Mutual Aid, Money and Shame
There is a lot to be said for the sudden upsurge in Mutual Aid groups up and down the country due to Covid-19. From the ways in which many of those groups are laced with individualism and charity, to the ways in which conversations around deserving and undeserving poor have occasionally materialised, not to mention regular incursions of casual white supremacy and classism. These aren't the things I want to focus upon right now, though they will shimmer in the background throughout.
Despite the criticisms, I think the emergence of these Mutual Aid groups is a positive. It speaks to the fact that despite a decade or twenty of propaganda by the owning and ruling class, a large number of us maintain a level of recognition that we aren't just individuals, that we our entanglements with one another matter, and that we are both reliant on each other and responsible for one another. Not only does that recognition exist, but we are able in different ways to act upon it. I had never doubted this was the case amongst the communities and neighbourhoods I am from, where poverty is high, and social bonds are thicker, but in what is undoubtedly a social health crisis, and an economic crisis, it appears that in communities where security are the norm, this recognition and the impulse to act on it are coming to the fore. As the state tries to point fingers and encourage us to brand our friends and neighbours as selfish people, many are getting down to the work of looking after our communties.
It is glaringly apparent now, that both the social health and economic crisis will lead to responses by the state and by capital that will have the greatest affect on those who are usually impacted most by the actions of the state and capital. Roxy Legane has spoken with precision about the how a Covid-19 society is impacted on the lives of BAME communities, and evidence is growing that Covid-19 is reinforcing racial inqualities. Others have pointed to the ways in which the fall out for women from Covid-19 will mean they bare the brunt and that it will be a disaster for feminism. Similarly young people who are marginalised in a variety of ways will be subject to policies and practices that are detrimental to their lives. Not only will those already living in poverty be pushed further away from survival, but more and more working class people will be pushed into poverty.
This is the future and present context of these embryonic Mutual Aid groups, right now those of us who part of these groups are picking up groceries, collecting prescriptions from the chemists, posting mail, helping top up with electric and gas, making friendly phone calls to break up periods of isolation, but along the line other things are going to be asked for, in many contexts they already are. In the first fortnight of the shutdown in the UK I received over hundreds of requests via whatsapp, email and facebook, occasionally asking for advice on where illegal drugs could still be found, but far more regularly whether I knew of anywhere they could get immediate financial support from. Half of these requests were from my old city of Nottingham, from people I'd worked with on community projects, and the rest came from up and down the country from people who had read my book “Chav Solidarity” or the journal I co-edit “Lumpen” where conversations about wealth redistribution and the importance of poor and working class organising are front and centre. It was fortunate that at the same time as this happened around 30 different people with a bit of extra money to spare got in contact asking if I knew of people in need of support. Very quickly that money was distributed. Over the same period of time dozens of people have got in contact to facilitate conversations because their Mutual Aid groups would need to start thinking financial redistribution and collectivisation. .
In case you haven't heard of it there's a group on Facebook called UK Mutual Aid (1), a grassroots project run by Eshe Kiama Zuri of Notts Activist Wellness since Dec 2018 and is mainly based through a Facebook group with online, financial, local and community care support elements. Reparations and redistribution of wealth are at the front of the work they do and they have built a group that platforms and supports marginalised and otherwise deprioritised communities. As well as this group there are migrants without access to public funds and sex workers self-organising around mutual aid around financial resources to survive this pandemic and it's repercussions. There will doubtlessly be others already and more to come. As well as these on-line processes, there are several of the mutual aid groups that have set up recently have started to have conversations around the collectivisation and redistribution of economic resources. These groups will be going over difficult terrain, and having to navigate several rocky roads. The factors mentioned at the top, of white fragility, classism, and the ideas around the deserving and undeserving poor, are undoubtedly amongst them.
