Anarqxista Goldman with Lara Nasir
Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism
An Anarchism of Mutual Aid
This pamphlet exists for two very specific reasons, one negative and one positive. The negative reason is that, in mixing in anarchist currents on social media, I found the term “mutual aid” being used in ways that seemed neither accurate to its historical meaning and usage nor did they actually seem to refer to examples of actual mutual aid either. Mutual aid, you see, is not charity and neither is it responding to begging or even crowdfunding. The term, if it is to have a meaning of its own at all, is quite specific and much of what follows will be about teasing out this meaning and showing that it opens up a whole new frontier of understanding in regard to human relationships.
The positive reason is that, on that same social media, I came across a woman who was concerned to be doing mutual aid and to be doing it much more in line with the radicality that the term, properly used, implies. I admit, without shame, that I was both inspired and humbled by the example of this woman’s commitment to helping others and forging relationships of care and solidarity between people such that needs are met and problems are solved. It inspired me to want to write about such things, in a concise and clear way, in order to get across for myself how helping each other and building relationships changes the way this world takes place. I’m humbled to say that when I reached out to Lara Nasir, who was that woman, she was more than happy to help share her passion for, and understanding of, mutual aid with others. This pamphlet is all the better for her input into it.
Early in 2021 I published a book called Being Human: A Philosophy of Personal and Political Anarchism. It was a book in which I tried to set out my own understanding of anarchism in the context of some thought about race, class, gender, politics and philosophical thinking with the result that anarchism itself became the preferred model for human relationships and building human community, a model that actively combats domination of one human being by another and dissolves the possibility for human exploitation. In chapter seven of this book in particular, where I set out my understanding of anarchism in positive terms, I laid out nine values that I saw as distinctive of such an anarchism active in the world. At the beginning of this pamphlet I think its important to spend a little time revisiting these values as the prelude to what is to follow here with my task of showing how we build communities and defeat capitalism at the same time.
A distinctive of Being Human was that I set out anarchism as a matter of values rather than theories, places or plans. This is not to say that places, plans and theories cannot have their place within an active anarchism; it is to say that it is the virtues or values we have as human beings that matter and which will determine the rest. Its more important, in other words, to be a person possessed of certain values or virtues than it is to have a plan or be in a certain place or to know a particular theory. At least, it is as I understand things. This prioritisation in my own thinking led me to set out a list of virtues/values that I regarded as distinctively anarchist when put together. I introduced them in Being Human as “Anarchist Virtues and Values [always implying an action]”. These were:
People not property
A freedom of equals
Commensality, Mutual Aid and The Gift
If you want fuller descriptions of these things, including some historical, philosophical or academic justifications for them, Being Human is the place to look for that. In this pamphlet I want to add a tenth value that I should have included in Being Human but didn’t, decentralization, and to extrapolate these values into a lifestyle of anarchist action or a form of anarchist economics, a daily “how do we live and survive?” for anarchists.
This pamphlet is going to concentrate mainly on the sixth item from that list, things which in Being Human I described as the basis of an “anarchist economy”. This takes seriously the idea, as it must, that if capitalism ended tomorrow — and we collectively sorely need it to — then this does not mean that, thereafter, people would just stand around, finding it impossible to carry on life and human interaction without being capitalistic about it. The “capitalism is inevitable” story is one of the capitalists’ greatest propaganda weapons but it is completely ahistorical rubbish. It is not true capitalism has always existed and neither is it true that it is the only way for people to live. But even if it were true this “truth” is propagandized everywhere either without detailing the costs of capitalism or deliberately excusing those same costs — which are vast and counted in lives human and non-human. One thing we can definitely say about capitalism, without fear of contradiction by any except its most vociferous promoters, is that it creates mass
inequality and therefore opportunity for exploitation. Such a system, even where it can be shown to create great wealth, would be unconscionable even for this reason alone.
The anarchist economy of the sixth item in my list above is the vision of something anti- capitalist and, indeed, destructive of capitalism and capitalist values and thinking. It is based on the idea of “the commons” rather than wealth creation and it relies on shared practices and resources rather than the idea that people can own things, especially the products of the labour of others or anything at all exclusively for themselves in an entirely possessive way. This item from the list, like every item from the list, is about transvaluing our values, changing ourselves into people who are no longer capitalists, or people moulded and shaped to think like capitalists. My point is that if we take up these values, in all their anarchistic meaning and intent, we shall not only not be capitalists anymore but we shall be equipped to live like people who don’t need to exploit and dominate other people and things anymore in order to live our lives. Capitalism, in this sense, is seen as a set of values and a state of mind that we need to escape and as an ideology violently imposed and enforced upon us by the apparatus of the authoritarian capitalist state and the capitalist-generated imperatives that only allow us capitalistic choices [such as have money or steal or starve]. Ideas such as needing money to purchase property called food in order to survive are all fictions ultimately enforced by violence that must be defeated by just such values and practices as I outline in my list.
Key to the list [although the list should be read as a set of values and practices which interact with each other in innumerable ways that always imply and entail each other] are the practices of commensality [eating together around an open table in a way which cultivates relationships and shares resources], mutual aid [mutual assistance and cooperation which builds relationships and destroys the idea of competition for resources] and the gift [literally giving things away without expectation of return or recompense]. It should be easy to see how such practices promote, and are based on, other values from my list. They fundamentally promote cooperation and human solidarity, for example, and are seen to implicate what Peter Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid, calls “the close dependency of everyone’s happiness upon the happiness of all”. What these practices are based on is an attitude of sharing with a refusal to calculate who has given what to whom and so who owes what to who. The opposite of this, it should easily be seen, is exactly what capitalism does rely on. Put simply, the capitalistic idea is the idea of property which can be exclusively owned and of everything having a price. Inevitably, this leads to debt which puts people in a position of subservience. But this anarchist economics of commensality, mutual aid and the gift which I am opposing to this does not do that. Instead, in a cooperative, mutual way which
encourages community and the forming of supportive relationships, it refuses the calculations of capitalism and the economics of exploitation. Anarchist economics is community-building and friendship-creating rather than the impersonal capitalist marketplace. Practicing these anarchist practices reveals the economics of anarchism to be about reshaping human relationships from ones of domination and exploitation to ones of solidarity and cooperation, conditions under which capitalism could not survive.
I probably do not need to say too much about capitalism because I am certain everyone reading this both feels its effects on a daily basis and has their own, perhaps even personal, horror stories about it. This fact alone should make us wonder how such a ubiquitously destructive system survives, although President Biden personally pronouncing that he is a “proud capitalist”, as he has during the writing of this pamphlet, should not surprise us. Anarchism, the values and practices of which is what this pamphlet is about, is, on the other hand, pretty much an anti-capitalist movement from its inception. Look, for example, how the British anarchist writer, Iain Mackay, describes it:
“Anarchism is libertarian socialism, a decentralised, federal system based on worker and community control. Private property is replaced by possession, property rights by use rights. This means that the means of production are socially owned and anyone who joins a workplace or community automatically takes part in its management — no more bosses, no more governors. It is based on the ideas of association which were raised by those workers who first experienced wage-labour — the selling your labour and so liberty to a capitalist who then, in return for ordering you about, gets to keep the product of your labour.”
Mackay consequently suggests that this is why the first person to call themselves an anarchist as if anarchism were a badge of honour, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, wrote the first “anarchist book” as “first and foremost a critique of capitalism”. This book, of course, is What is Property? and the answer to the question posed by the title, at least in a capitalist theory of property from an anarchist perspective, is “theft”. Here, engaging briefly in some historical analysis, we must note that capitalism has far more in common with “liberalism” than anarchism does — even though the latter’s critics often try to argue that anarchism is, in fact, merely only liberalism taken to an extreme. The problem with this is that, as Mackay again explains in his essay “A Few Thoughts on Anarchism”, liberalism’s “major theorists, such as John Locke, were seeking to justify the social position of the bourgeoisie and its privileges and so were primarily interested in property and not liberty.” Capitalism thus comes to be the dominating ideology of an already dominant clique configured as the overlords of a hierarchy.
Therefore, following Mackay again, “Locke’s theory of property is not a defence of labour’s right to its product but rather a defence of the appropriation of that product by the owning class.” It thus gives that labour a price [as it does everything else] and says that it can be bought and sold. Capitalism holds such values to this day. As to the state, “The state is formed when property owners join together into a civil society to better secure their rights and property, creating a political power above themselves which decrees the law and acts as a neutral umpire in disputes.” Mackay’s anarchist analysis of this is then that “Classical liberalism is not a theory of freedom, of finding social associations that protect and nourish individuality, but rather attempts to justify hierarchies by giving them a veneer of consent.” As such, “It sees freedom as isolation, not a product of social interaction as anarchists do. It feigns to believe that freedom and equality are not interrelated and interdependent.”
