by Cristopher Morales
27th April 2021
March 2020 marked the beginning of a new stage in the history of world societies that could be described as revolutionary, although not in the traditional sense of social progress. This new scenario has been characterized by the emergence of a virus, the contagion of which has overwhelmed governments around the world. For the first time in history, an event is truly global in scope. Not even the two World Wars, within which there were always neutral zones in which the logic of war did not operate, managed to determine the course of world history. COVID-19 seems to have done so.
The main consequence of this situation has been the establishment of a regime of confinement for the vast majority of the world’s population. This confinement regime has made social isolation an almost permanent reality in our daily lives. Where once there was social interaction, today there is a need for distance. Incidentally, this new reality has served to make us aware of the social dependence that exists within our daily lives, thus destroying, in passing, what Marx called “robinsonades”, which is nothing other than the idea of the self-sufficient individual.
For this reason, daily life has had to be transformed, we have had to transform it together to questions around how to organize our work, transportation, the care of children and the elderly, leisure, communication with others, the need to socialise with our relatives and friends. Faced with this radical new reality, the first event that has occurred is the abandonment of many of the old logics of capitalist society, of what could be called “our capitalist life”. In order to fulfil a need, or to solve a problem, pre-pandemic capitalism always seemed to have a solution, almost always mediated by profit, the creation of a market with which to regulate any need/problem relation. However, in the world of confinement a large part of the concrete practices in which this logic is deployed have had to disappear, forced by a state that, in most cases, has only carried them out without being absolutely convinced that the solution is the quarantining of capitalism.
It is in this context that relationships based on mutual aid have emerged. This new form of social relationship, of social logic, has been characterized, mainly, by spontaneity: without the need for an external organization to organize all the needs of daily life, a growing need to establish social ties of all kinds, and with all kinds of people, has begun to develop. Thus, many people have discovered themselves talking to their neighbor for the first time in their lives, despite sharing a wall for years; others have felt the need to help the most vulnerable people, starting with the elderly and their difficulties in leaving home for food; others have felt the need to continue sharing their work or to enhance their hobbies, creating podcasts, Youtube channels, etc.
However, the most interesting aspect of this spontaneous emergence of mutual support has been the self-organization to supply what the state could not provide. Neighborhood organizations, or even organizations at the level of neighborhood communities, have developed as a way to reach where the authorities could not. In the absence of authority, anonymous people have continued to need what the state used to provide. The groups helping the homeless, who have been especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus; the groups helping victims of gender-based violence, offering places where they can stay during confinement, far from their abusers; or the aforementioned groups for elderly care, making up for the impossibility of leaving home, are just some examples of this spontaneous solidarity.
The first consequence that can be drawn from this movement of spontaneous solidarity is that the pandemic has demonstrated a greater vulnerability of the state and of capitalism than could have been imagined. Although the daily routine of our lives seemed to show that every aspect of our social life was organized and controlled by these two institutions, the fact is that a virus has managed to bring the normal activity of states and markets to a screeching halt. The confinement is nothing more than the way in which these two institutions demonstrate that they are facing an unprecedented problem, and to which they cannot find a clear solution.
However, it would be a mistake to understand this weakness as a tendency towards the disappearance of the state and capitalism. It would also be a problem, and a very big one, to understand the kind of mutual aid that has spontaneously emerged in this last year as a sign of a point of no return, from which to start building horizontal social relations based on solidarity and cooperation. The main reason for this danger is that such horizontal relationships seem to disappear as soon as confinement is disappearing from everyday life. As Western societies overcome the peaks of the crisis, we see how the need to share with one’s neighbor, to be in solidarity with the one next door, is disappearing. The need for no one to be left without necessary care, that appeared as essential months before, seems to disappear as the possibility of a private life is reopened.
In other words, as our daily life returns to normality, or to the new normality, these social relationships seem to disappear. Mutual aid appears as something that only makes sense where there is no choice but self-organization. It is simply a matter of observing the general level of involvement of these Western societies in everything that had to do with collective and communal self-care during and after confinement. It is the experience of everyday life that shows that there is a kind of generalized feeling that mutual support, probably named with other words, was only necessary in a moment of exception.
There is even the phenomenon of reappropriation of mutual aid by fascist or other organizations. Leaving aside the fact that during the twentieth century there have been all kinds of organizations that have tried, often successfully, to supplant the role of the state where it could not, or would not, reach (the Mafia in southern Italy; the drug cartels in Colombia; the Church in South America, etc.), in the given context of confinement many fascist groups have wanted to supplant the role of the state by becoming the institution that solved basic needs. Inspired by the Italian Casa Pound movement, these organizations, more and more numerous throughout Europe, have managed to present themselves to many people as the solution to the basic needs of housing, food or heating. Although such movements hardly fall under the category of “mutual aid” (among other things because they refuse to extend “solidarity” to a large part of the population of a country or of a neighborhood), for those people who receive help these movements become a source of legitimacy much greater than the state. In other words: if anarchist-type mutual support seeks to be the practical demonstration that it is possible, and necessary, to build a counter-power to the state and to capitalism, this type of organization demonstrates that there is a way to build that same counter-power, but with very different intentions. This is how twenty-first century fascism is built.
Thus, the experience of confinement and the crisis of COVID19 raise a question: why did mutual aid emerge in a moment of exceptionality, and why was it generally abandoned as soon as the possibility of private life returned? Perhaps, this form in which social relations based on mutual aid have been materially constituted teaches us a certain limitation of the classic concept of mutual aid. Outside the militant sphere, it seems to emerge, indeed, under an anarchist form, that is to say, spontaneous, immanent, anti-hierarchical, solidaristic, horizontal. However, its development seems limited to the situation in which there is no alternative.
Shouldn’t anarchism, both theoretical and practical, ask itself as crudely as possible whether mutual aid is an effective tool of social transformation? Put another way: if relationships based on mutual support do not seem to occur outside situations of exceptionality, if they seem to disappear at the very moment when a return to normality becomes possible, how can we understand the emergence of mutual aid in such contexts? Anarchist theory, especially the more classical one stemming from Kropotkin, seems to understand mutual aid as a kind of relationship that already exists in society, even in “humanity” understood in its most abstract and idealistic form. However, a crude examination of one’s own individual experience of everyday life, shows that mutual aid is not a kind of generalized social relationship; rather, it is that which arises when competition and authority have to be suspended.
Thus, we can draw some lessons from the COVID-19 crisis for anarchism: even if mutual support seems the best way in which a human society should conduct itself, the fact is that we are far from the point where horizontal and cooperative relations are close to being hegemonic; anarchist theory should also understand that it is necessary to know under what conditions mutual aid arises and why such hegemony has not been achieved, even when the competition and authority that opposes it seem so contrary to human life. It depends on answering these questions to make mutual aid a rule rather than remaining the exception.
Springer, S. (2020) ‘Caring Geographies: The COVID-19 interregnum and a return to mutual aid’, Dialogues in Human Geography 10(2), pp. 112-115.
Aidan and Sam (2021), ‘Experiences of Mutual Aid Organising in Glasgow and Brighton’, AnarchistStudies.Blog, 23rd March.
Woodbine (2020), ‘From Mutual Aid to Dual Power in the State of Emergency’, Roar Magazine, 22nd March.