Dean Spade on the Promise of Mutual Aid

Dean Spade on the Promise of Mutual Aid

Dean Spade on the Promise of Mutual Aid

The radical law professor explains how we can meet each other’s needs with dignity, care, and justice.


Whether it’s the climate crisis, wage theft, housing costs, police brutality, deportation, corporate health care, or plain ol’ political malfeasance, it’s easy to look at the United States and see nothing but catastrophe ahead.

What is less remarked upon is how we can learn to face such immense challenges and what it means to recognize the scope of the problems without losing hope. In a new book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), Dean Spade, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law and the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, offers a guide for creating durable movements to combat injustice, while also meeting the immediate needs of the people harmed by poverty, criminalization, racism, transphobia, and ableism.

Spade argues that we live in one of “the most atomized societies in human history, which makes our lives less secure and undermines our ability to organize together to change unjust conditions on a large scale.” It is in this context—one defined both by social isolation and dependency on toxic and hostile institutions—that Spade situates the promise of mutual aid, which he writes gives us the tools to meet “each other’s needs based in shared commitments to dignity, care, and justice.” While some imagine national politics as the primary venue for social change, Spade argues that real, lasting transformation comes from the organizing inside our communities. His book is at once a call-to-arms, a balm for all those despairing at the present and future, and a blueprint for how we might better live with one another.

—Daniel Fernandez

Daniel Fernandez: Early on in your book, you note that mutual aid is not the same thing as charity. How do these two practices differ?

Dean Spade: Mutual aid describes the work we do in social movements to directly support each other’s survival needs, based on a shared understanding that the crises we are facing are caused by the system that we’re living under, and are worsened by those systems. Mutual aid focuses on helping people get what they need right now, as we work to get to the root causes of these problems.

Charity, on the other hand, is based on rich people—and the governments they run—giving small amounts of their stolen wealth to poor people, usually to quell uprisings that people would engage in against systems that are so extractive. Charity also focuses on who is deserving and undeserving of aid, which means that charity always has a lot of strings attached. It might be that these programs only support individuals who do not have a criminal history or only those who have kids or only those who are documented or Christian or sober. Charity is all about encountering people in crisis and saying: “How do these people need to be fixed?” Mutual aid encounters people in crisis and says: “You should have everything you need, and it is the systems that are to blame for these crises, not you.” It offers aid without strings attached and without these rigorous eligibility requirements, based on the idea that everyone should have housing, medicine, childcare, or whatever they need.

DF: One line that stuck out to me as I was reading is that “disasters often simulate fantasies of a benevolent government as we face brutal government failure and wish that things were different.” How does mutual aid help us cope with disasters in the immediate term? What does it do to make things different?

DS: Sometimes, when we have powerful movements that include mutual aid, we get concessions from the government. And sometimes the government can provide benefits at a larger scale than mutual aid projects can, because it has different amounts of resources and equipment and administrative capacity. But the thing about government aid is it is always restricted by eligibility criteria, and it can be taken back at any time. When the political winds shift or we’re no longer as mobilized, aid can be shrunk or removed altogether. Hoping for a benevolent state that will someday deliver aid in a way that isn’t racist or ableist or leaving out the poorest and most stigmatized people is not realistic in the US.

We should, of course, celebrate when our movements succeed in getting concessions. But what we’re really trying to build is our capacity to meet our own needs in our own communities, to decide for ourselves, together, how our lives work rather than having rich people and their puppets decide. We want local people to control their electricity grid, and to create and control food, health, and housing systems that are sustainable, affordable, and can provide for everybody, rather than hoping the government will someday do that in the right way.

DF: This distrust of the state is a recurring theme in your book. I’m curious how you respond to people who say that certain crises can only be addressed by a large, centralized government?

DS: People need to understand that what the government does now is actually a massive upward redistribution project. It taxes everyone and then it gives that money to corporations, the military, prisons, and police. We ask: “Why do we have poverty?” and it’s because there is an enormous state apparatus that ensures the extraction of profit from most people to a very small number of people. The state ensures that poor people’s water and air can be polluted and that their food, health, and housing needs can be profit-generating for someone else.

You need an enormous and complex and coercive system to force people to work in Tyson factories, to pay rent, to submit to all the terrors and humiliations of living like this. With mutual aid, we’re talking about redistribution downward, and that’s not something the US government does, even if they occasionally throw a little chump change to people they consider the deserving poor. There are various kinds of liberals who are interested in saying there was some time when things were better. A lot of people fantasize about the New Deal. But the state always uses its administrative capacity to articulate racialized gender control, extraction, and maldistribution. Social security was created to exclude domestic workers and agricultural workers and to undercompensate women workers. These things are not accidents—they are by design.

DF: How do you distinguish between mutual aid that is grounded in a distrust of the state, and the sort of “mutual support” programs that libertarian organizations love to praise?

