Why is ‘mutual aid’ an important subject to this publication? Because it is occurring all around us, in the background of life, in a myriad of forms, constantly tapping into human society’s ability to be creative, generous and co-operative. And because so many people have come to rely upon it for a good quality of life.
Coronavirus is pushing this human attribute to its limit, and many more lives and livelihoods have come to rely upon the support of their community. The most uplifting moment of this terrible crisis, I think, was the collective rush to action, as thousands of different people signed up to help out complete strangers.
Why is ‘mutual aid’ so important now?
Because this public health crisis has exposed the gaps in our Welfare State and asked even more of Civil Society. A decade of budget cuts has seen Civil Society increasingly take on the responsibility of the State.
Concurrently, due to funding cuts, Local Councils were told to make private investments to supplement their income, which are now failing due to Coronavirus, which will inevitably lead to new demands for spending cuts. This will ask even more of the Charity Sector, which is already facing its own £12.4 billion shortfall in funding this year.
While it was pleasing to see the swell of voluntarism at the start of the crisis, the economic hardship Coronavirus will bring is yet to fully unfold. It is more important than ever to redouble our support for Civil Society and the local communities around us, and not to forget that voluntary ethos which swept the nation.
Why is ‘mutual aid’ so good?
Because it is versatile, and as creative as the faculties of the people involved, and their ability to think and work collectively. The ability of powerless individuals, to spontaneously pool their resources, exercise democratic principles of organisation, and then tackle a real community problem, which is impressive and unmeasurable.
‘Mutual aid’ groups originated as a materialisation of working-class economic solidarity in the late c.19th and early c.20th. Taking the form of ‘friendly societies’, providing “collective solutions to the economic risks associated with sickness, old age, and death”. Many within a community could make small contributions and still have insurance, due to their being more buyers, thus a larger risk pool (and larger pot of money to spend).
A ‘mutual aid’ group now, can be anything from an affordable community dance class, to a food bank. Further benefits of ‘mutual aid’ is its local operation, and ability to respond to human needs and wants very efficiently, due to established and trusted social ties within the community. Also, the altruistic work ethic in ‘mutual aid’ work can be a better driver than the profit motive, for certain kinds of services, such as health.
Why is ‘mutual aid’ bad?
Because sometimes it is doing the job of the State, and conceals problems that need fixing! Historically, it was the fractured ‘mutual aid’ system that could not maintain public wellbeing to a proper standard, which prompted the first string of welfare legislations, leading to the Welfare State we enjoy today.
The New Liberal Government of the early twentieth century passed the National Insurance Act (1911), indicating a desired shift to universal benefits owed, by right, to every Citizen, and to be provided by the State. But how could the ‘nationalisation’ of mutual society be bad, if the State was to prevent anyone falling through the cracks of the previously fragmented welfare system?
While the Welfare State in theory embodies the traits of ‘mutual aid’, such as altruism and generosity, in practice it can be bureaucratized and mechanical, excluding people from care due to logistical nightmares. Conversely, ‘mutual aid’ is reliant on funding from the State, alongside donations, and as effective as its budget will stretch. While the State maintains a consistent and considerable spending power.
But what now, as we see ‘mutual aid’ fill in the gaps left by an underfunded Welfare State? Is this a binary choice, where we are forced to go back to a voluntary society where we rely on our local community alone? Of course not.
What can we hope for in the future?
A happy medium can occur, where Civil Society and ‘mutual aid’ groups compliment the State’s core social services (health, education etc.). Although this should not substitute for comprehensive, professional care owed by the State to citizens, by right.
This is thankfully already occurring; your GP can issue you a ‘social prescription’, directing you to a local community service, such as an exercise or support group, as your medicine. Rather than prescribing you medication immediatly.
This maintains a personal care and local community ethos only ‘mutual aid’ groups can provide, while attaching this service to the financial power of the State. If a ‘mutual aid’ group is doing something well, there is no reason why the Government shouldn’t fund these services in some capacity.
What are we trying to do as a Civil Society group?
ChoiSe is attempting to encourage its readership to become more informed, engage in activism, or donate to a local cause.
The act of sharing information itself can be a conscious exercise in being a part of Civil Society. ChoiSe supports Civil Society partnership, and is open to any article ideas you may have on charities and wider Civil Society that are important to you.
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