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...
Professor Ruth Kinna and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow Thomas Swann, discuss how the anarchist thinker explains why we feel the need to help each other in the coronavirus pandemic in the Conversation.
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