A Big Tent Needs A Big Breakfast: A Case for Mutual Aid


The first time I’d ever heard the word “socialist” was while watching Clue as a child. It’s also the first time I had a conscious understanding of gender; I was a little boy who wanted to grow up to be a Miss Scarlet and marry a Mrs. White.

It was also the first time I’d heard the word “blackmail”, and when I asked my mother what blackmail was, she said it was “when someone had a picture of you in a dress”. I realize that interaction now as an epic call out, decades before the term came into use; at the time it suggested the process of shame, secrecy, and inevitable humiliating discovery was somehow indelible to me realizing my true self.

But! More germane to the point: I learned very early that socialism was something people feared and were shamed by through association. So I didn’t seek out other leftists in school.

I went to meetings, I posted on message boards where people liked to show off how many flags of the USSR they owned, but I didn’t make any effort to form lasting interpersonal bonds with comrades. What’s the point? One day my dad’s gonna find our stash of leftist literature and threaten to “report us because it’s duty as an active duty serviceman” and you’ll all squeal because you haven’t been hearing that bullshit since you were six years old.

I have lived to see a time where people would not only entertain socialism but march in the streets and fill churches to standing room capacity because simply being a socialist wasn’t enough for them.

That is wild, to me, and I mean for my advocacy for mutual aid as a praxis to be adopted by organizations like DSA, PSL, RCP, SAlt, and other leftist organizations hoping to reap this resurgence of acceptance of socialism to come from that place of measured pessimism proven wrong.

I’m not seeking to draw a line between “good” and “bad” organizing.

Yet I must insist that discounting mutual aid as a legitimate form of organizing is a fool’s praxis that at best and, at worst — well, if you don’t want the poor and the sick of the world we’re tearing down to be active participants in the world we’re building in its wake, there’s already an ideology for you, and conveniently enough, they’re right on the other side of the police barrier hurling slurs at passerby. They’re very easy to find, and, given that two fascists over a long enough timeline will inevitably accuse one another of secretly being Jewish, they’re always in need of new talent.

What do I mean when I say “mutual aid”?

Mutual aid is the voluntary distribution of resources and services with the aim of mutual benefit. As a philosophy for how society can run horizontally without explicit or implicit state authority, it’s very anarcho-communist. You live in a commune, and your local agricultural working group provides produce and your clothing working group provides clothes, etc, and this is all freely given and exchanged within your community without the expectation of compensation because it’s understood that the continuance of this free exchange in good faith provides a mutual benefit for everyone.

In practice, mutual aid is a powerful means of base-building regardless of your sectarian ideology. The foremost example would probably be the Black Panthers breakfast program, the capacity of which to challenge white supremacy and patriarchy scared the white government as much if not more than their militancy.

Recently, New Orleans DSA launched a free brake light replacement event, the success of which has inspired chapters across the country to adopt that and other mutual efforts. The DSA and the Black Panthers are, I wouldn’t say ideologically opposed, but not necessarily aligned, as demonstrated by DSA recently electing a police organizer to its NPC and general aloofness around discussing issues of community self-defense on a national level. Which isn’t an attack; despite the disparity in priorities, both organizations have recognized the utility of mutual aid. And, as with the Panthers, whose disagreement on mutual aid as praxis contributed to a larger rift between Newton and Cleaver, a similar divide is percolating within DSA which I worry could irreparably bifurcate the organization in a time when people really need a big tent left movement.

(I say this with full acknowledgement that DSA is unlikely to ever face the government interference incessantly inflicted on the Panthers, and that comparing their breakfast program to brake lights absent of that context is harmful and reductive.)

I’m plagued by nagging suspicions that leftists who deride mutual aid are motivated in their organizing by the hope that when we overthrow capitalism, they will have some job or position in the new “establishment” lined up for them. That is the sort of magical thinking that attracts men who can’t perform a task as simple as filling out an OkCupid profile without using terms like “breeding hips” and “free speech” to an ideology like white supremacy.

