Reclaiming Power: Mutual Aid in the United States

In the midst of social crisis, mutual aid can help build collective infrastructure, and promote a parallel, shared economy.

With the COVID-19 pandemic’s exacerbation of unemployment, evictions, and food insecurity—as well as an encroaching authoritarian state—mutual aid must be a vital part of DSA’s strategy. Mutual aid is often defined by the slogan, “solidarity, not charity,” eschewing the hierarchical power dynamics and gatekeeping of large charities and, instead, encouraging folks to work as a community to ensure everyone’s needs are met with dignity. Within the past few months, it has been used as a conduit for disaster relief. However, mutual aid programs have deep philosophical roots in socialist and anarchist thought and a rich history as a survival tactic used by oppressed groups.

As the United States nears the election, and our only realistic options are right-wing candidates, mutual aid offers hope in the form of localized, community action and solidarity. In conjunction with DSA’s continued electoral strategy, strong mutual aid groups can build community, collective infrastructure, and promote a parallel, shared economy. However, many new DSA members—and older ones as well—may not be familiar with mutual aid, especially beyond disaster relief. In this article, I discuss past and current mutual aid projects in the United States. For example, I discuss how labor unions have historically shared resources and established benefit funds, while a coalition in the southern United States is building a people-powered movement of cooperative programs. In the current political and economic climate, I urge DSA chapters to prioritize mutual aid as part of building “dual power”—creating people-powered counter institutions while demanding change within electoral politics.

While some DSA chapters have centered mutual aid for years, enthusiasm peaked at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a pandemic response, many chapters have stood in solidarity with their communities by providing grocery and medicine delivery, PPE, financial assistance, and advocacy. The pandemic demonstrates the crucial role of mutual aid in our communities and, with continued government neglect, presents opportunities to expand mutual aid efforts. Across the county, DSA and YDSA chapters use mutual aid to create informal economies and outreach efforts. In Atlanta, Georgia Tech YDSA and the Metro Atlanta DSA have focused on assisting renters, providing grocery support, and planning for long-term food sovereignty through community gardening. The Milwaukee DSA chapter, like others, has formed a mutual aid working group, focusing on the combined power of mutual aid and solidarity economy institutions such as worker cooperatives, community land trusts, and time banking, among others. These principles of mutual aid have a long history.

In “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” Peter Kropotkin introduced the concept of mutual aid as a Darwinian tendency for animals and humans to cooperate and progress. He contrasts this with the prominent social Darwinism perspective of his time, which claimed evolution promoted competition among societies. He argues that the sociability of ants, bees, and birds—formed from a mutual struggle—led to cooperative, mutual aid, encouraging confidence and intellectual development. From the animal kingdom, he moves to examples of human mutual aid communities, from the earliest tribes and clans to the late 19th century labor movement. Kropotkin summarized what he considered the natural inclination of humanity—to be social, to cooperate, and to engage in mutual aid. He cites the various turns in world history where the downtrodden and oppressed have banded together and provided mutual aid amidst individualistic hegemony. Thus, despite setbacks by the individualistic tendencies of humans, he argues that mutual aid follows a scientific socialist approach, one in which humanity is progressing toward a socialist society. Regardless of the validity of his claim, his analysis of mutual aid has inspired many on the left.

In the United States, mutual aid projects flourished during times of intense oppression. In the late nineteenth century, mutual aid societies formed the foundation of labor unions. As Maya Adereth recently wrote in Jacobin, mutual aid was essential for the ongoing struggles of miners. Harboring an aversion to philanthropy, miners created benefit societies to ensure basic needs were met, such as medical and housing assistance. Adereth writes that unions were “explicitly conceived” as an association of mutual aid societies, harnessing the benefits of mutual aid with worker protections. The anarcho-syndicalist Sam Dolgoff goes further and claims union decline coincided with the rise of “business unionism” and the erosion of the mutual aid spirit among rank-and-file union members. He writes that the best achievements of unions were a result of cooperation and camaraderie—in the form of mutual aid—among workers. While mutual aid and unionism have parted ways, projects such as “Bargaining for the Common Good” have the potential to reunite the two. Unions partner with community and racial justice organizations, making demands that extend beyond higher wages.

In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party (BPP) created the most famous examples of mutual aid projects in the United States. BPP leaders were influenced by the communist revolution in China, particularly the communist party’s “serve the people” programs. In response to malnutrition in Black communities, the BPP started serving free breakfast to children—a program that spread across the nation and was subsequently co-opted by the U.S. government. Additionally, the BPP hosted free healthcare clinics and ran child care centers. Latinx communities also created mutual aid programs during the civil rights movement. The Young Lords, started in Chicago, quickly expanded in Puerto Rican neighborhoods across the United States. Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, leader of the Young Lords, was reportedly inspired by the Black Panthers, not only in using disruptive tactics but also creating mutual aid projects. In Chicago, the Young Lords occupied a church—calling it “the People’s Church”—and ran daycare, medical, and free breakfast programs.

