New Orleans, for example, a mutual aid group mobilized by Jasmine Araujo called Southern Solidarity has emerged guided by Black feminist liberatory thought and inspired by the direct relief and organizing practices of the Black Panthers. The group of 30 organize the daily delivery of food, medical resources and other basic needs directly to 300 unhoused people in the downtown area of New Orleans because the government failed to meet these needs.

Southern Solidarity is involved in both direct relief and consciousness raising efforts of members and recipients. Members act on the principle that when those who are oppressed receive needs, they are better equipped to move from survival mode to organizing. Key members include trans activists, organizers, formerly incarcerated and the unhoused.

What is mutual aid?

Mutual aid as a political concept is drawn from the work of anarchist and scientist Peter Kropotkin. In 1902, Kropotkin published Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution which argued that it was human cooperation and not competition which has facilitated the survival of our species. Additionally, Kropotkin proposed that the best system of economic and social organization would be one based on mutual exchanges rather than coercion and the profit-motive.

Mutual aid societies or “benevolent societies” have long arisen among disenfranchised groups to fill gaps in insurance, support, education and relief. Examples include the Free African Society formed in late 18th century Philadelphia by formerly enslaved men and contemporary organizations of refugees and immigrants such as the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, Massachusetts, where members gather and share resources to face shared challenges.

The labor movement was founded on the principle of collective organization for mutual benefit of its members and helped politicize such assistance as acts of solidarity, not charity. The radical edges of the labor movement, as represented by the Industrial Workers of the World, broke through the “in-group” orientation of mutual aid efforts with their slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all.” While the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program was an acknowledged charity operation in response to the poverty imposed upon Black people in the United States, the Panthers viewed it as facilitating the development of a revolutionary people. In short, people who are in need of basic necessities such as food cannot effectively rebel until they have those needs met.

In light of budget austerity and the shredding of social services, mutual aid has become a term loosely applied to all kinds of charity supplied by voluntary organizations. For those of us interested in liberatory mutual aid, it is crucial to carefully consider what should be the standards for such efforts. An emancipatory mutual aid is not only about connecting those in need to services or even directly providing services, but also about organizing with those in need to assert their human rights and demand what is socially just from systems of exploitation and domination.

Radical mutual aid aims to open up space for those forced into dispossession to interrogate why it is that those providing resources are in possession of such resources and those receiving them are not, and also to question why those providing resources are providing them.

That is, one component of mutual aid at its best is education and consciousness raising about power relations — not only the relations between mutual aid donors, distributors and beneficiaries, but also the power dynamics that structure political and economic conditions and social interactions in the places where the mutual aid organizations are active. Consciousness raising might also include education internal to mutual aid teams: for example, training on anti-racism, disability justice, harm reduction and gender studies.

While Southern Solidarity members in New Orleans are immersed in necessary and labor-intensive direct relief efforts that push back against decades of racist austerity measures, group members are encouraged to participate in reading groups and training as well as protests demanding that the government provide adequate resources for all. Southern Solidarity invites the unhoused to reading groups and protests as a way to organize recipients around liberation efforts. An emancipatory mutual aid consciously strives to both prevent the further disempowerment of the recipients and, when possible, push in the other direction, providing platforms on which people can work toward determining their community’s own fate.

Southern Solidarity members act under the premise that solidarity necessitates a deep understanding of the systemic forces of oppression that have created dispossession and crisis. Acts of charity alone do not require a deep understanding of systemic oppression thereby limiting their role as an integral force toward movement building. On the other hand, action-oriented mutual aid interventions motivated by the urge to “do something” but inattentive to contesting these hierarchies and dependencies run the risk of reestablishing exploitative relationships in the very act of trying to help out.

Practicing liberation

A mutual aid practice that aims to augment rather than reduce the autonomy and self-determination of those in need must avoid the missionary model, however secular. Rather than parachuting in from the outside to save those in distress, practitioners of a liberatory mutual aid will acknowledge and work with existing community emergency response and disaster resilience networks that are not tied into the power structure that brought about the problem in the first place.

