Leaving 2020. A new year. A step into a new decade. And now more than ever, we see activists and revolutionaries look at the past year to contemplate struggle and history. Many of these activists and revolutionaries experienced 2020 as a clusterfuck of dystopian scenarios coming true, while also experiencing the largest mass movements ever seen. We were cheering on the founding of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, while at the same time screaming at anti-mask demonstrators marching in our communities. Many of us sought solace by doom scrolling, sharing memes and communist TikTok videos. Without fail, the progression of this year has catapulted political discourse into a new era, one ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout.
Intensifying the already existing social ills, the pandemic created a new urgent context through which to organize. Needing to maintain physical distance, tight bubbles, and an increasing reliance on the internet has had a somewhat limiting effect on our movements. Despite this, we saw the mass organizing and mobilizing globally around Indigenous sovereignty, the Black liberation movement, mutual aid, and labour resistance. It felt new, but we recognized the remnants of old debates seeping in around survival, care, and voicing the disparities between those with everything and those with nothing. And while we saw the creation of mutual aid networks around localized natural disasters, COVID-19 ushered in an international movement where communities grappled with the reality of having to figure out supporting one another—knowing that state institutions were failing us.
For activists dedicated to movement-building, autonomous experiments proliferated with the politics of abolition, transformative justice, and cooperation. We all saw with unsurprised rage how people hoarded supplies and denied the pandemic, and how “essential” and frontline workers were forced into more precarious conditions. Still, mutual aid networks countered this death-cult of individualism with collective cooperative action that has proven to be the most powerful response.
Although not new, mutual aid increased in popularity as experiments such as neighbourhood pods or work-based networks emerged. In Toronto, more militant organizing aimed to defend tenants from evictions and provide support for the growing number of homeless people living in encampments. Alongside this was a growing Defund the Police campaign that tied mutual aid and transformative justice to non-cooperation and abolition. Across Canada, national, provincial, and local politicians and organizations began to promote mutual aid organizations in their constituencies. The City of Toronto included mutual aid assistance as part of their emergency response and even provided financial funding for the coordination of mutual aid in city neighbourhoods. 1
This level of awareness and organizing around concepts of mutual aid has offered new ways for activists and revolutionaries to experiment with organizing. And it has brought up questions and debate around care, labour, resources, and the tensions around focusing on local immediate needs while aiming for larger systemic change. As more writing emerges around this “new normal,” several questions emerge regarding mutual aid in relation to the state and neoliberalism. What does this emergence of mutual aid tell us about revolutionary organizing in the Global North? Can mutual aid transform our relationships to each other, to capital, and to wage labour? What are the possibilities for mutual aid organizing to become long-lasting relations that challenge capitalism?
In this editorial, we examine ongoing tensions around mutual aid that have begun to emerge in the past year. First is the question of energy and labour put into mutual aid organizing and the extent to which it challenges capitalist exploitation in our society. Second, we consider the tension of labour, care, and who is responsible—what expectations are placed on the community and movements to provide supports that are no longer provided by the state and government? Finally, we explore mutual aid as a form of class struggle and its promise to build revolutionary movements while addressing the tactical concerns around issues of labour and burnout.
Mutual aid and the state: a brief history in time
When we talk about mutual aid, we are referring to a concept of social organization that is based on the principles and practice of cooperation and reciprocity. Mutual aid reveals different ways in which communities can exist with each other and can be an entry point to community organizing and building power.
While the term’s popularity exploded in 2020, it is not a new concept. Mutual aid tactics have also been used in historical communist movements such as the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords. In recent struggles, we have seen the emergence of support during the Occupy movement and with the Capitol autonomous zone in Seattle. Anti-colonial and anti-racist movements point out that these principles have existed in Indigenous and Black traditions for many generations.
Prior to the onslaught of capitalism and colonization, the principles of cooperation and care were central to traditional life and were later criminalized. We write of this history not to fetishize or romanticize such traditions or practices, but to link the struggle against capitalism with histories of completely different worldviews that prioritize sacredness of the earth and relations. This struggle shows the potential for many activists to link the politics of mutual aid with solidarity work and de-centre Western thought around these politics.
