“Survival work, when done alongside social movement demands for transformative change, is called mutual aid.” – Dean Spade
As quoted from his book Mutual Aid, Spade defines mutual aid as the culmination of survival and revolutionary work. It is political praxis: the ‘doing’ of leftist ideology. It is the making of an alternative to capitalism; or, rather, to return to the ways of communal living that predate colonialism and capitalism.
Recently, mutual aid has come under scrutiny, with critics taking issue with it as a concept, those who support it, and individuals and organisations who claim to practice it. Simultaneously, mutual aid has become an urgent need within our communities due to the recent COVID-19 lockdown that has left many already financially precarious people unable to support themselves. Working class people across so-called ‘Australia’ are struggling to survive due to deeply insufficient structural support from the state. For those of us engaging in this work, it is now, more than ever, that the value of mutual aid is clear in bettering the conditions and centering the experience of the working class.
The recent criticism from Black Flag and Socialist Alternative alike have argued that mutual aid is not ‘radical enough’, cannot see the difference between mutual aid and charity, and do not understand the aim of mutual aid to itself become obsolete. It is one thing to theorise a better world, but the actions of mutual aid groups are creating that new world as we speak. To discredit the work of mutual aid is to discredit the importance of working class power. Without it, the revolution will be nothing but an idea tossed around over the coffee tables of rich, white armchair leftists.
Mutual aid is the action of anticapitalism. It is about “meeting people’s needs and mobilising them for resistance” (Spade, 2020). Mutual aid projects don’t aim to just fill in the gaps of government or private aid and charity, but to work against, rather than with, the state to more directly address the immediate and structural needs of the working class. These projects recognise that the most marginalised peoples cannot access charity-style services that operate on a baseline of ‘deservingness’, as if all people don’t deserve access to their basic needs and joy. Charity models of aid focus too narrowly on the individual, as to continue the status-quo of capitalism. The charity model uses only short-term, band-aid solutions, and gaslights people in crisis by encouraging them to believe that structural issues are their fault, and that only the ‘more fortunate’ can save them. Mutual aid, on the other hand, aims to meet one’s immediate needs (e.g. giving a hungry person food), recognise why these needs have not been met (e.g. stark economic inequality, money as a barrier to food access), and use this as an entry point to involve someone in the greater movement for liberation.
Ideals of community, caretaking, and cooperation over individualism, profit, and meritocracy are central to mutual aid. These aren’t simple, individual, apolitical acts of compassion. Central to anarchism, prison abolition, and anticapitalism is building communities autonomous from the state. Mutual aid builds community, and enables people to engage in struggle. Capitalism purposefully restricts people from engaging in liberation by forcing the working class to spend so much of their time simply trying to survive. One is both materially poor and time-poor. This also isolates one from the wider community.
Mutual aid alleviates this immediate struggle, enabling one to connect with a community and engage in wider struggle. This alleviation is crucial to bringing working class people to the centre of liberation. People cannot organise if they cannot meet their basic needs, or are alienated from community.
Caretaking is central to feminist organising and demands. Many have said that ‘the revolution starts at home’, and feminists are at the centre of that sentiment. Feminists for a long time have recognised that you cannot combat sexual violence, for example, without supporting survivors’ experiencing trauma in the immediate present. Nor is it foreign to feminists to have their organising work depoliticised and undervalued, for it is often the menial, mundane, unglamorous work that is done by women in the left. Mutual aid is not just an essential part of political praxis, but to feminist organising specifically.
An example of mutual aid close to the hearts of many WoCo members is the abortion clinic escort project. In 2018, WoCo set up a regular weekly schedule of members and friends of members to stand together outside the Devonshire Street abortion clinic, escorting people from their cars or down the street to their appointments, safely getting them past the heckling of religious pro-lifers. We would stand for hours, operating for as many of the clinic’s opening hours as we could manage. The collective at the time was small, with only a few dedicated people usually returning day after day, week after week. Though critics of mutual aid may have seen this as menial, it was a crucial part of the Safe Access Zones campaign. Whilst the work was tiring, it meant people who needed abortions urgently could access them without being pushed into fake pro-life ‘crisis centres’ or guilted out of a personal choice during a vulnerable time. The work met the immediate needs of people needing abortion, and was supported by WoCo’s work simultaneously fighting for Safe Access Zones as a structural response to permanently protect patients visiting clinics.