Capitalism is chopping people up into individual units which can be bought and sold but with the disadvantage built in that if you don’t start off as part of a wealthy elite or a network of such relationships then the cards are stacked against you from the start, you are much more likely to be the exploited than the exploiter. Following this line of thinking, we come to nod sagely at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s assertion that “Man was born free but is everywhere in chains” in The Social Contract.
Property, the state and capitalism go together as pillars supporting an edifice which is created to imprison the mass of people inside. The state defends property not least because the people who erect this edifice own most of it. Capitalism is itself a theory of exploitation of resources [which includes people further down the hierarchy] in order to extract profit for those who can be said to own things. That might be as the landlord of where you live or as the owner and/or boss of where you work or as the landowner of some tract of land. In each case, ownership is said to confer rights to exploit what is owned [which might include you]. As Proudhon writes, then, “The economic notion of capital, the political notion of government or authority, the theological notion of the Church, these three notions are identical and completely interchangeable: an attack upon one is an attack upon the others.” What he is getting at here is that these ideas [which all have their own material presence] work on the basis of domination and so by exploiting those dominated. Their power, moreover, gives them the perfect base from which to coerce those they have power over. As Proudhon has it, “In order to oppress the people effectively, they must be clapped in irons in their bodies, their will and their reason.” Capitalism thus works by doing exactly that, coercing body, mind and will in a totalising activity which aims to lock you into a world of no alternative, not even being able to think of such a thing. Proudhon, in this context, defines anarchism as “the denial of Government and of Property” and so contradicts the very practices and apparatuses of capitalism.
What I put theoretically, with a little history of anarchism thrown in as spice, is of course known to each one of us by our daily experience. It is not just Peter Kropotkin in 1896 in his text Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal who knows “full well... that it is futile to speak of liberty as long as economic slavery exists.” We all know it too from first hand experience. We know it from being workers in a gig economy where we earn pitiful wages whilst having onerous workloads. We know it from working in warehouses where you don’t even have time to take a piss. We know it from the refusal by governments to pass laws which allow the mass of workers to earn a living wage. We know it because we have “jobs” that guarantee us no actual work but which expect us to turn up on the dot if ever we are summoned. We know it because of a life of unfulfilling, under-rewarded drudgery in which we are either fully exploited or play our part in a game of seeing who can exploit someone else best.
But this, it should be noted, is only because capitalism is working as it should. The aim of capitalism is to take money and make more money from it. Profit is the difference between paying for the resources necessary to produce something [including workers] and the wealth produced because of it. It is, thus, entirely in phase with the capitalist ethic to reduce worker costs to the absolute minimum. Worker rights or even worker comforts [which are sure to cost money] are antithetical to the capitalist interest. Another way of saying all this, of course, is simply to say that capitalism is the philosophy and practice of exploitation. But lest we imagine [like some naive, over-optimistic fool] that capitalism’s exploitative character is reformable, allow David Graeber, in his brief 2014 piece “Savage Capitalism is Back — And It Will Not Tame Itself”, to correct your misapprehension when he states:
“Capitalism does not contain an inherent tendency to civilise itself. Left to its own devices, it can be expected to create rates of return on investment so much higher than overall rates of economic growth that the only possible result will be to transfer more and more wealth into the hands of a hereditary elite of investors, to the comparative impoverishment of everybody else.”
Capitalism, then, is exploitation. And if you aren’t doing the exploiting then you can be sure you’re either being exploited or have been cast aside as economically unproductive and as, therefore, useless. As Steve Klabnik writes in his “Anti-Capitalism 101”, “Money does not turn into more money by magic, but by the work we do every day.” Capitalism thus needs somebody to do the work of creating profit for owners, somebody whom it can rip off and make benefit from their labour. The state, essentially the public muscle of capital in this ideology, and certainly so at our stage of the game, is there “to maintain the capitalist system and aid the accumulation of capital. As such, the state uses repressive laws and violence against the working class when [they] try to further [their] interests against capital. For example, bringing in anti-strike laws, or sending in police or soldiers to break up strikes and demonstrations” as Klabnik puts it. The state is, thus, not the defender of the public, much less of any human individual. Its the bought and paid for tool of capitalism. Anyone entering into its organs and institutions is immediately co- opted by capitalism, suddenly finding corporate sponsors and CEOs clamouring for their attention, interest and “sponsorship”. This, in turn, is why anarchists have always eschewed voting, parliaments and congresses, and any such “political” action itself. Instead, they have preferred “direct action”, action under their own control that cannot be co-opted by capitalist interests.
In this respect, Steve Klabnik’s concise history with regard to capitalism from “Anti- Capitalism 101” is worth quoting in full to explain [briefly] how we got here:
“Capitalism is presented as a ‘natural’ system, formed a bit like mountains or land masses by forces beyond human control, i.e. that it is an economic system ultimately resulting from human nature. However it was not established by ‘natural forces’ but by intense and massive violence across the globe. First, in the ‘advanced’ countries, enclosures drove self-sufficient peasants from communal land into the cities to work in factories. Any resistance was crushed. People who resisted the imposition of wage labour were subjected to vagabond laws and imprisonment, torture, deportation or execution. In England under the reign of Henry VIII alone 72,000 people were executed for vagabondage.
Later capitalism was spread by invasion and conquest by Western imperialist powers around the globe. Whole civilisations were brutally destroyed with communities driven from their land into waged work. The only countries that avoided conquest were those— like Japan—which adopted capitalism on their own in order to compete with the other imperial powers. Everywhere capitalism developed, peasants and early workers resisted, but were eventually overcome by mass terror and violence.
Capitalism did not arise by a set of natural laws which stem from human nature: it was spread by the organised violence of the elite. The concept of private property of land and means of production might seem now like the natural state of things, however we should remember it is a man-made concept enforced by conquest. Similarly, the existence of a class of people with nothing to sell but their labour power is not something which has always been the case—common land shared by all was seized by force, and the dispossessed forced to work for a wage under the threat of starvation or even execution. As capital expanded, it created a global working class consisting of the majority of the world’s population whom it exploits but also depends on.”
Those thinking ahead, reading this history, should also be able to imagine that things can get worse for, should we escape the climate catastrophe capitalism has created in only about 250 years of industrially and technologically-funded capitalism, then what if the capitalist elite could create intelligent robots to do their work for them? [This, after all, is what they have always wanted anyway.] The future for what some call the “proletariat” is of their impending obsolescence after the end of their forced exploitation.
Changing the Game: An Anarchism of Mutual Aid
But enough of the recent history of our problems for we know them only too well. Its why Lara and I are creating this pamphlet and its why you are reading it. What we need is an alternative, one that provides a new economics not based on the exploitation of many by a few or of one person by another. It so happens that anarchists have a name for just such a thing and its name is MUTUAL AID.
The classic text on mutual aid is the one Peter Kropotkin wrote as popular science in 1902. It aimed to counter predatory and privileged takes on Darwinism which emphasized competition and “survival of the fittest” [not a phrase of Darwin’s but of Herbert Spencer] to the detriment of solidarity and cooperation in the process of a species’ evolution. Kropotkin was quite successful in this respect in that, at least in some places, mutual aid became taught to biology students and it still exists to this day amongst those who hold the description “anarchist” in high esteem. Since “mutual aid” is to be the major part of this pamphlet, then, I intend to look at it as it is regarded by a number of more contemporary anarchist writers who are more used to mutual aid in the context of the modern world than Kropotkin could have been over a century ago when he wrote his study based on animal societies and human societies of the past. What I aim to show as a result is not only what mutual aid is, properly understood, but also that it is, in practice, the ability to undermine capitalism, and its modes of thought, both thoroughly and completely.