For example, the Haudenosaunee nations lived and continue to live following The Great Law, a law that governed relations between people, animals, and the earth. Lived as a cultural system, in The Great Law of Peace, or the Great Law of the Longhouse (Kaianere’kó:wa), mutual aid is a way of life exemplified in all aspects of society, including how people live in proximity to one another and work with each other. The pride of these communities was the ability to welcome everyone within the community to participate and partake in the fruits of collaboration. As Douglas Jack writes:
In proximity old, young, handicapped and all ages can interact and aid each other easily. Longhouse peoples didn’t need devoted single-function (often-lavish) buildings and abstract symbolism once a week to recall civility because they practiced mutual-aid throughout their lives. While religions, co-operatives, non-profits, social-economies governments, education and social-service infrastructures call for ‘giving to the poor,’ Longhouse peoples implement systems of ‘giving and receiving’ and comprehensive accounting so that all contributions are valorised as complementary parts of the whole. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams used the model of the Great Law for creating the USA Constitution. . . People were considered as assets to building livelihood and well-being. Hence the People of the Longhouse also had formal ‘adoption’ procedures by which individuals from outside could apply, contribute and join. 2
This example of Indigenous practice and thought demonstrates a particular covenant with the earth and the people. And so, when examining the power of mutual aid, we can see how capitalism not only dispossesses Indigenous people of their land, but also strips them of mutual relations. The forced wage relationship, which dominates so many aspects of our life, creates an individualistic mindset as we compete with others in a context of manufactured scarcity and commodified forms of care. Mutual aid can disrupt these relationships and systems not only by centring non-commodified forms of care and survival but also by constituting a different way of understanding kinship and relations. In this sense, it has potential to create opportunities outside of and beyond capitalism.
In the early decades of economic liberalism, European statesmen and economists had to grapple with a worldview that threatened their burgeoning capitalist imperialism, while forcibly convincing the wider population of the superiority and right of profit-driven individualism. It is within this historical context that the work of Pyotr Kropotkin developed. Writing as an anarchist revolutionary, a human geographer, and often credited and associated with developing the concept of mutual aid in Western thought, Kropotkin argues that mutual aid differs immensely from the social Darwinist ideas of his day, as well as the romantic ideas of universal love. He bases his analysis of socio-political structures on the idea of the commons and mutual aid. As he put it:
It is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience—be it only at the stage of an instinct—of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependence of everyone’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own. Upon this broad and necessary foundation, the still higher moral feelings are developed. 3
Several key ideas emerge as observations regarding how we have evolved to instinctively cooperate to fulfill a pragmatic list of essentials for survival. Popular movement sayings such as “no one is free until we are all free,” “we are only as strong as our weakest link,” and “an injury to one is an injury to all,” are all based on the ideas of mutual aid and solidarity. Anarcho-communism is based on an idea of mutual aid that would satisfy personal needs as well as collective welfare, using and distributing the commons fairly and equitably. This focus on the commons, or the return thereof, integrates ecology and environment with the economic needs of the people. It predicates class struggle not in capital, but in the commons, and does not pit nature against the economy. 4 Kropotkin centres solidarity, not love or personal sympathy, as the motivating factor for mutual aid. Mutual aid is a system of relationality, a fundamental and ongoing base for society, and not a response based on time or specific issues.
Given the primary role that mutual aid plays in societies, it is not surprising that its history precedes that of the centralized state provision of welfare (broadly referring to social assistance, health care, employment insurance, etc). In the late nineteenth century, fraternal or friendly societies of mutual aid in the US and Europe were the primary means by which people aided one another. These societies were informal formations at first but then progressed into more structured institutions, pooling financial and labour resources from members to help each other out in hard times. They offered funds and services such as medical care and some forms of employment insurance. They were largely composed of working-class people organized along racial, ethnic, national, and even occupational lines. During the Jim Crow era, Black people and Black businesses relied on these friendly societies to uphold their livelihoods. More than funds and services, friendly and fraternal societies offered people a sense of community and a safety net that was based on reciprocity. While we should not romanticize these societies, as they sometimes solidified racial segregation and often had moralistic rules for members to abide by, in some cases related to marital status or sobriety, fraternal societies were much less restrictive and paternalistic than government aid (what little there was); they highlighted the importance of a person’s dignity and their entitlement to aid especially in times of need.
