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Social solidarity and mutual aid - the response to covid

If there is one thing that the Covid-19 pandemic made far too evident, it is how fragile the New World Order, imposed triumphantly after the end of the Cold War in 1990, actually is. The massive disruptions experienced during the crisis brought an unprecedented economic crisis to businesses in the transport and hospitality sectors, while services such as health or education suffered from severe interruptions, and the global food value-chain made us realise how vulnerable our globalisation is. 10 years ago, when we talked about food sovereignty the thought of disruptions of the scale we experienced for the last year and a half seemed like science fiction - now this is a reality, and given the current levels of globalisation and the massive scale of human movements from one end of the globe to the other, it is unlikely this will be the last pandemic in our time.

We can learn much in terms of the current system, and social alternatives to capitalism, by looking at the various reactions prompted by the pandemic. This is important, since capitalism and State bureaucracies, mutually reinforcing their interests at the expense of the population, are responsible not for the virus, of course, but for measures which ended up costing the lives of thousands of people. If world hunger is the best example that capitalism is not the best system to allocate resources in the world, the covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that the State is not necessarily the most efficient mechanism to articulate adequate responses to the challenges faced by an increasingly globalised world. Likewise, the crisis proved that we need to change the priorities in our economic system, and that the seeds of a democratic system organised from below, where the people are not the mere subjects of decisions taken by people from afar, but are at the core of the decision-making processes, are here among us. All of the tools needed to start building a new, more equitable, just, and free society are here if only they were allowed to bloom.

1. The top down response.

The State response was characterised by three main features:

As the pandemic unfolded and as the state and media response rolled out, the message that those of us who believe in a collective libertarian view of how people relate to each other would have liked to get across failed to materialise in any meaningful way. Restrictions on our movement (only travel within 2 or 5km for example) were handed down to us and we were expected to obey them because they came from government – and were implemented through police action. Because these were handed to us with often no logic behind them (why the need for the same travel restrictions in rural Kerry as in central Dublin, while in the former you need to travel more than 5 kms to get the basics usually, for example), many people were constantly trying to find a way around the restrictions, waiting with bated breath for their lifting etc.

People’s agency and capacity for being presented with information and assessing it for themselves was completely undermined, resulting in people’s willingness to buy into the restrictions also withering. Having an honest conversation with people about why restrictions were necessary, and getting buy-in to the concept of our accepting restrictions for the greater good, would have resulted in people asking ‘what can I do to ensure everyone’s safety?’ rather than ‘what can I do to get around these restrictions?’

The fact that – despite this top down approach – so many people accepted the need for restrictions, voluntarily wore masks in indoor settings etc showed again that the seeds for building social solidarity exist and just need to be nurtured and encouraged.

2. The bottom up response.

The pandemic has brought us a whole lexicon of language and terms that we never thought we would be using – ‘flattening the curve’, ‘close contact’, ‘contact tracing’ etc etc. A phrase that encapsulated the top down approach from governmental powers was ‘social distancing’. It tells everything about the disconnect and lack of personal empathy from the decision makers. ‘Social distancing’ was never required. In fact the opposite was true. Yes in order to prevent spread of the virus we needed to stay apart – we needed to practice physical distancing. But at the same time we needed to build a sense of social solidarity. We needed, more than ever, to depend on each other, to support each other and to look out for the more vulnerable members of our community. In short, we needed social rapprochement not social distancing.

And indeed, across our communities people rallied to that sense of supporting each other, people knew that we needed each other. Whether that was rallying to support those cocooning, demonstrating support for frontline workers or one of many other ways, we knew instinctively that it was by building social solidarity/cohesion that we could overcome the challenges facing us. The fact that government coined and brought into common parlance the phrase ‘social distancing’ showed that they were coming from a different perspective – in their world edicts about how to deal with each other need to come from on top, they don’t trust us to make the right decisions, they don’t trust that given the correct information we are all capable of making the correct decision and that instinctively we make those decisions with the ‘common good’ in mind. And, even further, they fear the concept of appealing to a sense of social solidarity or allowing it to develop because they fear us taking the lessons from such a precedent and applying them to other aspects of our lives, in particular our working lives.

From the start, it was pressure from below that resulted in government action. Back in March 2020, it was public pressure that resulted in the shutdown of pubs, restaurants etc. But at every step along the way – the drive to open for a ‘meaningful Christmas’, the push to open hospitality in June/July 2021 – it was industry and commercial interests which were listened to by government and given huge amounts of airtime with little or no analysis of the real sense of community solidarity which the pandemic brought to the fore across the country and across the world. The general public was treated as a passive inert mass, without interests of its own - certainly not interests that could legitimately weigh against or balance the commercial interests of business.

