What Is Mutual Aid?

This episode was made in collaboration with RE-EDUCATION. If you’d like to learn more about the specifics of mutual aid, be sure to check out their video after this. 

We live in troubling times. The most powerful nation on earth is on a collision course with complete economic collapse. We hop from crisis to crisis every few years, and each time millions of Americans lose their jobs, their homes, their healthcare, and their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the rich continue to capitalize from the suffering of the many. In the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis, real estate companies and wealthy individuals snapped up countless homes of the recently evicted, and to this day they rent them out at more and more ridiculous rates. More than a third of the entire US workforce is held captive by the gig economy, making on average 58 percent less than other workers, and receiving no job security, healthcare, or benefits. Quality of life is going down, job satisfaction is going down, rates of depression are way up, life expectancy is on the decline, and in a country with seemingly endless resources for wars, tax cuts for the rich, and industry bailouts, we have nearly 600,000 Americans without so much as a roof over their head, and tens of millions more on the brink of joining them. We’re ramping up our military posturing against countries like Iran and China, one to justify the endless and lucrative war in the middle east, and the other to try to maintain global economic domination, a position which is rapidly slipping away in no small part due to our own eagerness to outsource jobs for ever greater profits. To top things off, electoral politics are more polarized than ever, the republicans adopting alarmingly conspiratorial language and hateful rhetoric, and the democrats as usual failing to deliver any real meaningful reform, choosing instead to means test incredibly popular policies into oblivion. Unsurprisingly, public approval of congress hovers around an abysmal 25%, with most people asserting that those who represent us are nothing more than out of touch, corrupt people with no interest in actually improving anything. It’s no surprise that more and more people are looking for ways to effect change on their own – they see the system is leaving the vast majority of people to suffer, and they understand there has to be a better way. One of the most common questions I get on my channel is “what can I do?” “How can I help?” I’m fully aware that channels like mine tend to highlight the problems we face without offering many real, concrete solutions. So, in this episode, we’re going to talk about one simple way for the average person to improve the lives of others, build stronger communities, and work towards an eventual alternative to the decaying economic structure under which we operate today.

 

In my last video, we talked about the counterproductiveness of hyper-individualism. This worldview – the idea that everyone should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, only look out for themselves, and see everyone else as competition – is incredibly unhealthy, both on a personal level and in regards to building strong communities and a happy, healthy society. In a perverse bit of irony, the US, a nation that likes to tout its strong christian foundation, has adopted a vision of social darwinism that is completely detached from reality. We hear the term “survival of the fittest” a lot, especially in regards to the market – only the hardest workers will succeed, everyone else will fail due to a supposed lack of morality or strength of will. Of course, this vision of “survival of the fittest” is not representative of how it works in real life. In the animal kingdom, including humans up until very recently, unity and solidarity with other members of your species was the only way to ensure survival – not of the individual animal, but of the species as a whole. Survival was a team effort, each doing their part for the strength and betterment of the group. It’s only since the development of global capitalism that we humans have decided to treat each other as enemies to be defeated rather than brothers and sisters. If we follow hyper-individualistic thinking to its logical conclusion, we get a very dire image of the world to come. Take the recent winter storms in Texas. I live in the DFW area. When the snow rolled in and people started losing power, what happened? People rushed to the grocery stores and picked them clean, buying more perishable goods than they could possibly use. They flocked to Lowes and Home Depot and bought up every single space heater they could fit in their trucks, leaving their fellow Texans, myself included, to struggle with frozen pipes and power outages. Hotels jacked up their prices tenfold, pricing freezing people out of basic safety. Everyone looked out only for themselves, with no regard for others who also have needs. If the people who absconded with forty dozen eggs had just taken a moment to think about their neighbors, there would be plenty for everyone. Instead, a few people took far more than they needed and that food – food that could have fed countless families – will spoil before they can use it. This is the problem in a nutshell. A fierce dedication to the survival of the individual to the detriment of the survival of the group.

 

There is a better way. In his work “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” Kropotkin writes, “in the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.” This should be common sense. If you have a pride of lions, and one of them is the best hunter, capable of bringing in enough food for the whole pride, which would be more beneficial to the survival of the group: that lion hoarding their food and allowing the others to go hungry, or sharing their food because there’s plenty to go around? A starving lion is no good to the pride. It will be weak and helpless. A lion with enough to eat can contribute. Now imagine a vastly more intelligent species, with the capacity to produce huge quantities of food on demand, with networks of highways, railways, shipping lanes, and giant metal contraptions that can fly supplies anywhere in the world. That species has all the tools for every member of the species to flourish. Of course, we also have a desire for profit. The profit motive is the roadblock that prevents the hungry from getting enough to eat, the homeless from getting a roof over their head, the sick from getting the treatment they need. Every day grocery stores throw out literal tons of perfectly good food – food which could be distributed to those in need. Recently, a young person working at a donut shop was fired for handing out to homeless people and firefighters the donuts that were slated to be thrown away. During the recent winter storm, armed guards were stationed at dumpsters to prevent desperate people from getting some much needed food. Here’s the problem – the profit motive, the thing which makes all of these heinous practices inevitable – is not going away anytime soon. We cannot count on grocery stores or their wealthy owners to consider the good of the group. That’s where the practices of direct action and mutual aid come in. Let’s take a moment to define those terms. 

