From The Guardian UK by Rebecca Solnit, Thu 14 May 2020 01.00 EDT
Amid this unfolding disaster, we have seen countless acts of kindness and solidarity. It’s this spirit of generosity that will help guide us out of this crisis and into a better future.
People behaving badly is a staple of the news, and the pandemic has given us plenty of lurid snapshots. In the US alone, we have seen protesters with guns in Michigan’s capital demanding an end to lockdown, anti-vaxxer women in a frenzy at California’s capitol, opportunists stockpiling hand sanitiser to resell for profit.
One of the biggest cliches about disasters is that they reveal civilisation as a thin veneer, beneath which lies brutal human nature. From this perspective, the best we can hope for from most people under crisis is selfish indifference; at worst, they will swiftly turn to violence. Our worst instincts must be repressed. This becomes a justification for authoritarianism and heavy-handed policing.
But studies of historical disasters have shown that this is not how most people actually behave. There are nearly always selfish and destructive people, and they are often in power, because we have created systems that reward that kind of personality and those principles. But the great majority of people in ordinary disasters behave in ways that are anything but selfish, and if we’re stuck with veneer as a metaphor, then it peels off to reveal a lot of creative and generous altruism and brilliant grassroots organising. With the global pandemic, these empathic urges and actions are wider and deeper and more consequential than ever.
A dozen years ago, the term “mutual aid” was, as far as I can tell, used mostly by anarchists and scholars. Somehow it has migrated into general usage in recent years and now, in the midst of the pandemic, it is everywhere. Mutual aid has generally meant aid offered in a spirit of solidarity and reciprocity, often coming from within struggling communities, empowering those aided, and with an eye towards liberation and social change. Generally it meant volunteer coalitions doing work such as rebuilding or food distribution or supporting resistance camps. 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.
This work has been made more difficult by the great withdrawal – the empty schools, shops, streets and offices. And that withdrawal is itself altruism in action – a withdrawal carried out by billions for the benefit of their communities, as well as their own safety. In the initial phase, we withdrew from the spaces we share out of solidarity: we moved apart to come together. We intentionally produced, in the form of business and school shutdowns and staying home, an unprecedented economic calamity as an alternative to accepting mass death.
In March, many small business owners and service workers in the US willingly shut down their enterprises, and thereby their livelihood, even before the official orders came. In April, 50 restaurant owners in the Atlanta area publicly rejected the Georgia governor’s invitation to reopen. Together they took out an ad in a local newspaper and wrote: “We agree that it’s in the best interest of our employees, our guests, our community and our industry to keep our dining rooms closed at this time.”
For some, staying home may be a strain, but for others it means financial ruin. Sacrificing your own financial security for the common good was a solemn commitment that people made across the world. It was one of the things that made this crisis distinct: how often refraining, not doing, not going anywhere, not continuing activities, was also an act of public-spirited generosity. This is willing sacrifice for the public good. But people have been doing more than that.
In March, the UK’s National Health Service called for 250,000 volunteers to sign up to help seniors, people who were isolating and medical staff who needed deliveries. More than three times that many signed up. Appreciation for the NHS grew even stronger, and the widespread weekly rounds of applause for its workers became one of the welcome interruptions of isolation. 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 my area in London, we have had so many [mutual aid groups] that we’ve spun off down to street level,” one Londoner told me. “Our two-street collective has done shopping, picked up medicines, created an Easter-egg -in-the-window hunt for kids, all to help one another.” Another wrote: “Hackney in London has all the usual stuff like grocery buying and support, plus people are sourcing donated phones for people in hospital, laptops for kids who need them to access home learning and cars for healthcare staff redeployed to the makeshift Covid-19 hospital.”
A few weeks ago, I heard someone complain that Lexington, Kentucky, had four mutual aid groups – they were concerned that so many volunteers would be redundant; I was awestruck by the abundance. In the course of writing this piece, I looked at various new mutual aid projects: meal deliveries to the elderly in Paterson, New Jersey; the Twin Cities Queer and Trans Mutual Aid group in Minneapolis-Saint Paul; projects to aid the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo on reservations in the US south-west; a Washington state project to support the undocumented; sex workers organising to raise emergency funds.
