Mutual Aid: A Short Primer 

Theory and Analysis

7th June 2022
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Perhaps one of the most fundamental parts of anarchist practice, and certainly one of the most popular terms associated with the subject, mutual aid is also one of the most thoroughly misrepresented concepts in the radical lexicon. For anyone with any experience with the sociopolitical landscape of radicalism, the fact that this is true demonstrates the enormity of the problem: people manage to misunderstand or misinterpret so much that for something to take the top position it must truly be mired in serious trouble.

While much ink has been spilled on the subject and much time has been spent debating and discussing, for many people the basic concept of mutual aid itself is confusing. Despite popular claims, the internet is not always your friend and trying to educate oneself without knowing where to start has created a series of problems that can be difficult to escape. The purpose, then, of this primer is simple. Firstly, it shall discuss where the term mutual aid comes from and its original usage. Then, some examples will be discussed both in the historical and contemporary contexts. This will be followed by a short discussion of what mutual aid is not, as well as an exigesis of the liberal misrepresentations and the muddling the online discourse has had on the term. Far from a complete analysis of the topic – which could take hundreds of pages at the least – this short primer should clear up a number of issues and give a basic set of definitions and concepts that anyone interested in learning more can use.

So What Is It?
Simply put, mutual aid is the method of organising – often spontaneous and informal – in which people or collectives provide aid to one another without transactional elements, and often outside of the world of formal economics. The term itself was popularised by that most famous of anarchist names, Peter Kropotkin, and is mostly associated with his 1902 work Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, one of several works that grounded Kropotkin’s reputation not only as a political figure but also an individual of some scientific renown.

Recommended with glowing praise from names as mainstream as Stephen Jay Gould, Kropotkin’s writing outlines the existence of naturally occuring cooperation between groups and species. This came in stark opposition to the competitive portrait of evolution that had been drawn by most prior. Far from a ‘pitiless inner war for life within each species’, Kropotkin observed that many animals relied upon support – for which there was no remuneration – between themselves in order to resist the dangers of the world and provide for themselves. Nor was this, for Kropotkin, a case of some sentimental emotional attachment between animals; ‘it is not out of love, and not even sympathy, which induces a herd of ruminants or of horses to form a ring in order to resist an attack of wolves’ – rather, it is an instinct of cooperation without which the animals simply would not have survived.

Humans, too, Kropotkin asserts, engage in such behaviour. Without it, he claims, an animal as physically unimpressive as the human being would never have found its way to all regions of the Earth; not only surviving, but thriving and growing in number and in a diversity of cultural manifestations. In between falling into some horrifically dated and offensive language, Kropotkin describes the natural inclination towards sharing shown in most tribal societies, as well as the almost universal levels of social responsibility shown across vast distances; whether in Africa, America, or Australia, people simply tend towards caring for one another. This is not to diminish conflicts between indigenous peoples or to dream of prelapsarian utopia, but simply to acknowledge that there are certain fundamental behaviours without which community cannot form. These behaviours of care, support, are the anthropological basis for mutual aid as a concept.

This is all very well, one might say, but how does this go beyond the vague concepts of care and consideration and become a politically actionable project? How does mutual aid become Mutual Aid; how does a descriptive anthropological concept morph into a prescriptive outline for actions and behaviours?

Kropotkin, again, gives examples. Dated as they are now, it is not hard to see from Kropotkin’s descriptions of these instances that mutual aid does not have to be complex or elevated from everyday experience. It can on the interpersonal level or the societal level; between friends or strangers, from one group to another, without difficulty. The power of mutual aid, beyond its ease of understanding, is the flexibility it provides. Not all projects must involve a million people or vast infrastructure – sometimes it is enough to help someone.

Evidently, from these descriptions, it is clear that mutual aid is not a concept which was invented, in the traditional sense of the word, nor is it an idea with origins in Europe and spread out to the rest of the world. The proliferation of mutual aid as a practice and concept is powerful precisely because it is not colonial, it is not imposed, and it is not enforced with threat of punishment if disobeyed. It is powerful because it is something to which people find themselves inclined, either by inner urges or practicality, and it is infinitely plastic in manifestation; that is to say, there’s almost always something that somebody can do which might meet the definition of mutual aid. This is particularly vital in an atomised and alienated society of the kind which flourish under hierarchical modes of organisation; mutual aid, by virtue of being mutual and unexpecting of recompense, abhors a hierarchy.

Contemporary Examples
Diluted as it may be – and this will be discussed later in this piece – mutual aid still finds its way into the lives of many, radical or not. Some of these things a reader may already know about and just not realise that they are, in fact, examples of mutual aid. Others might be unknown but clarify the concept. In either case, here are a few examples of mutual aid in the modern world and why they meet this definition.

Detailed in the text ‘In the Navajo Nation, Anarchism has Indigenous Roots’ by Cecilia Howell, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a wave of modern mutual aid activity. While in many areas such as the United Kingdom this proliferation may come as something as a surprise in both breadth and number, the spreading of community organising to fill a need is far less surprising among indigenous peoples. Based in the Navajo lands around what is referred to as the U.S. government as the New Mexico-Arizona border, the K’é infoshop provides medicine and food to those in need simply by virtue of care and the desire to help others. As Brandon Benallie, a Navajo/Hopi anarchist whose words constitute the core of Howell’s writing, says ‘every time capitalism fails, we land on socialism, we land on anarchism, to take care of us.’ To this, Benallie adds the point; at the time ‘we didn’t know it as mutual aid, that was just k’é’ – k’é being often described in anthropological literature as the Navajo kinship system, though this is a reductionist description for reasons too detailed for the limits of this text.

