Exploring the concept of Mutual Aid as a framework for care, adding to discussions (see Prof. Dilys Williams latest piece – ‘The future is here…it’s up to us to live it‘) about an ecologically just post-Covid future. Care was a recurring theme in my responses to Latour’s questions on moving beyond the ‘pre-crisis production model’.
As a term, Mutual Aid has become increasing familiar – mutual aid groups have sprung up across the world offering various kinds of support as our usual systems overload or fail to function. However, as I lay out below, there is more to Mutual Aid than neighbourly, individual acts of kindness; more to it than an individual ‘me’. Mutual Aid is a system of exchange (resources and services) based on reciprocity, support, relationships and care. As a concept it offers a sharp critique to individual based solutions to a systemic challenge, and for that reason is a system to consider when thinking about sustainable futures.
Despite our various and differing experiences of living through COVID-19; it has been emotional, disruptive and revealing. Layers have been stripped back, enabling us to see and feel what is really important. These show us how interconnected and interdependent we are. To one another. To our minds and our bodies. To economics and resource use. They highlight how the study of life and living (biology) is political, social and economic. They show us that the ordinary/normal is constructed and that rapid change is possible. But, we cannot do this alone. In sustainability, we talk of our interconnection and interdependence, but how do we practice this? How do we both recognise what we as individuals do but also move beyond this, to act and in doing so create a functioning body, a whole.
To make this shift, it seems to me that it is vital to acknowledge the role of care in developing and maintaining interdependency and interconnection. This means recognising the work involved. It can be hard, unrewarding, messy. Think laundry, repairing, preparing. There is joy here too but also quiet, private, heavy, cold, monotonous work. Care has always been the bedrock of our societies.
What COVID-19 has done is to bring to the fore some of this work and draw attention to how much we need it. We need health care, universal, free. We need carers – paid ones and unpaid ones. Our healthcare system is under pressure – yet we value it more than ever. Will this translate into pay rises for carers and other key workers? To greater job security? To commitments to safe working conditions? Unprecedented political action has seen our welfare system being expanded, and, even if only temporarily, the rhetoric of free markets and austerity suspended. And in the home, unpaid care work continues alongside working from home; many commentators have noted how the pandemic is shifting the gender divide away from any semblance of an ideal equilibrium. These are political and material questions that will need answering as we move forward. These questions too are at the heart of sustainability, in fashion and beyond. They ask for instance, what a fashion sector with a changed engagement with care looks like? What are the political discussions that need to be aired? And what are the material dimensions of care?
But back to Mutual Aid. Sisters Uncut provide this short overview on Mutual Aid: “Mutual aid is a theory which argues that individuals can come together, care for one another and work towards their common interests without relying on state entities or notions of citizenship. Mutual aid is the practice of sharing resources, ideas and services reciprocally to mutual benefit. The practice of mutual aid views all participants equally – it rejects hierarchy and bureaucracy or the centralization of activities in one location. It is closely linked to the idea of solidarity – cooperation between individuals.”
Arguably COVID-19 has mainstreamed this radical anarchist concept explored in 1902 by Peter Kropotkin in his work “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”. Kropotkin explored practices of cooperation, including in-kind assistance, community resource pooling and sharing and group financial support, and detailed how these forms of organisation stretch back thousands of years. He found examples in nature and in human society. The historical context of the work – a reaction against social Darwinism and the emphasis on competition and survival of the fittest – seems relevant particularly now.
Through Mutual Aid networks care becomes a form of political participation (Spade, 2020) that works towards the creation of new social relations. As a framework Mutual Aid shifts the narrative from me to we. It is inherently celebratory of our interdependence, of our entangled lives. An effect of it is not only to critically examine the system but crucially of reframing problems experienced by people as collective, systemic problems. This is key. To be truly interdependent we must celebrate our need for help, support and care. The individual is not the central focus – it is an ethical practice in which help is given without seeking reward. In doing so, a mutual aid system can offer practical relief – in COVID-19 times this might be shopping for a vulnerable neighbour. But also it recognises that help is important and crucially there are certain needs that need meeting as a condition for political participation. What makes Mutual Aid a political framework rather than a series of individual actions is the explicit building of new social relations and structures that work for them. It is a participative process, based on action (rather than say waiting for others to create something for you). Inherent in Mutual Aid networks is governance by the people involved, transparency and building solidarity through political analysis and education. Ideas that are vital to considerations about a sustainable future.
The more I think and read about mutual aid the more it resonates with the way I have been making sense of the trips I took to the Za’atari Refugee Camp during 2019. In Za’atari various networks of mutual aid exist – shared child care, peer to peer loans, skill sharing and decentralised knowledge. In Za’atari the planned and the unplanned exist clearly, as does co-operation and the capacity for local self-determination – both essential elements for mutual aid. In both the refugee camp and the COVID-19 Mutual Aid groups, the activities have developed because of a crisis. Developed informally because there are limits to what can be provided centrally (in the main, for political reasons) and a desire for people to feel their humanity.
Meanwhile the caring continues. Precariously, mundanely, invisibly. But ultimately politically. And for this reason, we need to ask ourselves how we embed Mutual Aid systems for a just and sustainable future?