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Learning the Lessons from Covid Mutual Aid

In the early weeks of lockdown, mutual aid groups sprang up to support those in need during the pandemic – but many fizzled out, and those that remain will only survive if committed to transformative politics.

As discussed in Tribune last summer, the lockdown of March 2020 threatened a care crisis of hitherto unimagined proportions. After nearly a decade of austerity weakening the foundations of state care provision, the most vulnerable members of society found that they couldn’t rely on support from councils and an NHS that were already stretched beyond breaking point.

Into this potentially fatal breach stepped countless newly-founded mutual aid groups. Mutual aid in the age of coronavirus was touted as a panacea for the aforementioned crisis of care facilitated by neoliberalism’s erosion of community bonds, and a year on, it’s worth asking how it functioned: as a temporary crutch for a failing system (that will simply fizzle away once the final lockdown lifts), or as a realistic, workable alternative.

Speaking to Lambeth Mutual Aid last summer, one of the thorniest issues raised was the connection between mutual aid and political action. Despite the dizzying backlog of scholarship that has done the work of politicising care and foregrounding how unpaid social reproductive work provides the bedrock on which economic production is built, such theories are far from common knowledge among the apolitical.

This was a cause of some strain in mutual aid groups last summer during the worldwide protests over the murder of George Floyd, where discussion of the protests and the politics around them in WhatsApp groups risked being shut down as ‘irrelevant’.

If anything, mutual aid’s relevance to organising networks of people in the fight against oppression cannot be overstated. As Lambeth Mutual Aid told Tribune, ‘We want to make people see that there were people just down the road who were struggling massively before this and weren’t being helped.’

Covid has compounded the rampant inequality of modern Britain, but it was not the catalyst for it – nor does our eventual inoculation against it reduce the necessity of confronting discrimination and inequality.

And many of the mutual aid groups that formed around the lockdown used the name while ignorant of, or failing to connect to, its radical political origins. The issue of depoliticised mutual aid groups is that they are easily co-opted back into capital – converted into surveillance outposts for the police state, or else into reservoirs of unremunerated labour and personal data for entrepreneurs to siphon off.

What this meant, when taken in the context of Tory Britain’s atmosphere of mutual mistrust and rampant individualism, was mutual aid groups that would simultaneously do the shopping for their vulnerable neighbours and call the police on people seen to be loitering in the area, without recognising how the latter harms the former. Neoliberalism’s destruction of working-class solidarity has created ‘mutual aid’ groups that are functionally indistinguishable from neighbourhood watch groups, turning a project of solidarity into one of curtain-twitching gated community tribalism.

This is not to tar all mutual aid groups with the same brush. Early in lockdown, Queercare distributed vital and free resources regarding how to access care and helped to put people in touch with their local mutual aid networks. They did this as part of a larger political project to build stronger communities that aren’t reliant on formal institutions in order to make care more accessible to those excluded, such as trans people and undocumented migrants. For Queercare, mutual aid isn’t just a way of propping up capital during a crisis, but a radical reorganisation of society away from hierarchy and towards community.

Recent events have demonstrated the continued relevance of mutual aid’s lessons, and the importance of building genuine alternatives to the broken status-quo through those communities.

Last summer, while trying to connect the Black Lives Matter protests to the local work of Lambeth Mutual Aid, I ran into the difficulty that the relative infancy of the mutual aid project meant that the majority of their work had—understandably—focused on addressing the immediate needs of their most vulnerable, and not involving themselves within the larger political struggle. With the recent murder of Sarah Everard, and the brutal police response to protesters in Clapham and Bristol, the importance of asking this difficult question is again made clear.

After the police demanded that the vigil not go ahead, it was Sisters Uncut, a feminist aid and campaign group, who provided the vital space for those who needed it to grieve and express their anger. Like with mutual aid, such groups don’t exist merely to pick up the slack where institutions fail; they can improve on those institutions by making us accountable to each other, particularly where the alternatives are outsourcing care and security to businesses or the police.

As police efforts to quell rebellion increase across the country, and a stilted return to business-as-usual gets underway, integrating mutual aid into communities will become vital if it is to remain. This project will involve the political education of members, solidarity and the sharing of resources with nearby mutual aid groups, and a rejection of the efforts of capital to co-opt the movement.

This might seem obvious to the mutual aid groups that have stemmed from radical roots, but for many, the work of building class consciousness is just beginning.