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In their recent book Pandemic Solidarity, Colectiva Sembrar (Sowing Seeds Collective) collected first-hand experiences from around the world of people creating their own narratives of solidarity and mutual aid in our time of global crisis. Red Pepper interviewed members of the collective – carla bergman (she doesn’t capitalise her name), Seyma Ozdemir, Nancy Piñeiro, Emre Sahin and Marina Sitrin – to discuss what unites these diverse experiences, what can be learned, and where they might fit into a broader project of systemic change.
Red Pepper: Since the Covid-19 outbreak, you’ve documented dozens of mutual responses to the crisis. Could you introduce the collective and the purpose of your work?
Colectiva Sembrar: Our process for creating Pandemic Solidarity – grounded in love, horizontality, solidarity and mutual aid – reflects our shared vision of global and local socio-political transformation. Mirroring a process of realisation experienced by those engaged in mutual aid practices, our 20-person collective did not know we shared this vision until well into our process. We developed another vision of who we are: an international collective of mostly women, dedicated to facilitating lesser-heard voices, who are collectively creating a new society through their actions. While there are differences in the experiences in the book, we found a great deal of commonality, and it is that which makes this moment so significant.
Not only do many of those we spoke with feel unrepresented by those in power, the pandemic has further demonstrated they have reason to fear their governments. Governments are not only failing people – in most cases they are the reason we’re rooted in such a deep crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated a history of structural inequality rooted in the intersection of colonialism, racism, patriarchy and capitalism. The people are building concrete alternatives to systems of oppression and exploitation, demonstrating that we are capable of creating a new society, prefiguring it with love, life and sustainable change.
As the Kadıköy Solidarity Network in Istanbul points out:
‘First and foremost, people question the very existence of the state today. If it collects taxes from us, if it erases the debts of big companies at once and for all, and cannot provide the labourers with paid leave in today’s turmoil, and cannot supply basic food and health care, why does it exist? What does the state do other than show us a stick? The links the solidarity networks organise … are seeds for self-organisation in every neighbourhood.’
We open the book in Rojava [the autonomous administration in north-east Syria] for several reasons. Too often our focus is on current governance structures and how they must change. This surely limits our imaginations. What if, instead, we begin with what many of us imagine as real democracy?
Rojava is not a perfect society, but a more radical place from which to begin a conversation about transformation. A society where people make decisions collectively about their day-to-day lives, organising in a horizontal way, with a constantly evolving system based on care, conflict resolution and harm reduction, not punishment and jails. There is a women’s commission for every aspect of society, with veto power over decisions related to women’s issues, and the requirement that decisions only be made if women form half of that decision-making body.
Sharmin, from the Qamishlo municipality, explains:
‘Communes are the base unit of the political system that we have been building here. As municipalities we coordinate efforts to respond to the people’s needs by collaborating with communes and councils closely and in a circular way. Communes are made up of local residents who mobilise their neighbours and collect information on their specific needs and demands. Commune members then communicate these issues to neighbourhood and district councils as well as our municipal committee. Policy decisions are made through the feedback that circulates among all these different groups.’
Our work asks people to ‘think’ with Rojava, or with the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Begin with what is possible, even if it may exist beyond your own imagination.
RP: What links these experiences of mutual aid to wider transformative struggles?
CS: What is happening now is unprecedented: new in the shared horror of it all, and new in the vastness, diversity and depth of mutual aid taking place everywhere around the world. We believe this is the largest mobilisation of people caring for one another in capitalist history.
As activists from the Oporto (Portugal) based Popular Network for Mutual Support assert:
‘What the pandemic makes evident immediately is that the current economic and social system is based on a structure of patriarchal, racist and classist exploitation, which causes inequalities that the pandemic has only exacerbated … In our political action, we seek to contemplate the way in which different systems of oppression intersect and legitimise each other .. as well as thinking and acting for the construction of dialogues, affinities and collective action with a view to social transformation.’
The state and ruling classes have worked systematically to weave distrust among people but we are seeing that the threads of that distrust were thin and easily broken. Mutual aid is in many of our collective and ancestral memories, we don’t need to learn it, but instead recover it, remember it and enact it. It is through recovering our mutual tendencies that we learn that anything that has been built – even our own subjugation – can be taken down. What we see in these stories today is the emergence and renewal of larger and deeper social bonds that can aid us in creating new worlds, rooted in justice.
RP: What makes these examples of mutual aid more than a temporary fix?
CS: The current eruptions of mutual aid demonstrate the principle that, when a crisis happens and institutions become demonstrably insufficient and even hostile to our collective welfare, people come together and help one another. As the crisis subsides, things commonly shift back in many ways, at least on the institutional level. But if institutions do not change, where can we see the lasting transformation? What has changed if the systems and institutions remain the same?
