how we survived.
radical love letter #50
A recent thread on Twitter (from Alicia Kennedy, whose praises I sing often, and who has a newsletter to which you should absolutely subscribe) prompted me to put into words some thoughts I’ve been having about the difference between “charity” and “mutual aid.” Given it’s rise in popularity over the summer, we are seeing the term thrown around a lot, often in situations that involve people with expendable money giving it to people who don’t, and calling it a day. The use of “mutual” implies an exchange between beings, but inherent in capitalism is the reality that some people will have resources to give, and others will need them. How is this not basic, run-of-the-mill, top-down charity?
The history of the concept offers us some insight here. In his study of animals, turn of the century anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin argues that cooperation, rather than competition, is the key to survival. It’s since been taken up in anarchist spaces (and modeled in pre-colonial communities before that) as a way to denote a kind of sharing that is separate from the State. Unlike nonprofits or government operations, there are (in theory) no mutual aid gatekeepers between those in need of resources and those who are sharing; instead of facing bureaucracy, those seeking support can either directly ask themselves, or are part of work with organizers who help facilitate the resource sharing.
Think, for example, about posts you see on social media with Venmo or CashApp handles. No one has to “prove” they are in need, and those who share do so without the incentive of tax-deduction. I write in my book about how I experienced this in my working-poor community growing up, albeit without the language for it: babysitting was communal, couches were offered for a place to sleep with the expectation of nothing in return, meals were shared and money was shared, and what one person had to give one week, they might need back the next. It was just how we survived.
Similarly, this summer in Minneapolis, unhoused people worked with local organizers to build an entire encampment so they had a safe place to sleep, eat, and share community in the midst of a Police State and pandemic. Mutual aid at the camps also meant taking shifts to cook, sorting donated materials, dealing with city officials, and lots of other non-monetary support.
“Contrary to the top-down charity model, in which people tell others what they need and control how resources are distributed,” explains Kim Kelly, “ mutual aid projects take their cues from the community itself and share resources as they’re needed.”
Another excellent example of this is the Common Ground Collective that formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; when I went down to do relief work in 2006, I saw first hand how members of the community were working together in solidarity to care for their neighbors, not relying on FEMA for conditional and insufficient “relief.” Additionally, the Common Ground members were also, simultaneously, working for structural changes to the conditions that led to masses of poor, mostly Black people to remain houseless and hungry months after the storm.
This distinction is key. Dean Spade explains mutual aid as “survival work, when done alongside social movement demands for transformative change.” Unlike neoliberal models of giving that keep the State intact, true mutual aid work knows that direct service is an interim tactic that is only part of a longer-term strategy.
Beyond these concrete examples that distinguish mutual aid from charity, I’ve been more and more interested in thinking through how the notion of mutual aid actually challenges the definition of ‘mutual’ as something that is fundamentally transactional. Mutual aid, at its core, illuminates how things in nature don’t expect anything “in return.” Plant and animal life function with an understanding that their ecosystem will thrive when they are all doing their part. The milkweed does not expect anything back from the monarch butterflies who feed on them for their migration south, but the milkweed knows that the butterflies’ livelihood is connected to their own (and that is enough). Put another way: the milkweed is in solidarity with the monarch.
(As an aside, I’m fond of how this example reconciles the age-old organizing debate about what motivates people. In organizing canon’s Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinksy argues that self-interest is paramount for getting people to fight for better conditions in their communities; for many other movements, a general moral or ideological belief in a better world is enough. But there’s a Venn diagram middle for us to dwell in: a commitment to doing right by your neighbor will inevitably benefit you, whether that was your motivation or not….Truly, everyone can win. Truly, there is enough to feed us all.)
It is absolutely necessary, if we are going to survive (and certainly if the planet is going to survive), that we understand our existence as interdependent. Capitalism teaches us that offering requires transaction -- bell hooks notes that “the basic interdependency of life is ignored so that separateness and individual gain can be deified.” But nature (and a variety of indigenous and other spiritual thought) reminds us that there is no benefit to having resources when others don’t. This doesn’t mean that we have to give away all our worldly possessions, but it does mean sharing without expectation of anything in concrete in return.