In contrast, government relief was highly stigmatized and perceived as demeaning because it was administered in hierarchical and impersonal ways, and marked recipients as objects of pity rather than entitlement. 5 The introduction of welfare and commercial insurance, especially after the Great Depression and WWII, eventually displaced these societies. In part, this displacement was due to the state’s greater capacity to take on more risk and provide assistance on a broader basis than fraternal societies, many of which struggled in times of crises. In large part, capitalists were interested in their displacement as they pushed legislators to regulate in favour of commercial forms of insurance. Meanwhile, doctors who offered medical services in mutual aid societies, an arrangement known as lodge practice, began to be penalized by medical societies as the latter fought to establish the dominant fee-for-service system that to this day upholds the power of the profession. 6
With the dissolution of these mutual aid structures and the development of centralized state welfare institutions, we saw the emergence of a new social order, one based on a paternalistic and impersonal administration beholden to the market. The welfare state developed to protect people from the seemingly inevitable boom and bust cycles of capitalism. Although it was never meant to challenge capitalism, the welfare state did provide some level of decommodification as it guaranteed access to public goods such as education and health care as a matter of right, even if these public services are increasingly privatized and commodified. However, as neoliberal economics seeped in, the role of the state in protecting people from the failures of the market became increasingly limited. Rather than providing a safety net, the role of the state increasingly became one that simply facilitates individuals’ re-integration into employment. When we cannot rely on the state as a buffer in times of need, should we organize for government provisions or build mutual aid organizations, or both? We will explore this tension between mutual aid organizing and state power.
In exile or within capitalism
Mutual aid is dangerous to the state and neoliberal economy when it is not easily co-opted as free labour or charity, because it opens up a space for alternative forms of being and acting supported by collectivity. Most well-known is how the Black Panther Party incited great alarm by organizing community breakfast programs, as the state feared that the community would then demand food as a right, leading to housing, health care, safety, and work envisioned as rights. Another example was the International Workers Order (IWO), and in Canada, the Jewish Labour League, which were grassroots, working-class organizations affiliated to (or supportive of) the Communist Party. The IWO formed as a response to people’s needs for affordable, quality healthcare and to demand social insurance and union rights from the government. 7 With small monthly payments, members could access sick pay, workers compensation from injury, and a death policy to pay for funeral services. At the time, while immigrant and ethnic fraternal organizations were popular, many communists hoped to raise people’s consciousness through the mutual aid workers’ organization, which redistributed wealth equitably.
A Road to Peace and Freedom, Robert M. Zercker’s book researching the IWO, details the history of splits, criticisms, and the work going into building a multi-racial, mutual aid organization. A Communist Party official criticized the organization by arguing that the IWO was a benefit to capitalists and government because the workers would spend time providing support for themselves rather than fighting for better conditions in general. Marcus Jenks argued:
Who does not know that in this, the land of billionaires in America, there is no social insurance for workers, and also less protection of the lives of the workers than in any other capitalistic country in the world. And to a large extent it is due to the fact that there is no struggle going on for the establishment of laws for social insurance for workers, unemployment aid, etc. By being a member of some mutual aid society, the worker hopes to be taken care of in case of illness, to be buried in case of death—and that is all. 8
Yet despite these tensions, the IWO became one of the largest workers-based mutual aid organizations, reaching over 150,000 members before coming under attack by the New York State for its communist affiliations and activities, liquidating its assets in 1954.