Our answer is that movements are not linear, and change must be thought of in non-linear ways. For example, the 2001 uprisings in Argentina forced five consecutive governments to resign and led to a flourishing of experiments with direct democracy: neighbourhood assemblies, the unemployed taking over land and workers taking over their workplaces. Years later, many institutions had shifted back but the seeds of prefiguration, horizontalism and autonomy were deeply planted and are continually re-emerging. Many of today’s movements refer to themselves as hijos (children) of 2001.
Nancy Piñeiro, of Colectiva Sembrar, reflects:
‘Solidarity networks are part and parcel of our country’s subsistence, from soup kitchens, to literacy courses for the illiterate, to women’s groups organising against femicide and the particular economic inequalities suffered by them.’
The history of widespread horizontal assemblies based on active listening, together with current organising around the pandemic in Argentina, reflects how a new collective imagination becomes activated.
As the collective Yo No Fui, which works with incarcerated women states:
‘We already know that confinement is not a solution, that prisons only function as places to store bodies. Now that this problem is becoming more clear, it is also a moment for opening up the imaginary and raising demands that seemed unthinkable, such as the abolition of the prison system or a universal basic income, an income that would allow us to take a break from capital.’
RP:How do these examples of mutual aid fit into broader political strategy? Are there strategic relationships to be built between these largely autonomous mutual aid networks and the state?
CS: If tens of millions of people are organising in similar ways, and if these networks of practical alternatives are becoming more connected, what more is needed to make this a ‘political strategy’?
As the Kadıköy Solidarity Network reflects:
‘This government saw the “danger” of solidarity networks and the Ministry of Interior Affairs immediately announced, “No one can help other than us. It is forbidden!” … Capitalist modernity would like to obscure any sort of solidarity webs to maintain cultural submissiveness. This is a great opportunity in two ways: what really matters is not the state, it is the people living together. Secondly, people can claim agency and have the power to create solutions to their problems without a state, a governing power in a local level.’
With our book we hope to hold a mirror to the world. We believe that the more networks can see and connect to one another, the closer we get to building collective political strategy.
Furthermore, these initiatives are aiming to do more than just fulfil immediate needs. Chuma Mgcoyi, South African permaculturalist, says, ‘Civil society networks that are emerging around Covid-19 are not only focused on the pandemic. They are seizing the opportunity to radicalise demands and thus push for a restructuring in the balance of forces between the state, capital and society.’
In the majority of the cases we explore in the book, networks sprung up because the state turned its back on people, leaving us to die or suffer alone in fear. Many networks, such as those in Argentina, engage with traditional left groups and the state but retain political agency and direction. For example, the teachers’ network distributes food provided by the state, and engages with teachers unions because of some of its members’ affiliations, but neither actors determine the organising work of the network.
While the creation of collective alternatives is clearly on the agenda, organising through political parties is a less common method. With that said, it is likely many in these networks vote, and perhaps some organise during elections for less repressive candidates or parties. So long as focus remains on creating alternatives, rather than placing hope in others to deliver change on your behalf, we see this as positive.
The question is, how do we deepen and develop these networks to create democratic institutions (see Rojava), creating power from below, and to do so without these institutions being repressed? A fundamental strategic point, learned through mutual aid itself, is that self-organisation helps us to meet our physical and emotional needs, but reimagines these needs and how we frame them. This rarely happens when beginning from a position of demands and a focus on what the state can do.
So our task seems to be not only meeting our needs, but to deepen this flourishing of new relationships and ways of being, creating a new sort of power. The best thing a political party can do is therefore not demand that all political energy must flow through the party. As Klee Benally of the Diné/ Navajo nation puts it, ‘We want to radically redistribute resources and power but we also don’t want to be burdened by leftist political baggage.’
RP: What do you think the future holds for these mutual aid networks?
CS: We think of the future as an ‘outward spiral’. The stories we’ve heard manifest, in different ways, the sort of society we could have and, in fact, already have. This pandemic is creating small and large fissures, but what we do with these openings is up to us. The new world is already being created. It is up to us to expand this creation, to continue spiralling outwards.
The collectives and individuals who were organising based on mutual aid and solidarity before Covid-19 will continue long after. As Eleanor Goldfield from DC Mutual Aid, suggests:
‘The needs will not dissipate, they’ll only change. We’re imagining a continuation of these networks – planning for the adaptation of our work to fight the urge to go back to their “normal” – that toxic normalcy that shanked human rights, that drowned justice and destroyed symbiotic aid. Fuck that normal. To quote a dear friend, Black Panther Kiilu Nyasha: “All Power to the People is not a saying, it’s an action. And fighting for liberation liberates oneself.”’
Starting in our neighbourhoods, and connecting outward to the millions doing similar work, we are beginning to imagine a new world beyond Covid-19. By sharing countless stories of solidarity, we can enact a better world together, maybe even undoing capitalism and colonialism once and for all.
Colectiva Sembrar is an international collective dedicated to facilitating the voices of those less heard.