Since arriving on our shores this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has eroded Americans’ confidence in the ability of the government to perform its most basic functions. This loss of faith in the state has been accompanied by a renewed belief in the voluntary and reciprocal care of others, commonly referred to as mutual aid. Once relegated to pamphlets strewn about folding tables at a Food Not Bombs potluck, celebrations of mutual aid are now everywhere. Even the pages of The New York Times are adorned with endorsements of its transformative political potential, the idea that society might be redesigned bottom-up by such practices of magnanimity.
These displays of community care have indeed been vital throughout this time of bleeding. As the lockdowns have ravaged the American economy, existing inequalities have deepened. Millions of people have lost their employer-provided health insurance, and tens of millions have experienced food insecurity as food banks and professional charity operations have been stretched beyond their capacity.
In this grim context, the writer Rebecca Solnit has applauded the “creative and generous altruism” and “brilliant grassroots organizing” of our times, as have many others. She celebrates the volunteers who provide meals and groceries to the elderly and the infirm, emergency aid to undocumented immigrants and sex workers, and free musical entertainment from apartment balconies. Others, like the anarchist attorney and law professor Dean Spade, have encouraged mutual aid work that is at once antagonistic and an alternative to welfare administrators who measure worthiness according to formal criteria before doling out assistance. Across the liberal-left expanse, mutual aid is on everyone’s lips and in every extended hand.
But members of our crowd aren’t the only ones extolling the virtues of mutual aid. For decades now—and especially since the pandemic started—libertarians and conservatives from organizations like the Heritage Foundation and writers for National Review have commended care provided by those other than the state. Like their counterparts on the left, these groups have advanced an understanding of mutual aid not as a tactic alone but as a vision for remaking society.
Though ideologically distinct, many on the left and the right now share a hope that mutual aid can overcome poverty and rigid class divisions through spontaneous, organic relationships rather than beginning from plans for serious structural reform. For instance, Brooklyn-based efforts have been lauded for the cross-class mingling among people like tech workers and out-of-work restaurant workers that has come to define care networks in gentrified neighborhoods. And while the characterization of mutual aid as solidarity, not charity, stands in stark contrast with the conservative faith in tax havens that masquerade as philanthropy, the two converge on critiques of the government’s capacity to provide for the many.
It may sound churlish to be skeptical about this rekindled spirit of social generosity. But its anti-statist outlook ought to make mutual aid’s progressive advocates wary. After all, most on the left likely do not want to replace what remains of our welfare state with a gift economy, despite the romanticism attached to that more primitive condition of collaboration. Before we get too attached to mutual aid’s promise, it is worth looking back to the origins of its prominence in the United States, a time before voluntary associations were replaced by the care of the state.
In his 1902 book Mutual Aid, Peter Kropotkin, a Russian aristocrat turned anarchist, challenged the reigning social Darwinism of his time. Eugenicists like Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton had cast all of earthly life as an endless battle among competitive individuals seeking their self-interest. Kropotkin counterposed those dour depictions of the survival of the fittest with a theory of human nature rooted in cooperation. Inspired by his observation of birds, beavers, and other “sociable animals” weathering the brutal Siberian tundra, Kropotkin saw all organic life as defined by a communal management of scarcity and reciprocal care.
Though Kropotkin has been duly criticized for his naive view of human evolution—basically the inversion of the reductive accounts that it opposed—he did accurately observe that the late 19th century was rife with social organizations centered on collective care. This period also saw the first practices of mutual aid in the United States, predominantly taking the form of the fraternal society. By 1910, an estimated one-third of the adult male population belonged to one of these membership-based networks. Friendly societies and local lodges afforded wage replacement for sick workers, care for orphans, assistance for the elderly, and burials. Others like the Grange assembled over 1.5 million farmers to purchase machinery that was owned collectively.
As the Industrial Revolution kicked into full swing and the yeoman farmer and sharecropper alike were uprooted from agrarian life, the fledgling fraternal societies protected this new crop of wage laborers. Although some historians have portrayed the lodges as safe havens for white men alone—such organizations tended to be segregated by race and gender—the fraternal society was a sheer necessity rather than a site for rejuvenating a tattered rural masculinity. Notably, in the new urban landscapes, poor immigrants from Europe and Black sharecroppers from the South quickly formed benevolent associations of their own.
