Mutual Aid As Charity

The concept of mutual aid is more prevalent than ever since the COVID pandemic took over our lives.

Many leftists do not understand what mutual aid actually is. Mutual aid that is not connected to raising the class consciousness of the individual you are helping is not in fact mutual aid, it is charity.

Many self-proclaimed leftists think they are practicing mutual aid when in fact they are doing nothing more than perpetuating top down philanthropy. While helping people with material goods in the short-term, they perpetuate the very system of class control in the long run.

For the layman, mutual aid is a concept that is meant to counter charity. Leftists argue that charity, while helpful to a small amount of people in the short term, perpetuates a power dynamic that keeps the poor in a position of begging. Dean Spade defines the differences between mutual aid and charity as such:

  • Whereas charity differentiates those who have from those who need and puts those who have in a position of power to make decisions about how to meet others’ needs, mutual aid emphasizes working cooperatively to meet each others needs. Charity is vertical; mutual aid is horizontal.

  • Where as charity addresses symptoms of systemic issues, mutual aid analyzes the causes of those issues and builds new social relations to help society be more survivable in the long-term.

  • Whereas charity is often professionalized work performed through legislated nonprofit organizations, posing onerous bureaucratic accounting and compliance obligations, mutual aid projects avoid formalization to retain autonomy and flexibility.

  • Whereas the charity funding model relies on the donations of rich individuals and profitable corporations, requiring the charity to publicize those donations to boost the public image of donors and for donors to continue to make sufficient profit to have enough left over to donate, mutual aid utilizes the resources available in their communities, often creatively seeking free supplies.

  • Whereas charity implements criteria for who is deserving of assistance, mutual aid is offered to anyone.

I am not against mutual aid, I am strongly in favor of it. Socialists should be less worried about flexing their ideology and should focus on the material needs of the working class. All organizing should be oriented around the immediate material needs of the working class. This is the power of mutual aid, it does exactly that provided you are raising the class consciousness of the people you are helping.

If are not raising the class consciousness of the people you help you are not advancing their liberation, you are not teaching them their class power.

I see this toxic model of mutual aid all over the place in my hometown.

In Sacramento several organizations will collect donations; diapers, money, food, any standard necessities that are often too expensive for the most vulnerable of classes. These materials are then distributed, either uniformly and equally, or they are distributed on a first come first serve basis.

Let’s say an individual receives a bag of groceries from one of these organizations. That person will have groceries for a few days, that’s great, and they can save that money for other necessities, also great, and the burden of capitalism is no longer something they are dealing with alone!

But what is not great is that at no point is the individual taught that they can and should be demanding more. They are never taught about their own power. At no point is the individual who is providing the help explaining mutual aid to them. There is no reciprocity, just a perpetuation of top down charity.

If you provide mutual aid to someone without elevating their class consciousness and teaching them the power they have to offer a collective, you are not actually practicing mutual aid.

This model of mutual aid that I have laid out satisfies a need to see immediate results from organizing. I both understand and respect that, and I am all for distributing materials to satisfy immediate needs. What I am not in favor of is doing so without raising class consciousness.

Mutual aid is not “I have extra, you have nothing, so take the extra bit I have and dont expect anything in return.” That is the top down form of class control I mentioned before. Mutual aid is “I have something to offer you, but you have something to offer the world.” If you distribute materials you absolutely should expect people to have a conversation with you to raise political consciousness. Mutual aid and organizing conversations should be inherent to each other, the minute you abandon organizing conversations just to focus on distributing materials, you have abandoned mutual aid and are now practicing charity.

This is not to say the person you are helping owes it to you to join your cause, free will is still very much a real thing. However you build no one up just by handing them materials alone, give them materials and at the same time give them the ideas and wherewithal that empowers them.

When distributing resources it should always be down in a way that elevates the individual and teaches them they deserve more, that they deserve to control the wealth they generate, that a collective is stronger than one person. Any mutual aid that lacks these element is nothing more than charity dressed up as mutual aid.

To be honest I think it is pure laziness. I think it is easier for people to distribute “mutual aid” without having difficult organizing conversations so people fall back on this model of aid, enabling themselves to never grow as an organizer and otherwise dooming socialism and the left to the same position of complacency.

Have the challenging conversations, practice true mutual aid!

Published by James J Jackson, Jr

I'm a poet and leftist political organizer from Sacramento, CA.

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