By Ruth Kinna
‘Mutual aid’ has been circulating in the English language since the mid-sixteenth century. The equivalent in French, ‘l’entr’aide’ has a shorter history but compared to the English term, which has various connotations, has a more definite meaning. It comes from the relationship to ‘mutualism’, which P-J Proudhon, the author of What is Property? popularised in the 1840s. Mutualism was the doctrine that well-being comes from the recognition of interdependence. In the 1880s, when Peter Kropotkin, an admirer of Proudhon, began to flesh out his theory of mutual aid, this was the point he developed. Mutual aid was the practice that followed from mutualism.
Mutual aid has become a familiar term since the start of the pandemic. But it now seems that the act of giving aid, even if it stems from mutual dependence, can take contradictory forms. It can be more or less inclusive, driven by conflicting motives and directed towards competing goals. To disentangle this, we need to ask what Kropotkin meant by mutual aid.
1. A Factor of Evolution
If we … ask Nature ‘Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support another?’ we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest … we may safely say that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle. (Henry Drummond, 1894)
Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, published in 1902, was originally written in the 1880s and 90s as an intervention in a dispute about Darwin’s theory of evolution. The debate hinged on the meaning of the ‘struggle for existence’ and the character of the mechanisms that explained biological ‘fitness’. Representing Darwin’s phrase as ‘the survival of the fittest’, ‘Social Darwinians’ linked struggle to aggressive individual competition and painted nature as a gladiatorial fight to the death. This interpretation was taken up by advocates of ‘might is right’, fuelling fear and hatred of the poor, vicious and spurious race science and ‘Lebensraum’ – the ‘struggle for space’.
Kropotkin presented a version of Drummond’s argument: nature was characterised by sociability. Groups ‘struggled’ collectively against adverse conditions and to protect individuals from predators. Competition between species was a natural phenomenon but this emphasised individual interdependence and the interconnectedness of life on earth. Individual well-being rested on co-operation or the capacity for mutual aid.
Kropotkin disagreed with Drummond about the sentiments that underpinned mutual aid. Drummond said it sprang from love or sympathy; Kropotkin thought mutual aid expressed solidarity or sociability.
2. A Relationship
Any general trends towards mutual aid in the U.S. should be understood, not simply or principally as a return to earlier giving habits, but also as an echo of ongoing giving practices among the Global majority around the world. Because “minorities” in the Americas – Black and Brown people – have always had to practice some form of mutual aid. (Caroline Shenaz Hossein, 2020)
Shifting his attention from biological evolution to the evolution of social institutions, Kropotkin disputed Drummond’s theory because he thought that love was necessarily exclusive. However much it was practiced, it could not be generalised. ‘It is not love to my neighbour’ he said, that ‘induces me to seize a pail of water and rush towards his house when I see it on fire’. As a relationship, mutual aid could be cultivated as habitual and instinctive. Success depended on the principles of association.
Kropotkin presented three social models: tribal society, village community and city-state. As a progressive series these forms represented the extension of the practice of mutual aid from blood relations to neighbours and to strangers. Treated as sociological types, they showed how mutual aid was embedded in principles of justice, distribution and government.
Kropotkin considered the city-state to have been the most creative and sophisticated attempt to organise society for mutual aid. But he also argued that its institutions had been too weak to resist destabilisation by self-aggrandising landowners, military chiefs, and clerics. The failure marked the start of Europe’s global domination and the remodelling of social institutions by exploitative ruling elites.
Though hampered by competition and individualism, Kropotkin argued that mutual aid continued in a plethora of grass roots organisations. It thrived in communities that elites authorised, neglected or ignored – notably in the disadvantaged and marginalised communities Caroline Shenaz Hossein talks about, but also amongst the privileged: in Masonic societies, sports clubs, church groups and professional associations. But in all these instances, mutual aid was structured by inequality and exclusion and its reach was nearly always constrained. Injustice undermined trust between groups, inhibiting their interconnection and the realisation of genuine social solidarity.
3. An Ethics
Common Ground’s foundational premises were simple: mutual aid and solidarity, expressed through the slogan “Solidarity Not Charity” (scott crow, 2013)
The devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was one of those emergencies that melted social barriers, kindling mutual aid in a decentralised relief effort and the creation of the Common Ground Collective, a community-led, volunteer project. As scott crow notes, in Common Ground, practical action and ethics converged.
Kropotkin outlined the ethics of mutual aid by telling a story about a drowning child. What motivated bystanders to attempt the rescue? Three possibilities suggested themselves: redemption, self-satisfaction and recognition of need. The first two were driven by the promise of reward: being saved from sin or basking in the warm glow of benevolence. Mutual aid was impulsive and instinctual. Aid was free of debt, obligation and dependency. No credit was sought.
4. A Revolutionary Principle
The essence of the response in the early days of the crisis was messy informality, which nevertheless resolved itself into spontaneous order through the common sense and self-organising instincts of communities. The task for official systems was to quickly catch up, to support the mutual aid effort, and to plug it into the government’s public health and welfare policies. (Daniel Kruger MP, 2020)
Mutual aid has become one of the watchwords of the covid pandemic. Thousands of volunteer groups have sprung up to provide equipment to hospitals, feed health workers, and support neighbours and local communities.
Where politicians like Kruger see ‘messy informality’ in spontaneous order, Kropotkin saw revolutionary potential. His hope was that mutual aid organisations would find ways of withstanding incorporation by government agencies. Absorption into government-controlled systems meant changing the logic of their operation, subjecting them to regulation while also providing a convenient hanger for austerity. Kropotkin’s idea was not to facilitate the state’s apparent ‘roll-back’ through voluntarism and philanthropy. He wanted to transform social institutions by re-grounding them in mutual aid – to replace welfare with well-being.
No social institution, he argued, could ‘serve all aims indiscriminately’. Social institutions were ‘developed for a certain purpose’. Mutual aid pointed to the reconstruction of social life, the ‘re-modelling in their entirety all relations’. He continued: ‘In every street, in every hamlet, in every group … assembled about a factory or along a railroad, we must awaken the creative, constructive, organising spirit, in order to reconstruct the whole life of the factory, on the railroad, in the village, in the stores, in taking supplies, in production, in distribution’. Mutual aid meant a shift from uniformity, individualism and personal security to multiplicity, solidarity and common protection.
Ruth Kinna is a professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University, working in the Department of Politics, History and International Relations where she specialises in political philosophy.
This article was originally published in DOPE magazine