We may usefully start with the analysis of the “Co-founders of Symbiosis”, “a confederation of community organizations across North America, building a democratic and ecological society from the ground up”, and their document “Reimagining Revolutionary Organizing”. This document begins by examining “power and social change” in tandem with the earlier analysis of the German political philosopher, Hannah Arendt. Classifying today’s political situation as “a crisis, in which nothing fundamentally changes despite a seemingly endless series of catastrophes”, this collective argue that “without pre-existing mass organizations, the public has no way to collectively withdraw its support” [from capitalist society], going on to add that “most people will never even consider retracting support for governing institutions if they don’t see viable alternatives.” What is needed here, they argue, is an “oppositional narrative” and even possibly “oppositional institutions”. In short, if you want to leave or even oppose capitalism you need other, viable alternatives and these need to be, in some measure, convincing to those you are expecting to become participants in them. They remark, not without good reason, that simply having a vague wish for “revolution” or recognizing capitalism’s failure and harm, by itself, can end up being indistinguishable from apathy if you do nothing about it.
The point here is that if we want to create a post-capitalist world then we are the ones who have to make it and prepare for it. We have to be thinking ahead and creating the very things we want to see replace the things which oppress us. We have to make the “community-rooted participatory politics emerging out of revolutionary crisis” — as this collective of Symbiosis founders put it. Or, again, “A revolutionary transfer of authority to popular organs of radical democracy requires the pre-existence of such participatory institutions, not a naive faith that they will be conjured into being out of a general strike, mass retraction of public support, or insurrectionary upheaval.” This collective, clearly not averse to the ideas and thinking of the Communalist, Murray Bookchin, imagine future liberatory institutions which, to my mind, come with problems attached it is beyond the scope of this pamphlet to discuss but the basic thesis here, that its up to us, that whatever we do must exist before we can expect anyone to be persuaded to join it, is sound. Symbiosis imagine individual projects, which can be stand alone and fine tuned to cater to specific problems, issues or communities, but which can also be organized as a network. This ethos of working together and mutually re-enforcing one another is also very applicable to mutual aid.
Cindy Milstein, in her book Anarchism and Its Aspirations, discusses mutual aid under the heading “the ethical content” [i.e. of anarchism]. She thinks of anarchism in this book, as do I in mine, as an “ethical compass” [i.e. its values give the practice of living an orientation]. But there is also the issue of making these anarchist values “tangible”. Consequently, she speaks of a “communal anarchist ethic” and in a way that is not prescriptive. This is important for if, like me, you think of anarchism as values or virtues, you realise that human beings must be left free to apply these values or virtues as seems
fit and proper to them in the specific circumstances of their lives and situations. Thus, when Milstein says that “a plurality of applications is precisely an anarchist value”, I totally agree with her. Mutual aid, consequently, may be given and applied in any number of ways — as those supplying and providing it see fit or as need seems apparent — in fact. There is no prescribed way to do it and no proscribed way not to do it. Whatever works, whatever helps, goes.
In her description of “the ethical content” of anarchism Cindy Milstein starts to elucidate how mutual aid works. It is about creating a “freedom from” the exploitation and domination inherent in capitalism but also about a “freedom to” express yourself freely and freely associate with others to common and mutual advantage. In this way we start to see that mutual aid should be a liberatory mechanism and mode of living. It should set people free. Yet it is also based on anarchism’s notion of a freedom and equality of people who are equally free [i.e. I cannot be free if others are not equally as free as I am, a socially-generated conception of freedom]. Milstein nuances this idea a little, speaking of the “equality of unequals”:
“Bound up within positive freedom is the notion that people are not the same, and that’s a good thing. Communities, geographic and social, are also distinct from each other. This is why humans must be free to figure out what makes the most sense for each person and situation. Anarchism believes in everyone’s ability to take part in thinking through and acting on, in compassionate ways, the world they inhabit. It maintains that everyone deserves to shape and share in society—a principle that undergirds a non-hierarchical outlook, if opposition to hierarchy has any meaning at all. But this doesn’t mean that people all have equal needs and desires, nor stable ones. People want different things over their lifetimes, just as communities have differing demands over time. The anarchist ethic of the equality of unequals shatters the dehumanizing notion promulgated under capitalism that everything, including each person, is exchangeable—equally a commodity, and thus without inherent worth—replacing it with the rehumanizing concept of the value of each individual.”
What Milstein herself thinks this means is that:
“Everyone and everything has equal value, and should equally be provided sustenance in order to fully blossom. What that sustenance looks like, however, will differ in quantity and quality, based on differences in needs and desires. For example, ethical health care would not be a cookie-cutter list of services, as if people’s bodies are all alike. Nor would it be apportioned in meager, exacting amounts. It would instead be tailored toward each individual’s specific wellness as an always-available social good, in as much abundance as possible. But the equality of unequals isn’t simply about material needs. It is a sensibility to guide how humans can justly apply equal worth to the rich non-equivalency of differentiation.”
Readers will surely already be seeing that such values and practices cut the legs from under capitalist thinking and operate according to different values. This approach treats people as the valuable but differentiated, individual human beings that they are, realising that needs are specific and not one size fits all. As such, we are here already taking people, and their needs, seriously in a way capitalism does not. Here people are not resources to be allocated but human beings to be interacted and engaged with to our mutual benefit. By taking people seriously, we make things better for everybody.
Milstein builds on this, via a reconfiguration of a communist ethic, to give an anarchism of mutual aid a participatory, fraternal, cooperative basis. Starting with “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” she modifies this, under an anarchist understanding, to “from each according to their abilities and passions, to each according to their needs and desires.” She goes on to say that “In this view, people all contribute in various ways to each other and their communities—and not simply in an economic sense. Indeed, this ethic helps to re-embed ‘the economy’ into the wholeness of life.” This is something I wish to emphasize with regard to mutual aid too. It is not a matter of mutual aid being an activity done within life; rather, mutual aid is to become your habitual means of existence. Mutual aid is a matter of building a contributory, participatory, fundamentally social means of existence across food provision, housing, child care, education, medical services, everything you can think of. As Cindy Milstein continues, “The plethora of human contributions would be based on what people are good at, what they enjoy, and also what they collectively determine is desirable as well as necessary. One person’s needs (wool mittens, apples, or books) might be another person’s desires. In a good society, people would want to satisfy as much of both as possible.” How much this would have changed from a life lived by capitalist values is shown in that “Production and distribution would involve neither compulsion nor drudgery, nor be something distinct from ‘free time’.” All would just be “life”.
You see, the anarchist recognises that “an economy” exists to service life: life does not exist to service an economy. So you are not of value according to your economic productivity in an anarchist understanding: You are of value because you are you and you exist. The capitalist, as we have already seen, is one who does not count the cost. Everything [including people] is just resources to be used up. The anarchist, however, not only counts the cost but mitigates it and makes decisions which reduce the cost of human existence in a finite world. The capitalist, equally, is one who thinks that giving you a small amount of money in exchange for work you are compelled to do is a fair exchange. The anarchist, on the other hand, thinks that “work” should not be distinct From “free time” and that compulsion has no place in human existence. All this comes to mean that the problem for anarchists is not that we lack the resources, the will or the ideas to initiate and maintain a new, socially libertarian and more equitable way of life but that it is authoritarian capitalists and their minions who are holding the world captive to capitalism. This is the problematic, the very real, material problematic, that an anarchism of mutual aid intends to overcome at both the material and ideological levels.
Consequently, when I have thought about such things, I always find it very interesting that when people imagine “an anarchist future” they struggle not to imagine the same world as they already live in — but [somehow] on anarchist terms. I think this is wrong- headed, if somewhat understandable. The problem is that capitalism made this world. But what capitalism made is not something anti-capitalism [i.e. an anarchism of mutual aid] can maintain. These must be different, they must have different outcomes, and they must have different means. Living your life by means of an anarchism of mutual aid will not be the same, you will not have the same values or outcomes. If you do, it means something is wrong for capitalism and anti-capitalism are entirely opposed and operate according to different values and ideologies. Or rather, they should.
In this respect, an anarchism of mutual aid is what Cindy Milstein calls “applying ethics to social organization”. It is not the capitalist “from each according to what they are forced to do, to each according to their financial means, and otherwise people go without” as Milstein herself phrases this. The ethic to be applied here is not that delegated people are tasked with caring for certain specific others [which could be authoritarian or create unwilling obligation] but that “people will provide and care for each other”. An aspect missing from much popular conception of mutual aid is that it is MUTUAL aid. We should not get so hung up on the aid part of this term that we forget the mutual part. Mutual aid is social, participatory and contributory. It involves everyone doing what they can, helping as they are able, however small or insignificant, whether outdoors or at home. But it does involve everybody in both the giving and receiving — just as if we were all one big, interactive, inter-relational community, in fact. It puts the onus on human communities, of whatever constitution, to sustain themselves and look after themselves and enrich themselves [metaphorically and materially but not necessarily monetarily!]. “Imagine if everything from energy to education was such a ‘from each, to each’ institution”, Cindy Milstein suggests, helpfully.
