Rambling Thoughts – The “Mutual Aid” Movement

I suppose it’s worth pointing out that at the time of writing it’s been less than 12 hours since became aware of Mutual Aid as a social movement. I haven’t quite processed a full opinion of it either. There are parts of the philosophy that I like, and some others that I feel are a bit misguided.

The core concept seems to be that large institutions, be they governments, corporations, or charities, cannot be relied upon to help everyone completely. It is therefore up to individual communities to help each other and make sure everyone is taken care of. “Solidarity, not charity” seems to be their general battlecry, though much of my information is taken from Dean Spade and the Big Door Brigade.

Apparently I can’t embed the NSFW version.

As a movement it is quite “liberal” by US standards. There are strong anti-corporate and anti-establishment tones throughout. It reminds me a lot of Bernie Sanders’s talking points, and is apparently supported to some extent by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

I do tend to agree with some of their general talking points. Many institutions cause a lot of (in)direct harm in the execution of whatever their mission is. Many would point to the relative increase of violence in situations involving law enforcement as an example of this. I personally prefer to point out food assistance or child protective services as examples, but those are the ones I’m most familiar with. At least in my area, many food banks have restrictions and limits in place that cut off assistance to those that may need it. Not all of them enforce it very strictly, but it exists.

CPS is a rabbit hole I could write many posts about. There is a reason and purpose for this organizations, but on the whole they wield an absurd amount of power and can be extremely heavy-handed in their approach. The stress of dealing with them tends to tear apart the families and their support networks. This has been especially bad when combined with mental health issues and certain pre-k and daycare programs that seem to target low income families. My wife and I have spoken with several parents that have had no end of issues. At least until their children entered the school system proper.

Suffice to say I find their narrative of ineffective and uncaring institutions relatable and compelling. Considering how bad the next decade or so could get, what with climate change and all, a robust local support network sounds like a good solution. I try to remain relatively positive, but the scientific consensus suggests that we’ve missed the boat on significantly slowing climate change and it just doesn’t seem like we’ll magically find the political will in the near future.

The ideal mutual aid group size is considered to be quite small. 5-20 people in most of the literature I’ve looked at. I actually do agree with that size, given the nature of the groups. The sort of leaderless, horizontal, and communal decision making they encourage become quite problematic and clique-based in large groups. It also helps insulate the larger movement against actions by more radical members. They old “can’t implicate another cell if you don’t know them” trick.

That’s where I start to run into some problems with the movement, though. Dean Spade’s Solidarity Not Charity says that “In the face of disaster, mutual aid helps people survive and builds new social relations centered in solidarity and resistance to illegitimate authority. When dominant social relations have been suspended, people discover that they can break norms of individualism, passivity, and respect for private property above human need and collaborate to meet their needs.” Maybe I’m a little off base here, but “illegitimate authority” feels a bit like “people we don’t agree with” and “break norms of […] respect for private property” sounds a bit like “theft.”

In context this was speaking about getting into a supply warehouse in post-Maria Puerto Rico using a combination of deception and not taking no for an answer and distributing those supplies themselves. While commendable, that seems dangerous. You could easily find yourself in a situation where you’ve only relocated the harm from one group to another. I wasn’t there, though, so I don’t know. Other parts of the document mention things like pipeline sabotage and “direct action at building sites” that I feel is a bit much. Things like that can get your organization framed in a way that undermines public trust.

Another big complaint is one of efficiency. There is a lot of talk about disrupting existing systems. While I agree what we need to retool these things, disrupting them can create even more people in need. At a larger scale this could overwhelm the much smaller mutual aid networks. Teaching people to avoiding calling 911 because of police ride-alongs could also delay treatment that could have resulted in better outcomes. Even with education, the burden of being in that situation and making the wrong choice can create a lot personal guilt and trauma for the very people you sought to protect. Though again, the devil is in the details and these generalizations aren’t adequate.

Perhaps the last observation is that they’ve set up a false dichotomy. All institutions are characterised as inherently hierarchical and bad, to which the alternative is the leaderless mutual aid group. The Leadership Qualities that Support Mutuality and Collaboration article is literally divided into two columns: “Hierarchical Leadership Qualities” and “Just and Accountable Leadership” as though they are two opposite and mutually exclusive options. It would be more fair to characterize these as “traditional” and “modern” leadership qualities. Even first year business management courses encourage his “just and accountable” behaviors and discourages the “hierarchical” ones. Sure, the system is very slow to change, but there’s no reason a “hierarchical” organization can’t have and encourage the other set of behaviors.

It doesn’t have to be quite like this, however. There are plenty of less extreme ways to go about this, and I would even go so far as to say that most small church function in a similar manner, albeit a more patriarchal leader-focused way. On the whole, though, I agree with the general premise. I’ve even expressed some very similar thoughts in the recent past. “I might as well help this person right here because we’re all in this together as a species and I sure as hell can’t count on the government or anyone else to do it.” Even small random acts of personal kindness do a lot to help draw people together. Considering the disruptions that could occur in supply chains, especially food, as a result of climate change, it may even become necessary.

Looks like this one’s gotten quite long. Y’all take care. Be excellent to each other, or something.

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