DS: The fact that people on the far right have a critique of the social welfare state and that people on the left do, too, does not mean they are the same critique. The right is afraid of having to support people who they despise and whose lives they think are not worthwhile. Right-wing forces want to freeze frame extreme wealth inequality that is very racialized and gendered, and then take away all government support for people who’ve been made poor and miserable by state programs that have distributed land and work in particular ways and have ensured that certain populations don’t have their basic needs met.

That is not at all what people who are coming from an anti-racist, feminist perspective are talking about. We want to stop having the state violence that maintains extreme wealth concentration. We are opposing the corporate and government structures that concentrate wealth and maintain profit, and we are interested in creating new social relations in which everybody has what they need.

DF: You note that we’re often fixated on short-term gains, rather than building the long-term capacity for our well-being and the well-being of movements that we care about. What does it take to reorient ourselves to this sort of work?

DS: Most people enter movements because they need something, like “I need someone to help me with my eviction, and I’ve heard you guys are helping people at this mutual aid project.” A lot of what mutual aid groups can do is be a place to receive people who are newly mobilizing and not be like, “You need to already have all the same analysis,” Instead, we want to engage with people and ask, “What are you mad about? What do you want to do? Do you want to help us try to address some of these conditions?” And through that, let’s keep talking and build an analysis of what we think the root cause of these conditions are.

DF: How do we build from small victories, which can be personally empowering, to the sort of political victories that can materially improve the lives of tens of millions of people?

DS: I think that most of the political opportunity is at the most local level, and most of the disaster happens at the most local level, too. When a fire comes through our community, or when we’re trying to think about how to address Covid, that is the scale where we meet disaster and political opportunity. And when people are encouraged to passively watch the celebrity sideshow of national politics, it feels really, really demobilizing. That’s one of the great mythologies in the US—that politics happens primarily in elections.

But politics is happening all over the place, all the time. It’s happening in the interactions that people have every day to survive and get what they need. It happens in all their interactions with the police and all these government offices that control their lives. So when we talk about the famous speeches and the charismatic leaders from a moment like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we don’t talk in detail about all the people who coordinated the rides, all the labor needed to make that possible. We have to change our ideas about scale and understand that scale means something, not because it is centralized in one place or because there is one person you can look to, but because it means many people are practicing something like mutual aid at a local level.

DF: So would you say that mutual aid is mostly local?

DS: I would be sad if mutual aid is being characterized as only local work, because I have been involved in and care about a lot of movements that work at different scales. I’m coordinating with people in lots of different cities that are trying to defund the police in their cities, and we are sharing strategies. People from all over are coordinating to respond to the concern that Biden will put back in place Obama’s dreadful immigration policies, but they are responding from their locality where they are supporting people inside of detention centers or going through deportation proceedings or living in fear of ICE raids. We’re all mobilizing locally and supporting people locally, while coordinating and sharing analysis and strategy. This decentralization matters, and it is the opposite of what the state wants to do, which is all about centralization. It’s aid that is actually determined by the participants by sharing local wisdom and useful practices, not rolling out standardized solutions that inevitably enforce exclusions.

The local and decentralized nature of mutual aid is essential, and we can see this in disaster response especially, where FEMA is generally useless on the ground, whereas local mutual aid projects made of people who know their neighbors and know the place are more effective. It is a mistake to characterize practices based in local knowledge and local control as “small scale” when people are doing them all over and sharing knowledge and resources across large distances.

DF: I’m curious if you have any advice for people on how to stay mobilized—how to not let what has happened in the last few months be the end of their political participation. Where do we go from here?

DS: The crises that we’re facing are not going away. I think more and more people feel that, and this election has further disillusioned people who thought that we could vote our way out of anything we’re facing right now. I think that’s why so many people are engaging in mutual aid projects and are hungry to find ways to feel more connected to something that actually makes a difference.

To some degree I fear that people who have been mobilized by their terror at Trump might be demobilized by a Biden presidency. But a lot of people are still going to see that the crises are in our face just as much. The weather we’ve had this year, the fires and storms we’ve had this year, the experience of having the government respond to Covid in a way that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, it suggests the urgency of many different kinds of political action, including mutual aid and direct action and very deep, very widespread organizing.

We’ve seen the wealth divide grow and the police force grow and the deportation machine grow and US military imperialism expand and all of these incredibly long wars. One response to that, which is appropriate, is to be horrified and feel grief, and those realities and feelings can mobilize us too. We’ve been living through these incredible uprisings against white supremacy and police violence, where a lot of new people have gotten into the streets. And through this combination of mutual aid, political education, building solidarity, and direct, disruptive action in the streets, we’ve seen people develop a new way to think about what their role might be in confronting these crises and saving all of our lives.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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