Another example is the Zapatista struggle for independence and self-determination. In Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid, Andrej Grubačić and Denis O’Hearn 9 offer a few examples of mutual aid projects and the struggles the movement faced when dealing with the consuming power of the Mexican State and capital. In January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in spanish) demanded work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. 10 The government moved in to suppress the uprising, despite article 39 of the Mexican Constitution, which states “The people, at any time, have the right to change or modify the form of their government.”
The Zapatista movement included elements of urban Mestizo political culture and Indigenous-campesino traditions. 11 The combination of both local and national ideas led to the ideological makeup of the Zapatistas, with the concept of autonomy emerging strongly after state neglect in the years after the uprising. The concept of autonomy though has its roots in Mayan customs and practices. With the help of allies and support from other cities, the Zapatistas built electrical generating stations, pipelines for fresh drinking water, and communications towers. 12 Education is based on the principle of horizontal communication of knowledge, in which there are promotores instead of teachers, and alumni instead of students. Similarly, the Zapatista autonomous health care system is built on holism and de-professionalization. Health is understood as a collective phenomenon. 13 The Zapatistan understanding of economy provides a lens through which we can understand mutual aid within and outside the capitalist world-economy. Grubačić and O’Hearn argue that the Zapatistas exist in an exilic space, which they understand as a manifestation of territorial and structural refusal of capitalist modernity. 14 The structural exit from the processes of the world economy by groups who are excluded (or forgotten as the Zapatistas like to say) can also be seen as the pathway to social utopia and alternative forms of social organization. As Subcomandante Marcos put it:
There are those who are devoted to imagining that the rudder exists and to fighting for its possession. There are those who are seeking the rudder, certain that it has been left somewhere. And there are those who make of an island, not a refuge for self-satisfaction, but a ship for finding another island and another and another. 15
If enough of these islands exist, there might be a way out.
In all cases, resistance is a necessity and not an option for survival, and mutual aid is a major facet of liberation. Grubačić and O’Hearn remind us of what Kropotkin argued: people who are faced with bad governments and institutions of social regulation will try to produce alternative institutions of mutual aid and autonomy. 16 The question remains: how strong are these methods of survival, resistance, and liberation against the power of the state? At any point, state power can be employed to tear down these projects and communities, and if not the state, capitalism can co-opt any form of economy.
We want to think beyond mutual aid organizing that must exist outside of capitalism, in exile, or within capitalism. All communist and anarchist experiments in mutual aid have a vision to use cooperation and care as avenues of organizing—to be able to change people’s consciousness for a new world-economy. These histories offer clues and insights into how activists today can organize around mutual aid.
Community responses to the pandemic
The COVID-19 era and its continuing impact has presented everyone with a new lens on how much shittier the state of the world can get. While some of us have lived through localized wars and pandemics, the sheer breadth of this virus has connected the world in material and transformative ways. Disaster capitalism and disaster relief showcase the blatant inequalities that spring up in moments of unpreparedness. Almost in unison, many governments seize moments of war or ‘natural’ disasters as opportunities to further deregulate and privatize the economy to bolster profits at the expense of equitable disaster relief. Much like the responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in the US, oftentimes the people are left to fend for themselves during natural disasters. Relief, clean-up, and reconstruction are organized by residents with the help of organizers and volunteers from other places. US-based organizer Mariame Kaba draws on these examples of mutual aid when comparing them with the current pandemic response. She helped start many redistribution funds, community mutual aid networks, as well as calls for clemency to release prisoners and a people’s bailout. In an interview with The Intercept, she outlines the importance of cooperation for the common good as well as another aspect of mutual aid that has always been tied to organizing for systemic and structural change. She says:
If we could get people together to address their own needs, we ask the question of how people can be in power to meet their own needs. Through those relationships that get built, we’re creating new social relations that we’re going to need into the future to disrupt the structural violences and oppression in the systems. [. . .] So what mutual aid says is no, we can make the most difference locally, which is where we live [. . .] And so we can actually coordinate to provide survival needs for each other. And that coordination actually mobilizes us also to then be able to respond to how our landlords and our employers and how the people at the local level or our politicians how they’re operating and allows us to build power so that we can actually be in a position to directly respond to them who have the most immediate impact on our lives on a daily basis. 17
