In These Times - November 20, 2020
There would be a lot of collective self-governance on lots of different scales at the same time, complex nets of coordination so that the people growing food are connected to the people eating food, and it’s all connected to people doing healthcare. - Dean Spade
Amid the catastrophe of the pandemic, climate emergency and racist state violence, mutual aid has exploded. Ordinary people around the globe, from Seattle to Nigeria, are finding ways to support each other when the government won’t.
Activist and law professor Dean Spade’s timely new book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next), is a guide for enduring disaster by taking matters into our own hands. It’s at once a theory, history and step-by-step manual on mutual aid, which Spade defines as the survival work done in conjunction with social movements demanding transformative change. The book outlines how we can radically redistribute care and wellbeing, avoid common organizing pitfalls and, ultimately, “heal ourselves and the world.”
Spade’s message is philosophical and urgent. He argues that if we don’t fundamentally reimagine community, governance and power, we will face (to put it bluntly) “intensive, uneven suffering followed by species extinction.” But the book is ultimately hopeful, noting how many times humans have survived and reminding us that, for most of our history, we didn’t live under exploitative capitalist conditions.
In These Times spoke to Spade in early October about the importance of being ordinary, the power of imagination, and more. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Clara Liang: What’s the one thing you want people to walk away with after reading your book?
Dean Spade: Mutual aid is something everyone can do right now. It simultaneously builds movements and addresses survival conditions. People come to movements because they need something that’s not being provided, or because they desperately want to immediately help other people who may be struggling. Mutual aid is the doorway in, and the more we can build mutual aid infrastructure, the fiercer and stronger and more powerful our movements will become.
Clara: You provide a great history of mutual aid, from the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program to Indigenous anticolonial projects. Mutual aid isn’t new. What new forms is it taking?
Dean: During a lot of disasters — storms, fires, floods — we get attention to people’s mutual aid activities. In the ’60s and ’70s, there was a lot of attention brought to what the Black Panthers called survival programs, which took form in so many different movements. In the feminist movement, for example, people were figuring out how to do their own contraception and abortions.
Covid-19 really lifted mutual aid to the surface, because Covid-19 is happening everywhere, to everyone, whereas most fires, storms and floods happen in particular regions. These obstacles of not being able to get your groceries or pick up your meds — it was happening all at once, everywhere.
There’s been a significant set of shifts in left movements since the ’60s and ’70s, when movement organizations doing powerful mutual aid work were organizing themselves in very hierarchical models. The Black Panther Party is one, with its almost militaristic model of certain leaders on top. Those models had really big costs: They made it easier for the government to infiltrate them and take out one leader; they often permitted more sexual and gender violence and hierarchy inside groups. A lot of groups, from that time on, experimented much more extensively, often inspired by Latin American social movement organizations, with more horizontal forms. ...
Read full interview at In These Times