Skip to main content

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