Kaba prompts us to mobilize and plug into mutual aid projects locally as a way to live and enact prefigurative politics against the commodification of everyday life: this could include forming neighbourhood pods, elderly support, grocery runs, neighbourhood pantries first to take care of people in close proximity, while organizing against prisons and police brutality. She adds, “We just have a lot of opportunity right now, I think, to help ourselves and help each other along the way if we don’t succumb to the fear, if we don’t succumb to the despondency that comes from looking at how things are operating and not operating at the federal level, we’re really all we’ve got.” 18
The lines between the local and the global become blurred within this framework of people-power, and in the consciousness-building that comes through mutual aid organizing. We’ve seen many rousing examples that take this understanding of space and power into action. 19 These exemplify not only mutual aid, but actions aimed at providing aid in the spirit of solidarity, redistribution of knowledge, goods, and necessities, not charity. Activist and lawyer Dean Spade has written much about the ways of distinguishing real mutual aid from hierarchical structures of charity, philanthropy, NGOs, and social services. He created an activist toolkit on his website www.bigdoorbrigade.com offering valuable information on how to start mutual aid projects around bail funds, child care, cop watches, housing, immigration and deportation, self-defence, prisoner support, and sex trades support. He writes:
Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions, not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on their representatives in government, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable. Most mutual aid projects are volunteer-based, with people jumping in to participate because they want to change what is going on right now, not wait to convince corporations or politicians to do the right thing. 20
Mutual aid projects also connect to other solidarity movements and are committed to dignity and self-determination of people in need or in crisis. And they show a willingness to accept feedback about how to make the project more useful to the people it serves. Spade’s new book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next) 21 is a testament to his commitment to this mode of living and organizing. He urges us to think long-term and envision a future free of hierarchical aid. In it, he highlights mutual aid through a feminist lens that recognizes the unpaid, invisibilized, feminized labour that already exists in and outside of movements ensuring people have what they need. Feminized collective care already exists under capitalism, but in mutual aid frameworks, it would be reciprocated, and more people would be participating in providing that care and work.
Realizing real collective power
While some debates reveal tensions about whether mutual aid work threatens the state or instead absolves it of responsibilities, we return to the role of mutual aid as a tactic to meet the needs of our community and an opening for people to enter and engage in political struggle and build relationships. Mutual aid based in abolition and transformative justice shows an incredibly powerful force in community organizing.
Rebecca Solnit describes the power of mutual aid in the introduction to Pandemic Solidarity. She observed the power of the people who:
knew how to self-organize and that horizontal democratic means were what worked, over and over, in place after place. The other was the joy they seemed to find, even in the worst of circumstances, in finding the agency to act, and the communion of acting together and finding a connection that can be hard to find and feel and have recognized by others in ordinary times. 22
Solnit describes an important ingredient to mutual aid solidarity—that to struggle together creates connection. These discussions, however, circle back to previous debates and discussions around care. While we do not doubt the power of comrades and community to show up, we still question the ability for “community” to provide everything the state cannot, or withholds. As one member of the IWO warned in a flyer, “the problem of economic insecurity [is] much too big to permit a complete solution by mutual aid [. . .] Society must approach this problem not as one of charity, but as a duty of the government toward the working masses.” 23
In the context where all working people are dependent on waged labour to survive and with mutual aid being a volunteer space, we have witnessed burnout, stressful crisis responses, and overwhelming requests for cash, goods, and supplies. To then link some sort of political program as a form of organizing seems like a lot to ask. It is here we have seen people dropping out over the last few months and mutual aid slowly becoming the co-opted form of social provision we oppose here. Suddenly, as we struggle to provide so much for our neighbours and ourselves, we must stop and ask, “How is it that I’m sharing my small wage with my comrades to survive, yet capitalists like Jeff Bezos, the Weston family, Chip Wilson and so on have seen billions in profit?” While workers fight to get their COVID-19 relief payments, the Canadian government has given millions of dollars in wage subsidies to corporations with healthy profits. The lowest wage earners in the gig economy or in distribution sectors have been deemed “essential workers” with no raise in income.
