Solidarity and Mutual Aid in Times of Emergency

It is easy to call for ‘solidarity’, it is difficult to materialise it. One way of putting solidarity into practice is mutual aid, an originally anarchist practice of empowering people around us – and around the world.  

In a recent conversation with the journalist Ash Sarkar, the comedian Frankie Boyle remarked that expressing ‘solidarity’ is sometimes indistinguishable from ‘thoughts and prayers.’ However well-meaning, both phrases can amount to nothing more than empty slogans masking inaction by performative compassion. Which is not to say that compassion is unimportant, or that the two phrases have similar ideological overtones – only that the scale of the crises we are facing today requires organising and planning beyond words.  

In what seems to be a state of permanent emergency (environmental, medical, political), cooperation that defies borders is essential. Millions of workers lost their jobs to the pandemic, while the richest continue to profit. There is still a war in Yemen. The Chinese government is carrying out  genocide against Uighurs. These and more injustices require international solidarity, but for solidarity to empower and liberate, we need to pair slogans with action. We need mutual aid.  

for solidarity to empower and liberate, we need to pair slogans with action. We need mutual aid.

Theorised by the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin (who died a hundred years ago this month), mutual aid in essence describes practical cooperation. In his 1902 text, Kropotkin writes: “Besides the law of mutual struggle there is in nature the law of mutual aid, which, for the success of the struggle for life, and especially for the progressive evolution of the species, is far more important than the law of mutual contest.” With an unconventional take on the theory of evolution, Kropotkin argues that we can free ourselves from oppressive power hierarchies on our own terms.  

Mutual aid is therefore about building a network of people who support their community however they can: from providing food to cleaning to tutoring. About sharing things and skills so that no person is disposable nor superior. Everyone involved gets an equal say. At the same time, such organising is an effective political tool, allowing for partial autonomy locally and more impactful, material, action globally. Mutual aid is reciprocal but never transactional, and it does not aim to ‘save’ anyone. The common theme is solidarity, not charity.  

sharing things so that no person is disposable nor superior. Everyone involved gets an equal say.

In recent years, and mainly since last March and the onset of global lockdowns, there has been a steady rise in mutual aid everywhere. In the Philippines, local groups have helped build community resilience against the impacts of climate change. The Argentinian social movement Barrios de Pie has managed to deliver freshly prepared meals to about 500,000 seniors. And the UK now has some 200 Covid-19 support groups. One of the coordinators, Anna Vickerstaff, says: “we want to make sure that no one in our communities is being left to face this crisis alone…we want to try and redress some of the serious inequalities this outbreak will expose.”

Mutual aid represents a chance of supporting others, building new relationships, and finding purpose. It also provides an opportunity to translate theory into practice. A free mutual aid toolkit was launched recently by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and it serves as a good introduction to the possibilities of interconnectedness. Because looking around, mutual aid may be the key not only for the struggles of today, but for the ones that are ahead of us.

 Image via The Correspondent

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