Mutual Aid and Governmental Responsibility

ACORN ACORN International
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New Orleans     Mutual aid or solidarity work has long been a feature of political activity in times of crisis and often at all times.  ACORN affiliates around the world have been involved at different levels in such work as we have tried to respond to the crises the pandemic has wrought on our members.  Our offices in Delhi and Mumbai are still providing daily meals to thousands in the slums where we organize for example.

The ACORN Union in England and Wales had mobilized up to 5000 volunteers to assist community residents in the sixteen cities where we had branches in our largest effort globally.  This week in they launched a national campaign called “Housing is Health” with demonstrations of various sorts throughout Britain.  Cancelling the debt accrued from deferred rent payments, suspended during the crisis was central, but partially, they were moving the membership from service back into action.

They understood that members needed to not be confused about ACORN, its mission, or its purpose.  Where do we draw the line between government responsibility and the voluntary good will and good works of neighbors?  This is an ongoing tension between the right and the left, with the left understanding that government has to be accountable and get on the job, and the right pretending that government is unnecessary and charity can somehow replace the weight that tax dollars can bring.

It was interesting to see this argument jump into the mainstream in a recent New Yorker article about mutual aid.  The article makes a good point about how often the media obscures the fact that mutual aid is covering up the fact of government mismanagement and callousness, as we’ve seen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Harvey.   The question that really engages the reporter is whether such neighbor-based good works sow the seeds of permanent change or are temporary.  On one hand, he quotes Harvard political scientist Nancy Rosenblum saying that “there is little evidence that disaster generates an appetite for permanent civic engagement.”  On the other he references Rebecca Solnit and her classic, A Paradise Built in Hell, and her hope that mutual aid is “a series of networks of resource and labor distribution and as an orientation, the former may become less necessary as ‘normal’ returns, but the latter may last.”

I think this is less point, counterpoint, than a way of saying the same thing.  The experience – in the whole – won’t last, and it won’t bring permanent change.  Far from it, but the change it brings to the participants, even if not to society and government as a whole might last and change them forever.  That’s a good thing, and might seed other efforts to create change and to force governmental accountability, even if new forms of organization do not evolve out of the crisis.  Admittedly, this is an exercise in mining the silver lining in the clouds, but it is what we do.