Home > Anarchism and Voluntaryism > The alternative to the state, part 3: mutual aid

The alternative to the state, part 3: mutual aid

“Anarchism is stateless socialism.” – Mikhail Bakunin

Naturalist and anarchist Pyotr (Peter) Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution (available here) in 1902 in response to claims that natural selection and “survival of the fittest” meant the struggle of all against all. The historians, he explained, taught us of wars, cruelty and oppression, and the state, glad to find an excuse, explained to us that those things would be the norm if not for an intervening authority. (Hobbes’ “state of nature” being an unfortunately-well-known example of why we think this way.)

His book describes a different point of view: mutual aid among humans and other animals. It shows not only how they take care of each other, but the evolution of the morality of mutual aid. The “Law of Nature”/“kill or be killed” doctrine is simplistic and only covers a part of the existence of animals in the wild or humans in society. Members of a wide variety of species engage in mutual aid, not only within the species but sometimes across them, as we learn when we see birds cleaning the teeth of crocodiles.

Though competition among people can help economies grow, far more important is taking care of one another. We help out our family members, our friends and even strangers who can do nothing for us. As I explain elsewhere, we possess love, kindness, empathy, sympathy, caring, and a sense of fairness. For various reasons, we may not cooperate regularly with those in our community. But we could.

Mutual aid, examples of which are detailed below, has existed in human society for as long as we have been humans. Mutual aid promotes community and independence, which is why the state, along with slave owners and bosses, frequently attempts to shut it down. They have put a state bureaucracy in place of people helping each other, imposed taxes so that people needed to find sources of income, and declared a variety of practices illegal. But in the space where mutual aid has been allowed, it has flourished.

Why mutual aid? Why not charity?

In spite of the huge sums taken from them by the state, people still give to charity. They realise the state is not helping the causes they believe in and know they can help by picking up the slack. Why? “Presumably for a combination of reasons, including, in no particular order, compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder.” (“Government is no friend of the poor“) Mutual aid, like charity, avoids the high administrative costs and, of course, the political intentions of government-run antipoverty programmes.

There is nothing virtuous about being forced to pay for other people. But charity is generosity, right? Charity is not necessarily bad, but it can have the effect of entrenching poverty like government welfare programmes, rather than leading the way out of it. It can grant the givers a sense of benevolent superiority. It can disempower the receivers, making them feel like they have nothing to contribute. Giving food and clothes can also destroy local economies, as free foreign goods crowd out local goods. People come to depend on someone else’s help. Mutual aid, on the other hand, implies that people in the network will help each other whenever and however possible.

Mutual aid is not likely to be illegal, in contrast to agorism. It means putting aside the competition and force that are inherent in the statist model (whether capitalist or socialist) and cooperating to help one another. It means sharing, and cooperating to make sure what one gives is used as one wants. While our nature pushes for reciprocity, we do not necessarily expect an equal return. It might run along the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”. (Of course, people may decide to kick free riders out of the network.)

For those who do not trust or believe in the welfare state, mutual aid can create a social safety net. It can prevent the poor, disabled or elderly from falling into poverty. You can be sure your money is going toward community projects or helping those in need, rather than hoping the government or a potentially-corrupt non-profit is spending it the way you would like.

What can you and the people around you do to help each other?

–The book Mutual Aid and Union Renewal argues that unions could reverse their decline if they engaged in mutual aid. If unions do not appear to benefit their members, or simply do not encourage their involvement, loyalty will remain low. But a union could act as an extended family. Some union members have set up member assistance programmes, helping each other with alcoholism and substance abuse, for example.

–The cooperative is an autonomous association of people who voluntarily work together or jointly own something, like a housing project or business. They are usually run democratically (without the state) by their members. They foster community through cooperation. Ideally, they would break off from and become independent of the state, and thus provide examples of secession.

–A worker or producer cooperative is one owned by the people who own and operate a business. (This arrangement is sometimes called “market socialism”.) Shared ownership diversifies, rather than concentrates, wealth. Not all worker cooperatives are exclusive owners of businesses, as some outside shareholders may be involved. Such cooperatives employ over 100m people and could be the wave of the future for business. After all, Ocean Spray, Sunkist and the Associated Press are all cooperative businesses.