Mutual aid during the labor and civil rights movements provide the most popular examples, but mutual aid groups have been a part of a consistent struggle throughout U.S. history. In the southwestern United States, indigenous groups banded together in sociedades mutualistas. The LGBTQ+ and disabled community have a long history of mutual aid, with many groups still operating. Food Not Bombs has been operating since the early 1980s as a collective that shares discarded food from local grocery stores or homemade vegan meals. While in Nashville, a neighborhood group practiced community self-defense to prevent a person from ICE detainment. Formal and informal mutual aid groups have served communities well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the current crisis has undoubtedly led to a resurgence of groups across the country.

Nearly every U.S. city and many rural areas have mutual aid groups responding to the consequences of the pandemic. Many have provided grocery pickup and delivery, PPE, financial support, rent assistance, medical support, and a general sense of solidarity with neighbors. Organizations that spawned from previous disaster relief efforts, such as Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, have provided ongoing support to local mutual aid groups during the pandemic. And, Mutual Aid Hub has documented mutual aid efforts throughout the United States and provides training and resources for mutual aid groups.

In the southern U.S., a coalition of mutual aid and advocacy groups has created the Southern Movement Assembly (SMA). The SMA’s membership includes the historic Highlander Center—an institution pivotal in forming union relations in the South and facilitating the work of many civil rights projects. Groups participating in the SMA operate with the shared goals of creating a new social economy, protecting and defending communities, and working towards a people’s democracy. Many SMA groups have a long history of mutual aid projects, extending the concept beyond survival and pushing to create a parallel economy. Project South, for example, provides mutual aid in the form of popular education, organization building, and legal advocacy. While others, such as Cooperation Jackson, form a network of worker cooperatives, encouraging the creation of a solidarity economy. A solidarity economy exists as a parallel economy to our current capitalist system. Those building a solidarity economy form worker co-operatives, community land trusts, and transformative justice alternatives to the current criminal justice system. The coalition of groups in the SMA is inspiring to say the least.

DSA would benefit from a similar strategy. Although some chapters are already using mutual aid to build community power, prioritizing mutual aid as a national strategy has many benefits. As an outreach strategy, mutual aid and solidarity economies demonstrate the daily work of socialists, detaching it from often toxic political discourse. With education and class consciousness, mutual aid makes the cause of socialism more local and personalized. In a country that propagated the Red Scare for decades, mutual aid counters the narrative of socialism as a failed, authoritarian system. Rather, mutual aid displays the failures and callousness of capitalism and showcases the radically democratic nature of people-powered institutions advocated by many socialists. There is much to battle, as the working class—especially in the South and rural areas—have not been exposed to socialism outside of a media bogeyman. However, mutual aid can challenge this perspective by building concrete relationships with the poor and working class. These relationships reinforce the ethics and justice of socialism. When people are given agency rather than dependency, they are more prone to recognize that charities—and purposefully inadequate social systems—are perpetrators of oppressive, capitalist structures. The community that mutual aid builds helps transform the American cultural standard of rugged individualism into collective responsibility.

As another strategy, DSA could focus on mutual aid to create dual power. Lenin coined the term “dual power” to describe the dynamic between the counter-governmental institutions of the Russian soviets and the provisional liberal government of 1917. He saw counter-governmental institutions as a force of revolutionary transition. Lenin and Trotsky perceived dual power as a necessary contradiction, two forces competing for the same power. They argued, however, that counter-governments built the infrastructure for a successful revolution. After the revolution, power would then transfer from the counter-governments to the new state. In modern usage, dual power has been used by libertarian socialists to describe a strategy that creates counter institutions while challenging the structures of capitalism. For DSA, this could be building mutual aid and solidarity economies while also influencing electoral politics. A DSA chapter with a solid mutual aid infrastructure also has the advantage of greater influence on local governments. We know historically that local and grassroots movements in the United States have succeeded in influencing social and economic change. Additionally, in our current political climate, building socialist counter-institutions is more important than ever. Regardless of the election outcome, U.S. politics continues its shift toward the right. The Democratic Party is openly courting Republicans, further solidifying the single rule of the capitalist class and corporate oligarchy. Therefore, DSA must build power outside of electoral politics.

I am happy to see a national Mutual Aid Working Group, but DSA is missing opportunities if building community power is not prioritized as highly as its legislative efforts. Mutual aid is not mere charity, but an opportunity to build actionable, localized socialist communities. As an outreach tool, mutual aid demonstrates the power of ordinary people to make change—channeling into the predominant cultural milieu of volunteerism and self-agency. As its primary strategy, however, DSA must embrace dual power, focusing on mutual aid to become a more powerful political force. Currently, the National Political Committee (NPC) has prioritized legislative initiatives—such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. While these initiatives deserve their priority, DSA lacks the counter-institutions that will serve us in the interim and build grassroots power. The Mutual Aid Working Group is a start, but it is insufficient. Rather, DSA must prioritize a national Mutual Aid Committee alongside its legislative efforts. A prioritized Mutual Aid Committee would encourage localized action and provide resources for building a solidarity economy. If we are to be successful, we must build from the ground up.