Mutual Aid: Volunteers vs. Community

Ideas and Issues
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mutual aid, cooperative,

March 6, 2021

Pearl River     Mutual aid efforts have sprung up around the country during the pandemic. The Mutual Aid Network estimates there have been 100 groups organized in New York State alone with at least 800 nationally in cities of all shapes and sizes from Butte, Montana to Miami and places in between. A small group in New Orleans worked out of the warehouse that is part of the ACORN offices for some weeks, before moving to a larger space. The ACORN Union in the United Kingdom at one point in the early months of the pandemic had more than 700 of our members in different branches sign up to buy groceries and chase after prescriptions for ACORN and community members.

Mutual aid is much more than an emergency relief measure. Philosophically, the concept lies at the heart of understanding the strength of community bonds, and, politically, is a foundational principle underlying collective action and organization.

I found myself reading Peter Kropotkin’s late 19th century essays entitled Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution recently. Kropotkin was a great naturalist and anarchist, whose work and observations in Russia and elsewhere provided some of the underpinnings of communism. He offered mutual aid as a counterpoint to Darwin’s more competitive survival of the fittest, finding support for his theses not only in his observations of the natural world in Siberia and Northeast Asia, but historically in the experiences of the “commons,” the development of communities in Medieval Europe, especially the pre-industrial solidarity of workers’ guilds, and other examples of cooperation and cooperative societies, ranging from governing principles in Switzerland to life boat volunteerism and the solidarity of miners underground. He argued that these mutual aid cooperative and solidarity formations were destroyed by actions of state centralization.

Reading about the struggles of mutual aid work now a year into pandemic highlights the difference between mutual aid as a political organizing principle in communities and the role of volunteerism in contemporary mutual aid work. Organizers are presented as heroes in these efforts, and certainly their efforts have been both necessary and Herculean. Their struggles now are rooted in sustainability, because the pandemic isn’t ending and, with or without the current public health crisis, the needs are permanent. Volunteer mutual aid efforts are now trying to raise money in order to institutionalize their work, relieve burdens of early adapters, and provide ongoing service. All of this is understandable, but also draws the line distinctly between the tendency to social service, rather than truly community organization and the support that comes from mutual solidarity.

This current crisis underscores the stark difference between collective efforts versus individual initiatives. There is a difference between choosing to serve the community, which is certainly a good thing, and the permanence that comes from broader community organization and action that builds real power and forces change, institutionalizing and requiring everyone’s participation and involvement. The promise of mutual aid still rests on the community and its members for its future evolution, just as Kropotkin made the case more than 100 years ago from nature and history.