why we feel so driven to help each other through the coronavirus crisis

from the conversation. com

This anarchist thinker helps explain why we feel so driven to help each other through the coronavirus crisis

Empty supermarket shelves and panicked government briefings have become the defining images of the coronavirus crisis. But the community response, however, may well be a more enduring feature. The virus and the enforcement of social isolation have sparked uncertainty and anxiety. But a range of local volunteer-run mutual aid networks have also emerged.

Many of the people involved in these groups know that the term “mutual aid” was made famous by the 19th-century anarchist Peter Kropotkin. He used it to attack Social Darwinists who described nature as a competitive fight between self-interested individuals. “Survival of the fittest” became their catch phrase and was used to describe antagonistic relationships between people, races and states. This way of thinking normalised aggression as a natural response to scarcity.

In the present context, the implication is that scrapping for the last bottle of hand sanitiser or roll of toilet paper is a programmed, inevitable response. If only the strongest survive, then others should be seen as rivals or even enemies and we are right to take all necessary measures to preserve ourselves against them.

Although Kropotkin accepted that competition was a factor determining biological fitness, his argument was that cooperation – or mutual aid – was as significant.

As an ethical idea, mutual aid describes the efforts people make to help others without seeking reward. It thrives in local, voluntary organisation. The Lifeboat Association, initiated in the UK by William Hillary to support the foundation of a national institution to save victims of shipwrecks, was an example of the ethical self-organising that Kropotkin had in mind.

Hillary appealed to the king in 1825 to support his project, explaining that his aim was to aid “people and vessels of every nation, whether in peace or in war”. His cause was at once “individual, national, and universal”. He imagined that the establishment of a British association would inspire the foundation of sister organisations across the world.

Kropotkin liked the Lifeboat Association because it relied on “cooperation … enthusiasm … local knowledge”. It rescued anyone in need and because it depended on local action, it could be replicated easily elsewhere. It was a template for global networking to build solidarity.

Working together in a time of crisis

This is the spirit we see in the support networks emerging as people confront the coronavirus pandemic. Neighbours helping neighbours. Those who are able to leave their homes are collecting prescriptions and essential supplies for the vulnerable. Groups networking across towns and cities are pooling resources so that no one is left without.

Community support has always been a core aspect of human social life. Research looking at the way people go about their different everyday tasks shows that far more time than we might imagine is spent on unpaid community support. Mutual aid and cooperation – such as neighbours looking after each other’s children or helping each other fix their cars – run through society. It is a mistake to think that the prospect of profit motivates our behaviour.

A statue of Peter Kropotkin in the Kropotkin House Museum, Dmitrov, Russia.
Ruth Kenna, Author provided

Mutual aid is often seen in times of crisis or horrible catastrophe – for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the US and the Grenfell fire in London. Its emergence now bears out Kropotkin’s observations about the capacity for everyday solidarity. The question he would ask is: how can we expand these practices to rethink our social organisation?

Kropotkin described the Lifeboat Association as “perfectly spontaneous”. This did not mean that he thought it was unplanned. It meant that it was not forced by law. Trust and practice were essential to Kropotkin’s vision of the world remade through cooperation and respect for local self-determination.

With resources stretched to their limits, governments all over the world are relying on mutual aid networks to help those most at risk by shopping for those in isolation or sending virtual messages of support to prevent demoralisation.

Perhaps, then, we can start to think about how to preserve community-based organisation in the post-coronavirus world.

There is a significant difference between the politics of mutual aid and neo-liberal projects intended to privatise government services. Kropotkin did not want to see responsibility for government services devolved to big corporations or cash strapped volunteers. His aim was to attack existing power structures. Mutual aid thrives in conditions of equality and it is a necessary part of an anarchist drive towards decentralised federation.

If business-as-usual austerity returns after the crisis, the fertile ground of mutual aid may well dry up. The maintenance and extension of basic income, in contrast, may help preserve and promote grassroots social change in the longer term.

There are 9 Comments

If I got a check every month and didn't have to work so much I could be a damn good anarchist.

yes, i also feel driven to help others because mutual aid was a term that was coined, ostensibly by a kropotkin.
this is very biological and innate. i often find myself struggling to keep myself from helping others, because the urge to help others is so strong, i’m on a fierce struggle against human nature every time i try to curtail this potent vital impulse. in fact sometimes i feel the evil forces of capitalism are an external alien invader that are the only thing preventing humans from flourishing in love and care.
do you feel the same way?

I also read that mutual aid was ostensibly talked about by Kropotkin. Who sez mutual aid is human nature, yet made void by the *unnatural* self-preservation and greedy tendencies COMPLETELY inculcated by the alien invasion that is capitalism. So it's human nature, but also not. Because.

Is it enlightened self interest, an ethical imperitive or a subconscious calculus that predicts what will enable the survival of the species? It seems to me that we exhibit cooperative and competitive behaviors while civilization grows towards complexity.

Well yes... and my sarcasm on Krapotkin's rosy view of mankind only has to do with this overly-Left idealistic position, that is not balanced or realistic at all. Humans got a terrible track record even with the great shit they did. I'd say any approach of anthopology that accepts the idea of a "human nature" is DOA, may it be equalitarian collectivists like Krapotkin or the Malthusian conservative blowhards, who're both pulling the Nature blanket on their respective, opposite sides.. and they overdid it so such they just tear it apart.

"Human nature" is a near-oxymoronic farce. Get rid of that dead horse.

Can we all have a moments silence for the old anarchists who will die because they refuse to participate in state testing or of being treated by capitalist doctors or the capitalist hospitals. RIP brave stubborn old syndicalists and leftist anarchists.

They eat food they have grown themselves at collectivist vegetable gardens. They barter any surplus for capitalist goods saying that recuperated capitalist goods are no longer carrying a debt to the workers who produced them.
Some of them work fpr capitalists and pay rent but escape any feelings of guilt for hypocrisy or weakness by saying sneeringly, whenever they pick up their wage, that they earned it against their will as slaves for an oppressive system.

It's about a mutual aid project that happened 100 years ago. The actual story of this project isn't being told, only that Kropotkin was supportive of it (worthy detail thanks lol).

Also I'm definitely not sure "we feel so driven to help each other through the coronavirus crisis". You mean those trivial toilet paper wars at the Costco? I'd like to see some tangible instances of mutual aid in the current context of increasing confinement, as nothing is looking too good.

Any reports on how the rent strikes are doing?

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