Yet it is only now that Milstein explicitly addresses mutual aid [all that has come before is but contextual prelude]. Milstein says of mutual aid that it “necessitates intricate, complex relationships as well as harmonious differentiation to achieve... reciprocal exchange.” In this respect, the activities of Jesus of Nazareth, who taught his followers [who were forbidden to carry any money] to care for people in exchange for a meal and a bed for the night, are mutual aid in every sense of the words. Milstein’s view on mutual aid, which she takes from Kropotkin’s analysis in his book of the same name, is that if people behave this way it produces a greater abundance, both materially and otherwise, than if people are forced, exploited and coerced into things. In competitive schemes, only a few can ever win. But the point of mutual aid is that everybody wins together. Imagine this ethos at the heart of an economy and imagine the difference it would make to those a competitive capitalism disdains and discards [or doesn’t even account for, such as the mentally or physically disabled]. Here solid anarchist values such as cooperation and solidarity are the necessary motivating factors and mutualism becomes the basis for such an anarchist “household”. [“Economy” is a Greek word originally to do with households.]
“Mutual aid is one of the most beautiful of anarchism’s ethics. It implies a lavish, boundless sense of generosity, in which people support each other and each other’s projects. It expresses an open-handed spirit of abundance, in which kindness is never in short supply. It points to new relations of sharing and helping, mentoring and giving back, as the very basis for social organization. Mutual aid communalizes compassion, thereby translating into greater ‘social security’ for everyone—without need for top- down institutions. It is solidarity in action, writ large, whether on the local or global level. When felt and lived out as a daily sensibility, in combination with other anarchist ethics, cooperation creates fundamentally different social relations, which offer humanity the best odds of transforming the values of a hierarchical society.”
So Milstein is here quite clear that mutual aid is not charity, something which can easily be seen as a kind of capitalist paternalism in which a “have” deigns to give to a “have not” [and keeps relationships that way in so doing]. Mutual aid, as an ethos, horizontalizes relationships. It rejects and corrupts hierarchy. It is a freedom of equals [or unequals if we take Milstein’s point about difference on board]. Mutual aid is not about getting something back for your aid. It stresses, and hopefully creates, reciprocal relations and it does not count the worth of the aid given for it is not an ethic of measurement or calculation. We see this, coming back once more to the example of a historical Jew, in the activities of Jesus which, so I have argued elsewhere [in my book Yeshua The Jewish Anarchist and the pamphlet The Jewish Anarchist], are based on creating a community of mutual aid, without hierarchy, in which people pool their talents and resources in order to foment a radically new way of living, one without social strata or haves and have nots and not based in authority or compulsion either. Mutual aid is the philosophy of human solidarity and cooperation, a world in which everyone is a brother or sister and sharing what you have or can do with another in need is both natural and normal. Here, the idea of “profit” is totally expunged and the idea of “accounting” in order to place people in the correct financial relationships to one another is forgotten as just a bad memory of more exploitative, less cooperative, times.
Taking this understanding on board, one starts to see how such an ethic might piss off the capitalists. It becomes an “Insurrectionary Mutual Aid” — which just happens to be the title of a document produced by the Curious George Brigade, an anarchist collective From Queens, New York. [This, incidentally, is exactly what I think Jesus was doing in his historical context and so why, ultimately, the Roman state murdered him.] This collective talks about “a resistance of direct action” and “the possibility of resistance to global capitalism” and warns us that “waiting only teaches waiting; in acting, one learns to act”. It speaks of insurrection as “an organized rebellion aimed at overthrowing a constituted government through the use of subversion, sabotage and direct resistance calling in question the legitimacy and efficacy of the government.” This is a matter of “the social upheaval it generates” and is a means to “expand the paralysis of normality”.
The key here is to see mutual aid as something which can do these things and, in this respect, we must totally remove it from a capitalist frame of reference. Mutual aid is NOT charity. It is NOT responding to isolated begging requests. It is NOT a disjointed, random, vague sort of help [and especially not when measured in how many units of local currency you can give to a random stranger you might never see again]. It is programmatic, organized, regular, ordinary. It is AN ECONOMY, a way of living, a means of communal survival. It is, done properly, destructive of capitalism, its ideology and construction of human relationships. Mutual aid — when you live it — is an insurrection against and attack upon capitalism. Mutual aid, being “freely given help (in the form of services and resources) to others in our community”, is the promotion of an entirely different ethos than the one capitalism has violently imposed upon us and those who practice it should be seen as insurrectionists taking their stand against the violence of that system whose only aim is to dominate us so that it can profit from us. Who would have thought that something so simple as offering help to other people in ways you can provide would prove so effective and so dangerous?! Unlike charity, which merely secures the status quo, mutual aid changes and replaces the status quo.
Using an analysis which notes that government agencies always offer their aid “strategically” and in order to maximize compliance with their vision of society, the Curious George Brigade point out that “It comes as no surprise that our leaders are willing to let us die while they implement their misguided plans to maintain law and order”. Government is not based on human solidarity; it is based on control and utilising a population seen as resources. Government explicitly tells you what you can and can’t do to maintain its “utopia” of control and exploitation by the capitalists who keep it in place for their greater benefit. In this context, the Curious George Brigade’s idea is that mutual aid, an economy of cooperation and solidarity, is a reclaiming of the old anarchist tactic of Propaganda by the Deed. Such a tactic often has a shady past and involves violence itself. But it need not. The point here is that anarchists are people of direct, rather than political, action. They are those who act in their own best interests as a community of people with diverse but mutually resolvable needs rather than seeking to manipulate everyone else to their advantage and create a society which exists for their benefit but at the expense of others. Government and capitalism create [a necessary] dependence [if not an outright oppression] but mutual aid is a matter of reciprocal interdependence. A commitment to the solidarity of mutual aid teaches people that there is another way to live and sets about living it.
But this is about action and preparation. An anarchism of mutual aid, which is to become a way of life, is not about clinging to capitalism. It is not a hobby you do within a capitalist situation but something which changes and replaces that situation. It is antagonistic of capitalism and, if you practice it with great enough effect, it may even attract hostility from capitalist others. Yet if we are committed to it, as we must be if we want to save ourselves and others from the destructive horrors of capitalism and its incarcerating mentality, then we must prepare. Here the anarchist value of education comes into its own. We need to start identifying how we will survive and who we can work with to do so [this is really not a thing one can do alone]. Basics like food, water, medications, power, communication, shelter are important, naturally, but identifying who is prepared to help and join with you is important too. Mutual aid, in many respects, can be seen as networking together all the like-minded people, each with their own talents, services and resources to offer. Someone might be able to offer a bed or a meal, someone else might be able to drive you somewhere, another might be able to do something that you need doing or look after a group of children freeing their parents to do yet other things people need. And this is not just about helping out in emergencies either. Mutual aid as a way of life is about creating relationships between people such that the people become a community who share their lives together. The nuclear family is a capitalist invention too but an ethos of mutual aid pushes that aside and instantiates the notion of the human family in its place instead which anarchists eulogise as free association. So you have a spare room? Why shouldn’t someone without anywhere to stay make use of it? They will surely have something they can contribute in a spirit of mutuality to your common benefit too. By these modest means we aid a social revolution that may build to a complete change in our societal way of life.
Yet, as the Curious George Brigade point out in a series of “pros and cons” at the end of their short article, it is a situation of “advantages” and “difficulties”. Mutual aid allows us to focus our energies on helping people in a positive way which involves our direct action. It connects us with other people and allows us to make a difference in whatever ways we can. It also helps us refine how these things actually work in practice rather than in theory papers, essays or thought experiments. The more we do mutual aid, the better [and more effective] we will become at doing it. Such activity also breathes life into the networks of people taking part in it, in turn making them better able to respond to the various crises a capitalist world is bound to generate. Such action also, as already suggested, acts as propaganda to others, showing that there are people who care and are prepared to do something about it, something of practical help and consequence.
