The Shanti Project’s work in caring for people with AIDS provides valuable lessons in the efficacy of mutual aid in fighting disease.
Brendan McHugh, January 20, 2021
Today, entire neighborhoods are caring for each other. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, mutual aid has proven an effective response, even if it is not ideal. While these efforts are often contextualized within a radical heritage that includes the Black Panther Party’s community programs of the 1960s and 1970s, these genealogies of mutual aid tend to overlook queer care and volunteer responses to AIDS in the 1980s. Looking deeper at that response can shed light on commonalities between the AIDS/HIV and COVID-19 crises, but it also points to a much deeper tradition of the capacity of humans to care for one another, independent of the state (especially when its response has been negligent).
In San Francisco, the HIV and cancer agency Shanti Project has lately reimagined its services to include programs like helping seniors and severely disabled people with their survival needs (and ballots) in the face of COVID. This is not the first time Shanti has altered its service model in the face of crisis. Originally a peer-counseling service for people with terminal diseases, Shanti was one of the first organizations in the U.S. to provide services to people living with AIDS (PWAs), starting in the 1980s. Shanti’s origin is steeped in the tenets of mutual aid, mirroring the way the anarchist Peter Kropotkin conceived it in the nineteenth century. Most established HIV/AIDS organizations are now nonprofits, thus marking them as not “pure” mutual aid, according to academics and activists who comply with the “solidarity not charity” definition of mutual aid.
The core definition of mutual aid in Kropotkin’s writings, especially Mutual Aid (1902), is that people may give each other what they need to survive without permission from the state. In that book as well as The Conquest of Bread (1892) and Fields, Factories, and Workshops (1898), Kropotkin advanced the idea as the opposite of “survival of the fittest” ideology, used to justify the poverty innate to the expanding industrial revolution and onset of global capitalism. Kropotkin’s alternative visions of local economies and people’s tending to one another’s needs influenced generations of social scientists and activist thinkers. Kropotkin would share his vision through lectures in the United States, including a notable stay at Hull House hosted by Jane Addams, the founder of the settlement house movement.