Mutual Understanding

Kaegan Sparks reviews recent literature on mutual aid

Community fridge set up by NYC based anarchist network A New World In Our Hearts, June 2020. Photo: @iohnyc via Instagram.

Disasters and Social Reproduction: Crisis Response Between the State and Community, by Peer Illner. London: Pluto Press, 2020. 208 pages. 

Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next), by Dean Spade. New York and London: Verso, 2020. 128 pages. 

IN ONE OF photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White’s most iconic Depression-era images, a seamless, whitewashed vision of the good life is undercut by a segregated breadline. Tightly composed, the picture almost stages a return of the repressed, as material casualties of “the American Way” buttress—but also contravene—the billboard’s sanguine promise. Bourke-White’s irony is acerbic, condensed, and at the same time capacious; as art historian John Tagg points out, the absurdity of the background graphic’s “cynical corporate jingoism” rises to the level of kitsch, taking on the role of “fall guy, of comic stooge” when faced with the living effects of endemic racism and poverty. Divorced from its original context (the pages of Life magazine), the point-blank messaging of Bourke-White’s photograph and its easy application to chronic social ills can obscure its immediate historical circumstances. A contemporary viewer might interpret the breadline vis-à-vis the general economic distress of the 1930s, but the food insecurity on evidence also issues from a more specific event.

In 1937, a monumental flood swept the Ohio Valley, killing hundreds, displacing a million, and destroying billions of dollars of property (adjusted for inflation). Taken in a Black neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, Bourke-White’s image shows residents waiting for aid, likely from a large charitable organization like the Red Cross, local volunteers, or the federal relief workers from the Works Progress Administration (the “Shock Troops of the Disaster,” as a 1939 newsreel dubbed them) who were deployed en masse to the region. Tagg points out that the billboard is not just tone-deaf advertising, but in fact literal propaganda funded by the National Association of Manufacturers.1 In the ’30s, the group had positioned itself in opposition to not only organized labor, but also New Deal regulatory agencies, and wielded a public relations campaign to promote free industry against “misinformation” spread by “selfish groups, including labor, the socialistic-minded and the radical.”2 As such, Bourke-White’s photograph encapsulates historically particular ideological conflicts, not only between free-market patriotism and the lived reality of dispossession, hegemonic whiteness and those steamrolled by its over-representation—but also between an active welfare state and capital’s attempts to suppress it.

Disasters and Social Reproduction: Crisis Response Between the State and Community, a well-timed new book by Peer Illner, presents a history of how the labor of relief has been negotiated among governmental, corporate, and volunteer initiatives in the US since the 1930s. Our own disaster has made Illner’s subject especially topical, as Washington’s lackluster efforts to allay the fallout of the pandemic—not to mention state-level abandonment amid recent infrastructure failures in Texas—have spurred a proliferation of mutual aid groups across the country. Though the term “mutual aid” has been used by groups with varied constituents, values, and motivations, it generally signifies a type of bottom-up political organization based on cooperative principles and resource sharing. Turn-of-the-century writings by the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin developed the notion of mutual aid as a rebuttal of social Darwinism—instead of an intrinsic drive to compete, Kropotkin argued, humans and animals have always relied on collective strategies for survival. Projects as diverse as carpools organized by participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Pre-Roe underground abortion networks, skill exchanges and timebanking, credit and tenant unions, and communal agriculture have been characterized as mutual aid. These efforts are united by a community’s self-determined initiative to take the work of meeting basic needs—otherwise seen as the provision of governments, corporations, charities, or private individuals—into its own hands.

It is precisely this transfer of responsibility that concerns Illner’s book. Bracketed by devastating hurricanes in 1920s Key West and 2012 New York, Disasters and Social Reproduction is organized into a sequence of case studies, including chapters on the Black Panthers’ Survival Programs of the 1960s, Chicago’s 1995 heat wave, as well as shorter reflections on Katrina and Covid-19. Illner follows the shift from Keynesian social investment to the austerity politics of the past five decades, outlining the privatization of disaster aid as well as—even more significantly for the author—the increased onus on civil society to stop the gaps on its own.