To avoid duplicating efforts already undertaken by existing organizations and to make well-informed choices about what is needed where, from the very beginning mutual aid start-ups need to break bread with other organizations in their locality. Southern Solidarity, for instance, has collaborated with a variety of organizations, including People’s Assembly, Overcoming Racism, New Orleans Workers Hospitality Alliance, Trystereo, Beloved, Women with A Vision, Greater New Orleans Caring Collective and Hidden History Tours.

In addition to connecting with local organizations, mutual aid groups with claims to radical liberatory frameworks should refer back to the work of past and current liberation fighters specific to their locale and acknowledge how people shape the current political terrain.

Despite heightened levels of inequity and racism, New Orleans, again our example, has long been a site of cultural resistance to white supremacy — what Ishmael Reed fictionalized as “Jes Grew” in the novel Mumbo Jumbo. From the 1811 slave revolt to the recent Take ’Em Down movement, organizing in New Orleans is characterized by both the delegitimization of the narrative power of the colonial head and an emphasis on the dignity of Black life in all of its manifestations. Southern Solidarity emerged out of this milieu and upholds that history by working with local healers, musicians, advocates, activists,and scholars such as Spirit McIntyre and Angela Kinlaw who continue to pass down affirmation of Black life in a variety of ways.

Scholars with an activist impulse might be best off collaborating with community-based organizations with which they already have long-standing relations rooted in mutual trust. One possible vocation of a “people’s expert” is to comprehensively map community capabilities — research that enables community members themselves to better understand the array of emergency response and disaster resilience resources they already have at their disposal, as well as resources they lack. These capabilities are often grounded in distinctive histories unique to a place.

For example, in the aftermath of 2018’s devastating Camp Fire disaster recovery, activists in Northern California got a crash course education in disaster management policy. Leveraging a core idea in the national emergency response and disaster recovery framework — the primacy of local communities in deciding the substance of disaster recovery plans — the activists coalesced around local tribal governments. The governments contended that their status as sovereign tribes qualified them as public agencies eligible to secure contracts and jobs in disaster recovery. Coalition members gained practical experience as executors of disaster recovery. The learning and skills thus acquired became part of the community’s repertoire of disaster resilience capabilities, ready to be activated when the COVID-19 crisis and state lockdown directives came to Northern California.

Exercises in sizing up a community’s capabilities can help community members and scholars alike realize the distinctiveness of a locality’s history and conditions, and guard against the tendency to propose one-size-fits-all solutions in mutual aid practice. At the same time, a community might be endowed with remarkable survival skills, its story very much worth telling not least because there might be some generalizable lessons about disaster resilience to be drawn from it. Taking an inventory of community capabilities also entails identifying social groups isolated from mainstream communication flows, such as sectarian religious groups — especially important knowledge to have on hand during contagious disease outbreaks.

A bedrock principle of an emancipatory mutual aid is providing space for communities to collectively deliberate and decide upon their own needs and priorities. Assemblies and other democratic fora are settings in which such deliberation and decision-making might occur. Consistent with this, action researchers and people’s experts with an interest in emancipatory mutual aid might conceive their roles to be facilitators and catalyzers of community self-determination.

Mutual aid during COVID-19

The exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic pose peculiar challenges to mutual aid organizations imbued with a self-management ethic. Under ordinary circumstances, it is a rule of thumb that those who “do the work” have a prominent voice in deciding what that work will consist of, from the assessment of needs to the disbursement of funds. But when some organization members are at high risk of contracting severe COVID-19 and cannot do those aspects of “the work” that involve leaving home, there needs to be a recalibration of collective responsibilities and collective governance such that home-bound members continue to have a say in what the organization as a whole does.

Mutual aid can thus be characterized as that which is necessary to help fundamentally transform the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. The emergency was here long before the virus arrived.