It need not have been like that. From the early days of the pandemic, there were numerous examples - in Ireland and internationally - of generic grassroots mutual aid and community solidarity groups emerging. Some of these were as simple as individuals in their communities offering to do shopping for those who were cocooning due to being older and/or more vulnerable to infection. In other communities already existing networks sprung into action. From our discussion, an example given from the U.S.A. was

(CM) - “… at the start, when there was no official care or response. So mutual aid focused on PPE etc. Through the hurricane Katrina response network, we already had relationships around Turtle Island, especially around marginalised communities - e.g. indigenous communities. So sourcing and producing masks, maker & biohacker communities, etc. Connected with Bay Area folks making PPE and finding hospitals that were lacking. Targeted cities (mainly black) where nothing was coming through. Smuggling PPE to Health Workers in Detroit. ……. Collectives and projects formed around mutual aid. Biohackers had notions about vaccines - but realistically we don’t have those capacities. As anarchists we were good at saying, don’t do it because the state tells you to, but because it is making you safer….”

A Guardian article from May 2020 detailed examples from Britain, and put them in context

“…the great majority of people in ordinary disasters behave in ways that are anything but selfish…….. With the global pandemic, these empathic urges and actions are wider and deeper and more consequential than ever….One of the most striking aspects of this global crisis is how many forms of aid and solidarity there are. These new forms of generosity we are seeing – organising, networks, projects, donations, support and outreach – are numerous beyond counting, a superbloom of altruistic engagement.”

That article noted that “In mid-March, a website was launched listing several hundred new mutual aid groups across the country, so people could search their local area.”

In Ireland that same generosity of spirit and willingness to volunteer and ‘pull together’ was evident in the response to the callout for volunteers from both the HSE and Volunteering Ireland. In that context, though, it is worthwhile exploring the difference between building ‘mutual aid’ and ‘volunteering’. While both show a generosity of time and spirit, their coordination and how they build or affect community relations can be quite different. Volunteering is often organised in a top-down manner and it doesn’t open up the same possibilities for forging new social relationships that the building of mutual aid does.

An article on the CATU Ireland (Community and Tenants Union) website explores what is meant by ‘mutual aid’ -

“Mutual aid is an explicitly participatory form of care; people see needs not being met in their communities and come together to meet these needs in a concrete manner. They do not wait for those in power to take action. Activist and academic Dean Spade explains that mutual aid projects work “…not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on their representatives in government, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable.” At their core, mutual aid projects encourage people to exercise agency over their own lives and communities. It is genuinely empowering and goes beyond just representation. As writer Cate Root notes in Current Affairs, “regular people act, and not just act, but make decisions about how best to help. Mutual aid puts the power back into ordinary people’s hands.” Spade offers a framework for evaluating mutual aid campaigns; it must offer material relief for people, include impacted groups and ultimately mobilize those most affected for ongoing struggle.”

The last sentence of that paragraph is key and is one we will come back to – ‘it must offer material relief for people, include impacted groups and ultimately mobilize those most affected for ongoing struggle.’

Much of the local response in Ireland - and there was a huge generosity of spirit shown - was mobilised through volunteering networks rather than through more bottom-up mutual aid structures. A document on the Volunteering Ireland website details the extent of this generosity of spirit -

“Faced with an unprecedented health crisis, Volunteer Ireland and the network of Volunteer Centres and Volunteering Information Services were tasked by the Department of Rural and Community Development to mobilise volunteers to support the community response to COVID-19.

About 84,000 people were registered on the national volunteering database, I-VOL, before the crisis. On 13 March, Volunteer Ireland sent out an email to those volunteers to ascertain if they would be willing and capable to assist in the crisis, and new volunteers were also recruited through other channels such as social media. The database quickly grew to 105,000 volunteers, with over 20,000 expressing an interest to volunteer in response to COVID-19….”

The phrase used above by CM - Don’t do it because the state tells you to, but because it is making you/us safer - was and should have been a fundamental building block for mutual aid and solidarity. However, in a lot of Irish communities, any emerging notions of shared responsibility were usurped into a more top-down approach thus also removing people’s ownership of how to respond to the crisis.

Again an example from our discussion

(HD) - “….community campaigns forced the government to close businesses. Majority impulse is towards social solidarity, people did not want to see other people suffering. Shared responsibility - but what happened was much more complicated. Pre-existing institutions took over community organising , local authorities and garda vetting now filtering community organising. Community Callout etc. State demobilised people because of bureaucratic approaches….”

3. Mutual Aid

Mutual Aid has a long tradition and holds a very prominent role within the anarchist movement. Anarchists traditionally opposed both the selfish competitive spirit of capitalism, and the authoritarianism of State socialists. Opposed to this, anarchists have fought for a society built at human scale, where decision-making units match the capacity of everybody to actively participate in decision-making if they wish to do so, with an economy run to satisfy the needs and priorities of communities and not of a few powerful individuals, where we all own our workplaces and the products of our work. This is what anarchism has always been about. Some will say that this is utopian and impractical. Well, history is full of examples that provide a foundation on how to start building such a society.

