The politics of mutual aid during the COVID-19 crisis

Crisis and community

There has been endless talk about the politics surrounding the COVID-19 crisis—including important critiques of the disastrous response by the UK and the Welsh governments. This is an important place to start, because we need to recognise this as a political crisis, especially during a time when some are condemning others for “political point scoring”. These mostly come from centrists and right-wingers who unsurprisingly see the crisis currently unfolding as somehow apolitical. Supposedly, caring for the health of the economy above the health of people isn’t ideological. Giving landlords concessions ahead of tenants isn’t political. Not providing an income for precarious workers who have no choice but to go to work, that’s just life. Having an overwhelmed and unprepared NHS is just the way it is. While there appears to be some movement on these issues, they have certainly revealed the priorities of the UK and Welsh governments. At this point in time, we might remember that we can judge the government not only by what it does, but also by what it chooses not to do.

One thing that’s certain is that it has highlighted that the values, practices and ideals of socialism are more important than ever. However, the question remains, as always with socialists, is where do we go from here? Where should we put our energy during such times?

Such a crisis brings chaos and disorder, revealing the fragility of capitalism and the state which produces very real danger and vulnerability to many people. However, it also produces cracks in these structures. In these interstitial spaces, there is an opportunity to create new ways of doing things. When the state fails to respond adequately, regular people’s ability to cooperate and self-organise in their communities becomes incredibly important. In other contexts, this has been referred to as ‘disaster communism’. Social media has been filled with examples of these mundane and simple acts happening everywhere. COVID-19 mutual aid groups have been forming all across the UK, including in CardiffSwansea, and Blackwood and Oakdale. There are undoubtedly thousands more formal and informal networks and communities responding to this all around us. These groups are supporting people in self-isolation who need help with shopping, picking up prescriptions, cooking, picking up parcels, and anything else that they might need.

But, while these are important and hopeful efforts, they often remain fragile and short-lived (not necessarily a bad thing, since the spontaneity of such forms of organisation is often an advantage). However, one of the usual critiques is that they simply patch up the holes left by an incompetent state, so “the state can simply sit back and let people suffer, then reassert itself when the community dissipates as normality returns.” Therefore, others have argued that we need to go beyond these mutual aid responses to develop a sustained political effort. However, there is equally a danger that this puts the cart before the horse, at least in this context. This presumes that there is a level of politicisation out there capable of sustaining and expanding this, which in a city like Cardiff is just not true. With increasing signs that mutual aid is simply being co-opted, if not entirely misunderstood, we risk imminently diminishing its radical potential. This is why it’s vital that we revisit some of the politics of mutual aid before getting carried away with what we do next.

Why you might be an anarchist

While some involved in these community responses might consider it political, it’s likely that many would not. Some might be just helping out neighbours and their community, almost instinctively, without necessarily considering the politics of doing so. It’s even more unlikely that they’d connect such action with the practice and theory of anarchism, a widely misunderstood and abused term. Indeed, such confusion isn’t helped by the fact that defining anarchism is incredibly difficult. While we should guard against reductionism and dogma, I do like the simplicity of Peter Kropotkin’s claim that anarchism is the “no-government system of socialism”. Further, one of the great contemporary anarchist writers Ruth Kinna defines anarchism as “a doctrine that aims at the liberation of peoples from political domination and economic exploitation by the encouragement of direct or non-governmental action.”

However, beyond this, things do get a bit vague, largely because there are no universal or static understandings of anarchism, nor does it follow the blueprint of a great thinker or leader. In fact, this is a crucial principle itself—that people are capable of self-organisation, rather than following some a priori prescriptive theories.

However we might define this, the point is that people start to act in anarchistic ways during a crisis simply because it works quite well. Much of this is seen in the quiet everyday politics—indeed, not all politics is nearly as explicit as we are led to believe. Colin Ward claimed that anarchism is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, evident in our experiences of everyday life and our abilities to self-organise and cooperate, in spite of the dominant authoritarian trends in society. There are experimental efforts in carrying out self-organised actions without authority, coercion or hierarchies happening at the moment. One thing we’ll possibly come to realise is that authority and hierarchies can often just make things more cumbersome and difficult. Certainly, given the state’s response to this crisis, the idea that we need top-down chains of command for coherent ideas and clarity of communication is by now beyond a joke.