Mutual aid ranges from basic necessities to emotional support with the expectation that help is a shared community across giving and receiving. All must have an equal voice regardless of position or resources. Democratic organizations that are horizontal and offer opportunities for autonomous organizing by those in relation to each other offer the greatest shot at realizing the dream of the Black Panthers and the Landless Movement and many others across the world that fed, educated and healthy people could dismantle the capitalism and racism that, among other dangers, exposes millions to the worst of outbreaks.

We can bring about new worlds based on assimilating our shared fates.

Pandemic Research for the People (PreP)/Neighborhoods is: John Gulick, Jasmine Araujo, Cora Roelofs, Tanya Kerssen, Meleiza Figueroa, Etant Dupain, Serena Stein, Deborah Wallace, Ryan Petteway, John Choe, Luca de Crescenzo, Audrey Snyder, Colin Kloecker and Rob Wallace.

We Decree the Self-Defense of Our Own Health

By Raoul Vaneigem(1)

The threat that the coronavírus(2) has lowered over the health of the population of the entire world has shown that the real danger comes from the deterioration of the medical services. Without a doubt, the imperatives of profit-making, which are predominant everywhere, will not stop accelerating this deterioration.

Managing hospitals as profit-making enterprises involves underpaying and superexploiting the personnel and lessening the number of beds and technical means at their disposal. The large pharmaceutical firms paralyze real research, discredit the scientists that they bribe, and prohibit low-cost medicines that have proved their usefulness, all to sell dubious vaccines whose sole guaranteed efficiency is the financial interest that they produce.

It goes without saying that the States will not hesitate to repeat the blow of restrained freedoms, which has been so successful for it. While allowing the viruses that have come from the melting of the permafrost to spread, they will unscrupulously use the very pretext of the epidemic to preventively confine those who rebel against their criminal politics. We must foil this maneuver from now on.

This concerns our lives and those of our children: we decree the self-defense of our own health. In the streets, the towns and the countryside, we need to put on the white coats of hospital personnel. All of us are healthcare aides; all of us are promoters of health!

The unhealthiness of the States and the transnational institutions is permanent. Against it let us promulgate, through the permanence and intransigence of our struggles, the inalienable right to life.

Whether the vests are yellow,(3) black, red or multi-colored, they are only the clothes of a revolution that engages the future of humanity. More than a symbol, the white coat is a practice. If it invades the streets, how will the police State ever manage to get through?

It is up to the people, the principal victims of the coercive measures and the budgetary misappropriations, to create the conditions that can assure everyone the guarantee of eradicating the illness of which capitalism is the most implacable virus. Are there any better guarantees of health than civil disobedience, resistance to oppression and festive solidarity?

We are all care-giving aides. The battle is everywhere that the power of the Communes(4) prohibits pesticides and harmful environmental effects and reinvents schools, transportation, hospital structures and everyday existence. It is a well-known medical adage that the majority of illnesses heal on their own if they are given a sufficient amount of time. We are that time.

1. Raoul Vaneigem, “DECRETONS L’AUTODEFENSE SANITAIRE.” Dated 17 May 2020 and circulated via email on 18 May 2020 with the following note: “The attached text was intended to be added at the last minute to the book Textes et entretiens sur l’insurrection de la vie quotidienne to be published [soon] by éditions Grevis. Since the stage of the book’s publication did not allow this, I leave it to the networks to distribute it, for any useful or useless purpose.” Translated from the French by NOT BORED! on 18 May 2020. All footnotes by the translator.

2. For Vaneigem’s previous statement about COVID-19, see “Coronavirus,” dated 17 March 2020 and translated into English here:

3. For Vaneigem’s remarks about the “Yellow Vests,” see “Concerning the ‘Yellow Vests,’” dated 11 December 2018 and translated into English here:

4. For Vaneigem’s comments about the Commune, see “For the Commune,” dated 27 February 2020 and translated into English here:

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