Alfred Hathaway, Dapo Odebiyi, and Nore Winter, Watts feeds itself, ca. 1970. Illustrated pamphlet about the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. Photo: UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

Disasters and Social Reproduction supplements the recent trend in scholarship on disaster capitalism, a term introduced by Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine that describes the complicity of governments and market forces in turning moments of upheaval and social suffering into opportunities for profit. But instead of focusing on the capitalization of crisis response, Illner examines its relegation to communities themselves, whether through grassroots mutual aid or other spontaneous forms of self-organized volunteerism. His book raises a provocative question: To what degree does this uncompensated work, often performed by individuals with the least access to material resources, unwittingly enable the continued retraction of the welfare state?

Written from a comparative historical perspective that was no doubt years in the making, Illner’s critical account diverges in tenor and message from the contemporary surge of enthusiasm for mutual aid organizing among leftists, many of them newly mobilized during the pandemic. One of the most prominent advocates of mutual aid has been longtime organizer, trans abolitionist, lawyer, and educator Dean Spade, who has publicly championed cooperative, community-based efforts to address material urgencies (including rampant food and housing insecurity) and social isolation accelerated by Covid-19. In October, he published Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next) as a primer and handbook for nascent community organizing efforts. As its title suggests, Spade’s book argues for the power of mutual aid to remake social relations based on solidarity, break stigmas around interdependency, and build social movements. For Spade, this work and the public demonstrations that erupted last summer to protest racist police violence belong to the same liberatory project. Rather than simply mitigating existing suffering, he contends, mutual aid is part and parcel of seeking transformative change.

Stephen Shames, Panther Jerry “Odinka” Dunigan talks to kids while they eat breakfast on Chicago’s South Side, November 1970. Photo: Steven Kasher Gallery.

To this end, Spade insists on the contrast between radical mutual aid, which maintains a focus on the root causes of social privation, and liberal nonprofits, which are often single-issue focused, paternalistic and means-tested, governed by internal hierarchies, and endowed by private patronage. Spade argues that charities collaborate with neoliberal governments to “ensure the legitimacy and stability of the current systems and delegitimize alternative ways of meeting human needs.” (This distinction, embodied by the popular organizing slogan “Solidarity Not Charity,” is central to Spade’s thinking; curiously, Illner almost entirely overlooks the role of what some call the “nonprofit industrial complex” in his own account of voluntaristic disaster relief.) Inflected by Spade’s anarchist disposition, Mutual Aid stresses the autonomous, localized aspects of community organizing and resists the power structures that come with the professionalization and centralization of radical care work—whether at the hands of government, nonprofits, or the capitalist class.

Illner’s historical materialist perspective shapes a significantly different understanding of mutual aid and its effects on left movement-building. Taking up Marxist-feminist theories of social reproduction, his book characterizes the ad hoc activities needed to stabilize everyday life during a crisis—from deploying rescue teams and first aid, to allocating necessities like food and water, to rebuilding destroyed infrastructure—as labor that is systemically devalued. In so doing, he draws relief work into a category that also includes, in the private sphere, the repetitive drudgeries of household maintenance. Conventionally assigned to women and often unremunerated, childcare and housework were politicized by socialist feminists in the 1970s as “reproductive labor”: tasks that precede and enable the continuation of wage labor and the conditions of social and material life more broadly. Extending this framework to the reparative activities of disaster aid allows Illner to shift focus from the most immediate, dramatic measures of relief to the low-profile work that persists under the radar of media spectacle and public attention. Illner's aim, however, isn’t to dignify this grassroots labor; to the contrary, he is skeptical of rhetoric in both leftist organizing and disaster studies that “embellishes scarcity through romantic references to local capacity and subjugated knowledge.” His own unvarnished diagnosis undercuts more utopian aspirations of mutual aid: “Self-help is simply what communities are left with under austerity.”

Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White that appeared in Life magazine above the headline “The Flood Leaves its Victims on the Bread Line,” February 15, 1937. Photo: Getty Images.

