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Coronavirus (23): Mutual Aid During a Pandemic (or Three Cheers for the Volunteers!)

There is a really wonderful, thought-provoking article in New Yorker magazine: "What Mutual Aid Can Do During a Pandemic: A Radical Practice is Suddenly Getting Mainstream Attention. Will it Change How We Help One Another?" by Jia Tolentino. It heralds the greatness of the "Invisible Hand" that guides mutual aid among caring, human beings, in the midst of a pandemic.

Here are a few takeaway points from the article---a rather extraordinary piece to be found in such a mainstream magazine. Of special attention to freedom-lovers is its citing of journalist Rose Wilder Lane, whose book, The Discovery of Freedom, was published in the same year as Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine and Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead.

In the midst of World War II, these three women, whose books were all published in 1943, heralded the birth of the modern libertarian movement. From the Tolentino article:

We are not accustomed to destruction looking, at first, like emptiness. The coronavirus pandemic is disorienting in part because it defies our normal cause-and-effect shortcuts to understanding the world. The source of danger is invisible; the most effective solution involves willing paralysis; we won't know the consequences of today's actions until two weeks have passed. Everything circles a bewildering paradox: other people are both a threat and a lifeline. Physical connection could kill us, but civic connection is the only way to survive.
In March, even before widespread workplace closures and self-isolation, people throughout the country began establishing informal networks to meet the new needs of those around them. In Aurora, Colorado, a group of librarians started assembling kits of essentials for the elderly and for children who wouldn't be getting their usual meals at school. Disabled people in the Bay Area organized assistance for one another; a large collective in Seattle set out explicitly to help "Undocumented, LGBTQI, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Elderly, and Disabled, folxs who are bearing the brunt of this social crisis." Undergrads helped other undergrads who had been barred from dorms and cut off from meal plans. Prison abolitionists raised money so that incarcerated people could purchase commissary soap. And, in New York City, dozens of groups across all five boroughs signed up volunteers to provide child care and pet care, deliver medicine and groceries, and raise money for food and rent. Relief funds were organized for movie-theatre employees, sex workers, and street venders. Shortly before the city's restaurants closed, on March 16th, leaving nearly a quarter of a million people out of work, three restaurant employees started the Service Workers Coalition, quickly raising more than twenty-five thousand dollars to distribute as weekly stipends. Similar groups, some of which were organized by restaurant owners, are now active nationwide.
As the press reported on this immediate outpouring of self-organized voluntarism, the term applied to these efforts, again and again, was "mutual aid," which has entered the lexicon of the coronavirus era alongside "social distancing" and "flatten the curve." It's not a new term, or a new idea, but it has generally existed outside the mainstream. Informal child-care collectives, transgender support groups, and other ad-hoc organizations operate without the top-down leadership or philanthropic funding that most charities depend on. There is no comprehensive directory of such groups, most of which do not seek or receive much attention. But, suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere.
On March 17th, I signed up for a new mutual-aid network in my neighborhood, in Brooklyn, and used a platform called Leveler to make micropayments to out-of-work freelancers. Then I trekked to the thirty-five-thousand-square-foot Fairway in Harlem to meet Liam Elkind, a founder of Invisible Hands, which was providing free grocery delivery to the elderly, the ill, and the immunocompromised in New York. Elkind, a junior at Yale, had been at his family's place, in Morningside Heights, for spring break when the crisis began. Working with his friends Simone Policano, an artist, and Healy Chait, a business major at N.Y.U., he built the group's sleek Web site in a day. During the next ninety-six hours, twelve hundred people volunteered; some of them helped to translate the organization's flyer into more than a dozen languages and distributed copies of it to buildings around the city. By the time I met him, Elkind and his co-founders had spoken to people hoping to create Invisible Hands chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. The group was featured on "Fox & Friends," in a segment about young people stepping up in the pandemic; the co-host Brian Kilmeade encouraged viewers to send in more "inspirational stories and photos of people doing great things." ...
Radicalism has been at the heart of mutual aid since it was introduced as a political idea. In 1902, the Russian naturalist and anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin---who was born a prince in 1842, got sent to prison in his early thirties for belonging to a banned intellectual society, and spent the next forty years as a writer in Europe---published the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Kropotkin identifies solidarity as an essential practice in the lives of swallows and marmots and primitive hunter-gatherers; cooperation, he argues, was what allowed people in medieval villages and nineteenth-century farming syndicates to survive. That inborn solidarity has been undermined, in his view, by the principle of private property and the work of state institutions. Even so, he maintains, mutual aid is "the necessary foundation of everyday life" in downtrodden communities, and "the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race."
Charitable organizations are typically governed hierarchically, with decisions informed by donors and board members. Mutual-aid projects tend to be shaped by volunteers and the recipients of services. Both mutual aid and charity address the effects of inequality, but mutual aid is aimed at root causes---at the structures that created inequality in the first place. ...
Historically, in the United States, mutual-aid networks have proliferated mostly in communities that the state has chosen not to help. The peak of such organizing may have come in the late sixties and early seventies, when Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries opened a shelter for homeless trans youth, in New York, and the Black Panther Party started a free-breakfast program, which within its first year was feeding twenty thousand children in nineteen cities across the country. J. Edgar Hoover worried that the program would threaten "efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for"; a few years later, the federal government formalized its own breakfast program for public schools.
Crises can intensify the antagonism between the government and mutual-aid workers. Dozens of cities restrict community efforts to feed the homeless; in 2019, activists with No More Deaths, a group that leaves water and supplies in border-crossing corridors, were tried on federal charges, including driving in a wilderness area and "abandoning property." But disasters can also force otherwise opposing sides to work together. During Hurricane Sandy, the National Guard, in the face of government failure, relied on the help of an Occupy Wall Street offshoot, Occupy Sandy, to distribute supplies.
"Anarchists are not absolutist," Spade, the lawyer and activist, told me. "We can believe in a diversity of tactics." ... The day-to-day practice of mutual aid is simpler. It is a matter, she said, of "prefiguring the world in which you want to live.” ... In her book Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, the Harvard political scientist Nancy L. Rosenblum considers the American fondness for acts of neighborly aid and cooperation, both in ordinary times, as with the pioneer practice of barn raising, and in periods of crisis. In Rosenblum's view, "there is little evidence that disaster generates an appetite for permanent, energetic civic engagement." On the contrary, "when government and politics disappear from view as they do, we are left with the not-so-innocuous fantasy of ungoverned reciprocity as the best and fully adequate society." She cites the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, who helped her mother craft classic narratives of neighborly kindness and became a libertarian who opposed the New Deal and viewed Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. ...
All the organizers I spoke to expressed a version of the hope that, after we emerge from isolation, much more will seem possible, that we will expect more of ourselves and of one another, that we will be permanently struck by the way our actions depend on and affect people we may never see or know.

Whether or not you like the politics of some of the folks cited, the whole article is worthy of your attention.

And three cheers for the volunteers.

This page has been translated into French by Jean-Etienne Bergemer.