 

Direct action is exactly what it sounds like. Doing things directly with the explicit purpose of improving the material conditions of those around you. This often includes going on strike or staging sit-ins or protests, things to bring attention to a problem. When used in relationship to mutual aid – the act of helping others and building strong interpersonal connections – direct action could mean establishing a free store or community fridge, a place where people who need help could come and take the food they need. It could mean finding places for people to stay when their power goes out during a winter storm. At its core, mutual aid is the practice of helping others in any way you can, fully cognizant of the fact that one day you may need help, and that hopefully the community you helped build will be there to help you. There’s an old reddit thread that sums up the philosophy pretty well. You’ve probably heard the phrase “today you, tomorrow me.” I’ll link the thread below, but the gist is this – a man breaks down on the side of the road, his tire blown. He’s there for hours, watching countless people and tow truck drivers go by, despite trying to wave them down for help. Eventually a Mexican family pulls over, the husband helps fix the flat, and his reasoning was “today you, tomorrow me.” This kind soul understood that this could have happened to anyone, including himself, and that he would have needed help in that situation. The user who posted this story said that he now goes out of his way to help others, and always tells them “today you, tomorrow me.” That’s what mutual aid is all about. Building a community of people willing to help each other. The act of fixing a flat tire is a pretty good summation of the goal of direct action as well. Someone has a material concern – a broken down car, and the solution is for someone who is able to fix it. Politicians are notorious for completely ignoring the material concerns of those they’re meant to serve. The one recent instance of government direct action was the original covid stimulus checks. People were out of work, so they weren’t being paid. They needed money for bills and food. The obvious solution was to give them money, no string attached, no means testing. The outcome is exactly what you’d expect – people spent the money on food and bills. It allowed them to eat, to pay for their medication, and to put off eviction, at least for a little while. Obviously these one-time checks were woefully insufficient and most other developed countries handled the crisis vastly better, but this one data point should be enough to make it clear – if people need something, the best solution is to simply provide it. Those tiny checks, while not even enough to cover rent in many places, nonetheless had a huge impact on helping average Americans weather the crisis. Of course, if the past year’s worth of crises are anything to go by, we cannot expect the government to provide relief for the people, so we need to do it ourselves. 

 

Now, at this point we need to make the distinction between charity and mutual aid. When many people hear about initiatives to provide for the needy, they automatically think of it as charity. This is not always the case. There are some very important differences between charity and solidarity. To start, charity works within the capitalist system, and does not make any attempt to encourage structural changes. It’s often done by the obscenely wealthy or large corporations as a way to launder their image. People like Jeff Bezos amass huge fortunes through exploitation, and then donate a tiny sliver of it, often to their own shell companies, as a bit of good PR. When you see a headline about Jeff Bezos donating ten million dollars to some new initiative, keep in mind what that represents as a percentage of his wealth. 10 million dollars, more than most people could make in ten lifetimes, is one half of one percent of Bezos’ wealth. Of course, ten million dollars could do a lot of good if it actually went to effective groups or causes, the problem is, it usually doesn’t, and the person making the donation gets to write it off on their taxes, which Jeff Bezos doesn’t seem to pay anyway. Charity is all too often a scam, designed only to keep the people content with their wealthy overlords. Mutual Aid, helping those around you out of a sense of solidarity, is different. The goal is similar to what charity claims to be about – that is, providing the needy with the things they need, but it goes beyond that. With charity, the aid normally comes with arbitrary and restrictive red tape – you have to be from a certain area, or in a certain demographic, or you have to be employed, or sober, or profess a certain faith, or any number of other lines of fine print. Mutual aid does away with all that. If someone is hungry – feed them. If they need a warm place to weather the storm, give them shelter. No pointless regulations, no strings attached, just basic human decency and a desire to strengthen the community. This is where we get to the important part – Mutual Aid seeks to build an alternative to the current system, fortifying the community to weather the slow implosion of capitalism. By helping others when they’re in need and inspiring others to do the same, we can build a network of people willing to work together to break their dependence on aid from elected officials, who have made it abundantly clear that they don’t care about us. This is called building dual power – establishing a stable alternative to a floundering state. Handing out sandwiches is only one part of mutual aid and building dual power, others include providing free medical assistance, communal housing, tenants’ unions, community defense networks, workers’ unions, and countless other grassroots structures to inoculate our communities from crisis or coercion. Take the winter storm fallout in Texas. The power grid completely failed, water treatment facilities went offline, leaving 1 in 50 Americans without clean drinking water, grocery stores were picked clean, hotels jacked up their prices to a thousand dollars a night while people slept in their cars to try to keep from freezing to death. There was no aid from the state or federal government, in fact, Ted Cruz decided it was a great time to take a little vacation in Cancun – during the worst energy crisis in the state’s history. If Texas had strong mutual aid networks, we wouldn’t have had to witness mile long grocery store lines, or people freezing to death in their own homes. We could have organized safe places to sleep for those without power, we could have distributed food to those who couldn’t get any, we could have helped thaw frozen pipes for our neighbors. Building dual power means working together with your fellow human beings and being prepared to handle crises. When people work together, there’s very little we can’t accomplish. It just takes a reconfiguring of our individualist mindset. 

 

We’re all in this together. You know, except wealthy politicians and oligarchs who can fly somewhere warm the moment they’re even slightly uncomfortable. Mutual aid is absolutely essential for building a viable alternative to capitalism. Many economists, even some capitalist economists, have long expressed concern that the system is crumbling – that it has cannibalized itself to the point of no return. Whether the collapse will be swift and cataclysmic or slow and painful, the only way we can ensure the safety of our fellow human beings is to build dual power, establish strong mutual aid networks, and realize that we’re better together. If you’re interested in getting involved in some weather crisis mutual aid efforts in Texas, I’ve left a link in the description below. To learn more about the specifics of getting started with mutual aid, I highly recommend you check out RE-EDUCATION’s video next. This video wouldn’t have been possible without him and his channel is a great resource for those looking to get involved and work towards building dual power. 

If you enjoyed this video, consider dropping a like. If you hated it, a thumbs down. You can check out my previous videos by clicking the links on your screen. Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next week.

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