To illuminate the historical turn that subtends Illner’s argument, and to clarify his differences with Spade, we can compare two documented reactions by federal authorities to mutual aid projects. Illner devotes a chapter to the Black Panther Party’s Survival Programs, organized in the 1960s in response to racist state violence and neglect, and another to Occupy Sandy, a grassroots hurricane relief effort that emerged from activism against income inequality in the wake of the 2008 recession. In 1969, on the brink of the transition from the Great Society to neoliberal austerity, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover infamously characterized the Panthers’ Breakfast for Children Program as “the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such…potentially the greatest threat to efforts by the authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.” In 2013, a year after Superstorm Sandy decimated New York City and the surrounding area, the Department of Homeland Security (which controls the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA) issued a report praising Occupy Sandy’s horizontal, improvisational structure and heroizing its “volunteer army of young, educated, tech-savvy individuals with time and a desire to help others.” DHS admitted that the blatantly antiestablishment movement was a leading force in combatting the crisis, having grown at its peak to “an estimated 60,000 volunteers—more than four times the number deployed by the American Red Cross.”

In both of these statements, law enforcement agencies acknowledge the successes of the Panthers and Occupy in providing welfare measures often considered to be the domain of the state. As Spade points out, the Panthers’ efforts prompted the US Department of Agriculture to develop its own free breakfast program for public schools in the early ’70s. For Spade, this isn’t a measure of the effort’s success, but rather of its cooptation and neutralization by an inherently repressive state. Illner critiques DHS’s commendation of Occupy Sandy, but for the opposite reason: Feel-good tributes to community organizing provide a convenient pretext for further budget cutbacks to FEMA, allowing the state to effectively pass the buck. Since the economic crises of the ’70s, Illner argues, natural disasters have enabled states of exception that further transfer responsibility for reproductive labor onto civil society. This compounds the burden of the materially under-resourced precariat to perform the unwaged work necessary to shore up the status quo.

Main Street in Carrollton, Kentucky during the 1937 flood. Photo: Northern Kentucky Views.

Spade acknowledges the potential of mutual aid efforts to unintentionally align with a neoliberal agenda: “If we don’t design mutual aid projects with care,” he argues, “we can fit right into this conservative dream [of volunteerism replacing a social safety net], becoming the people who can barely hold the threads of a survivable world together while the 1 percent extracts more and more while heroizing individual volunteers.” And yet he maintains the value of building a self-determined “people’s infrastructure” that embeds a critique of governmentality, rather than pressuring the state to augment social services. Although the government’s reach may be wider, Spade argues, its welfare programs often implement exclusionary eligibility criteria and abet increased surveillance and militarized policing. “Scaling up”—if it means consolidation, standardization, and, inevitably, the emergence of power structures—is for Spade anathema to mutual aid.

Conversely, for Illner, piecemeal relief efforts without revolutionary demands are too easily absorbed by the neoliberal dogma of “resilience”—a buzzword in disaster studies that resonates with other late capitalist concepts like self-help and flexibility. Just as “flexibility” sells workers an empowering semantic spin on real conditions of precarity, Illner worries that the grassroots ethos embodied by the slogan “We Take Care of Us” presents a double-bind. “Resilience is Thatcherite Realpolitik of the toughest kind,” he asserts—and thus any approach to crisis that discounts large-scale societal responsibility for the common good risks playing into the retrenchment of forces that continue to hoard material resources, leaving the unwaged work of social reproduction to “communities [that] effectively have no other choice than to self-organise in order to remain alive.” While Spade recognizes, in passing, that mutual aid can contribute to coalition-building efforts that can in turn empower “bigger actions like rent strikes, labor strikes, or the toppling of corrupt governments and industries,” the focus of his book is on local self-determination and shifting the conditions of the here and now, to the extent possible within our current social order. For Illner, whose socialist horizon is nothing less than the wholesale redistribution of labor and wealth, this approach misses the forest for the trees.

Bettye Lane, Wages for Housework at International Women's Day March, New York, March 12 1977. Photo: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

As a socialist myself, a student of social reproduction theory, and a new mutual aid organizer, I approach these conflicts with ambivalence. I started mutual aid work almost compulsively in March of last year, while personally grappling with Covid’s sudden, world-historical sense of emergency—a contagion, I hoped, that might finally make our social entanglements inescapable to consciousness, a disruption that might suspend our fixation on breakneck growth and reorient us toward the patient work of sustaining ourselves and one other. In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s electrifying appeals to fight for someone you don't know, I interacted with neighbors on a direct, personal level about their most urgent fears—eviction, food insecurity, the physical vulnerability of themselves and others. Cooperating with other new organizers I knew only from a Zoom screen, I helped form the mutual aid network Queens Care Collective and developed a sustainable food delivery program for around one hundred households across the borough every week.

