Mutual Aid II

An interesting debate kicked off within a local WhatsApp group I am a part of last week. Incited by some other debate that was significantly less interesting, one member of the group requested that we keep the political chat to a minimum; they joined to support their neighbours, not to discuss who was to blame for the predicament that we currently find ourselves in. Another member of the group jumped in at this point, arguing that being part of a mutual aid group was a political statement in itself, therefore making political discussion entirely reasonable.

Of course, neither of them is wrong.

Joining a WhatsApp group to help your neighbours during self-isolation is a simple as that – it doesn’t have to be wedded to a political outlook. Similarly someone who is well read on the origins of Anarcho-communism might be forgiven for thinking that everyone joining a mutual aid group is a fan of Kropotkin too.

I reneged from taking part in the discussion; debates over WhatsApp are best left to those who you feel most close to given the challenges of the medium. However the exchange has been rolling around in my head for quite a few days, and given I had just posted on a similar topic, I wanted to get my thoughts down.

My first thought concerned the groups springing up across the country in which neighbours are working together to help one and other. I thought about the more conservative members of my family who wouldn’t blink an eye when joining one of these groups in order to help people on their street. But would run a mile if you suggested they were taking the first step towards a utopian Anarcho-communist future.

Clearly, you can be part of a mutual aid group without subscribing to all of the political thought that pre-dates it. Indeed, what is so majestic about Rebecca Solnit’s work on mutual aid during disasters is that she demonstrates how humans have a natural tendency towards this kind of behaviour, one that supersedes their usual political persuasion. In a brilliantly contrarian twist she explains:

It is how people behave when things are good that is most revealing.

But it would also be useful if the everyone taking part in these kinds of activities recognised the political ideas that lay behind them. That the world might not be driven by scarcity and competition, that mutual aid is the embodiment this idea, and that our societies might look more appealing if we adopted these behaviours when things were good, and not just when they are bad.

Daniel Bower

Blogging about platform regulation: algorithms, interoperability, kill zones as well as other bits and bobs. Read about my research, or read more about me.