Peter Kropotkin, a prominent Russian revolutionary and scientist at the turn of the 20th century, wrote a famous book, in 1902, called Mutual Aid, a Factor in Evolution, in which he questioned the abuse of the idea of competition found in the ground-breaking work of Charles Darwin by social darwinists. Capitalists tried to justify selfishness, violence, war and greed by claiming that these instincts were geared in our nature - this was, of course, an idea that Darwin never claimed or didn’t do so in the blatant way in which the so-called social-Darwinists did later. Kropotkin, based on his scientific work in Siberia, found that inasmuch as species can compete on occasion, within a species, and sometimes even among them, mutual aid, is by far a more important instinct in the survival of a species and in its subsequent evolution.

He claims that many of the mutual aid practices today found across societies (even in Ireland, traditions like meitheal in which neighbours would come together to assist in the saving of crops and other tasks), in which communities look after one another, make democratic decisions in consultation with each other, etc. are grounded in the basic and primordial instincts of our species. We are mammals, after all, and although much of the world in which we inhabit has been made up by our own work, basic social instincts are there despite the best efforts of capitalism to turn us into individualistic and aggressive predators. A society based on this mutual aid as its core principle, not built around competition, greed and profit, is an alternative worth fighting for. We have seen the spirit of mutual aid saving lives during the last pandemic and bringing out the best of ordinary people all over the country, and indeed, the world.

4. What can we learn from the responses and crisis for the future?

Covid-19 made us all realise that people are not that selfish as is so often portrayed, that in essence humans are a gentle mammal that cares about others, and that given the scale of the unprecedented crisis, people could do a bottom up response because, well, it is actually part of what we are and how we live. Certainly, there are nasty aspects in human society, but the social system in which we live determines which aspects of ourselves will better develop. As long as capitalism is the dominant system, mutual aid will only survive in the margins. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

People’s needs should come first, not the business greed of big corporations, who are now on an obscene scramble over public contracts on vaccines, etc. The right to health (a right fundamental to the fulfilment of all other rights) should not be left to play with by people who have shown little concern about human life, but only care about how much profit they can make out of the ultimate business: when it comes to your health, people will pay whatever to be healthy.

The subjection of humanity to global market forces is not only destroying the planet, through emissions and mono-production, but it is also a huge threat to the survival of millions in an era of global pandemics as we are facing now.

Communities all over the world, not least in Ireland, showed that there are different and better ways to live and to be organised. With the twin crises of global pandemics and climate catastrophe, the survival of our species is dependent on us forging a new way to live together. Ultimately it is dependent on us finding a way to nurture and bloom the seeds of social solidarity that we know exist.

How can we turn this into an alternative to capitalism and State bureaucracy?

First, we need to acknowledge that nobody and no political ideology has a worked out set of answers. There are no ‘experts’ who we can turn to for a quick fix. The current political system thrives on the fact that so many people see politics and political decision making as being for ‘someone else’ to do. Our system of parliamentary democracy is based on this. It asks us to divest our powers to influence how society is run to a select group of people who we then hope will make the correct decisions. Mainstream media political debate/discourse reflects this and political ‘controversies’ are more often about the personalities than about the fundamental policies.

Yes of course there are anti-establishment politicians elected and some very articulately espouse alternative perspectives. But history has shown us that they will only ever be allowed to be a fringe and will not be allowed to get their hands on the levers of power in a way that will allow them to make any fundamental changes. The strings of power are pulled not by the elected politicians but by the unelected - and unseen for the most part - CEOs and boards of transnational corporations. This happens not so much through conspiracies and secret back-room deals (although these exist), but through control over the levers of financial power that states rely on for funding their work.

Ultimately those anti-establishment politicians either rein in their rhetoric and ideology to become more acceptable ‘in the national interest’ or in the hope of being allowed to implement some of their policies, or they remain on the margins. Or indeed, because their radical speeches and rhetoric never seems to actually achieve anything, they end up contributing to a sense of disillusionment and cynicism.

It’s easy, however, to point to what doesn’t work. Our challenge is to build a system of political organisation that validates and invests in the power of the individual as part of a collective – the power of each one of us to contribute to creating a new system of organising together, supporting each other in local and national campaigns initially and ultimately building towards a system of organising society from below without the need for ‘leaders’ or ‘experts’ making decisions for us but vesting democratic control in each one of us through mutual aid/solidarity organising.

This may at times seem an impossible and even a utopian ideal. However, as we have pointed out, the seeds which are there to be germinated were to be seen in the way in which so many people responded locally to the needs of their neighbours and communities when the pandemic hit. They were there to be seen in the manner in which so many local communities came together to resist the imposition of water charges and the installation of water meters. They are there to be seen in the manner in which so many people give freely of their time to local committees and clubs from sports clubs to tidy towns groups to charities.

People’s inherent sense of solidarity and communality is deliberately crushed by the political system which places the right to make profits above our rights to decent education, housing, health and social services. Our challenge is to develop a way in which that solidarity and mutual support can be brought to the fore, where the talents of every individual can be harnessed and melded together to create a society that values humanity above the hoarding of wealth.

That is no easy task. But in a world facing climate catastrophe, it is a challenge that we have to meet. The alternative is barbaric destruction…..

D&D Starry Plough