So mutual aid is a peaceful means of helping others, creating community and degrading the destructive and exploitative capitalist mentality and so, in this respect, it is also a way of fighting both for something and against something at the same time and, in doing so, refuting the notion [which capitalism wants to foster] of our own powerlessness. Yet it relies on creating relationships and it relies on people who have educated themselves and others in anarchist values such as those I listed earlier. It takes organization and often requires logistical expertise. [Recently it came to my attention that Lara Nasir had found some very helpful maps of where homeless encampments were located in Portland, for example. Someone had obviously taken the time and effort to create them, helping others in the process.] It may in some cases be dangerous or involve engaging people possessed of a capitalist mentality, or operating under its auspices, such as cops, government agencies or capitalist interests. The point that the Curious George Brigade make last is actually one never to forget: “Mutual Aid is not charity! It is an attack!”
The point here, made explicitly in a book called The Black Flag Catalyst Revolt Guide by an anarchist group involved in direct action and street protests called Black Flag Catalyst is that mutual aid is actually a tactic in an ongoing conflict, one that has existed ever since capitalism was forced upon people and they became resources for a capitalist- authoritarian machine. We did not start this war but if we would survive it then we must resist it and rebel against it. In this context, Black Flag Catalyst say the following:
“Mutual aid is based in community control, aiding one another to break free from capitalism and colonial authority. Mutual aid is simple, it’s the breaking of the binary of the ‘haves and have nots’ with the intention to re-allocate for equitable access to resources, education, and needs. Seems simple enough. However, Mutual Aid is also a legacy, and a practice.
These types of projects are perfect for pacifists and those who do not seek conflict with the state. Mutual aid projects might already exist in your area, such as Food Not Bombs or other local efforts, and these are necessary components of building dual power. The mutual aid projects you engage in and help build should not be confused with charity. Mutual aid is a long-term commitment to the community and a tool to break free from the state and capital.”
I hope this helpful description helps to re-situate the nature and importance of mutual aid in your mind and how it can be both help and an attack at the same time, a way of building an alternative lifestyle, and set of values to live by, to capitalism. Here it is a positive advantage that mutual aid might be taking place in hundreds, maybe even thousands, of ways, each in individual projects with their own aims, purposes and communities. Not everyone has the same skills and not everyone can offer the same things. But, by the same token, not everyone wants the same things or has the same needs. Plurality, in both cases, is, then, very good and entirely necessary. If we can get as many people as possible to participate in the mutual aid it only increases the possibilities and opportunities for the whole. [Here my tenth value and virtue of anarchism comes into play: decentralization. These efforts work best when they are local and directly administered by those most directly involved. They might be coordinated with other groups but those involved most directly are those best able, all together, to decide what should be done and how.] In fact, as Dean Spade, an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law and someone who has worked “to build queer and trans liberation based in racial and economic justice” says in “Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival”, a prelude to a chapter from his book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And The Next), “expanding use of mutual aid strategies will be the most effective way to support vulnerable populations to survive, mobilize significant resistance, and build the infrastructure we need for the coming disasters.”
What this means is that mutual aid is a radical and necessary alternative to the capitalist norm, something aiming to change everything. It is, for example, like when one person steals something; the system simply replaces what was stolen and punishes the thief. But what if everyone steals everything? Then society changes overnight! This mass participation aspect to mutual aid is then important for, in helping others habitually, people learn to live differently. It is learning by doing. That they need to do this should not be in question when even determined practitioners of mutual aid can casually slip into conversations how they bought something nice “from Amazon”, the company, until recently run by Jeff Bezos, which spends its time asset-stripping the world, running its workers into the ground and having a pollution footprint which dwarfs that of whole countries. How can it be that even an anarchist would do business with such an entity? It is because minds are still colonized by capitalism which, to be fair, has made a determined and thorough-going attempt at such colonization which has been, and still is, very effective.
So if people want to even mitigate, let alone retard or stop the progress of, capitalism, literally saving lives in the process, then people need to be mobilized for resistance. As has been mentioned earlier in this pamphlet, as well as elsewhere in my writing [pre- eminently in my major book on an anarchist orientation to date, Being Human], this is both an internal and an external matter. We must materially affect the world but our minds must also become changed, they must be reconfigured with new values which lead to practices of which mutual aid is an important one. It is a matter of our personal transformation leading to transformative alternatives becoming apparent which, in practice, transform other people’s lives and possibilities as well. [So, it is about relying on each other rather than on Amazon, as one example!] Here, as Dean Spade notes in “Solidarity Not Charity”, reformism will not be the answer for it is “designed to demobilize by asserting that the problem has been taken care of, meanwhile making as little material change as possible.” As anarchists, we want mobilized, active, participatory, contributory citizens. We want those who take responsibility and we want to teach people to do exactly that. And not just some of them but all of them! This will make all of us safer and give all of us more social security. We also want material change and so should not be fobbed off with promises, policy statements, intentions and the like. Anarchists, as I repeat again, are people of direct action rather than political action. They do not go “through channels”. They do it themselves. They do not settle for cosmetic changes because they want to affect root causes. They make the difference because they are the difference.
Anarchists seek to take action which counters the divisionary tactics of authoritarian capitalism, which mobilizes people to take an active interest in their community and which offers material benefit to the world. Mutual aid, done right, addresses all three of these concerns. The result is a contribution towards a liberatory and communitarian mode of life. One of the aspects of mutual aid which recommends it, in fact, is that it does encourage liberatory community in people’s lives, freeing them from capitalist chains as a result. Mutual aid, in this respect, can be seen as a kind of structured participation or an organized sharing. [Anarchists are not opposed to structure or organization. In fact, its hard to see how any concerted and effective community action could take place without it. But they become more concerned when such things start to become institutionalized.] Dean Spade in “Solidarity Not Charity” asks four questions of his “own work studying and participating in queer and trans liberation projects and in organizations centered on border and prison abolition” with regard to asking about its effectiveness in this regard:
Does it provide material relief?
Does it leave out an especially marginalized part of the affected group (e.g., people with criminal records, people without immigration status)?
Does it legitimize or expand a system we are trying to dismantle?
Does it mobilize people, especially those most directly impacted, for ongoing struggle?
Of course, not all of these questions will always be relevant in every case we can think of and, at other times, some will be more important than others, whilst yet other questions may suggest themselves as well. Yet what is important here is that we realize that mutual aid is not simply something random or done on the hoof [although in imaginable emergency situations it may need to be and so we should be planning and preparing for that too]. Mutual aid is something that can, and should, be planned, structured, organized and done with regard to creating a logistics set up to carry it out habitually. It is only in habitual ways that we will make difference and change minds as well as lives. Making mutual aid habitual, normalizing it as a way to live, thrive and survive, puts it on a different footing to the temporary and often random notion of “helping someone out in a crisis”. We may help people out in such ways but, apart from averting or resolving the immediate crisis, which is, of course, not unimportant in itself, it changes nothing structural in the long term, either for them or us. Such people are still vulnerable to further [or even repeated, continual] crises. The rent you cannot make this month just turns into the rent you cannot make next month, for example. Mutual aid, and an anarchism of mutual aid, seeks not only to deal with such “pinch points” of life but also — and necessarily — with its structure and organization. It is thus about “reignit[ing] people’s imaginations”, as Dean Spade has it, and about not letting capitalism artificially limit our options. Spade outlines three modes of action that resistors of capitalism can take in “Solidarity Not Charity”:
Work to dismantle existing harmful systems and/or beat back their expansion.
Work to directly provide for people targeted by such systems and institutions.
Work to build an alternative infrastructure through which people can get their needs met.
To be sure these kinds of work take us beyond the reactive “helping people in need” mentality — but then they should. Spade, in filling out the consequences of these kinds of work, moves into the realm of activism aimed to actively impede or resist capitalist systems and operations too. [What else would you do if your community is under attack?] This moves us back into the territory that was occupied by Black Flag Catalyst, above, in a “Revolt Guide” which was all about a mutual aid of active disobedience and disruption of the capitalist world, supporting each other and the community at large in the process. Again, this will not be for everybody. But it will be for somebody. Not everyone will want to sabotage a pipeline or train people not to call the cops to solve disputes but disrupting city council meetings, prison visiting or befriending someone vulnerable you see in your locality will be just as good. What matters is that everyone sees the community as their business, takes responsibility and takes part, for every connection is valuable and networks of care and concern only grow when people step up and take the initiative to make them.
