Mutual aid is where people in an area, or a community, come together to support one another, collectively meeting each other’s needs without the help of official bodies like the state or NGOs. It often arrises due to neglect of government provision for certain classes of people.
Mutual aid, in simpler words, is cooperation for the common good.
Mutual aid is a horizontal mode of organisation, aiming to break down hierarchies and practice collective decision making. However, the concept of mutual aid encompasses a wide variety of practices – there is no one-catch-all term or definition, it is a universal practice rather than a singular concept. All of the examples listed on this site attempt to speak to the universality of this practice, but by no means aim to define them rigidly.
The idea of solidarity, rather than charity, underpins mutual aid. Resources are unconditionally shared, as opposed to charity which is often conditional and means tested.
I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.Eduardo Galeano
Mutual aid is not a new concept – it has been present in human and animal social relations throughout history. As a term, it was first conceptualised by Russian naturalists and zoologists, most famously Karl Kressler’s paper The Law of Mutual Aid. This research was used to counter the narratives of Social Darwinism, which solely focused on ‘survival of the fittest’ as the most significant factor in evolution, which would justify wars and social engineering on oppressed groups. It was then further popularised and expanded on by Peter Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which argued that organic life is defined by reciprocal care and sociability. However, capitalism has disrupted this tendency within humans – as systems of private property and wage labour were created, it has led to a greater rift from our natural tendency to care for each other.
“There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense… Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution
For this reason, it is impossible to use any one example as the foundation of mutual aid. It is an evolutionary factor as old as life on Earth.
Mainstream understanding of how to support people in crisis relies on the frameworks of charity and social services. We should be very clear: mutual aid is not charity. Charity, aid, relief, and social services are terms that usually refer to rich people or the government making decisions about the provision of some kind of support to poor people—that is, rich people or the government deciding who gets the help, what the limits are to that help, and what strings are attached. You can be sure that help like that is not designed to get to the root causes of poverty and violence. It is designed to help improve the image of the elites who are funding it and put a tiny, inadequate Band-Aid on the massive social wound that their greed createsDean Spade, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next)
Mutual aid disaster relief
In the face of disasters, whether they be natural like hurricanes, earthquakes or wildfires or pandemics like Covid-19, mutual aid groups often emerge organically, fuelled by solidarity and a desire to help one another.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans people were left on their own by the government. With hundreds dying and scarce resources, people came together: the vast majority of rescues were carried out by New Orleans residents, often in defiance of orders from authorities. At the same time, police murdered people who were taking drinking water, nappies and other essential supplies from supermarkets, which otherwise would have been thrown away because of contamination from floodwaters.
Founded by an anarchist and a former black panther, the Common Ground collective was set up to fill the gaps after the hurricane and empower people. It ran health clinics, collected rubbish, served food, started schools, built affordable housing and launched worker co-ops. In the first 3 years, 23,000 volunteers participated in this vast mutual aid organisation.
Black Panther Party
In 1968, the Black Panther Party introduced its free breakfast program, which within a year fed 20,000 in 19 cities. This was one of 65 “survival programs” created by the party – with the slogan “survival pending revolution”. Other programs included children’s development centres, schools and adult education, free food/clothing, health clinics (with an ambulance service), free cooperative housing, free buses to prisons, and self-defence for retirees. These solidarity economy programs helped oppressed peoples meet their basic needs, and instead of being ashamed about not being able to feed themselves, people built a shared analysis of poverty and racism, countering isolation and enabling them to work together for change.
Recognising the success of the programs, the FBI’s director wrote in 1969 “the BCP [Breakfast for Children Program] represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP [Black Panther Party] and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralise the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”
At its peak the party reportedly had 90% support amongst black people in major cities and sold ¼ million copies of its newspaper each week. Therefore, the government brutally suppressed the panthers, both with killings and more subtly – to neutralise the Panthers, the government expanded the federal free breakfast program (which still feeds millions today).
These are just two examples but mutual aid is everywhere – every single social movement that has created change and built people power has included it, even if it’s not recognised. From communities coming together in support of strikes, the networks created in opposition to the poll tax in 1990, to letter writing to prisoners and sharing food – our desire to help one another is everywhere.
Every picket line needs reinforcement, every rent strike needs support, every comrade deserves care and aid. Instead of envisioning mutual-aid to contain the beginnings of a new world, we have to apply mutual aid to existing organizations that actually are.Gus Breslauer