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Open Democracy - July 2020

'Mutual aid' has suddenly entered the collective consciousness as we seek ways to support our friends and neighbours amidst a global pandemic. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has tweeted about it, The New York Times has discussed "so called mutual-aid" networks in major cities, and mutual aid workshops have spread throughout the United States.

But often the term is used without ever addressing the question – what is mutual aid? "Social solidarity - not charity," might be the slogan response, but conceptualizing the difference is not easy. Fundamentally, mutual aid is about building "bottom-up" structures of cooperation, rather than relying on the state or wealthy philanthropists to address our needs. It emphasizes horizontal networks of solidarity rather than "top down" solutions, networks that flow in both directions and sustain the life of a community.

In this way, mutual aid represents a particular kind of politics, rooted in ideas around direct democracy, self-management and decentralization. But where do these ideas and practices come from? To answer this question we must go all the way back to the turn of the century, and to its origin in nineteenth century naturalist debates and early theories of anarchist socialism.

Mutual-aid is a concept born from a curious hybrid of Russian evolutionary theory and anarchist thought. It is, specifically, an idea associated with Peter Kropotkin - a well-known anarchist-socialist thinker – also a naturalist, geographer, ethnographer and advocate of scientific thought. Kropotkin, along with other Russian scientists, developed mutual aid in response to the profound impact of Darwin's evolutionary theory and the focus on competition among his adherents.

Most people have heard the phrase "survival of the fittest" or the more poetic idea of life as "red in tooth in claw" – but they are quotes often misattributed to Darwin himself. These clichés that emphasize war, violence, and destruction in the struggle for life were first used by one of Darwin's adherents, Herbert Spencer, who was a social scientist as much as a biologist. Spencer believed in the progressive evolution of not only organisms but also human societies and helped to popularize evolutionary theory as a social, and not only biological, phenomenon. Humans are, after all, an element of nature. 

Kropotkin, however, was deeply concerned about an interpretation of evolutionary theory that emphasized hostility and competition, especially when extended, as it still often is, to the social and political lives of human beings. He saw that "survival of the fittest" would inevitably be used to justify poverty, colonialism, gender inequality, racism and war as "natural" processes – innate and immutable expressions of our very genetic being.

Capitalism – and its stratified wealth and power – could be seen as merely an expression of this natural competition, in which a neutral playing field produced winners and losers based on merit. Instead of this relentless competition, Kropotkin saw cooperation everywhere he looked: in colonies of ants, in the symbiotic behaviors of plants and animals, and in the practices of peasants in his own travels.

While Kropotkin did not deny elements of competition, he believed that cooperation was at least its equal in the process of evolution: “the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.” Extended to humanity the implications of his thought was clear, capitalism – and the obsession with competition it brought – was the aberration, and socialism and social solidarity were natural expressions of human life. His most famous work advancing this belief is titled, 'Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution'. ...
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