In this respect, Dean Spade’s definition of mutual aid in “Solidarity Not Charity” brings us back to the point once again: “Mutual aid is 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.” Key there is the “by actually building new social relations”. This, in the end, is what mutual aid is. Its not vague or random help, much less a desire to help but no action to do so. It goes way beyond this: it builds new social relations, it forms and maintains a community, people who feel bonds with one another, bonds of responsibility, solidarity and fraternity. It is, thus, both an activity which helps people in need but also one which takes offensive action, is offensive action, against oppressive capitalist authoritarianism in any form in which it shows itself. And, as Spade also notes, “Effective social movements always include elements of mutual aid.” He himself notes the example of the Black Panthers who had:
“survival programs, including the free breakfast program, the free ambulance program, free medical clinics, a program offering rides to elderly people doing errands, and a school aimed at providing a liberating and rigorous curriculum to children. The Black Panthers’ programs mobilized people by creating spaces where they could access basic needs and build shared analysis about the conditions they were facing.”
Such is not so different from the bottom up [and these things must always be bottom up] progressive educational ideas pioneered in the past by people like the Catalan anarchist Francisco Ferrer which were also taken up and supported by people like Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Voltairine de Cleyre in the “Ferrer School” they helped found in New York. Goldman herself, in fact, spoke of parents leaving their children with designated others whilst they went off and did other necessary community tasks, feeling that some would step forward, in the context of an anarchism of mutual aid, to supply childcare facilities and educational opportunities as their contribution to the successful functioning of the whole community. Strongly against the institutionalization of children, her ideal, as set forth in a 1906 essay, “The Child and Its Enemies”, was that:
“he who has freed himself from the fetters of the thoughtlessness and stupidity of the commonplace; he who can stand without moral crutches, without the approval of public opinion — private laziness, Friedrich Nietzsche called it — may well intone a high and voluminous song of independence and freedom; he has gained the right to it through fierce and fiery battles. These battles already begin at the most delicate age.”
We can take from this attitude that no one is too young to be in receipt of the benefits of mutual aid, internal and external, material and ideological, and neither is anyone too young to be set on the path of freedom and inter-dependence that eschews capitalist- authoritarian interference and coercion.
To finish this section on mutual aid I want to reproduce some aspects of a “Mutual Aid Chart” prepared by Dean Spade and used in his teaching. The chart itself contrasts the characteristics of “horizontalist and participatory” mutual aid projects with “Hierarchical, Charitable Non-Profits and Social Service Programs” as provided by “official channels” and those working within the capitalist-authoritarian system. Here I’m only going to emphasize the former and leave out the latter by rewriting Dean Spade’s chart in my own words. The point here, then, is to describe the characteristics of a mutual aid project [in a way others are free to modify for themselves]. Such projects will tend to:
Have members who together make decisions and do the work.
Be serviced by volunteers.
Beg, borrow or steal its resources rather than being granted cash with stipulations attached.
Be “rooted in deep and wide principles of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, racial justice, gender justice, disability justice”, etc. Principles and values will determine focus.
Have no “eligibility criteria” for who can receive help. Needing help is good enough.
Give aid without expectations on the recipient.
Be composed of those who want to help and make a difference rather than because they want status or prestige.
Engage in activities which put people on a level playing field such as having people in rotating roles.
Value self-determination in those being helped.
Value participation and so engage in consensus decision-making in regards to organization, strategy and structure.
Be not just about helping those in need but also disrupting the channels by which the root causes of oppression and exploitation are manifested.
Assess how the work is going through the eyes of those affected most by it and modify the aid given accordingly.
Build participation, solidarity, mobilization and radicalization through, and by means of, the mutual aid.
A couple of points [gleaned from Dean Spade’s notes about this on his chart] need to be noted here as well. The first is the danger of money and professionalization. Both are likely to cripple the ethos of the action. When people get money they usually start to argue about it. Similarly, when things become professionalized then people start to get power bases and wield authority. Both of these things are antithetical to the anarchist ethos of mutual aid which operates according to the interaction of the values I listed above. It needs to be remembered here that mutual aid is about more than just “offering help” in isolated cases. It is an ethos which intends to rebut and displace a capitalist- authoritarian one, an ethos which intends to build community and move beyond a society of power, status, authority and acquisition. Frankly, if I can be my radical self for a
moment, it is about building a society which moves beyond money, property and authority at all. Since I am one who believes that “the means is the end” then we need to start thinking about ways to interact with and help each other without relying on money, property and authority RIGHT NOW.
The second point is in relation to participation. Obviously, this should be encouraged as widely as possible as too few people doing too many things can only lead to burnout. It is also the case that, whoever is involved, they feel a part of the group and have as much decision-making power as anyone else. A “culture of feedback and humility”, as Spade puts it, should be encouraged such that people feel encouraged to take part and “own” what they do. If people in the group can help each other and learn new skills in tandem with them [first aid is an obvious example] then people will become better equipped to provide more kinds of aid and this will not fall on certain people who are seen as the “go tos” in various situations. As stated previously, mutual aid, as a way of life, is a matter of participation, activity and preparation. If communities are not actually providing help, then they can always learn how to do so and prepare themselves for it.
A Case Study: The Mutual Aid of Lara Nasir
All this can sound very “theoretical” when its neither meant to be nor is it in actuality. Mutual aid is a very practical thing which is a natural outgrowth of anarchist values. But an example always helps to demonstrate this. Enter my online friend currently living in Portland, Oregon, USA, Lara Nasir. When I first came across Lara I did not know anything about her. She just seemed like a woman, with a family, with a passion for helping people in her local area. However, as |Ihave gotten to know her slightly better, engaging in a few online conversations with her and having her send me emails detailing some of her story, she strikes me as an example of exactly what mutual aid is all about. For, to put it simply, and with the greatest amount of respect and admiration for Lara, she is just an ordinary mom to her children and partner to her partner. She is not especially privileged or possessed of unique skills which make her stand out from the crowd. But where she does stand out from the crowd, however, is as a person who will not stand by while others struggle. And this makes her very special for in that she is an example of all that I have said in the previous section of this essay about mutual aid which, to put it simply, is just regular people making a difference, regular people being the difference. Lara is an example of a difference maker and its something we should all take note of. So in my conversations with her, first of all I asked Lara to say a bit about herself and her background and politics. She hit me up with the following answers:
AG: Say a little bit about your background, where you come from, your political history.
LN: I was extremely left/anarchist in high school — although I won’t pretend that I knew what it meant. As I got older, I fell into the trap of voting for the lesser evil, thinking donating to charities every month was somehow changing things. I probably crossed into dem soc [democratic socialist] territory without really knowing it, sadly. I had stopped caring about anything but my comfort level. As I got older (35+), | began to open my eyes the way I had when I was younger and went back to anarchism. I studied political philosophy in college, so I had the theories down. I just had yet to put that into practice. And, no matter what, it’s the putting it into practice that means everything.
AG: How would you describe your political interests now?
LN: I’d label myself an ancom [anarcho-communist] but it doesn’t mean much more than a label.
AG: What does “anarchism” mean to you?
LN: It is, for me, the process of doing. It’s giving everything back to the community. As someone who has been unhoused, if I hadn’t had such a fantastic community who cared (from donations to hooking me up with an apartment) I would still be at a camp ground with my family. For me, anarchism is giving everything to your community. It’s quite literally cooperation with your community while fucking with the capitalists in charge. Listen, if all of us are growing food and giving it away, taking care of our unhoused, etc., they are no longer able to make money from them. I was so excited to see that play out when I lived in Vegas and now in Portland. When it’s done well, with effort and heart, it’s a beautiful thing.
AG: What effects of capitalism do you see in your community?
LN: In Portland one of the most striking things is that there are tent communities all over the city. Everywhere. And nicely dressed people just walk past with zero eye contact. They learn to ignore. It’s not anyone’s problem. Imagine if everyone made it their problem? Imagine if it wasn’t just 30 people but everyone who considers themselves a leftist? Imagine if everyone was helping? The effects of capitalism have made it easy for people to ignore the actual issues.
AG: So where does your political activism at the moment fit into this? What are you doing, why, and where do you see it going?
LN: Right now I’m not doing nearly as much as I want to be, but I’m still learning Portland. I’m helping out with providing essentials like food, weed and some other things to some [houseless] encampments. I would love to extend that, raise more money for them, but also eventually figure out how to house them and keep them safe. The most vulnerable members of our community are our unhoused and we need to start figuring it out. Again, if every leftist started helping, even just a little bit, we’d have a lot of help. My neighbor and I have made a plan to start growing food in our backyard which we will give away. All it takes are these types of actions for anarchy to succeed.
AG: How do you think ordinary people can protect themselves in these oppressive times when capitalist imperatives are forcing people to work for poor wages which makes it hard for them to pay their bills to even survive?
