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We’ve been programmed to expect emergencies to bring out the worst in us. When the state wobbles, we expect everyone to reach for their crossbows and start eating their neighbours.

But that’s not what we’ve seen during the pandemic. Not from most people.

What the first three months of lockdown mainly saw, instead, was the rise of mutual aid groups. Neighbourhood support groups mushroomed through leaflets, what’s-app and Slack groups, food banks, well-being networks. There’s been a sudden blossoming of a gift economy, with therapists, musicians, teachers and yoga instructors offering sessions online for free.

It’s been a remarkable moment where anarchist ideas from the fringe suddenly went mainstream — like mutual aid, the defunding of the police and even the declaration of ‘autonomous zones’.

Kropotkin and Mutual Aid

Mutual aid is a concept most famously described by a Russian anarchist philosopher called Pyotr Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, written in 1902.

As the title suggests, Kropotkin’s book was written in response to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.

Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, led to a Cambrian explosion of new philosophies and spiritualities.

There was the laissez faire capitalist Darwinism of Herbert Spenser, social Darwinist, who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’. That sort of capitalist Darwinism proved especially popular with American oligarchs.

There was the communist Darwinism of Marx and Hegel, who interpreted history as an evolutionary struggle between different classes, leading to the triumph of the proletariat.

There was the racist Darwinism of Ernst Haeckel and others, who saw history as a struggle-to-the-death between different ‘races’.

There was the eugenicist Darwinism of Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who thought scientists should be the new priests actively intervening in human reproduction to encourage the fittest (ie the smartest or those lacking inherited illnesses) and eliminate those deemed unfit.

There was the evolutionary spirituality of Alfred Russell Wallace and later thinkers like Theillard de Chardin.

There was even one early science fiction writer, Samuel Butler, who in an article published in 1863 suggested humans could be surpassed by intelligent machines.

Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid was one addition to this religious ferment.

Prince Pyotr Kropotkin was born into the Russian aristocracy in 1842, but he dropped his title at 14, and joined the ranks of the Russian free-thinking intelligentsia. He wrote on science, sociology, philosophy and politics, and became an activist for the democratic reform of Tsarist Russia. He was arrested and imprisoned, but managed to escape, and lived in the UK for a while, in London and Brighton. He returned to Russia after the 1917 revolution, but was disappointed when the socialist republic turned into a brutal dictatorship. The USSR would see the ultimate triumph of state power over individual rights.

Mutual Aid is a moral and political theory based on a certain view of the human animal and the evolutionary process. In contrast to Spenser, Kropotkin argued that evolution favoured those species who could best cooperate: ‘under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life’.

Humans had triumphed because they were the most social and cooperative animal, and the most cooperate society would likewise do best, as opposed to societies that cultivated competition or slavish obedience.

Kropotkin wrote: ‘Practicing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual and moral.’

Mutual aid’s moment

Mutual aid has stayed a rather fringe idea in politics and economics, although it’s had its moments. David Cameron’s ill-starred vision for a ‘Big Society’ was, in some ways, a vision of mutual aid.

Clearly, it’s having a moment now. National governments’ responses to the crisis have — at least in the UK and US — been slow, clumsy and incompetent. So it’s fallen to regions, cities, and neighbourhoods to organize their own response.

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Even more surprisingly, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of the last two weeks, the movement to defund the police has suddenly gone mainstream as well.

This idea argues that the police and prisons are vastly over-funded, while community projects and other approaches are chronically under-funded, so you have the police acting as ‘care workers with guns’, becoming the default response option for everything from homelessness to drug problems to mental illness to inequality to urban alienation. The supposed antidote (militarized policing and mass incarceration) actually exacerbates these problems, increasing trauma, alienation, broken homes, violent gangs and so on. A different solution is to empower communities to take care of these problems for themselves, through mutual aid programmes and local council services. (Here’s an article that explains the idea further).

You saw this idea in The Wire, if any of you watched that excellent TV drama. It explored the failure of the war on drugs, and how criminalizing drugs actually empowers and enriches gangsters, like how Al Capone and others were enriched and empowered by prohibition. Series Three explored a possible alternative — what if drugs were decriminalized and the emphasis was put on support and recovery programmes rather than crime and punishment?

Obviously, people want to feel safe, and police have a role in that. But the best insurance for safety is knowing your neighbours, not hiding from each other behind wired fences.

I interviewed Douglas Rushkoff this week, and he retold me the story he wrote about in his latest book, Team Human, about being paid half his annual salary to give a talk on the future to an audience. It turned out, his audience were five super-wealthy hedge fund managers, who wanted his advice on how to survive the apocalypse:

The CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”..I suggested that their best bet would be to treat those people really well, right now. They should be engaging with their security staffs as if they were members of their own family… Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.

I’ve felt the insurance of community since moving to Bristol last year. I think one of the reasons I left London was I saw so much aggression and alienation around me, I thought ‘this would not be a good place to live if the present system starts to fall apart’.

Bristol is a much smaller city, still multicultural, but the various tribes feel more stitched together, and there is much more of an emphasis on community and neighbourhood. It feels safer. I live near one of the most druggy streets in Bristol — Jamaica Street— and you always pass addicts there. But Jamaica Street is home to Compass, an addiction support service, and to other mutual aid projects, like The People’s Republic of Stoke Croft. So you don’t feel threatened by the addicts. They’re not nameless bogey-men. They’re part of the community.

