The Essence of Mutual Aid is Survival

By Abena Ampofoa Asare

*Written 6/ 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has reignited a long-standing conversation about mutual aid and its role in our capitalist modernity. Mutual aid: the idea that community’s got to do for ourselves is nothing new, not at all.  For those who know the state as the kindred- catcher, the child-snatcher, the doler-of-goods separate and unequal, the dog at our heels, the boss breathing down our neck—  for those who call the government the (inhu)Man— taking refuge in the We is nothing new, not at all. However, in these first six months of 2020, as the painfully gaunt social fabric of the wealthiest country in the world has showed itself plain, the surge in mutual aid networks signals a shift: the myth of American exceptionalism has cracked and shattered for many— including some who call themselves white.* The most recent occupant of the White House has snatched away dreams of swift rescue at the hand of a national paterfamilia and so the power of the We has come, somewhat desperately, back into vogue. But what is mutual aid and how does it differ from the neoliberal charity that we have always had with us? Is a mutual aid society just a 501c3 in the making? Is a mutual aid box of groceries different from a food pantry box of groceries?

A part of mutual aid’s power is in the rotating circle of giving; the shifting of positions. One day we show up as the giver, the next as the receiver, weaving together in ways that loosen the hold that commodities and capital, in their absence or abundance, have upon us. There is also a breathtaking audacity in daring to coopt a moment of disaster into the foundation for new webs of community and redistribution. But before the weaving dance of mutuality, before the hope of turning catastrophe into community, mutual aid is rooted in the impulse to survive. In mutual aid, we open our coffers because we want an individual, a group of people, a friend, a stranger, ourselves, to live through a crisis as human beings and not as hyenas, as vampires, as assassins or corpses.

One articulation of the mutual aid concept dates from the turn of the 20th century, when the Russian anarchist Kropotkin insisted that social Darwinist model was wrong about human nature.[1]  For Kropotkin, cooperation, not competition, was central to the survival of animal species—our own included. The language of mutual aid was a means to challenge the hold of the dog-eat-dog narrative, to illuminate the desirability of cooperation, even solidarity, for humans hoping to survive.  

Survival is what distinguishes mutual aid from philanthropy, charity, barter, gifting, payment, and even from reparations. In mutual aid, the primal urge to survive is a flashing red light; the evolutionary impulse is welded to the opening and closing of our hands. Late capitalism tells us that we will survive because of our wealth, our fences, our intelligence, our chosen-ness, our networks and our hustle. Practices of mutual aid encourage us to remember that a loosening of the joints, the curling in and out of our ancient metatarsals is also a way to survive. Give to survive. Receive to survive.

This urge to survive is absent in most other kinds of giving. Often, we give to enable others to consume items they do not need and which will most likely kill them: this is called economic inclusion. We also give because we believe that someone is too poor, too bereft, too broken, too uglyfor our eyes to behold: this is called charity. We may also give as a way to convince ourselves that our homes, spouses, choices, careers, knowledge are admirable and worthy of envy: this is called philanthropy. Unsurprisingly, these acts of giving rarely approximate anything resembling joy. The givers feel smug and anxious about their wealth (is it being used correctly? How can I see the return on my investment? Why does no one say thank you?)  The receivers feel quietly resentful; their need has congealed into a lasso, tethering them to people, places, and things they would not freely choose but with which they must put up. They must, after all, eat.  For Friedrich Engels these grim transactions were a cultural and social side effect of material relations. “The bourgeoisie is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but makes a bargain with the poor, saying, ‘If I spend this much upon benevolent institutions, I thereby purchase the right not to be troubled any further, and you are bound thereby to stay in your dusky holes and not to irritate my tender nerves by exposing your misery.’”[2] There is no thought of survival in this type of giving; the dominant emotions are pity, pride, power, privilege, and position— a procession of venal Ps. This is what Anne Lamott intimates, with her usual erudite precision, when she admonishes us to “Stop helping so much!” – “Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”

If we are honest, many traditions of giving are rooted in the hope and expectation that others would not survive—at least not in their current form. Underlying many acts of charity is the Pygmalion impulse; we love that which we can create and mold—what we can change.  At core these are fever dreams about erasing “the poor” by turning them into lesser, more shabby versions of ourselves. When “the poor” are not willing to be so abruptly transformed, we talk about the generational trauma of poverty and the intractability of poverty culture, and other such nonsense that at core is self-righteous indignation that we have not received the expected returns of our investment of coins, tears, and breath. Of course, there is nothing inherently noble about poverty, but the same is true of wealth. Where are the papers about the generational trauma of wealth in this country? What of the intractability of prosperity culture that functions as a death cult in our time and justifies eating the earth until the very sea and soil rise up against us?

Preserve me from the charity of those who have never received anything themselves! It should go without saying that the notion of a self-made man is smoke and mirrors. Even at the level of etymology this formulation denies basic biology: no man made himself. Not one bit of it. Nevertheless, this myth of atomized, solitary progress is the fetish of modern European cultures and so we must all deal with it, party as we are, albeit unwillingly, to the worlds empire has wrought.  The self-made man who fancies himself a philanthropist is a particular peril. What does it mean when those who go around boasting (or being boasted of) that they have never received help, not one scrap! insist that they want to give me a leg up?   Receiving anything from such a person’s hand is anathema. They cannot owe their dearest friends a coffee or a beer; yet these are the doers of works of altruism and charity! Charity begins at home may be a cliché but that does not mean we have learned it.

In a culture where need and scarcity are markers of failure, charity and philanthropy usually occur across the lines of exclusion that our society has so painstakingly drawn—those of race, class, and economics. Giving must be directed, like a missile, toward the “other.” In this way we remember who exactly is “the other.” This giving is a grim exercise meant to soothe our fragile egos, but usually it does nothing of the sort.  We teach this joyless giving to the next generation; we tell them sanctimoniously to collect cans of food that they themselves would never dream of eating, for people they will never really meet, to send to places that we wish they might never go. Through this we force a sense of privilege upon them, despite the evidence of their hearts and eyes.

Enter mutual aid, an age-old practice of redistribution within the bonds of community. In mutual aid you give and receive cyclically; the moment that you begin to give you are automatically a future recipient. Mutual aid feels to me like home, raised as I was to be both a giver and receiver. In my West African immigrant family, we always depended on others outside of our nuclear or extended family for basic survival, likewise, we knew we were necessary to the survival of many in our community. I remember being proud of my web of multi-colored and disparate aunties and uncles.  None of my suburban school friends understood it: Why do you call him uncle? Is she really your auntie? This relationship had been built through one thing—not through barbecues, and dinner parties, or shared vacations, but by our need and the communities that it allowed.

In the COVID 19 mutual aid initiatives that have emerged over the past months, I wonder whether we are finding aunties and uncles, nephews and nieces? How does it feel to receive mutual aid, and how does it feel to give it?   Do we recognize our own survival in these exchanges? If not, we may no longer participating in mutual aid. In this way, giving in crisis can be subsumed into patterns of charity or philanthropy, guilt money or trauma bonding, control, and/ or performance.


[1] Kristian Williams, Solidarity, 6/30/2020 https://solidarity-us.org/covid-a-glimpse-of-our-future-on-mutual-aid-and-the-self-organization-of-working-people/

[2] The Attitude of the Bourgeoisie Toward the Proletariat, 1845

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