LN: This is so challenging. Most people want to be comfortable so they do what they have to. I feel like the more you take time out to help others then you, in turn, get help back. Working as a part of a team is the best thing to do. I think getting comrades to live together is helpful. For example, I’m trying to talk my friend in Florida into moving out here and taking our couch. He doesn’t feel like he has community out there so, regardless of our space, crashing with us could really make things easier on everyone. Obviously this route isn’t for everyone but I feel like the more serious we become about revolution, the more we will open our minds to living like this.
AG: Do you have any ideas how we can motivate people to take care of each other and particularly the less fortunate in society?
LN: You know, this question haunts me. I feel like I come across as a nagging mom when I
beg people to start getting involved. I think the most important thing is to make sure people tie together this concept of mutual aid and revolution. We can’t have one without the other. If we all started to see mutual aid as what it is — which is a community building to assist each other and disrupt capitalism — we would understand that it takes more effort than we are currently giving. Donating money is excellent, but that isn’t exactly what mutual aid is. Mutual aid is a community effort, and the better we get at it, the likelier we will be to see revolution. I hope that by educating we can motivate.
AG: What are your priorities for the future?
LN: Revolution lol that sounds so lofty but trying to make the conditions right for a revolution is my main priority.
AG: As I spoke to Lara more, it turned out she had more to say about her time existing, unhoused with her family, in Las Vegas. I, myself, have never been unhoused although, like most people in any modern capitalist city, I have seen people who were and spotted their encampments. In my time I’ve taken shifts at a community project where I currently live which provides hot meals, no questions asked, to whoever comes into the community hall where they are served. Even doing that I saw the faces of people who felt social pressures because of their situations although I’m sure that, in many cases, these situations were not of their making. In speaking more about her own situation, Lara confirmed what I had only assumed:
LN: I feel like when I’m discussing my family being unhoused I only focus on this period of time when we were living out of tent at a campsite in Las Vegas. Not for nothing but we had always enjoyed camping — but it’s just not the same when you HAVE to do it. The thing is, we had been unhoused on and off for a few years before that, living hotel to hotel to motel to motel, down to bad credit and a lack of consistent money making. Child care, not making enough money, etc., all contributed to us staying with family, staying in hotels, and just kind of bouncing around with our toddler. When Covid hit, we had nothing. My partner was trying to work as much as he could but he just couldn’t keep up with hotel payments (which often were over 2k a month). We had no choice but to start camping. We lived in a tent for quite some time and were planning on purchasing an RV through crowd funding efforts but everything we found was just not safe enough for a toddler and two parents who had no idea how to fix ANYTHING. We stayed in a large tent at various campsites in Vegas and, finally, with the money we raised and a comrade who had a landlord who wouldn’t credit check, we found an apartment to occupy in Portland, Oregon.
Being unhoused is embarrassing and it shouldn’t be. The truth is, though, people seem to treat you like a “charity case” or they feel sorry for you and it’s hard to have any real feeling of peace living that way. We will always be grateful for the help we received along the way but what it did to my heart, my spirit, will probably be forever broken no matter where we live now. Most people believe people are unhoused because they don’t work hard enough but my partner worked the entire time we were unhoused. He would drive from the camp ground into the city for measly amounts of money that would pay for nights at the campsite and food. We would use our food stamps to help purchase food for the rest of the campsite which was filled with people in the same position we were in. We had to take care of each other and that was the one solace we had.
Now that we’re in an apartment, it’s still that feeling where “well this could end at any moment” because we have very little security. The only thing I know how to control is what I can offer others and that’s just service. Whatever I have left is for everyone else. Feeding, clothing, time — anything left over is for the most vulnerable not because of charity but because taking care of each other is what changes things. It’s the only thing that fixes the root of the problem. And the more we all get on board with it, the less we need from the government. We spent a few years without something stable, pretending things were okay. How many people are living like this because they have nowhere to turn? We have to start organizing mutual aid freely and openly.
AG: Lara wasn’t done riffing on what it is like to be houseless at this point, however, and she wanted to send me some more words about it. So, in another mail, I got this:
LN: I feel like being unhoused, living in hotels, campsites, being on the street, not knowing when you’re going to get to eat next, everything is about survival. It’s a trauma. Being neglected and hated by most of society and the government is traumatic. I hear people who live at home with their parents, who have never ever had to worry about a meal, complain about having very little money — when the reality is that they aren’t starving and they know where they’ll be sleeping at night and they don’t understand what it means to fight for survival. Because they don’t understand, they rarely try to help. And so very few people come together to ease this trauma for others. But if more people gave a shit, we could ensure that conditions start improving simply by helping people fight to survive: Making sure people are eating, protected, have essentials. The more of us who participate in that (rather then yelling loudly about the government needing to fix shit) the more we are able to fix things and the closer we get to revolution. But caring is only shown through action, through direct action. And not everyone needs to be on the frontlines to help. There are so many ways to help without even leaving your home. You can help those who are on the front lines. But everyone has to participate. Too many people need help and not enough people are here to help. Too many people are comfortable in their homes, saying they care and not doing a thing to show it.
Thought into Action
Lara’s words ring true to me even though we live almost 5,000 miles apart and on completely different land masses. She takes what I have previously discussed as ideas in this pamphlet and makes them viscerally real. She points up the fact that values and virtues and ideas and talk are AS NOTHING if you aren’t acting on them. I have always believed that anarchism is an action and when it comes to an anarchism of mutual aid it seems to me that this can be no less true. There is no mutual aid if people are not mutually aiding each other. This is an action, whatever that action may be.
One anarchist thinker who would have totally agreed with this is the British anarchist writer, Colin Ward. Ward’s 1973 book Anarchy in Action, which he himself describes as “simply an extended, updating footnote to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid’, is about “the ways in which people organise themselves in any kind of human society.” He had originally titled his book “Anarchism as a theory of organisation”, in fact, exactly because the volume “attempt[s] to look at a variety of aspects of daily life in the light of traditional anarchist contentions about the nature of authority and the propensity for self-organisation.” His own view is that
“Many years of attempting to be an anarchist propagandist have convinced me that we win over our fellow citizens to anarchist ideas, precisely through drawing upon the common experience of the informal, transient, self-organising networks of relationships that in fact make the human community possible, rather than through the rejection of existing society as a whole in favour of some future society where some different kind of humanity will live in perfect harmony.”
This reminds me that I myself have pointed out previously that everybody’s life, right this second, is dependent on any number of people, coerced by whatever means they are or not, to work together in order to produce benefits that extend far beyond themselves. Everyone from postal workers to sewerage workers to logistics workers for food retailers to trash collectors to school teachers to... well, you get the point. There are a lot of people and they are all playing their part in a greater whole, more or less willingly, in order to benefit people in general. So this concept is not completely alien to any of us. Even doing things like standing in line in order to be served in some way is an example of people informally working together in order to all achieve their mutual desires. What Colin Ward, as an anarchist, thinks of this type of cooperation and organisation, when shed of its authoritarian imperative and any coercive impulses is:
“Suppose our future in fact lies, not with a handful of technocrats pushing buttons to support the rest of us, but with a multitude of small activities, whether by individuals or groups, doing their own thing? Suppose the only plausible economic recovery consists in people picking themselves up off the industrial scrap heap, or rejecting their slot in the micro-technology system, and making their own niche in the world of ordinary needs and their satisfaction. Wouldn’t that be something to do with anarchism?”
I suggest that it would. And so the first paragraph of Ward’s book comes to be a question that addresses us all:
“How would you feel if you discovered that the society in which you would really like to live was already here, apart from a few little, local difficulties like exploitation, war, dictatorship and starvation? The argument of this book is that an anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.”
I like Ward’s idea that what this pamphlet has been angling for for 45 pages now is actually really already there in all the ways people, amongst themselves, agree to work together on common projects of mutual benefit. This is all mutual aid is. Its nothing new or fancy. Its not a weird and strange innovation. It is, as Ward says, “rooted in the experience of everyday life”. The difference, of course, is that its not something anyone is going to force you to do. The anarchist difference is that external force or compulsion is lacking. It is, instead, a matter of individuals taking responsibility for themselves and their communities. It is people together engaging in their own free choices until such free choices and community actions “make up most of social life”, as Ward quotes the anarchist Paul Goodman. We have already seen, above, how the Black Panther Party took this very seriously, engaging essentially in all sorts of social services as the basis for life lived differently and cooperatively. If they could do it, so can we.