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The sinking of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston this week, in Bristol, didn’t feel like a frightening outbreak of mob violence. It felt like a community decision, and the way the mayor and the head of the police responded to it — with nuance and sympathy — underlined that feeling of community. This was Bristol confronting its history and making new history.

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How far can one take the philosophy of mutual aid? What else — asked Jordan Hall in an essay this week — should we defund and redesign next?

Universities? They’re lumbering institutions selling overpriced products. Someone asked me this week if they should do a PhD in philosophy. I said PhDs were bad for your mental health and bad for your mind — forcing you to focus on a very narrow topic. And there are vanishingly few academic jobs at the end of it. Why not build your own course, and follow it through adult education organisations like the Weekend University or the University of the Third Age? This is a great essay on designing your own curriculum.

Mental health services? To what extent are psychiatric services often the equivalent of the police — focusing on incarceration and symptom-suppression rather than empowering people through mutual aid? I personally recovered from social anxiety thanks to a mutual aid group, not mental health services. We were proud to have healed ourselves.

Between anarchism and authoritarianism

One could go all the way and defund the state entirely, and declare an anarchist autonomous zone. That’s happening now too. In Seattle, several blocks have apparently been seized by anarchists, who have declared an autonomous zone, called CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone). There are no cops there now, it’s a self-run commune, with vegan cafes, evening screenings of socialist documentaries, and a list of demands including the abolition of the Seattle police force. It reminds one of Barcelona during the Civil War, or the Paris Communards.

How is this going to play out? CHAZ could be a beautiful temporary experiment — a festival of the future — but it’s not a sustainable experiment in self-governance, because it lacks things like an independent supply of food, water, electricity or hospitals. The United States is not going to accept a thousand mini-secessions (why shouldn’t a Southern militia follow suit and set up an All-White-Zone?) so there will now have to be a negotiation to avoid bloodshed. There was no referendum for the establishment of CHAZ which means that some of its residents are basically being held hostage, in the nicest possible way. (An anarchist might say we’re all being held hostage by the corporate state!)

I am wary of how anarchist experiments can quickly morph into far-left authoritarianism, as thugs and psychopaths take advantage of power vacuums. One has seen the occasional whiff of that in the Black Lives Matter movement, at times. Like the meme shared by one Facebook friend — ‘rules for white people at BLM protests’. It said ‘if a black person asks you to do something, do it immediately without question. Stay at the back of the protest unless someone shouts ‘white people to the front’’. (On the other hand, these suggestions seem common sense).

There’s a hint of authoritarianism in the anti-racism reading lists we’re constantly being set, the same five books to help us form the correct attitude. There’s a hint of authoritarianism in the public declarations of contrition we’ve seen from all sorts of white people this last week. ‘I want to acknowledge and admit my racial bias. I have harmed and traumatized people of colour in my thoughts, actions and inactions,’ reads one letter from the CEO of a UK health trust. Certainly, there were aspects of authoritarianism in the BLM campus protests of 2014–2016 (check out what happened at Evergreen, where ).

The emergence of CHAZ has fascinated America’s media and politicians — Trump tweeted that it must be ‘stooped’ [sic]. The right-wing media suggested it was being policed by gun-toting militia demanding contributions from shops. There may be a lot of disinformation happening — this article seems like a reliable account. CHAZ’ first town hall sounded chaotic (or just boring — easier to make speeches about history than get shit done?)

The goal was to hear speeches from local Black and Indigenous leaders, and then to break up into small groups to brainstorm ways to address concerns about trash, traffic, helping small businesses, establishing accountability structures within a non-hierarchical social arrangement, and whatever else came up. Organizers ended up canceling the group sessions in favor of hearing from more speakers…The general consensus among the Black leaders seemed to be something like: Okay, so most of you seem to want to turn this police station into a community center? Good luck with that!

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CHAZ’ first town-hall meeting. Speeches were made, history was taught.

As I’ve said, I hope CHAZ stays a peaceful, inspiring, temporary festival of the future, and that it manages to reintegrate with the rest of Seattle and the United States peacefully and with pride.

Unfortunately, the radical left has a knack for shooting itself in the foot, either falling apart in squabbles, or lurching into authoritarianism. Then the enemies of reform happily seize on the excesses of the left to avoid genuine and necessary changes.

I very much hope the mutual aid revolution continues, and I applaud it, but not as far as the total dismantling of the democratic state. Smaller police force yes, total abolition of the police force, no.

And I wonder — how do we sustain the spirit of mutual aid beyond this heroic spring, and into the harsh winter? How can the state best support and interact with mutual aid groups, at national and local levels?

How can mutual aid groups compete with gangs — those toxic mutual aid groups that will flourish in the cracks as the economy shrinks 11% this year and people turn to drugs and prostitution to pay their bills and numb their pain?

Perhaps the deepest question at the heart of this is: who are we? Who do we think we are? What do we think of our neighbours and ourselves? Can we imagine a better world?

I feel my historical pessimism at such moments, my wariness of utopias, my suspicion of sudden radical changes and their hijacking by thugs and psychopaths like Hitler and Stalin.

But I’m sure mutual aid groups really do work, within the context of a state structure of liberal democracy (with police, military, law courts etc). And I hope we do invest more in mutual aid networks, and less in police, prisons and pharmaceuticals.

On the defunding of police, check out this excellent thread on Elinor Ostrom, Nobel prize winning economist of ‘the commons’, and her work exploring how smaller and lower funded police tended to perform better than larger and bigger-funded forces.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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