As we have defined mutual aid — as a short term solution addressing marginalised peoples’ present reality — clinic escorting was a mutual aid project. It worked to achieve greater change in reproductive justice — including Safe Access Zones and the decriminalisation of abortion — whilst recognising the immediate need to access safe abortions. Through the dual approach of addressing immediate needs and fighting for broader demands, WoCo brought new people into the movement and held the experiences of those struggling the most at the forefront of our long-term goals. Safe Access Zones were instated later that year and abortion was decriminalised in NSW the following year. This short term, laborious and intensive work was not done in isolation, but as part of a broader strategy to achieve the greater goal of safe abortion access. This work continues through community abortion funds to ensure that people can pay for the abortions they need now, whilst we continue to work towards the long term goal of free, safe, and accessible abortions for all.
Another example is the Black Panther Party’s survival programs which politically engaged communities through mutual aid. The survival programs were the politics of the party put into action. The Panthers’ ten point program demanded reparations, the destruction of the capitalist system, health care, radical education, and access to basic necessities. These radical demands were reflected in the way the party aimed to serve their communities with their whole ‘body and soul’, recognising the need for survival pending revolution.
Survival programs were an active and communal response to racial and class injustice. These programs provided meals, education, medical services and legal advice. The Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program is especially noteworthy in establishing a blueprint for current mutual aid projects, at its peak feeding tens of thousands of children before school daily. Feeding children was recognised as liberation in practice, “black children who go to school hungry are organised into poverty”(Cleaver, 2006). Not only did this act address the instant need for food and nutrition in black communities, but it also contributed to the popularity of the party and its militant anti-state, anti-capitalist, and pro-black liberation politics.
The Panthers’ various survival programs addressed the need of survival while actively building community and working towards liberation. Setting up these mutual aid structures meant that people were able to turn to their communities when failed by the state. There is a shift in power dynamics when individuals are able to turn to their comrades and understand they won’t go hungry, unsheltered, or uncared for. This dynamic works against the exploitative nature of capitalism where you rely on your exploitation for survival, and is the reason these survival programs meant increased support of the party’s radical politics.
Mutual aid will always be political. Empowering and caring for your community will always be radical, as it acts in direct opposition to the exploitative and individualistic nature of capitalism. One of the many differences between charity and mutual aid is that mutual aid acts in a two-pronged approach to meet one’s immediate needs and fight for a structural response, rather than offering only an individual bandaid response. Bail, for example, is a driver of mass incarceration, and the inability to make bail means more people in prisons and more people forced to plead guilty to avoid jail time. Bail funds, such as the one run by Sisters Inside, acknowledge the violent systems disproportionately keeping Indigenous women within the prison system, and the violence of the prison system itself. While the goal of these funds is abolition, we can’t deny the need for services that keep women out of the prison systems and within their communities and families. Many women who receive bail are then brought into the greater collective fight towards abolition. These bail fund projects acknowledge that the structures that create prisons and the need for bail funds should not exist, and in this sense they aim to become obsolete, whilst also recognising an immediate need.
Mutual aid and feminist organising alike have always been grounded in material conditions, as much as they both have been over-critizised, depoliticised, and undervalued for such. What is unclear is how meeting the immediate needs of the working class and enabling them to engage in greater struggle is in opposition to any kind of leftist ideology. The revolution cannot happen if the working class dies of hunger, or of a backyard abortion — for what is a revolution without those most affected by capitalist exploitation? We do not need anything from the theorybros, armchair leftists, and those generally unaffected by the violence of capitalism, except your solidarity. And yes, at times, your money.