‘Mutual aid’ has suddenly entered the collective consciousness as we seek ways to support our friends and neighbours amidst a global pandemic. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has tweeted about it, The New York Times has discussed “so called mutual-aid” networks in major cities, and mutual aid workshops have spread throughout the United States.
But often the term is used without ever addressing the question – what is mutual aid? “Social solidarity – not charity,” might be the slogan response, but conceptualizing the difference is not easy. Fundamentally, mutual aid is about building “bottom-up” structures of cooperation, rather than relying on the state or wealthy philanthropists to address our needs. It emphasizes horizontal networks of solidarity rather than “top down” solutions, networks that flow in both directions and sustain the life of a community.
In this way, mutual aid represents a particular kind of politics, rooted in ideas around direct democracy, self-management and decentralization. But where do these ideas and practices come from? To answer this question we must go all the way back to the turn of the century, and to its origin in nineteenth century naturalist debates and early theories of anarchist socialism.
Mutual-aid is a concept born from a curious hybrid of Russian evolutionary theory and anarchist thought. It is, specifically, an idea associated with Peter Kropotkin – a well-known anarchist-socialist thinker – also a naturalist, geographer, ethnographer and advocate of scientific thought. Kropotkin, along with other Russian scientists, developed mutual aid in response to the profound impact of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the focus on competition among his adherents.
Most people have heard the phrase “survival of the fittest” or the more poetic idea of life as “red in tooth in claw” – but they are quotes often misattributed to Darwin himself. These clichés that emphasize war, violence, and destruction in the struggle for life were first used by one of Darwin’s adherents, Herbert Spencer, who was a social scientist as much as a biologist. Spencer believed in the progressive evolution of not only organisms but also human societies and helped to popularize evolutionary theory as a social, and not only biological, phenomenon. Humans are, after all, an element of nature.
Kropotkin, however, was deeply concerned about an interpretation of evolutionary theory that emphasized hostility and competition, especially when extended, as it still often is, to the social and political lives of human beings. He saw that “survival of the fittest” would inevitably be used to justify poverty, colonialism, gender inequality, racism and war as “natural” processes – innate and immutable expressions of our very genetic being.
Capitalism – and its stratified wealth and power – could be seen as merely an expression of this natural competition, in which a neutral playing field produced winners and losers based on merit. Instead of this relentless competition, Kropotkin saw cooperation everywhere he looked: in colonies of ants, in the symbiotic behaviors of plants and animals, and in the practices of peasants in his own travels.
While Kropotkin did not deny elements of competition, he believed that cooperation was at least its equal in the process of evolution: “the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.” Extended to humanity the implications of his thought was clear, capitalism – and the obsession with competition it brought – was the aberration, and socialism and social solidarity were natural expressions of human life. His most famous work advancing this belief is titled, ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution‘.
Instead of this relentless competition, Kropotkin saw cooperation everywhere he looked.
Mutual aid has extended past this foundational argument over species evolution and biology to become a fundamental tenant of anarchist (libertarian-socialist) practice. Today its influence has pervaded a vast array of left-leaning social movements worldwide. The examples are numerous and diverse. Think occupied buildings which provide refugee housing in Europe, self-managed security and medical clinics in Greece, Autonomous Tenants’ Unions as in Chicago, self-organized “Free Schools” across the U.S., worker controlled “mutual aid” funds, or rank-and-file labor organizing.
Today, these activists are faced with a new challenge – organizing in an environment in which demonstrations, assemblies and mass meetings are still limited or forbidden across much of the United States and worldwide. Overcoming these challenges has meant creating a dizzying array of new, innovative structures that connect worldwide movements with the hyper local: conference calls used to organize activists’ singular apartment building for action on rent freezes, “mutual aid self-therapy” conducted in Zoom breakout rooms, food centers organized and collected via Google docs, and the incarcerated are communicating with outside networks to advance diffuse strikes seeking safer conditions and the release of vulnerable prisoners.
Overcoming these challenges has meant creating a dizzying array of new, innovative structures that connect worldwide movements with the hyper local.
The most magical aspect of this type of organizing under “social distancing” is that it reveals, even in a moment of extreme isolation, the depth of our connection to each other. Mutual aid goes beyond simple charity and patronage – it mobilizes society itself for society itself. In its most advanced form it can show us a powerful vision of an alternative society – one in which we are no longer imagined as individual brands, consumers, or entrepreneurs in endless competition, but a collective connected by compassion, cooperation, and the spirit of participatory democracy. For this reason covid not only represents a great threat to public health, but also an incredible opportunity to build these networks “from below” – to return, if only bit by bit, to the spirit of cooperation which has always been at the heart of society.
Matthew Whitley is a writer, anarchist organizer (MACC NYC), and publisher. He is currently a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and instructor at Lehman College with research focused on alternative economies in the Kurdish Freedom Movement.