While we have seen grassroots action in fighting evictions with a response tied to direct action and demands for more benefits, the larger union movement has been weak in its mobilization to protect teachers and healthcare workers and demand universal sick days, guaranteed benefits for the unemployed, and the strengthening of our healthcare system to provide mass testing and contact tracing. If there was any time to demonstrate worker power, it is now. Yet much of organized labour has resorted to simple lobbying or online petitions rather than organize potential work slowdowns or strikes to make these demands real.
This crisis has revealed the impact on gendered, reproductive labour. It has entered our lives with stagnation of wages, precarity, and commodification of reproductive labour. With children staying home due to school closures, it has fallen predominantly on women to provide care. Statistics coming out about job losses are showing that the majority of work that was lost since the start of the pandemic was part-time service or retail work, 24 meaning women bore almost half of job losses, with Black women experiencing the highest levels of unemployment. At the same time, those catching the virus have been predominantly in working-class communities of colour because of their dependence on wage labour to survive.
Mutual aid organizing needs to tie itself strongly to feminist, working-class movements to not only provide resources but amplify these realities and demand more from the government that continues allowing billionaires to thrive on the backs of women’s labour. But we must also articulate what resistance and freedom could mean as millions lose work.
Workers’ dependence on waged labour for survival remains an oppressive dynamic that we cannot take for granted. And while mutual aid provides an opening to community connections denied to us under neoliberalism, it must be contended that mutual aid also requires labour and dependence on purchasing goods and services. Mutual aid in some of its formations may look less like class struggle and more like a shiny form of charity. When capitalist mayors or politicians celebrate the tenacity of community support, that means they find no challenge from mutual aid and are let off the hook. The hypocrisy of leaders saying “We are all in this together” as they allow the virus to spread through longterm care homes and workplaces not only shows government prioritizing business profit but puts the blame on individuals.
Predominantly conservative governments demand people stay at home yet fail to address how workers survive or how parents care for children while being expected to work at the same time. In response, some activists have been demanding a “Zero-COVID vision.” 25 This means making real demands to the government with the goal of complete virus suppression, rather than flattening the curve and accepting what organizer Daniel Sarah Karasik calls “capitalist eugenics.” 26 A “Zero-COVID” goal offers a way for people to demand human dignity as well as survival. And in some ways, these bold demands are a way to reveal and transform our understanding of capital and the wage relationship. It is a campaign that could continue long after the pandemic changes or ends. 27
The question of how to regain and assert the power of the people during a pandemic seems daunting. Indeed, capitalism has an effective method of isolating people—reinforcing the idea that unemployment, hunger, and lack of housing is an individual problem. This is where mutual aid has been powerful: it connects this despair to tangible solidarity. It offers an opening for people to show up for other people beyond their own needs. But importantly, it reveals that care and survival can be provided outside of a commodified relationship. As ME O’Brien wrote:
Care in a capitalist society is a commodified, subjugating and alienated act; but in it is the kernel of a non-alienating interdependence and love. Positive freedoms are enabled by the foundation of universal material support, and a queer, feminist cultural transformation centring love and supporting our mutual self-development. 28
Whether the aim is disaster relief, food and care, or education, mutual aid has existed across liberation movements and Left ideologies. It is one of the pillars of Indigenous governance structures that existed here long before settlers showed up and, continues today. Stemming from thinkers like Kropotkin, moving to Marxists and communists, and then to organizers like Kaba and Spade, mutual aid persists as a common thread among robust political theories, debates, actions, and lived experiences. We hope this editorial helped build on the ongoing conversations about tactics, ideas, and solutions in our shared movements and struggles. Whether or not this pandemic ends, there is no shortage of crises to put our ideas and common visions to the test. *