Today conservatives often recall the mutual aid society with rosy nostalgia. They wax poetic about a supposedly preideological era, in which members endeavored to make capital and labor friends and eschewed state solutions to social ills. That view of the history, however, distorts just how intertwined the early trade union movement and mutual aid institutions could be. Some labor federations, like the Knights of Labor, formed lodge-style arrangements to generate solidarity among workers as they struggled against Gilded Age robber barons and agricultural monopolists. Later in the 20th century, groups like the International Workers Order emerged to provide health insurance and medical clinics to its nearly 200,000 members. Today labor unions like the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America carry on that tradition by instructing union stewards to funnel resources to out-of-work members. In this rendering, mutual aid was—and is—less about mere benevolence than it is about the ethos that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Much like our present Covid care networks, mutual aid communities historically thrived during moments of crisis. Take the 1870s financial panics, in which a generation of workers lost their wages and savings. No longer willing to trust commercial institutions with their livelihoods, Americans turned to mutual savings banks and similar organizations that provided life insurance policies and other safeguards against sudden ruin. As a protracted depression followed the panics, many societies centralized their operations in order to serve a national membership base. By the advent of the 20th century, mutual aid had evolved from small kinship-style communities into a harbinger of the welfare state to come.
Despite their best efforts, mutual aid societies were not enough to stave off the worst of these crises. Slowly, as veterans’ organizations, federations of women’s clubs, and labor unions put pressure on the federal and state governments, early social welfare policies, including mothers’ and veterans’ pensions and state-guaranteed workers’ compensation, began to overtake the friendly societies.
By the time of the Wall Street crash of 1929, the inadequacy of mutual aid was becoming painfully apparent. In a rejection of small-scale efforts to tackle a colossus, the New Deal agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration began an unprecedented expansion of social spending. In pairing pro-labor legislation like the National Labor Relations Act with social programs, the New Deal allowed unions to provide support for their members while shaping the state for progressive ends. Whereas in the past the American Federation of Labor turned its back on legislative reform for fear of undermining union power and accepting less than could be won at the bargaining table, the trade union movement began to play an essential role in constructing the welfare state. Labor advocates welcomed the relative inclusivity of New Deal reforms, happily ditching the old fraternal societies, which often raised dues rates on or barred entirely those employed in hazard-prone professions.
By the start of FDR’s Second New Deal in 1935, the mutual aid society had been superseded by a new nexus of state and social institutions more capable, protective, and widespread than any voluntarist variant that came before it.
If the New Deal rendered mutual aid obsolete, the welfare state’s subsequent fissuring and rollback have been largely responsible for the rebirth of the private-sphere social safety net. The tenuous nature of the New Deal coalition is partly to blame. Though federal social spending soon far eclipsed mutual aid coverage, Southern Democrats were successful in exempting massive numbers of Black and white agricultural workers from government largesse. Women were also excluded from programs like old age insurance, consigned instead to the far less generous benefits administered by states.
The situation of labor changed drastically, too, in the immediate post–New Deal era. Whereas the 1930s had been hospitable to a two-front fight aimed at both bosses and the state, the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and the dawn of McCarthyism deterred many trade unionists from pursuing further such battles. While labor was forced into a defensive crouch, the liberal stewards of the New Deal order increasingly abandoned pro-worker policies for market-friendly ones. Turning their attention from full employment and single-payer health care, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson spent the 1960s implementing monetary and trade policies that laid the groundwork for our current wage stagnation and tariff wars.
This all set the stage for the New Left’s intense suspicions of the state—and a pivot to practices of community care. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was an exemplar of this tradition. Cofounders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale grounded the party’s work in nearly two dozen service-to-the-people survival programs, the corollary of a broader agenda to educate, organize, and foment revolutionary activity. As Newton recounted, such programs were meant to illuminate capitalism’s inability to fulfill the people’s daily needs.