“But the public are irresponsible!”

Some might counter that, despite these examples of mutual aid, we are also witnessing the fact that there are many individuals who are acting selfishly. So that I avoid the pitfalls of idealism, it’s important to note that there are undoubtedly many examples of this, and to some extent we are experiencing the best and worst of people. This comes at a time when some are suggesting that the public are to blame for irresponsible behaviour during this crisis. From the hoarding of food and toilet rolls to tourists flocking to rural towns, it is a hard reality to ignore—some members of the public have been acting in ways that quite simply are at odds with our collective needs. Some might wonder how it’s possible to reconcile such an issue without resorting to coercion or greater authority?

I’d like to suggest that after years of living in a society that champions an economic system (neoliberalism) which actively encourages and rewards selfish and ruthless individualism, that it is little surprise that some are now acting in ways that are selfish and ruthless. When we build a society upon these ideals, it’s obvious that we make ourselves extremely vulnerable and fragile when disaster strikes, both as individuals and as communities. Besides, when our basic needs depend on our ability to buy them, then it’s possible that hoarding is really just an extension and intensification of our usual economic activity. Capitalism has never cared about fair distribution of our basic needs—whether that’s food or housing.

But perhaps more importantly, I’d argue that the simultaneous panic and the false sense of security has been largely exacerbated by an incompetent government, whose message has created huge confusion and indifference amongst a public whose faith in “experts” and authorities is already fragile. Of course, blaming the public is a very convenient narrative for the government, because whenever this crisis might slow down, they’ll be able to look back and totally absolve themselves from any responsibility. It was the stupid public’s fault all along. We need to start questioning the function of top-down governance structures in creating the “irresponsible public”.

So clearly there is a bit of a contrast emerging here. On the one hand, this crisis has led to the development of spontaneous mutual aid networks in communities, while on the other it has triggered blissful ignorance and survival-mode for individuals. This is why it’s important that we revisit an older debate and look towards the work of anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

Mutual aid vs social Darwinism

Kropotkin was an evolutionary biologist largely credited for developing the theory of mutual aid (1902), emerging at the time in contrast to Darwin’s more widely known theories which emphasised competition and “survival of the fittest”. Essentially, Kropotkin suggested that cooperation, reciprocity and mutual aid were far more significant for species survival than competition. He was no idealist, i.e. one who thinks there’s nothing in nature but peace, love and harmony, and he didn’t deny struggle or competition. But, every time we go out and help a neighbour and our community during this crisis, we are giving Kropotkin some afterlife bragging rights over Darwin. While we should recognise this as a piece of evolutionary biology as well as one of its time, for Kropotkin it was tied to a deep political and ethical conviction.

Perhaps most importantly, Kropotkin uses this to question the pervasive understanding of “human nature” as being unruly and disorderly without authority. These assumptions are built into almost all contemporary thinking and exist across the political spectrum. In this instance, Kropotkin is directly challenging the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, who suggested that in a state of “nature”, humans would revert to a “war of all against all”. Unsurprisingly, Hobbes uses this to justify the necessity for a strong central authority. Kropotkin directly confronts these ideas:

“…all our religious, historical, juridical, and social education is imbued with the idea that human beings, if left to themselves, would revert to savagery; that without authority people would eat one another; for nothing, they say, can be expected from the ‘multitude’ but brutishness and the warring of each against all. People would perish if above them soared not the elect…These saviours prevent, we are told, the battle of all against all.”