I remain curious and compelled by parallels between the type of reproductive work that I study, and have identified with as a politicizing force in my own life—work that is invisible, feminized, and often skipped over in favor of more sensational, public, or “productive” endeavors—and what Civil Rights activist Ella Baker called “spade work,” or the unglamorous, tedious tasks of community organizing that prepare the way for future political action. Especially in comparison with more dramatic strategies like protests and publicized speeches, Baker admitted that spade work is “usually more exhausting than the immediate returns seem to warrant.” Some socialists assert, often with a degree of condescension, that without larger, concrete goals mutual aid is only a Band-Aid measure that distracts from building working-class power to make systemic social change. As someone whose personal politics are labor-oriented, I’m not unsympathetic to the basis of that argument. I am deeply aware of the toll of mutual aid work, not only in procuring resources like food for those who need it, but also in sustaining organizers’ energy and time. The cynic in me knows that it’s a Sisyphean enterprise when the capitalist class continues to hoard wealth that is produced off the backs of the “essential workers” Queens Care Collective is helping, many of them Black or brown and undocumented.

To what degree does this uncompensated work, often performed by individuals with the least access to material resources, unwittingly enable the continued retraction of the welfare state?

And yet now in the aftermath of March’s sudden, galvanizing moment, I'm holding in tension my conviction that reproductive labor should be valued and remunerated on a broad scale—that is, supported with real resources, not squeezed in the hours between the multiple jobs that some organizers themselves must work to get by—with the promise that forming relationships of mutual support among strangers is indeed a powerful political lever, especially in a country that has so uniquely vilified collectivity. Though it’s far from guaranteed, I hold on to the potential of mutual aid work to “grow new solidarities” at the micro level, as Spade puts it, to rupture that diehard American fallacy of self-reliance, with all its attendant cultural baggage of isolation and shame. Though its effects aren’t immediate, I want to believe that mutual aid can be a mobilizing force in coordination with other strategies like direct action, labor organizing, and electoral campaigns from the left that shift the Overton window of political possibility. Mutual aid’s small-scale, firsthand character—deprecated by some leftists—is precisely its unique advantage; unmediated by freighted discourse or alienating bureaucracy, its tactics have a persuasive, experiential power. During a moment of barbarous food insecurity, for instance, putting a refrigerator out on the street and encouraging passersby to “take what you need, leave what you can” is a form of political education, elegant in its simplicity: a demonstration of what “people power” means through the direct, quotidian gesture of having each other’s backs when every other support feels like it’s giving way.

John Vachon, National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa, April 1940. Photo: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

Social reproduction theory argues that “ground-zero” socializing work like teaching and childcare is a terrain of struggle—not just to correct for the structural devaluation of these activities, but to emphasize their revolutionary potential. Because it is rooted in interpersonal care work that sets examples for how we engage with society, reproductive labor can perpetuate dominant ideologies or it can help remake them, from the ground up.

In his chapter on the Black Panthers, Illner discusses Party leader Huey Newton’s advocacy of the Survival Programs, which were hallmarked by Free Breakfast for Children, but also included health clinics, sickle-cell anemia screenings, carpools to prisons for family visitation, and various types of cultural education, among other initiatives. Benign as these efforts might seem compared to the group’s armed militancy, Newton believed that they built the basis for collective struggle. Illner describes Newton’s “sustained engagement with … a revolutionary philosophy of time,” wherein the Party’s community programs served the prefigurative function of “stretching the passive time pending death into the active time of survival, a time of holding out and holding on until the right time for revolution had come.” Rather than merely sustaining life in a holding pattern, such projects purposefully regenerate it through cultivating cooperative, interdependent social structures. Their focus on building the capacity for political change resonates with the social reproduction lens, in which survival work serves as a hinge between the restitution of preexisting social relations and building a new world.


1. NAM is the same group that in 2016 welcomed Trump’s pro-business presidency, but just weeks ago, amidst the Capitol siege, petitioned for his prompt ousting via the Twenty-Fifth amendment.

2. This statement from a 1933 policy review by the National Association of Manufacturers’ Law Department is quoted in Tagg, “Melancholy Realism: Walker Evans's Resistance to Meaning,” Narrative 11, no. 1 (January 2003), 19.