One of the most effective of these projects was the Free for Children breakfast program. Within a year of its launch in 1969, the Panthers had fed over 20,000 youths in 19 cities. The program was so successful that it was mimicked by California Governor Ronald Reagan, who expanded the state’s nutrition assistance programs to counter the Black Panthers’ influence.
The Panthers’ free breakfast brigade is still remembered fondly; this year Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York recalled its legacy, comparing her office’s Covid-19 relief outreach to the breakfast program. But admirers of the Panthers often overstate the impact of their undeniably noble work. Despite her claim that the Panthers pressured the federal government to authorize a free breakfast program in 1975, the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service rolled out the first of several pilot programs three years before the Panthers’. (It was made permanent in the year Ocasio-Cortez cited.) Since 1946, the department has been offering its free and reduced-price National School Lunch program, a replacement for a patchwork array of volunteer ventures.
Still, much more important than debates over which came first are the issues of scale and routes toward systemic reform. While the Panthers fed an astounding number of children across an impressive geographic range, their 1969 record was dwarfed by the more than 500,000 kids the federal government served free and reduced-price breakfasts the following year. (The program currently feeds 14 million children.) Compared with the suite of aid programs launched by the Great Society and the War on Poverty, the Panthers’ service-to-the-people projects were a drop in the bucket.
But scale wasn’t their only goal. Unlike organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin—who conjoined labor, civil rights, and demands for a federal minimum wage and jobs program—the Panthers were interested in building dual power institutions that would one day compete with the state. As party member Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin explained, their aim was to bypass the state by building “our communities into dual power communes, from which we can wage a protracted struggle with capitalism and its agents.”
But as the Panthers’ influence waned, an increasing number of self-styled community leaders became integrated into a political and entrepreneurial elite that largely neglected policies that would materially benefit the working-class Black population. Some would even come to assist a revanchist capitalist class in pillaging the welfare state and breaking the back of labor. There is a striking parallel between these developments and the trajectory of 19th century ethnically organized mutual aid outfits and related small-business ventures, which just as often evolved into capitalist enterprises and municipal political machines as they did vehicles for reform. And while a handful of those groups paved the way for strong unions and welfare policies, Black power came onto the scene at a time when the American left was enervated and there were few similar opportunities for egalitarian influence. A left-wing politics of mutual aid and self-care gave way to accommodation and brokerage.
By the late 20th century, liberals pushed for a more limited deployment of the state, inaugurating the practice of leasing out state functions to private entities like nonprofits. By the late 1970s, an all-out assault on labor and the welfare state began to roll back 20th-century workers’ wins.
As the United States went into lockdown last spring, the country entered a pandemic-induced recession with scant social protections. Faced with a hollowed-out welfare state and inadequate relief from the federal government’s initial stimulus, Americans had no choice but to rely on the generosity of their neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Since March, people from weekend volunteers to full-time anarchists have done extraordinary things to distribute food staples and provide shelter for those who found themselves hungry and homeless. Still, given that nearly a quarter of American households with children are carrying rental debt and that a permanent exodus of the poor and working class from major urban hubs is underway, such efforts are confined mainly to the margins.
Weathering the current crisis requires nurturing useful hope while avoiding palliative delusions. That means ditching our magical thinking about the sustainability of those mass mobilizations of goodwill that make the nightly news and pepper the pages of left-wing periodicals (both of which neglect the fact that charitable giving actually plummets during recessions). It also means recognizing that crises are excellent opportunities for revanchist right-wing forces to further raze state institutions and slam the lid on cries for justice. When labor-left movements were strong and could afford to go on the offense, the Great Depression created an opening for reform. If there is a lesson from mutual aid’s role in these past triumphs, it is that such community work was subordinated to the tasks of invigorating trade unions and pushing the state to enact universal programs.
Kropotkin was not wrong about our natural inclination to cooperate. But how we organize and nurture that cooperative instinct is crucial. A crisis can bring us together to rebuild durable structures for the collective good. It can also exacerbate the dog-eat-dog mentality that neoliberalism has cultivated for decades. Our country is coming to resemble a long-sought libertarian fantasy, with only atomized acts of compassion for those left out. We would do well to guard against this despotic individualism—the natural condition of the social without the state—and to be sober about what spurred this renaissance of mutual aid and what it portends.