Current Affairs - October 7, 2020

Mutual aid is a survival technique based on collectivism. Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 essay collection Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution focuses on mutual aid as a feature of the natural world, complicating the inherent competition in Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” Kropotkin notes, “the abundance of facts of mutual aid, not only for rearing progeny, as recognized by most evolutionists, but also for the safety of the individual, and for providing it with the necessary food.

What is mutual aid?

Mutual aid is a survival technique based on collectivism. Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 essay collection Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution focuses on mutual aid as a feature of the natural world, complicating the inherent competition in Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” Kropotkin notes, “the abundance of facts of mutual aid, not only for rearing progeny, as recognized by most evolutionists, but also for the safety of the individual, and for providing it with the necessary food. With many large divisions of the animal kingdom mutual aid is the rule.” Despite the popular conception of individual animals and genes as inherently selfish, engaged in a permanent struggle of all against all, many contemporary scientists have found through observation that Kropotkin’s theories hold true: many animals do engage in mutual aid and other altruistic behavior.

Kropotkin gives the familiar example of ants’ collective labor, but goes even deeper to show how interdependence affects every aspect of ant life.

“If we take an ants’ nest, we not only see that every description of work—rearing of progeny, foraging, building, rearing of aphides, and so on—is performed according to the principles of voluntary mutual aid… If an ant which has its crop full has been selfish enough to refuse feeding a comrade, it will be treated as an enemy, or even worse. If the refusal has been made while its kinsfolk were fighting with some other species, they will fall back upon the greedy individual with greater vehemence than even upon the enemies themselves.”

There are myriad examples of mutual aid among humans in the modern world: abortion funds, bail funds, grassroots legal and eviction defense, disaster response, and food distribution, among others. But mutual aid can easily be co-opted by the state or nonprofit organizations, turning a potentially power-building social action into another fixture of the neoliberal state. One example? Two years after the organic launch of the brake light clinics, Minnesota cops gave themselves the discretion to pass out vouchers for a free fix instead of a traffic ticket.

Another classic example of the state co-opting a powerful mutual aid project is the USDA’s School Breakfast Program, a means-tested program that offers free or reduced-price breakfast for qualifying children in schools that choose to participate. The USDA began experimenting with a free breakfast program in the mid-1960s, but expanded in earnest in the 1970s. What changed? The rapid spread of the Black Panthers Free Breakfast for School Children program across the United States. ...
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