–Agricultural cooperatives enable farmers to pool their resources for mutual benefit. They may be more able to afford capital equipment for more efficient farming in this way. In the days of continual raids on small farms and heavy subsidies of big farms, the benefits of farmers’ working together outweigh the costs, both to themselves and consumers. A kibbutz is an agricultural cooperative, as is India’s Amul, which sells dairy products, and Malaysia’s FELDA, which sells palm oil.

–A consumers’ cooperative is a business owned and run by its customers. The two largest supermarket chains in Switzerland are co-ops. Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op is one example, as is the UK’s Co-operative Group.

–Finally, social cooperatives, of which there are over 7000 in Italy, provide social services such as child care, elderly and disabled care, help with addiction, education and employment counseling.

–There are other community-strengthening ideas that fall short of cooperatives. You could start a neighbourhood watch, where members of the community take turns guarding each other’s property. Neighbourhood watch is widespread in North America. When the police are absent, their job is merely to punish crime. A neighbourhood watch can prevent it by having people present at all times. Moreover, in the countless parts of the world where the police are not accountable to those they police and are seen as thugs, a well-established neighbourhood watch could make the police redundant. This practice is easier today than ever, since we can communicate with each other at great distances, calling our neighbours to warn them without knocking on their doors.

Neighbourhood associations and homeowners associations of various kinds are protecting local environments, enforcing safety and other rules, organising social activities, building recreational facilities and fixing roads.

–One person following this blog’s Facebook page told me of a teacher who started a parents’ group that collects canned food, clothing, books, small items such as toothbrushes. Parents donate time, labour or rides to one another. In this way, the group promotes agorism and community.

–Poor communities have even more to gain. Many rural Africans work each other’s fields, and the owner of a given field might provide food and drinks. They help one another build houses. They pool their money for life insurance, or household items. (See more here.)

–People who complain about high costs of buying from the insurance oligopoly may want to pool their money with others. Members of the network may choose criteria by which some pay more and others pay less. Smokers might pay more in a health insurance society and pyromaniacs will probably not be allowed in a fire insurance society. And no one will be forced to subsidise others’ risky habits.

–Likewise with the banks. Need a loan? How about a credit union? There are thousands of credit unions in North America with millions of members. A credit union is an example of a consumers’ cooperative.

–Sick of inflation? Don’t like making money? Ever tried a local exchange trading system (LETS)?  LETS is a non-profit enterprise that records transactions for people’s exchanging of goods and services. A member may earn credit for fixing someone’s car, and spend it later when he needs a babysitter or a dentist. The credit does not need to be in the national currency, which is how it avoids inflation and the necessity of making money. Credit can be given for a given job by whatever criteria the people decide.

–Mutual aid could mean investment. Communities or other networks can put their money into local ventures with people they know and trust, gaining a tangible stake in the business and avoiding the rigged markets for securities.

–Support groups have sprung up for just about every shared personal problem. People who have the same illness take strength from and learn to cope thanks to their groups; immigrants set up hometown societies or landsmanshaftn.

–Occupy Wall Street coordinated mutual aid for the those who participated in the May 1 protest. People supplied food, medical and legal support, skill sharing and workshops, and hosted a Really, Really Free Market (mentioned in my last post) where people could bring clothes, books, toys, tools and whatever other things people who wanted to participate in a gift economy could bring. They set up a free university, as well.

–Rachel Leone, writing on mutual aid at Occupy, says,

You might not know it, but mutual aid is already part of your everyday life. Family members — both chosen and biological — take care of each other when one is sick, watch each other’s children and pets, and help with household projects. Friends share food and favorite books. Couch-surfers allow strangers to stay on their couches when they travel and then go off to adventure themselves, knowing that they will have a place to rest and a new friend at their next destination. Hitchhiking gets people to from state to state in exchange for stories and songs. Neighbors share recipes and tools. And let’s not forget that good consensual sex can be a form of mutual aid, too!

All these things are already happening. Mutual aid has never been easier. Mutual aid societies have gone international. They use online platforms like www.chipin.com. If more people choose not to depend on the state, the idea will spread.

Many people are predicting the collapse of the state, or of parts of it, such as unsustainable health care systems. Mutual aid may become necessary. The sooner we get started, the freer and more secure we can be.

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