I saw people stuck at home in isolation teach dance and drawing classes, tell stories, play music online to encourage others quarantining in place; Italians singing together from their balconies and Iranians reciting poetry from theirs; a young native Nevadan going fishing to feed members of her Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe. Most of us have seen, or performed, one-off acts of kindness – running an errand for a frail neighbour, chalking a cheerful message on the pavement, picking up the shopping bill for the struggling couple at the checkout, donating to a fundraiser for an acquaintance who has been laid off or taken ill. But such individual actions are not enough to address this triple catastrophe of a viral pandemic, a financial collapse and the emotional, educational and other consequences of the great withdrawal.
Thus there are also people building organisations to provide broader, ongoing practical aid – such as the young people in more than a dozen US cities delivering groceries and supplies to older and immunocompromised people via a network called Zoomers to Boomers – and others organising emotional support for those who feel isolated, including the UK’s adopt-a-grandparent programme. There are new groups, projects, organisations and networks, and old ones retooling for the crisis.
Fiji-based climate organiser Thelma Young-Lutunatabua told me about the return of traditional Fijian forms of equitable, cooperative food distribution to make sure no one was left out. “The way we get through this is together,” she said.
Fifteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a mutual aid organisation called Common Ground Relief was founded by a handful of people inside the damaged area, including the former Black Panther Malik Rahim. (In the US, perhaps the most famous past examples of mutual aid are the Black Panther party’s 1960s-era food programmes to assuage hunger in inner-city neighbourhoods.) The group’s slogan was “solidarity not charity”, a phrase inspired by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”
As a definition of mutual aid’s ideals, “solidarity not charity” surfaces constantly today. Charity often implies that the afflicted population is powerless or incompetent to address its own needs. Sometimes, it can take away confidence and pride even as it gives tangible aid. Solidarity is, first of all, an affirmation that we are in this together, and mutual aid demonstrates that even in crisis we have strength and capacity to care for ourselves. The term comes from the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin’s 1902 book Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution, which argues that aiding and protecting others and serving the needs of the group rather than the individual has been essential to the survival of many species, and is evident in early and traditional human societies.
In the time of coronavirus, mutual aid has been used to describe myriad new volunteer cooperative projects that have arisen in response to disaster. But the landscape of outreach is complex and varied. Take, for example, the creation and circulation of masks. There is a whole spectrum of mask economies from corrupt profiteering and outright theft – including by the US federal government – to the very different world of creative mutual aid. Many of us, myself included, have made a few masks for those we know. Others have gone into bulk production.
San Francisco local government supervisor Matt Haney fundraised and organised the distribution of thousands of masks for the impoverished, densely housed – and houseless – residents of the city’s Tenderloin district, which he represents. Adriana Camarena, a lawyer from Mexico City, realised that the undocumented day labourers near her home in San Francisco’s Mission district had few supplies and little access to health information to meet the crisis. So she began making and distributing cloth masks and hand sanitiser, and giving brief educational talks to go with them.
Meanwhile, the artist and art professor Stephanie Syjuco settled into mask mass production to meet the needs of people in Oakland and Berkeley, starting with masks for a group working to address food insecurity among UC Berkeley students. By late April, she had personally made 700 masks. And the Auntie Sewing Squad, founded by Los Angeles performance artist Kristina Wong, now includes more than 500 members, and has produced more than 20,000 masks, by Wong’s count.
The aunties (and uncles, but mostly aunties) began by making masks for hospital workers, and then for farmworkers, people released by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or getting out of prison, immigrant communities and other vulnerable groups. It’s a model of decentralised, volunteer-driven organising: whoever finds a need obtains pledges from makers until the required number is reached, and the beautifully made masks are gathered and shipped to their destination. Many pay for their own materials and shipping, and donations support others. This week, the squad is sending a van full of supplies, including masks, materials and three sewing machines, to the Navajo nation, which has been hard hit by the virus. The Navajo is just one of several indigenous communities they have reached out to.