This is because mutual aid is the very simple, non-prescriptive idea that, in willingly helping each other, everything needful gets done. Sounds ridiculously simple, doesn’t it? Well, it is. Or, at least, it would be were it not for this vice called “authoritarian capitalism” which we all have our heads stuck in. This authoritarian capitalism has found innumerable ways to entangle us in its existence and extricating ourselves from it — being brutally honest — cannot be done without cost or consequence. But look around you as temperature records are obliterated, as tent cities spring up and expand only for armies of cops to attack them and shut them down again, as more and more people post social media notices pleading for financial assistance to pay even very ordinary everyday expenses, as more and more food parcels are handed out to people at food banks. Its not a case of not being able to afford to help; its more a case of helping each other, pooling our lives and resources, in order for us, together, to survive at all. Capitalism’s exploitation is destroying everything right before our eyes. The answer to this, the only answer to this, is to change our ways, to reject the authoritarianism and the capitalism with its exploitation and control and to cooperate with one another, in solidarity, to satisfy each others’ needs with whatever resources we can offer or get our hands on. We don’t need charity which maintains the status quo; we need mutual aid which changes it.
Yet if you are now waiting for some special formula, insight or plan of action for you to follow to make this idea a reality, perhaps because you have been convinced by my rhetoric and persuaded by the needs in society I have made apparent, I’m afraid I have none to give you. Mutual aid, you see, is about people THEMSELVES working out what the needs and desires local to them are and — from there — working out what to do about it. This, for example, is what the anarchist Emma Goldman said: “The methods of Anarchism... do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual.” Only you, making the effort to find out, will come to realise what needs there are in your particular community. Only you will be able to find out if there is somewhere in your community you can go, or some others you can join, in order to help others. Another anarchist, the Italian Errico Malatesta, talking about anarchism as freedom from the coercive systems administered by others, once said: “We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves” and this quote accurately gets the point that mutual aid is not charity help by outsiders or new overlords or saviour figures descending on the unfortunate to do things for them. Instead, its the forging of new community, its emancipatory relationship, its people working together to create their own, new reality.
But the task is great because nearly everyone has been captured by authoritarian capitalism. Everyone expects to be told what they can and can’t do, everyone expects to be ruled. Everyone thinks that, unless they have money, have have no right to anything. Everyone thinks that things “belong” to someone. Wrapped in ideological chains, they are blind to even the idea of new, liberating relationships and cooperative communities that act in solidarity beyond property and authority. They are like people stuck in the matrix who don’t even realise they could be free — let alone actually wanting to be. As Colin Ward puts this, asking why people acquiesce to the principles of authority and property which oppress them, it is because the people “subscribe to the same values as their governors. Rulers and ruled alike believe in the principle of authority, of hierarchy, of power.” Ward is right and so, as I’ve repeatedly said, the anarchist of mutual aid is already in a war of ideas, of programming and deprogramming, before they even begin. The anarchist idea of mutual aid, seeing the virtue in the tendency for human beings to cooperate together in groups to achieve mutually beneficial aims, is something that must be taught and become part of the greater task too. We need to help people by helping them understand that things can be different as well.
As always, it is a matter of action. None of this happens if no one does anything. And it is not a case of building a revolutionary army that, with violence, will destroy the material forces that will always be opposed to a world based on the relationships proposed in this pamphlet either — regardless of what my more “enthusiastic” references in the text may say. As the German anarchist, Gustav Landauer, observed: “The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” This is the entirety of the thesis of this pamphlet, simply put, that if you want a different world you must take the time and the effort to create new relationships between people. Had I much more space to write about this thesis I would, no doubt, write tens of thousands more words about it and give numerous historical examples where it took place. Yet I would still only be saying the same thing, if with worked out actual examples. They would not tell you more than I have though or than Lara Nasir has as well in her own simple, yet profound, testimony.
We come to be addressed by questions: what is the best way to live in life? How should we organize ourselves? How are we going to relate to each other and get along in a way that is best for all of us? We have been convinced [although surely not benevolently] that an authoritarian capitalism is the best answer to this question but, as members of the mass of those exploited by it, we know that this is not true. So now it is a question of if we accept our imposed fate or refuse it and act in the cause of liberating human relationships that reject both capitalism and authority. We do this when we help someone else, without counting the cost, because we want to live in a world where that’s what people would naturally do. These relationships of mutual aid I have been talking about do not fall from the sky. We carry them out, we make them real. As Colin Ward points out, “Our task is not to gain power, but to erode it, to drain it away from the state.” You might think its hard to do this by helping someone but even that simple action, when repeated and magnified a billion times over by millions of people, informs others that we don’t need to be ordered about, treated like disposable resources or told to know our place. Instead of being the bottom of a pyramid, we can be a node on a network. We can be part of groups of people who work together, each with their own needs and desires, to achieve personal and common goals. It begins in seeing each other as equals with many of the same needs — food, water, shelter, health, company, etc., — but from there it can grow into a new sort of community of diversity and solidarity in which people do not all have to be the same but who, nevertheless, can work together for the good of them all.
Mutual aid is simultaneously very simple yet also very hard. Its very simple because helping someone is as easy as pie. You can help so you just do it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. But it is also hard because stumbling blocks have been put in our way. So many ideological things will press in on us and people might look at us funny if we are helping people in need or even imagining we have a bond with such people. We risk becoming “one of those activist types” with all the social consequences this implies. We might miss the show on TV we’ve been told for weeks is an “event” not to be missed. What about our own families and lives? There will be endless reasons not to break out of the life capitalism has decided for us and which it induces us to follow at every turn as it thrusts things at us and tells us we need them. But that will only prolong our oppression. That will only make more of the life that is destroying us and which holds us captive. It is easy to close our eyes or succumb to the powerless apathy those at the top of the hierarchy much prefer. Just stay in your lane, accept this is how life is, we are told, and, if we do, we become those who have acquiesced in our own oppression and who have contributed to the imprisoning of others.
But, doing that, would be to ignore the people who need somewhere to stay, the people who need a meal or drinking water; it would be to ignore the people who have a job but struggle to get to it because its too far away; it would be to ignore the sick person who can’t get out and would appreciate company and someone bringing them things they need; it would be to ignore people who might appreciate sharing a meal with others where they can both be fed and make friends; it would be to ignore the depressed or anxious person who feels alone and left out; it would be to ignore the person without Internet access who wants to send emails to a relative who lives a thousand miles away. I’m sure, with a little thought, you can think of thousands of other examples too.
Earlier I spoke of mutual aid as something I called “anarchist economics”. “Economics” is just a term here for the transactions that take place to keep the community running. We are, by now, trained to think of this in terms of money but that is just more ideology that we’ve been programmed with. You don’t need money to have an economy and an economy doesn’t have to be based on what you are imagined to “possess” either. The economy I spoke of as my sixth value in my earlier list was “commensality, mutual aid and the gift”. All these can be boiled down to one word: SHARING. And anarchist economics can be thought of as sharing too. Sharing time, energy, company, skills, resources, opportunity — everyone can share a little bit of something with another. And everyone can have something shared back with them too. If we can organize this sharing, informally amongst ourselves by common agreement to fulfill our needs and desires, then we begin a new society based on sharing, one which values sticking together with each other so that no one falls into need and each realises that if we are looking out for each other then we will all be safer as a result. That’s what an anarchism of mutual aid is about and that’s why, in this pamphlet, we ask you to play your part in taking responsibility with people near you in taking part in the sharing community of anarchism.
LET US TRANSFORM SOCIETY, LIBERATE OURSELVES, AND BE FREE!
“A Few Thoughts on Anarchism” by lain Mackay (Anarcho) [On The Anarchist Library]
The Black Flag Catalyst Revolt Guide by Black Flag Catalyst [On The Anarchist Library]
Anarchism and its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein [On The Anarchist Library]
“Reimagining Revolutionary Organizing: A Vision for Dual Power” by The Co-Founders of Symbiosis [On The Anarchist Library]
“Insurrectionary Mutual Aid” by Curious George Brigade [found on The Anarchist Library]
“Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid For Mobilization and Survival” by Dean Spade [On The Anarchist Library]
“Mutual Aid Chart” by Dean Spade [On The Anarchist Library]
Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward [can be found at https://libcom.org/library/anarchy-action-colin-ward]
Being Human: A Philosophy of Personal and Political Anarchism by Anarqxista Goldman [On The Anarchist Library]
Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin [On The Anarchist Library]