The politics of Covid-19: the frictions and promises of mutual aid

Thousands of mutual aid groups have sprung up around the UK, grounded in different experiences and perspectives. Amardeep Singh Dhillon asks: Whose vision of community-serving work will win out?

May 4, 2020 · 9 min read

‘The group is not built on the idea of a charitable donation of time and effort, but on the principle that at any time, any member could need help or have something to offer’ – the onboarding document of a London mutual aid group.

In March, a group of volunteers in Lewisham, south London, set up the first Covid-19 Mutual Aid group to facilitate care efforts for those self-isolating due to the pandemic. Focused on immediate needs, their efforts included picking up prescriptions, delivering groceries, dog-walking and regular check-ins for people living alone. Six weeks on, Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK is coordinating thousands of similar networks across the UK and providing best practice and safeguarding guidance to incredibly diverse groups of people – all working under the banner of ‘mutual aid’ within their own communities. The rate of response has been staggering, as has the scale of need and scope of aid provision, sometimes where none previously existed.

Summed up as ‘a group of people organis[ing] to meet their own needs, outside of the formal frameworks of charities, NGOs and government,’ the term ‘mutual aid’ has roots in Peter Kropotkin’s early 20th century anarchist writings. It’s been used to describe historical and current indigenous societies, medieval trades guilds, the UK co-operative movement and a host of other networks based on reciprocity and voluntary membership.

Now, with Tory councillors as well as anarchist activists using the term, the significance of ‘mutual aid’ at a local level is massively varied. It’s officially gone mainstream, and in this new context there are (at least) two perspectives emerging, each informed by different ideas about the role of the state. These perspectives – consciously or not – are present in every decision about process and practice on the ground.

Defining community

While we often think of ‘community’ in terms of territory, the emergence of multiple mutual aid networks within the same or overlapping geographical boundaries – sometimes entirely ignorant of one another – complicates that picture.

Community-serving work first involves community building. Activist groups, local businesses, local party political machines, support groups (for LGBTQ+ people, for example), tenants’ associations, PTAs, as well as simply friendship groups, are all networks with pre-existing inclinations when called upon to help one another.

Who, then, gets to decide how the ‘community’ is constructed? Who is directly/indirectly excluded/prioritised? And what are the implied parameters within which ‘organic leaders’ emerge and are held to account? Such micro-level decisions establish boundaries of responsibility within which the work of mutual aid happens.

Our relative positions within capitalism – class, employment, migration status – also determine how we see work done outside of (but not isolated from) wage-labour. The demographic make-up and broader politics implicitly supported by the active majority within any given mutual aid group drive consensus around what the group is for, and how it should work. Whether a group seeks to integrate, absorb, be absorbed by or shuts out neighbouring groups with different internal cultures again redraws the criteria of ‘community’ membership. And as certain members become more or less engaged, these criteria fluctuate.

In this time of crisis – when the existence of mutual aid groups is a matter of life or death for some – I’m not surprised that these nuances of infrastructure take a backseat. It’s critical that these support networks are active and operational right now, and that they continue being active long after lockdown is eventually lifted. But it is also imperative to continually interrogate the lines along which we are organising today: they will determine if, and how, that continuation happens – and in whose interests.

Frictions and challenges

In many new groups, mutual aid is viewed as service-provision, best done in communication with existing local infrastructure, particularly the third sector. This stance lends itself to Conservative Party ‘Big Society’ thinking, which justifies a small state by ‘ethically outsourcing’ welfare provision to charities and the voluntary sector. It will likely provide ammunition to a government looking to rollback welfare spending post-lockdown.

Our relative positions within capitalism – class, employment, migration status – also determine how we see work done outside of (but not isolated from) wage-labour

Some groups are working with local authorities, including the police, blind to the issues those relationships might pose particularly for some migrants, benefits claimants, and people of colour, all of whom are disproportionately criminalised across Britain. Other groups are avoiding contact with councils, arguing that mutual aid should entirely avoid direct interaction with local governance, the charity sector and the state. This stance emphasises its potential as an alternative (rather than supplementary) to existing structures.

Yet excluding existing, specialist support for those with complex mental health needs, for example, poses its own dangers, both to those in need of aid and those providing it. Furthermore, as more people than ever find themselves in need of state support, mutual aid groups potentially have a role to play in disseminating accurate information about the support available and how to apply for it.

Such different understandings of mutual aid partly explain the territorialism that can emerge at hyper-local levels between different groups with the same apparent remits. Ironically, while the positions mentioned above might appear to be mutually exclusive, in practice many groups are awkwardly straddling both.

This blurring of ideologies is evident, for example, in approaches to safeguarding members against burnout and the pressure to continually ‘do more’ in an extended, emotionally-charged, crisis situation. Equally, safeguarding means making sure that those reliant on regular aid aren’t suddenly dropped because their main point of contact has run out of capacity.

These issues can’t be addressed without some process of accountability, whatever its form – be it buddy-systems and consensus-led forums or centralised monitors and designated oversight roles. Some kind of structure, however loose, is necessary to stop people falling through the cracks.

Infrastructure and accountability

Infrastructure creation has its own challenges. We should be wary of the notion that the politics ostensibly underlying mutual aid guarantees all voices carry equal weight within a network – and recognise the potential for some participants, particularly those from historically marginalised groups, to be dismissed or silenced.

Even in flat-structure networks (without fixed management committees or intended hierarchy), some people take on more responsibility and accrue more credibility than others, steering decisions around how the group should operate. This can easily lead to an unacknowledged two-tier system of ‘leaders’ and ‘doers’ emerging.

We can foreground the politics of mutual aid by explicitly acknowledging that their implementation necessitates degrees of compromise in a capitalist society, even as they anticipate the utopian

Such developments aren’t necessarily bad, but an inability to recognise them can lead to further friction. Unless space for constructive criticism is built in early on, groups may end up paying lip service to an ideology divorced from the realities of the work at hand. This risk is still more pronounced in groups that assert themselves as ‘apolitical’, refusing to recognise that some ideology does inform their work.

In smaller, hyper-local networks, it is easier to manage these tensions and institute genuine sociocratic mechanisms of accountability. But as conversations around best practice, jurisdiction, safeguarding and upscaling inevitably establish the need for some inter-network support, the same issues are likely to be flagged up either pre-emptively or reactively.

Degrees of compromise

If we accept that some structure and accountability is necessary for mutual aid groups to function responsibly, what then? If the network grows sustainably, and is accessible, accountable, efficient and led by its grassroots, it may come to be celebrated locally. It is then just a matter of time before direct contact with the local authority is made – either by group members (looking to upscale aid provision) or councillors (looking to outsource aid provision/refer those in need), or just because ‘communities’ are messy and permeable.

Such inevitable contact will throw into sharp relief the false dichotomy of mutual aid vs non-mutual aid, and conversations around the potential co-option of  ‘community work’, will become explicit. Rather than focusing debate on the question of whether or not a mutual aid group should engage with local authorities, however, a more honest discussion would address how – and how far – they already do so.

We can foreground the politics of mutual aid by explicitly acknowledging that their implementation necessitates degrees of compromise in a capitalist society, even as they anticipate the utopian. In the meantime, with thousands of networks now claiming the term, the struggle against its de-politicisation is only going to become more urgent.

Are you involved in a mutual aid group? Share your thoughts via Twitter @RedPeppermag

Amardeep Singh Dhillon is a writer, trade unionist and member of the Red Pepper Editorial Collective. Follow him on Twitter @amardeepsinghd

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