Essay: A Mutual Aid Mindset

Timothy Vollmer | FlickrA poster of Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin on the side of a building. Kropotkin wrote extensively on the concept of mutual aid.

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In my column last week I mentioned the amazing efforts of Texans organizing mutual aid networks to keep themselves alive while the government — local, state and federal — sat around and abandoned people.

Reading the stories of solidarity coming out of Texas, and seeing firsthand the ways mutual aid groups in Chicago have responded to the pandemic, I can’t help but have my faith in humanity restored at least in part. 

But one thing I wish was emphasized more in stories about mutual aid networks is what separates mutual aid from standard charity work. Conflating the two as different “flavors” of the same principle is harmful and can be destructive to the momentum these networks create. 

What happened in Texas, and what’s happened in neighborhoods all over the country, isn’t some large charitable organization rushing in and saving the day. It’s people, in these communities already, coming together in solidarity to keep each other fed, clothed, etc. 

What comes next isn’t an indictment on any particular non-profit or charity organization, but on the system these organizations operate in and the power dynamics they uphold. The work of activist Dean Spade lays out more key differences and implications, but I want to focus on just one today. 

The largest difference, and the one some people have the most problems with, is the unconditional nature of mutual aid — simple enough to be boiled down into one phrase: take what you need. 

There’s no qualification to that statement. It’s not just for sober people. Or those with no criminal record. Or whatever means test you can think of. It’s a strangely polarizing idea to some, because it’s solidarity and not charity. 

“They are human beings, and they need our aid — that is enough, that establishes their right — To the rescue!”

Peter Kropotkin in “The Conquest of Bread”

Add in the phrase “no questions asked” and now people start getting flustered. 

“But what if someone’s needs are far greater than the rest?”

“But what if they’re lying and are just using this to get free stuff?”

“But how do we know if they really need it?”


Part of it is because for most people, charitable organizations are the only way they know how to give aid. People ask those questions all the time to charities, and they respond with a rigorous network of exclusionary means testing — a way to keep those in power comfortable. 

But another part is the fear — or better put, lack of trust — that comes from alienation. We’ve all felt it before, even more so now with the pandemic. In people’s hour of most dire need, we all seem further apart than ever. 

But adding any sort of means test to aid makes a value judgment. It separates people into two categories: “deserving” and “undeserving.”

It robs people of their autonomy. It’s paternalistic. 

Yes. Everyone who needs aid, deserves aid — and it’s not radical to think like that. 

The Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin wrote extensively on mutual aid in his book “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” but I’m going to take a quote from another one of his famous works, “The Conquest of Bread.”

Both works deserve a read, but the following quote sums up the argument nicely. 

“They are human beings, and they need our aid — that is enough, that establishes their right — To the rescue!”

For information on mutual aid groups across the country, the Mutual Aid Hub has a great list of groups in most major cities. And if you can, give to your local mutual aid group instead. 

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