Over the past couple of years some of us at The Class Work Project have been running participator workshops around the affects of class on our lives and the ways in which we reproduce class dynamics in our political organising spaces. One of the issues that we place at front and centre is the uneven distribution of financial resources, and the possibilities of redistribution and collectivsiation. In these workshops we are working with groups and individuals who to some degree or another have started thinking about their relationships to ways in which social structures such as race and class, as well as the violence they produce. When it comes to ideas around conversations around financial resources and it's redistribution, it is feelings of shame that often appear the biggest hurdle. This can come in the form of shame for having access to far more then others, and it can come from having had and in many cases still having far less less. I speak from my own position when I say that entering into spaces that are filled with people who simply come from affluent backgrounds then my own, has left me feeling full of shame. I have internalised capitalist and neo-liberal ideas around personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and productivity, in these spaces I am reminded that not only do I come from a community and a family who have been poor for generations, but that after 4 decades I have not managed to provide myself with any financial security. In our workshops I speak to others from backgrounds similar to my own, and they speak of not wanting hand outs, of being embarrassed that they have needed and will need financial support from others (including the state). At the other hand we have individuals who feel shame due the ways in which the economic, political and social system we live in has left them with a far higher level of financial resources then their friends, comrades and others in their community. They feel shame that they feel tied to that money, that they are apprehensive about sharing it, that they view it as their own. Some have the resources due to trust funds and inheritance, some because their families paid for everything for the first 20 plus years of their lives and issues that many of us have to contend with debt, rent, etc, were easily avoidable. Some have turned expensive educations and a lack of psychological toil due to material struggles as an opportunity to find well paying and rewarding jobs. They have, and they acknowledge that the system which they in many ways oppose has benefited them profoundly, and they feel shame because of that.
Shame will often be the emotional driver of positions and decisions made in Mutual Aid groups up and down the country over the next few months. It will muddy the waters when debates are hard about what the difference between Charity and Mutual Aid are. It will foster the deeply problematic discourses around the amount of agency marginalised individuals are allowed, what is an appropriate use of funds, if someone is going to spend money on weed, netflix, fizzy pop then maybe they shouldn't be given the money, but instead a parcel of items that are more appropriate. There aren't easy ways to negotiate shame, we've been raised in a particularly individualised system, which encourages is to judge ourselves and others by the standards that are ugly and oppressive. What we can be is conscious of why we feel shame, and watch our selves as we take hold of an idea about the agency of others and understand what it might be motivated by.
For me Mutual Aid is about acknowledging our dependency on one another, that our strength and ability to respond to structural violence are reliant on us working together. It starts with a collective response to each of our basic survival needs, but it builds towards more than just the basic, it builds towards equity, towards agency and autonomy for those of who aren't a part of the economic and political elite. It builds towards the end of Capitalism and the State. But it starts with our basic needs, our need to eat, drink and be sheltered, our need to be respected for who we are as humans, it starts with us not viewing each other as competitors in a capitalist fight. Mutual Aid has to start where we are, and we're in a society which means we need money to meet some of those basic needs. It is clear already that the already high levels of food poverty in the UK are going to rise. We can distribute food parcels, and deliver food meals, these matter more then ever especially when folk aren't able to leave their homes or don't have the capacity to cook for themselves. These projects need financial support, and should be given it, with the trust that that the projects are setting out to facilitate the agency and autonomy of the recipients not to hold them hostage in service relationship. We can also redistribute our financial resources directly to our neighbours, local families who have the capacity to maintain their lives but are without the financial resources to do so, we need to support these folk to make their own decisions about what their basic needs are.
Financial redistribution and collectivisation is a tricky process, and there are various ways to go about it. It requires those with the most resources to step aside and recognise their resources for what they are, they are bribes from a political system, they are loot plundered from colonialism and neo-colonialism, they are resources made on the back of violence against women, people of colour and the working class. And there is no doubt, that those with the deep deep financial resources will not want anything to do with this, they will, they are already looking for ways to protect what they have and then profit from Covid-19. Unquestionably we need to be making plans and finding ways to challenge this, we must do as we've always said we're doing, and try to build political power to ensure that the state and capital are not able to kill us as easily as they do. At the same time we have to use all the skills we have, all the resources we have to look after one another.
1) UK Mutual Aid is a grassroots project run by Eshe Kiama Zuri of Notts Activist Wellness since Dec 2018 and is mainly based through a Facebook group with online, financial, local and community care support elements. UK Mutual Aid is an intersectional and decolonial activist group run by Black, Queer, Disabled and Working Class people and requires active and continuous participation, learning and unpacking of privilege by all members. A large part of what we do is to facilitate fundraising campaigns with a focus on marginalised groups eg BIPoC, LGBTQIA+, asylum seekers and migrants, sex workers and impoverished communities. Reparations and redistribution of wealth are at the front of the work we do and we have built a group that platforms and supports marginalised and otherwise deprioritised communities. We also currently have 4 COVID-19 specific support threads and through Notts Activist Wellness run Nottingham based community care projects and support networks. Please answer ALL the questions when joining. Please respect the carefully considered and intentional lifelong work, labour and time of Black, Queer, Disabled and Working Class activists and do not join just to steal our work, ideas or structures. If you want to get in touch to have us advise on or offer support to your projects, please message Eshe Kiama Zuri