Unfortunately, this position has led many to accuse anarchists of being “utopian” and having too much faith in human nature. Firstly, we should all reject any dogmatic views of “human nature”, i.e. people are not inherently good or evil. Besides, anarchists would likely reject this naïve and static understanding of human nature—I’d argue that anarchist theory highlights quite a realistic (if not pessimistic) view of human nature. If anarchists believed that human beings were inherently good then they’d have no problem with hierarchies, since one could presume that political leaders would then act in good faith on their behalf. In other words, anarchists usually believe that power corrupts even the best intentions and that our “nature” is extremely malleable to these conditions. That is why anarchists also oppose the centralisation of power and hierarchy and instead advocate for the disruption and dispersal of it—because given favourable conditions, it is clear that some humans are capable of extreme evil, so creating the structures where a minority can accumulate power is basically asking for trouble.

This debate remains extremely political, particularly at a time when ideas of social Darwinism are peeking through once again. This shouldn’t surprise us with the Tories, whose policies have always advocated elements of “survival of the fittest”. But this is most clearly seen in their early response of herd immunity. As far as I can tell (from a non-medical perspective), this is based on the idea that we become immune through allowing its “natural” spread amongst the population, so that the healthy become immune while the vulnerable are simply considered collateral damage. Supposedly there is no avoiding it and we shouldn’t bother trying, because this is how natural selection works.

Of course, the result of this is that some lives are considered expendable—let’s take the vulnerability of older people as an example. The politics of this is fairly obvious, because in capitalist societies older people are thrown to the side in an economic system only interested in our ability to be economically “productive”. The logic of capitalism suggests that as a person ages, they are not only considered “unproductive” (due to retirement) but are also considered a burden on healthcare systems. These policies are pure social Darwinism, and this isn’t just hyperbole. Earlier this month, the assistant-editor of the Telegraph Jeremy Warner, who is supposedly “one of Britain’s leading business and economic commentators”, explicitly celebrated this by stating that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.” Clearly some conservatives are quite happy to throw their biggest group of supporters under the bus without a second thought.

But it is not only conservatives who are to blame — eco-fascist and Malthusian ideas are everywhere, especially in many liberal “green” circles. People are rightly celebrating cleaner waters in Venice, of dolphins returning to abandoned waters, and reduced air pollution in China. The problem is that this has led many to suggest that “humans are the real virus”. When someone suggests that humans are the virus, rather than a toxic economic system (which has come to a screeching halt), it’s not a great leap to suggest that mass human death would be healthy for “nature”. There is nothing natural about this process, since it is our extractive and exploitative economic system that is the issue, not humans per se.

Politicise this!

Undoubtedly this crisis has exposed a lot of things that were previously unseen, and it’s unsurprising that many are suddenly advocating socialistic (even anarchistic) ideas and practices. Even the most rabid individualists (e.g. your Tory relative who thinks you’re just a naïve socialist) will rely as much as anyone on sociality, human cooperation and mutual aid. Of course, they’re now also hoping for an effective public healthcare system, and they might even be questioning the years of privatisation that has ravaged the NHS. Their ideological position is at this point laughable and entirely untenable. But we must also be wary of socialism being used as a convenient option during a crisis, only to be swept aside later. We can counter this by organising and building on the ground right now.

Despite the current necessity of social distancing, the social element of our lives couldn’t be more important (and arguably it should be called physical distancing). Such times test our ability for cooperation, care and compassion with each other, social muscles that we’ve neglected for far too long in a brutal neoliberal world. We must nourish these capacities in the present and strengthen them as this crisis continues and potentially worsens. When things do eventually quieten down, we shouldn’t stop. While these initial examples of mutual aid offer hope, we need to guard against them becoming apolitical efforts, since this leaves them vulnerable to being exploited by the state to justify its neglect and withdrawal. The only way of avoiding this is to politicise it now.

While there’ll be those that will suggest that such a proposal is too idealistic, what is more utopian than hoping that some great leaders will suddenly swoop down from above and save all of us regular folk? Why has it taken them so long, we might ask? We should always remind ourselves of the complete failure of our leaders (the Tories as well as Welsh “socialists”) to protect us during this disaster. As always, the powerful and wealthy will be well protected from this virus (or at least significantly more protected). The sooner we start realising this, the better.

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