Democracy, Old and New: How Mutual Aid Can Point the Way Forward

Image by Fiona Avocado, used with permission. More of her artwork can be found on her website.

We live in what is increasingly seen as a time of decay, decline, and injustice. In spite of clear statistical data showing majority support for progressive reform, we find ourselves forced to choose between a moderate presidential candidate (one with quite a record of racism and imperialism) and a sheer monster (We can celebrate that we’ve defeated the monster, but the moderate doesn’t inspire me much, frankly). While the strength, bravery and solidarity shown by Black, Brown, LGBTQIA+, women and student protests for racial and social justice, on a global scale, have continued to inspire and galvanize the people, we paradoxically see a mainstream elite that seems increasingly out of touch and unrepresentative of the masses. More and more, democracy seems to be less and less real, as the interests of the wealthy and the privileged increase their hegemony whilst condemning us for having different priorities, different needs. This problem goes far deeper than lobbying; we are facing an undemocratic senate, an elitist electoral college, the sheer inaccessibility of voting in dozens of states and countless neighborhoods; all of which point to the same truth: American democracy has been in crisis for a very, very long time. We are not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good: we are simply seeing an intolerable and decaying social order for what it is, and we are shocked and angry that those we elected to fix the problem have not done all that they could have. ​Depending on your perspective, the system is either becoming increasingly incapable of accurately representing the will of the majority, or increasingly unable to deceive the majority into believing it was ever represented. In any case, a common viewpoint exists across the political spectrum: the system is in decay, and the center cannot hold. 

But all is not cause for despair. Amidst the integrated, organic crisis of economic collapse, ecological collapse, and a complete floundering on the socio-economic system’s part to deal with the pandemic, a new way of living once more begins to form in the cracks where the neoliberal state has forsaken the people. Mutual Aid, a radical practice at the very least as old as the 1900s, is taking on mainstream attention, and it is within this practice that we see the germs, the seeds, of a new society. If that new society – one built on solidarity rather than competition – is one we desire, then we must fight for it, and Mutual Aid is one of many tactics we must apply in this struggle.

Mutual Aid is any collective organization or action that gives out care – defined here as basic utilities and necessities, psychological care, resources, etc. – without expecting profit in return, instead distributing this care on a communitarian, ​mutual basis. In the United States, this practice has largely cropped up during times of crisis and societal breakdown: in the wake of a flood or earthquake, those directly impacted get together and pool resources to try and repair their communities. The advent of the global COVID-19 pandemic has led to a ballooning of these informal, grassroot networks of lifekeeping: from the Service Workers Coalition and Pomona Mutual Aid Network to the NYC United and East Bay Disabled Support collectives, to our very own 5C Leftist Coalition, communities are choosing to self-organize to keep themselves fed, clothed and housed while normal economic/legal structures leave them incapable of doing so. Where one system is disappearing, another emerges.

Thus, Mutual Aid does more than alleviate the immediate impact of crises: it serves as an opportunity to build organizational capacity and solidarity among participants, be they neighbors or complete strangers. By coming together and solving their own problems cooperatively, participants in Mutual Aid are practicing and living a kind of direct, participatory democracy, and the very democratic nature of mutual aid makes it an empowering act, as opposed to conventional charity, which is largely elitist and demeaning. Take the above example of the East Bay Disabled Support network: this group is not organized by outside actors to aid the differently abled, but is rather created and run by the differently abled themselves. Where charity perpetuates hierarchy and dependency, mutual aid creates solidarity and cooperation, with each actor contributing their own part. Additionally, mutual aid’s democratic and independent organization makes it more resistant to co-optation. As discussed in Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, private charities tend to be organized on the terms of the most well-off, with “solutions” to crises and deprivations being made solely in ways that are comfortable to those already at the top.

More radically, through this practice of participatory, care-based democracy, new and radical thoughts are planted in the minds of participants. If the local, state and federal governments are unnecessary, or perhaps even counterproductive, towards meeting people’s needs, why keep them around at all? On what grounds do they hold authority? These questions will start to percolate in any situation where conventional institutions fail to do what mutual aid networks do, despite their access to overwhelmingly more resources. The State in that phase of decline can be seen as a bureaucratic and elitist institution similar to the conventional charity that mutual aid rejects.

Not only is it a seed for a radical new movement, mutual aid can also serve a directly tactical-strategic purpose: in the event of a strike, riot or other form of uprising, mutual aid networks can help keep the workers fed and safe even as they refuse to work, giving them greater capacity to keep the fight against the bosses going. We see examples of this dynamic from when the DSA raised funds to feed teachers during the Teachers Strike of 2019, or in how public kitchens were set up to feed demonstrators in both the Occupy movement and the more recent Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. In both the immediate and future sense, Mutual Aid serves as a powerful tool and invigorator of class struggle.

Unfortunately, Mutual Aid alone cannot overturn society. The danger of elites co-opting the movement, the transformation of Mutual Aid into an inoffensive symbol of liberal progressivism, is inherent to its recent popularization. We see this with how some news stories cover mutual aid networks, shallowly celebrating the heroism of the participants instead of talking about how messed up it is that they need to form their own networks in the first place just to survive. Every new challenge to the system runs the risk of being absorbed by that very system. To resist this tendency towards defanging and commodification, activists and organizers must keep theory and praxis closely intertwined, and we, the youth of the Consortium, have a role to play in that. I encourage all of you to join one of the many Mutual Aid groups here in the 5C community (such as the Prison Abolition Group) or one of the many organized by our fellow students and their communities both here and abroad (such as Sacred Lands, TASSN, and Funds4Caregivers), and to donate to or even join mutual aid groups in your own communities, while keeping the vision of a new society central to your everyday praxis. Only by merging our vision of the future with the actions of the present can we hope to achieve victory.

Beau Zinman PZ ’24 is from Los Angeles, California. He loves writing, philosophy, and watching YouTube. Don’t ask him about capitalism.

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