The Auntie Sewing Squad even expanded to include cooking to support those who sew. “When you’ve been bent over a sewing machine for 12 hours, a nice order of pad thai is really welcome,” one auntie told me.
The US mask-makers, like donors to food-distribution programmes, are in part compensating for governmental failure. Had the federal government prepared for crisis, and supported the scientific advice on how to respond to pandemics, the need for these mutual aid efforts could have been smaller. There has been much talk of the underlying health conditions that make individuals more vulnerable to Covid-19. The US as a whole has underlying conditions – systemic racism, poverty and financial precariousness, lack of access to healthcare and the internet for rural and poor families – that have made this crisis far worse than it should have been. The old conservative argument against social programmes was that these needs should be met by individual and independent institutions’ generosity. In unequal societies, these were never enough to meet the need.
What is noteworthy for me about this crisis is that there is no clear distinction between purely volunteer- and donation-driven projects, and a host of other endeavours trying to meet the needs of the moment. There are many ways that businesses and workers are stepping up or shifting what they do and how they do it, out of altruism. A Buddhist group in Tallahassee, Florida, raised $500,000 to purchase masks from China for medical workers in their area. The jet belonging to the New England Patriots football team brought 1.2m masks directly from China to circumvent the federal government’s outbidding of Massachusetts on personal protective equipment (PPE).
Elsewhere, the New York Times reported on Amish families who, as other jobs dried up, turned to mass-producing cloth masks, face shields and other PPE for the Cleveland clinic, which urgently needed them. (This, like the California government program that lets otherwise shuttered restaurants deliver meals to isolated senior citizens, is when aid becomes literally mutual, meeting needs on both sides of the interaction.) Then there’s the 43 Pennsylvania factory workers who chose to isolate themselves in their workplace for a 28-day marathon of 12-hour days, during which they produced tens of millions of pounds of polypropylene, the raw material from which a lot of PPE is made. Like the Amish, they were paid for their work, and were working in intense new ways, fuelled by social commitment, to meet an urgent need. One of the workers said: “We’ve been getting messages on social media from nurses, doctors, emergency workers, saying thank you for what we’re doing. But we want to thank them for what they did and are continuing to do. That’s what made the time we were in there go by quickly, just being able to support them.”
During the final 1,000 days of the second world war, shipyard workers in the San Francisco Bay Area produced 1,000 warships – a warship a day. Something like that epic, urgent industry seems to be at work now, but outside the federal government, or any government. In early April, the Bay Area branch of the news site Hoodline reported: “On Thursday morning, two tons of rolled sheet plastic arrived at a warehouse in Alameda. By the end of the weekend, it had become 16,000 plastic face shields. That remarkable turnaround is entirely owed to self-organisation by Bay Area makers, who have transformed maker spaces, universities, fabrication shops and almost anyone with their own sewing machine, CNC machine or 3D printer into an ad-hoc corps of medical supply manufacturers.” The report called the self-organised effort involving industrial-design students and teachers a “distributed factory”. Such decentralised efforts, organised without top-down authority, are exemplary mutual aid.
In April, 14 nurses and seven doctors from the same institution set off for a one-month assignment on the Navajo reservation, whose residents are facing high levels of infection. They were coordinated by the existing UCSF Heal Initiative (Health, Equity, Action and Leadership), which works with impoverished and vulnerable communities from Haiti to Nepal. Its mission statement is: “We seek to embody solidarity and contribute to the movement for global health equity led by communities themselves.” This initiative, based on the principle of “solidarity not charity”, has been working with communities under stress for six years, and will still be there when the immediate crisis is over.
During “ordinary” disasters – a hurricane, an earthquake – there’s a phenomenon called volunteer convergence, whereby people eager to help gather in the impacted areas. Sometimes so many people and so much donated material shows up that they pose management problems for those at the centre of the crisis. This is not an ordinary disaster – the impacted area is all over the world, and convergence is banned – but people are showing up in many ways. Some of this work is always going on – there is always suffering and injustice to assuage, and there are always people trying to do so.