Brazilian Marxist Paulo Friere says something similar about the act of oppressed people fighting to take power away from oppressors:
“Yet it is—paradoxical though it may seem—precisely in the response of the oppressed to the violence of their oppressors that a gesture of love may be found. Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love. Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.”
This is not to say that everyone with any extra money laying around is an oppressor (unless you make money from the exploitation of other people’s labor, in which case, yes you are), but I return to this sentiment so often as a way to think about how the system harms everyone - even those with every “privilege” imaginable. There is no “privilege” in being on top in a system that demands the suffering of others. Whether conscious or not, there is psychic weight to living comfortably when so much of the world does not. It makes us less human to have extra when some have none, (especially when it is entirely possible for everyone to have ‘extra’--maybe not yacht-level extra, but a house, and food, and lattés whenever we want them-extra). When Martin Luther King, Jr. said “no one is free until we are all free,” he meant it.
And so mutual aid, imperfect and co-opted as it may be, can still remind us of this. Even if our conditions sully the principle, our commitment to the concept can help us prefigure conditions where this can exist more wholly (and holy). We can share not because we expect something back, but because we know that our futures depend on our neighbors (broadly speaking) being well. And we can (and must) recognize that the action of direct-sharing-for-survival is just one part of the process of liberation work. In addition to direct donations of time or money from those of us who have it to spare, we will work to change the system so fundamentally that wealth differences are obsolete. Whether it’s a communist, anarchist, indigenous approach (or all three!), any radical horizon illuminates a world in which people are never “in need,” because in that world, all of our needs are met by each other, for each other, with each other.
In a recent talk, scholar and organizer Simi Kang said that we have to “make caring for each other unremarkable.” I think mutual aid helps us do that. This is not Dolly Parton (bless her heart) offering a spare million dollars to research, or George Clooney gifting a million dollars to fourteen of his friends; this is you Venmo-ing $5 or $20 bucks to someone who asked for it online, this is you feeding your neighbor’s cat when they’re away, this is you finding just one small part for yourself in the work for a more just world.
“I spent an entire year on this porch in Mississippi watching a family of geese,” Kiese Laymon reflects, “They get to give. Over and over. They get to give. Their style of getting and giving are particular to each bird. But they give every single day. They share and accept sharing with grace and so much style. I’m working on this everyday of my life.”
And so may we all.
love & solidarity,
Read, Watch, Listen.
The threat of right-wing violence isn’t going anywhere. The intersections of the pandemic and racial capitalism. Jeremy Gordon’s astute critique of the burnout book. On how rich people are environmentally unsustainable. How Cook County Jail detainees got to vote. And this beautiful essay from Shea Martin: “Here, in my Blackness, I needn’t perform for the skies and earth. In these mountains, my Blackness breathes. My fatness breathes. My queerness breathes. Most evenings, I hide out in the open on the top of mountains or on the side of lakes where signals can’t reach, where insects and animals outnumber people and responsibility.”
Emmanuel is a queer Black teen who got kicked out of his house after coming out. He needs help paying rent or he’ll be kicked out of his new apartment too. He’s about 1,000 away from his goal. If every single person who read this gave him a single dollar, we’d be well over his goal. Can you share, for the benefit Emmanuel and all of us? <3
Joy & Attention.
The Cleveland skyline at sunset. Kitty snugs. My friend SB. Holiday cups at Starbucks. Bookclub. Holiday movies. Holiday music. Cooler weather. The many many many people and communities who have political imagination beyond elections. A surprise book in the mail from my friend MP. New delicious restaurant takeout & tipping well. A picture of California in a card that felt like a cherished memory (from MS). Lovely coworkers who make working long hours a bit more bearable. Walks. Getting to guest lecture about ACT UP. The Underworld class I’m taking with B. The youth of Cleveland Heights (always!). Getting good health news and feeling so so so grateful. Dinner on the front porch with family. Fire pit hangs with K & A. A lovely walk with KS & the babies. Conversations about Marxism and spirituality with a Marxist elder. Our plants. Math rock-y Midwest emo.Finally starting to compost with the amazing Rust Belt Riders service! The moment in Good Lord Bird when John Brown (Ethan Hawke) holds a rabbit and asks it, “Do you have fire in your heart for justice?” (truly, it was everything). Good news about a vaccine. And always: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
…& from the collective (add your own!)