Solidarity Not Charity: The Case For Mutual Aid

by Mark Booth on March 21, 2013

Originally posted at — The wholesale destruction of the welfare state is leaving the socialist movement in Britain facing a situation it has not faced for 50 or 60 years. How do you struggle when the means of sustaining life are completely stripped away, and how do you ameliorate the immense suffering and social problems this causes, so that the mass of people maintain their capacity to struggle? In short, how to you do solidarity not charity?

In previous generations, social struggles were generally aimed at securing employment or services from the state in the form of local councils or the national government, essentially demanding they redistribute wealth to provide employment, housing and services. This is still a necessary demand, but we now face a situation where the wholesale dismantling of any state intervention to help the poor and working-classes is under way. The ability to obtain housing, healthcare or even have a minute subsistence allowance from the state with which to feed oneself are being taken, and there is no immediate replacement.

Food banks have doubled in number in the past two years, and are now a necessary part of daily life for thousands of people; the underemployed, unemployed and disabled; and all the other victims of the draconian benefits regime. Reports of children going hungry are regular features in the media, with calls for free school meals to be extended to all schoolchildren in some of the most deprived areas of the country. The growth of malnutrition in the poorest areas, bringing with it the rise in communicable diseases and other health problems, is a real prospect.

Payday loan companies, the legal loan sharks, are close to trapping a million working-people in their endless cycle of debt and extortion. A ComRes poll showed up to 5 million adults were considering taking out a loan in the next six months, with one in four 18-24 year old considering it, while 13% of adults had prioritised paying back the loan over paying for essentials like food. And research by Shelter shows over 6 million are using other forms of debt to pay for necessities like food, rent and energy bills, as their wages do not last the month. This is inextricably linked to rising unemployment, and increasing precarity and low wages for those still in employment.

Almost 200,000 homes are being threatened with eviction or repossession each year, with 15,000 eviction papers for private being filed in the country courts in the last quarter of 2011 alone. Over 51,640 households live in “temporary accommodation” (B&Bs), with the number set to rise even further when the housing benefit cap comes in. (For more information see herehere and here)

In this situation the socialist left needs to explore and combine with the traditional model of campaigns to secure jobs, benefits and services, ways to provide them itself. This is not an attempt to replace the welfare state, or the left being co-opted by the “Big Society” agenda. It is an acknowledgement of the burning necessity of needs which must be met so that our people can go on living.

The Early Cooperative Movement

There is a long tradition of co-operatives, of workers insurance scheme, friendly societies, credit unions and other collective organisations set up by the working-class in the years before the welfare state. This tradition extends back to before the First International, and Karl Marx was happy to accept membership of these organisations into the international. The inaugural address of the International Workingmen’s Association stated:

“We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.”

A rediscovering of this tradition, and the re-elaboration of its lessons from the past, so that they can be applied to the future is a necessary task. People can’t wait for the revolution to eat, drink, play and sleep.

The recreation of the organisations of solidarity and mutual aid which sustained working-class communities before the advent of the welfare state would provide not just a necessary service to working-people suffering in the crisis, but also another avenue for their organisation and development of class consciousness.

For instance, fuel poverty is a chronic problem for millions of families in Britain, which falls hardest on pensioners and the unemployed. The acute issue is how to stay warm in the winter. The chronic problem is private ownership of energy companies and extortionate energy prices. Organising a collection for coats, blankets and cold weather, to be distributed those suffering fuel poverty to alleviate their immediate suffering from the cold, combined with information about campaigns against fuel poverty, or campaigns for the renationalisation of the energy companies can benefit the poorest in society, turn what would normally be a charitable activity, into an act of solidarity which aims to politicise those affected, and draw them into long term campaigning aimed at changing the system causing the chronic problem. 38 Degrees and Which?, the consumer advocacy group, organised a one-off bulk purchase of energy for poor consumers. There is no reason this could not be done again. Collectivising our energy purchasing to counteract the energy company cartel that drive up prices year on year is only a temporary strategy, but if it alleviates some of the fuel poverty experience by poor households, it is one worth pursuing. Labour currently run such a scheme.

Volunteers help out collect food and other essentials at Occupy Sandy
Volunteers help out collect food and other essentials at Occupy Sandy

Similarly, setting up a food bank, normally a charitable endeavour can be easily transformed into an act of mutual aid by holding political meetings at the food bank collection point which recipients of food can attend if they wish. Food banks which popularise political discussions, advertise demonstrations against austerity and provide advice on benefit claims could become organising hubs for community campaigns. This can be combined with protests at supermarkets about their exorbitant prices and waste of food and if a campaign is well entrenched enough they could undertake direct action and expropriate food from the supermarkets as was done successfully in Spain by the anti-capitalist Mayor of Marienelda along with various unions.