Even ordinary disasters never really end. There are many ways in which Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans and other parts of the gulf coast lasted – though there are, at least, some positive aspects to this lingering impact. The Common Ground Health Clinic spun off from Common Ground Relief. Fifteen years on, it’s still delivering free medical care in the New Orleans region.
The Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis will not end – if ending means things going back to the way they were. Whatever “normal” meant on 1 January 2020, it will never return, and neither will millions of the jobs financed by the disposable income that has just dried up. It’s worth remembering that, in the past few decades, the return to 19th-century robber-baron capitalism – via the dismantling of social safety nets, and the transformation of education, healthcare and other basic human needs into for-profit schemes that served shareholders first – meant that everyday life had already become a disaster for too many billions of people before this crisis.
There is a long, rough road ahead. Without radical change, the way food, shelter, medical care and education are produced and distributed will be more unfair and more devastating than before. It seems likely that conservatives will argue for brutal austerity and libertarian abandonment of the most desperate, while the rest of us are going to have to argue for some form of post-capitalism that decouples meeting basic needs from wage labour – perhaps the kind of basic income that Spain is planning to introduce.
The devastating economic effect of the pandemic will make innovation essential, whether it is rethinking higher education or food distribution, or how to fund news media. The Green New Deal offers a model for how to move forward on jobs and leave fossil fuels behind as that sector founders and climate catastrophe looms. Protests in many fields – including nurses demanding PPE, and warehouse, delivery and food-service workers protesting against exploitative or unsafe working conditions – suggests that workers’ organisations may be gaining strength.
I believe the generosity and solidarity in action in the present moment offers a foreshadowing of what is possible – and necessary. The basic generosity and empathy of most ordinary people should be regarded as a treasure, a light and an energy source that can drive a better society, if it is recognised and encouraged. Mostly, it’s overlooked, undermined and sabotaged. Capitalism, and its octopus arms of entertainment, advertising and marketing, endeavour to reduce us to consumers. This means making us the kind of miserable, selfish, lonely people who seek fulfllment through buying stuff, and believe in competitiveness as a basic social force. Competitiveness, that driving word behind free-market ideology, means we are rivals and there is scarcity; each of us gets more by seeing that someone else gets less.
Competition is the antithesis of mutual aid, which is not only a practical tool but an ideological insurrection. The fact that even in places like the US, where these competitive, isolating messages have bombarded us for at least 150 years, millions still reach out in generosity, and are still moved to meet the needs that become visible in moments such as this, is testament to something about human nature and human possibility. Those urges are strong and deep, and they can be a foundation for something different. Indeed, they often have been before, when European social welfare was built up, when US social safety nets were created, and when people self-organised on smaller scales to take care of each other.
Some of that sense of urgency and shared destiny will fade away, as it often does after a disaster, but one of the important things to remember is that some of it was here before this pandemic. I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organisations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers. Imagine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda.
What I have seen after earlier disasters is that a lot of people aspire to “go home” and “back to normal”, but some find in the moment a sense of self and a sense of connection so meaningful that something about who they were and what they did in the crisis carries forward into how they live the rest of their life. Sometimes this is as intangible as a change of priorities and habits, and a new sense of agency; not uncommonly, it’s as substantial as a new coalition, a new network, a new set of policy priorities, a new political career or a decision to go into work that supports the whole. And even those who want things to get back to normal often find they are changed permanently in their sense of who they are, and what matters most.
The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity. An artist hunched over her sewing machine, a young person delivering groceries on his bicycle, a nurse suiting up for the ICU, a doctor heading to the Navajo nation, a graduate student hip-deep in Pyramid Lake catching trout for elders, a programmer setting up a website to organise a community: the work is under way. It can be the basis for the future, if we can recognise the value of these urges and actions, recognise that things can and must change profoundly, and if we can tell other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible.