Full Stop, February 22, 2022
The first thing I noticed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit its full stride in the spring of 2020 was not just the looming political and economic crisis, it was how quickly people in my neighborhood began to reach out. Facebook Groups, chat threads, door knocking, and a range of types of outreach became commonplace as people turned towards one another, looking for a way to survive the panic through cooperation. “Mutual aid,” this idea that we can create a mutually beneficial system of care, became a common sense solution to a pandemic that companies and governments were unable, or unwilling, to give us the resources to endure. Groups popped up around in cities and towns around the world, using social media and communication technologies to coordinate food deliveries and medical care, hands on support and transportation. Mutual aid became the operative concept that launched us into the abolitionist protests of 2020 or the encroaching wildfires that devastated the West Coast.
Mutual aid is not a new concept. Instead, it has been foundational to radical, anarchist political movements that see it as an alternative to the hierarchical models of resources distribution that capitalist individualism is built on. Groups like the Black Panthers had “survival pending revolution” programs, offering medical care and free breakfast, and Food Not Bombs provided free food to both communities in need and to support ongoing protests. This care work was political: by coming together, using direct action to solve a human need, we see the possibility of a new way of life. Even if for just a moment.
The idea has deep roots, and was written about back in the 19th Century by early anarchist theorist Peter Kropotkin. His now classic essay “Mutual Aid” looks at the ways that both animal and human societies grow and evolve not just in competition with one another, but by cooperating, whereby everyone benefits by collaboration. His book was an alternative history to the encroaching Social Darwinism and pathological selfishness that many of the loudest scientific voices were offering, and the text has become a hallmark for anarchist movements trying to offer a different vision of human history and futures.