As mentioned prior, these mutual aid groups also arose outside of indigenous communities. In the United Kingdom, thousands of mutual aid groups were born out of the ashes of a largely torched social structure. Atomised, individualised, Britain today is often represented by a huge number of culturally dominant people who can be most politely described as loathsome. Their unique flavour of arch noble superiority mixed with the kind of fatuous idiocy that can only be obtained through British public schooling, a kind of dribbling venom that permeates their every word, it would be easy to look at these people and their continued success in public life and conclude that the United Kingdom has been totally consumed by a kind of self-hating wrath. After all, how could any population see someone like Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg elected to popular power year on year without clearly being the victim of some sort of spiritual malnourishment?

Yet, despite the concession of the point that there are rather a large number of unpleasant individuals in the United Kingdom, the reality is that most average people are simply that – average. It is therefore less surprising than you may think that, when lockdowns were introduced and activity monitoring installed, fines for gatherings and limits to leaving the house, mutual aid groups rose in number to fill the gaps. The sick, the elderly, or the simply inconvenienced, suddenly found groups – often small groups, a dozen people or fewer, all from their local area – which were willing to do small jobs, to deliver and distribute food, to transport those in need, to deliver COVID-19 tests, et cetera. All of this was done without the expectation of payment in anything but thanks, and while certainly apocryphal, there are a number of stories to support the idea of strong bonds being built in this manner.

As the pandemic marched on with indefatigable legs, many of the people involved in this mutual aid found themselves either exhausted by the pace or required to give up their activity in order to return to work; here we find some of the primary dangers of mutual aid in modern society. We simply do not live in a world which facilitates it, and to engage in it is often a challenge. People must be aware of this before jumping into any endeavour, and the vibrant mutual aid societies that raced across the country in the wake of the pandemic are all the brighter for their emergence under this circumstance, even if many of them were short lived. This is not a reason to reject the model – it is a reason to reject the world.

Other examples of mutual aid, less immediate and less dramatic in scale, exist the world over. Communal libraries – a personal favourite of mine – represent both the definancialised aspect of mutual aid while also creating hubs of potential community and support for those in need. Organised around a central principle which is at once enriching to a community and often liberatory, the existence of such things allows for the growth of other support structures. In many ways, mutual aid emerges from shared time and interests, rendering the initial form that introduced the people little more than an intriguing vestigial limb. This is not a sign of the weakening of the original principle, but instead a sign of its strength; to give rise to a group engaging in mutual support is a benefit rather than a detraction, even if it subsumes the primacy of the original concept.

What Isn’t Mutual Aid?
Given all of the previous writing, it may seem somewhat unnecessary to tell a reader what does not qualify as mutual aid. Yet, any time spent listening to online discourse – something I strongly advise against – reveals that even among so-called anarchists, the most inane or frankly ridiculous statements can be found. Anything, if you are willing to spend the time, can be called mutual aid these days by someone. So many things, in fact, that it would be impossible to refute them all. However, there is time to provide a few general guidelines that can easily be used by a discerning reader as a shorthand when deciding whether to investigate a given mutual aid claim or dismiss it out of hand.

With that said, here goes.

It has become somewhat popular among anarcho-adjacent socialists and social democrats to claim that if mutual is just support without a profit motive, then surely the welfare state itself is just mutual aid writ large! This could not be more absurd. Simply put, something cannot be mutual aid if, in order for it to exist, it requires the existence of an oppressive apparatus which makes life fundamentally worse for everyone. Therefore anything which requires the state as a prerequisite to its execution cannot be mutual aid. It is neither mutual nor truly aid, and it demands suffering as a condition of its possibility.

Another popular concept, again bandied by the same groups, is that charity is perhaps preferable to mutual aid in at least some circumstances. If a reader attempts to humour this idea, they will quickly find that the word ‘some’ in this phrase is purely decorative, and far from suggesting a balance between charity in ‘some’ circumstances and mutual aid in others, the proponent of this idea will slide very rapidly into suggesting charity as sufficient in all circumstances. However, charity cannot be mutual aid for a number of reasons – not least that it is not, by definition, mutual. Charity is the act of one group or individual, usually in possession of greater material resources than another, doling out some of that resource at their discretion. This is not a mutual process so much as it is a process of benefaction at most and – as anarchists and Marxists have long pointed out – insidious bribery at worst. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, charity is often accompanied by an attempt by the giver to insert themselves into the private lives of the recipient as supervisor; and, as Engels wrote, it is also an excuse from an individual in a position of power they should not have to remove themselves from scrutiny. ‘How dare you demand social change which may harm me,’ cries the charity’s leading donor – ‘have you not seen how much I have done for you? I gave you the money, now go away!’.

In summary, while it is clear that mutual aid is a topic surrounded by much confusion, there are a few rules of thumb which can be applied to decide whether any given thing is at least likely to qualify as mutual aid or not. Firstly, is it mutual? Secondly, does it rely on the existence of something inherently harmful for its existence? Thirdly, does it come with the imposition of behavioural restrictions or the expectation of financial reward? When confronted with any claims of mutual aid, simply running through these basic questions should be enough in all cases to decide whether or not something can even truly begin to meet the definition.

Jay Fraser

Jay is an anarchist and writer from Lincolnshire. He has written for Organise! Magazine several times in the past, and has poetry and critical writing published in Lumpen, Strukturiss, SINK, and many other journals. His most recent work includes a chapter in Bodies, Power, and Noise, an essay collection on industrial music via Palgrave MacMillan. You can find him on Twitter @JayFraser1 if you want.

Artwork by @NoBonzo

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