Charity is for capitalists. Mutual aid is for comrades.
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While mutual aid has been an activism buzz-term since March 2020 (we bet you can guess why), not all of us have been able to sit down and figure out what it means. That, or we assume it’s some kind of fundraising campaign to address a specific need. But redistribution via mutual aid has been around since long before the pandemic. Before there was a “capitalism” and nine-to-fives and paychecks and even currencies, chances are that our ancestors lived in societies resembling mutual aid programs.
With that in mind, it’s easy to confuse mutual aid with charity — after all, when we with means to distribute part of our paychecks into a mutual aid program, we might feel like we are donating to a charity. But what is mutual aid and why is it important to differentiate from charity?
If you really want to know, read Dean Spade’s small, neon orange tome about the matter. In a nutshell, though, Spade describes this organized tactic of wealth redistribution as, “a collective coordination to meet each other’s needs.” And while we all would love to spend all day in front of City Hall screaming in the cold about defunding the police, at some point we are going to have to eat. Or get bailed out of a cage. You get the picture. It’s how comrades provide for comrades in order to keep the struggle going. In that sense, mutual aid is a form of activism in itself. Not all of us can spend all day in front of City Hall, or risk a criminal record because we work for a state institution. We still contribute to the cause by feeding, clothing, and offering support for our comrades on the ground.
Have you ever been at a march, say, on a particularly hot Saturday during a summer revolution, and somebody handed you a free bottle of water? That person was participating in mutual aid.
When we consider Spade’s three key components to mutual aid, we can start to see how it differs from our notions of “charity”:
1. MUTUAL AID EDUCATES US
While mutual aid projects work to meet survival needs, Spade explains, they must also “build shared understanding about why people do not have what they need.” (7). He uses the Black Panther’s Breakfast Program as a prime example. “People attending the Panthers’ free breakfast program got food and a chance to build shared analysis about Black poverty” (10). The program demonstrates how mutual aid provides care for needs created by citybudget gaps. The programs are independent solutions to problems the government has neglected in exchange for a thicker police force.
But wait — you might be thinking. If we replace government programs with our own, doesn’t that stall progress?
While this question poses a valid concern, you might also be familiar with it as a popular argument for doing away from mutual aid programs altogether. Mutual aid can certainly start to look like a libertarian-weaning-us-off-of-social-programs solution, which is why we have to emphasize this first component of mutual aid as activism for the sake of public education. Mutual aid should draw attention to the problem while building support for a government that re-commits to serving its most vulnerable citizens.
Ultimately, we are socialists, not libertarians (though it’s true that some of us identify as “libertarian socialists,” — a possibility to be debated, perhaps, in another article). For this reason, we can’t overemphasize mutual aid as a temporary, not permanent, solution. These programs address an immediate concern while moving folks to support the kind of government we hope to achieve with our activism. Two things can be true at once, and in this case, two things must be true at once. We must never forget the big picture of what we are fighting for, while we serve each other in solidarity as we fight.
It is also for this reason that we highlight mutual aid as a “ground up,” community building, temporary solution, rather than a “trickle down”annual charity event. By this we mean: Feeding kids each morning for months looks a bit different, say, than spending a single evening in Grant Park at a garden party with a cover charge. Maybe that garden party even has a quick presentation about the cause to check off the “public education” box. Even so, mutual aid should be a way of life, not an annual get-together in order to raise money for folks who could never afford the cover charge, let alone the clothes, to attend that garden party. Mutual aid programs, in the meantime, won’t ever be confused as thinly disguised tax-write-offs.
Another way to look at it: rather than reinforcing status, mutual aid builds community. Ideally, this community should be one that eats together, reads together, hangs together, gets along real well, and makes the revolution, as Toni Cade Bambara says, “irresistible.” If all goes well, this community will also vote together to restore the government’s social programs.
2. MUTUAL AID MOBILIZES MOVEMENTS
Charities tend to have one cause (Cancer Research, for example) and paid staff who write grants convincing folks that their donations will go toward folks who not only need it, but deserve it. After that, the funders get to have a say in how a charity organization uses its funds. This creates an “us” and “them” dynamic. We are serving them, instead of serving those of us in need.
With Mutual Aid, we redistribute wealth without stipulation because anyone with a need is one of us. We’re breathing? We get a sandwich and a roof over our heads. Charity, Spade says, tends to drive people apart by placing them on a hierarchy of deserving and undeserving, or more deserving and less deserving. Mutual Aid builds solidarity because we don’t see ourselves as separate from those we are serving. If all goes well, our programs will lead to broader social movements.
The breakfast program, again, serves as an example of this, but we can visualize our own program as a movement strategy. For instance: what if our main focus was to restore the vote for people impacted by the carceral system? Not a bad idea, considering how many prison survivors we have walking around these days, thanks to mass incarceration. Sure we can write petitions and lobby politicians in order to get the legislation on the ballot. In the meantime, though, we could build support for the campaign through mutual aid programs.
We might distribute “welcome home” packages to those getting out of prison, which include a list of job and housing opportunities. We might also provide them with grocery store gift certificates (a very temporary solution, and let them be for food co/ops!), a warehouse of clothing for them to choose from, or other ways of meeting basic needs. If we take care of our formerly incarcerated siblings, we might then see their loved ones show up to the ballot box to restore these comrades’ votes. After we win formerly incarcerated people’s right to vote, we might see their numbers helping us elect more of the kinds of legislators (hopefully, formerly incarcerated BIPOC legislators!) who will reinstate the social programs that might prevent a person from ending up in prison in the first place.
Mutual aid can do this. Charity programs, in the meantime, have a harder time building such movements because of the way they sustain capitalist social hierarchies.
3. MUTUAL AID MOVES US TO COMMUNITY BUILDING ACTION
City council votes on cuts to afterschool programs? Mutual aid practice inspires us to open up our backyards for kids with no place to go from 3–6pm, rotating in who supervises, who provides the crackers, and who leads the singalong with their acoustic guitar.
City council proposes closing an arts center? Mutual aid inspires us to schedule dropping off soups and casseroles while a few of us who can spend three days in somebody’s living room convincing folks to leave a voicemail from 3–7pm on the Monday before the vote.
Mutual aid is people coming together salvaging goods from a neighbor’s flooded basement before FEMA arrives. It is more complex, more immediate than a charity organization tends to be, because we live alongside each other and help each other. Everyone — giver and receiver, is a comrade.
The ultimate result of mutual aid, then, is to build solidarity between us. Capitalism isolates us, but through mutual aid, we might become a healthier community. Our movements might win us back some leisure time to get to know each other better, make it possible for us to cut through gentrification and be good neighbors to each other, ones who don’t hesitate to take each other to doctor appointments or emergency rooms because, through all of our activism, we have won universal healthcare.
From these three principles, we can see how easy it is for our mutual aid efforts to become versions of charities/fundraisers that do little to educate, mobilize, or develop widespread movements. Not only that, but in 2020 USA, most charities and government programs are funded by corporations. That puts our movement at risk to corporate influence, causing us to reinstate the social hierarchies that capitalism requires.
The bottom line: mutual aid allows us to serve one another without having to rely on the institutions we are working to replace with a better government that serves even the most vulnerable among us.