Emphasising that the food isn’t charity, but an act of political solidarity from other working-people removes the shame and stigma from accepting “charity”, helps combat the despair forced upon people in this situation and demonstrates the possibility of organising society differently, on principles of social solidarity, not markets and philanthropy.

Housing is an absolutely central issue, with the housing benefit cap set to displace 80,000 families from high rent areas like London and the South-East, and rising homelessness due to repossessions and unemployment. Housing co-ops are one answer, with a group of students from Birmingham setting one up in response to spiralling rents. However few organisations will be able to raise the kind of capital needed to purchase housing, but with roughly 700,000 empty properties in the UK, there are no shortage of houses which can be occupied and refurbished in order to house people.

This was done by the Lewisham People Before Profit (LPBP) group, who successfully stopped the sell off of 5 council homes by occupying and refurbishing them. They have run a long campaign around housing, focussing on using direct action and occupation, combined with lobbying and protests involving the local community to force the council and social landlords to refurbish and return to use social and council housing. While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of some activists within LPBP, in this area they have demonstrated a degree of creativity and activity which is sadly lacking amongst many socialist organisations.

These actions did take place before the criminalisation of residential squatting, so the situation activists’ face now is more difficult, however there are still numerous commercial properties which can be targeted. And if this tactic was replicated across Britain, and coordinated between local groups so that large numbers of residential squats were started simultaneously and protected with vigorous public protests, the government’s ability to move against them could be minimised. Encouraging local communities to self-organise so they are able and willing to act to take back the social property that used to belong to them and return it to its proper use will provide a thousand useful lessons for a working-class relearning how to struggle.

UNITE’s new approach

Workers loan organisations could be set up funded by the unions, offering interest free loans to union members, demanding in return regular participation in union activities. UNITE is in the process of discussing setting up a network of these companies, but there are questions over its viability, and UNITE’s commitment to expediting its creation. Creating such a network would shield workers from the predatory lenders, and strengthen workers commitment to their organisations. If this is combined with active union campaigns against payday companies and other loan sharks, and political education for members, this would help transform the unions from being just an insurance policy, to a social organisation dedicated to their wellbeing. Some unions already offer members grants and loans for support, but this must be politicised and combined with practical activity to combat the actions of the predatory lenders, and develop organisation which can push back against the financial and social pressures suffered by workers.

UNITE has started a campaign against legal loansharks but it remains at the level of passively lobbying government, missing the opportunity to actively involve members in campaigns of protest and direct action in their community. Pickets of the worst offending lenders, highlighting their exploitative and destructive role, and offering advice and assistance to those using them are ways of undermining the effects of the legal loansharks on working-class communities.

Cultural impoverishment must not be ignored. Millions are shut out of access to culture; overpriced cinemas, music gigs and club nights exclude large sections of the population. Cheap club nights, music gigs and free film showings are ways to provide the socialising and access to culture which are necessary to sustain people’s humanity in a dehumanising period. With filesharing and media piracy, many forms of cultural entertainment are available for low or no cost, and the challenge then is to find venues and publicise events, rather than the prohibitive cost of obtaining cultural materials and acts. Likewise there is a vibrant “underground” of progressive and revolutionary hip-hop artists, and a long tradition of radical and socialist folk music, both of which provide a source of talented and popular acts. The signatories to the call for a people’s assembly demonstrate that there are anti-austerity cultural artists who can be involved in these projects, if we organise to make them happen.

If the socialist organisations do not take up these issues with practical solutions, we hand over the lives of tens of thousands, essentially to beg and endure humiliation with charities and religious organisations that offer them no route out of this situation, and in some cases will seek to bind them ideologically in to the system, to accept the poverty of capitalism as their lot. And as the situation in Britain continues to deteriorate we risk seeing fascism capitalise on this. In Italy, the radical fascist group Casa Pound organises squats, social events and protests — for Italians only. Either the socialist left organises to provide this type of mutual aid for everyone, or we risk seeing similar organisations emerge in Britain.

