By Ian Ezinga
Since the advent of a free-market economy that, by definition, does not distribute resources equally, people have experimented with ways to share resources and lessen individual stress or pain. Today, and especially in light of the pandemic and the events of the summer of 2020, activists and communities have bolstered the framework of mutual aid. This opinion does not address the question of whether or not to give to mutual aid projects. My answer to that question will always be: do so if it makes sense. Instead, this opinion is tailored around critiquing the general attitude toward the idea and the ways in which I believe it could do more harm than good in some cases.
Mutual aid had been practiced long before it was consecrated in theory, which didn’t happen until the early 20th century. But the theory goes, in short, that in order to help the most vulnerable members of a community, other members should pool together the resources they have in surplus, however meager, in order to uplift them. This idea is to be understood, of course, within the confines of a society whose political institutions do not solely prioritize the mass alleviation of suffering for all those a part of it. The United States happens to be an excellent example of a country that, while guaranteeing its citizens the natural-born right to pursue happiness, does not codify their protection against suffering under the weight of poverty.
The first bone I have to pick in regards to the way we think about mutual aid is one of scale. Mutual aid can be understood as a way to fill in the cracks left after our system casts a wide net to solve a problem. The net which our country has cast to solve the issue of poverty and resource management for the past hundred years is capitalism. This point in itself is not controversial. It is in fact true that our country has opted to trust the market in solving most problems associated with money and getting it in the hands of people. Non-profits do something similar but are very different from mutual aid, which is a whole other discussion.
Inherent to the nature of filling cracks are asking questions like, how many and how large are these cracks? If there were only a few cases of people falling through in an otherwise awesome system, then mutual aid would be plenty fine. But being that there are multiple cavernous black holes in a system where millions of people find themselves each year, projects that are designed to step in with one-off cases aren’t quite sufficient. The criticism lies in an attitude of settling for mutual aid when a reordering of our public institutions is in order.
I get it. Voting and elections are just about the biggest soul-draining drag that concerned citizens are subjected to. But the tragic beauty of the game we are all forced to play is that even though it is unlikely, it is possible, and thus worth fighting for.
So, in order for mutual aid to be conducted in what I would define as good faith, it must be done in conjunction with an effort to change the systems at large so that people in already precarious positions are not the sole lifeline that stands in the way of someone else falling into an even more precarious position. When the scale of a project outgrows that capacity the members have to sustain it, that is a sign that this project isn’t for individuals to solve, it is a job for a government to address. This puts a lot of undue trust in the government, but it’s all about a coordinated effort in marrying what we can do now and what we can do later. Simple, right?
The other point which I would like to make, although I am realizing that it would far exceed the word count to make in full, is one of sustainability but without direct regard to scale. Instead, I want to examine the ways that this money is being raised and how there is the possibility of harm when done improperly. This is to say that there is plenty of language floating around mutual aid projects, often not even by the organizers themselves but by contributors, that aim to raise more money by stitching dashes of guilt or shame to the prospect of not donating. On paper, this seems like such an obvious move to avoid. But it remains a semi-common practice to shake people down for their money. This is well and dandy for people that have too much money, but even in those cases, say you secure the bag, are you really creating sustainable inroads to growth when a chunk of your money was given on the grounds of feeling othered if not handed over?
These individual acts of bolstering a cause on the grounds of “you’re either with us or against us,” detract from the long-term effectiveness of movement building. The bad lines of code written into a project at the beginning and not addressed will cause structural problems in the future when trying to build out further. I don’t know anything about programming or organizing for that matter, but if projects are going to aim for actual change, they need to be built on a sturdy foundation.
This problem exists in the space where identity politics, which I view to be incredibly harmful to the progressive movement I hope to see prosper in this country, dictates action over something more sound, like class consciousness. If money is being raised under the guise that you are not an ally if you don’t give, then it sets up fences between factions that have far more in common than it is made to seem. Mutual aid is a practice involving a large subset of people who all could use help. Othering anyone for not contributing or being fired up about one project and not another only strengthens the growing strains that are being placed on the many different faces of the progressive movement. We already seem unable to bridge our differences in the way we conceptualize power. What a shame it would be if this gap was further actualized by monetary transactions amongst our respective camps.
These thoughts, as all I have in regards to bettering our runaway society, are placed forth open to criticism and conversation. I would encourage people to look into mutual aid projects in their communities and explore different ways to contribute your time and resources. But I would only go so far as to caution how you might do so while also aiming for the next rung on the ladder. It must be said that there is an immense beauty in mutual aid. And if our world isn’t able to come up with anything else more effective and sustainable, it may be sufficient as hope for the future goes.