Vacuums do not exist long in politics. Other organisations and political and religious ideas exist and already undertake some of this provision. Do we want the Salvation Army and the Big Issue providing the only dominant services for the homeless? Shouldn’t we be constructing organisations which seek to politicise the issue of poverty, and turn it from an individual failing in the minds of those who suffer, a damaging source of guilt and mental illness, into a source of collective anger at an injustice by the system which they must mobilise against. We need to move away from the work/community organising dichotomy, and begin to organise in every sphere of existence – point of production, distribution, sale, consumption. Wherever people live and work, rest and play, that’s where we organise.

Will creating such organisations, food banks, co-operatives, bar and social clubs, housing, loan and insurance schemes, centres of power and resources amongst an increasingly impoverished working-class create more avenues for abuses of power and corruption? Certainly, which is why we must ensure that democracy and accountability are imbedded in the organisations structures to limit and counteract any possible abuses.

The creation of organisations for mutual aid is an opportunity to democratise the property form, and demonstrate how organisations and institutions and services could be run in a socialist society – socially owned, democratically run and participatory enterprises, involving and responsive to the needs of the communities which they are set up to serve.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

David Berger March 21, 2013 at 5:59 am

This is charity and fantasy, not solidarity. Occupy Sandy faced similar problems, with similar rationalizations. In the end, it degenerated into a network of NGOs.

This kind of organizing, no matter how well-intentioned, does not accomplish a socialist goal of political organizing. The Philly Socialists presented a similar program and were not able to show a political outcome.


Joe Vaughan March 25, 2013 at 1:48 pm

This kind of organizing, no matter how well-intentioned, does not accomplish a socialist goal of political organizing. The Philly Socialists presented a similar program and were not able to show a political outcome.

The author’s initial point about the historical role of mutual aid is unassailably sound as well as impeccably sourced. In fact, historically speaking, there has never been an effective Socialist mass movement without mutual aid. The Bolsheviks even had their own pubs.

I don’t know enough about the Philly Socialists–apart from the fact that, judging by their rather uninformative web site they seem still to be in operation despite your past tense–to comment on your association of the author with this group.

But your failure to acknowledge the historical context of this article renders all such comparisons irrelevant.

You are merely assigning guilt by means of an association that you do not even take the trouble to establish factually.

I agree that it’s quite unclear from this piece what the author’s program actually is–his terms are very general, not to say vague. But laying out a detailed program is not really the focus.

I usually enjoy your backtalk and contrariness, but here I think you are just plain missing the mark.


Gregory A. Butler April 1, 2013 at 11:33 am

Thank you!

We’re revolutionaries, not the Red Cross.

If folks want to go into NGO work and do a better job of running not for profit social services organizations, by all means do so. Just don’t front like it’s some kind of challenge to the system, because it isn’t.


Joe Vaughan April 6, 2013 at 5:14 am

Read your history. You don’t know what you’re talking about.


Joe Vaughan April 6, 2013 at 5:28 am

Read your history. You don’t know what you’re talking about. And nobody gets to be a revolutionary merely by saying he is one–otherwise every huckster on Wall Street would be Che Guevara.


Joe Vaughan March 21, 2013 at 11:13 am

The recreation of the organisations of solidarity and mutual aid which sustained working-class communities before the advent of the welfare state would provide not just a necessary service to working-people suffering in the crisis, but also another avenue for their organisation and development of class consciousness.

Well said! This important subject deserves far more attention than it is receiving in the United States at present. The nature of the distinction between mutual aid and charity is bound to raise a certain amount of controversy–as is the issue of “horizontal” economic institutions and its consequences–but mutual aid is surely a necessity for any broad-based revolutionary movement in a time of austerity, and the author does a splendid job of placing this concern in its proper historical context.


Gregory A. Butler April 1, 2013 at 11:38 am

“Mutual Aid” is just an anarchist euphemism for low overhead charity work. There’s a place for that, and they might even be able to get funded. I’m sure a section of major donors are tired of paying for 6 figure salaries and palatial offices for NGO executives – they’d much prefer an operation with an all or mostly volunteer staff where most of the funding went to program.

However, it is a supreme act of self delusion to pretend that there’s anything revolutionary about going into social services work.

The author of this piece seems to be suffering from that kind of delusion.

There’s nothing political or revolutionary about running a soup kitchen or a program for disabled kids. If there’s any politics to charity at all, it’s conservative – especially if you are a charity with a staff of unpaid volunteers doing social service work that used to be done by unionized civil service employees getting paid a living wage and benefits.


Joe Vaughan April 6, 2013 at 5:19 am

What the world needs, of course, is more smug, dialectical castor oil from petty-bourgeois pseudo-revolutionaries who share the traditional American belief that politics should be “disinterested.” What profound stupidity.


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