We’re not all gonna get to be co-chairs of the central organizing committee. A lot of our post-revolutionary work will be watering trees and delivering meals to our neighbors whose health prevents them leaving the house. And we have to do more than accept that, we have to embrace this reality, aspire to it. Many of us are able to do the organizing we do in part due to the privileges afforded us by the very system we’re trying to destroy. If we don’t interrogate that as we build our new world, it’s going to end up looking a lot like the old one — a dictatorship of the insulated.

Mutual aid is a tool that can aid us in deposing both the tangible dictatorship in front of us and the potential dictatorship that can fester unchecked in our fervor.

The Ideological Argument 

Neoliberalism isolates people. Part of why people were so dismayed at the notion of an automated corner store  is that for many of us, going to the corner store is one of the few interactions we have with local community, if not the only. Capitalism creates public distrust; how can you lend your neighbor a cup of sugar if you don’t know for sure you can replace it? The state relies on that uncertainty of our own survival to commit violence against the poor, the sick, the Black and Brown. If you can’t or won’t lend your neighbor any sugar, you’re probably not going to lend them a hand or a place to hide.

Mutual aid can work to repair this communal doubt. To articulate the causes of people’s oppression to them isn’t enough. This is why I’ve distanced myself from the descriptor of “intersectional”. Most white women I know who describe themselves as intersectional employ the rhetoric as a sort of mathematical shorthand for justifying harmful behavior under the guise of having met sufficient criteria of having been oppressed.

We can break every one of Robert’s Rules debating whether or not people should be wary or even afraid of socialism (or communism) (or anarchism), but the fact remains they are. And there are a lot of reasons for this, of varying legitimacy. We are tasked with undoing decades of propaganda and misinformation about the capacity of socialism (communism) (anarchism) to be invested in human welfare.

One of the most compelling ways capitalists dismiss socialist societies is by associating them with food shortages. They say we don’t have food. This is how we prove them wrong.  

Imagine your friend or partner is having a bad day. You can explain to them that you understand their workplace doesn’t appreciate them or having a project fall through sucks. But that’s not support. That’s not working towards a mutual benefit, i.e. your partner is having less of a bad day because they feel supported and is able to engage with you in the ways you need.

Offering support, and most importantly, suggesting ways you can support them that demonstrate you understand the material and personal impacts of your friend or partner’s bad day is having on them, can offer your friend and partner an easier time navigating their hardship because they feel seen and understood.

The proletariat is your friend. And partner. And all of your exes who you don’t see often but still send nice texts to you that you feel embarrassed receiving because you could’ve so much been better to them. Offering food or to do some nominal car maintenance (that will prevent their murder by a police officer) demonstrates an intimate understanding of their struggles and your commitment to aiding them in those struggles.

The Practical Argument 

It’s true that offering a public meal once a week (like Punks With Lunch does) or replacing brake lights won’t automatically translate into more card-carrying, dues-paying members. Because nothing can guarantee that. There will always be people who align with you on your politics and support your campaigns who just don’t want to be a member of your group. That doesn’t mean they can’t, at some point, be of help to the movement.

Frankly, they are of more worth to you than someone whose focal interest in joining the group is having the card, and making the name recognizable, because that creates a fashy dynamic where people participate in dismantling current power structures in the hope that their party number will ensure them a good job in the new regime. You don’t need as many of those people as you think. All the plants at their co-working space are dead.

To win over the cities, we must win over the neighborhoods. To win over the country, we must win over the countryside. At the heart of either of those axioms which I am shamelessly rehashing from my recent campaign for NPC of DSA are people, some of whom will not be down, either with your organization or your cause. We’re not going to build a mass movement by getting 51% of the people on board with socialism and saying to the rest ” you’re welcome for the healthcare”. That’s not sustainable. Or democratic. But it’s where a preoccupation with card-carrying members will take us. Mutual aid allows the opportunity to establish contact with people who might not “be down”, and whether or not they take the food you offer or let you touch their car, these actions facilitate a higher likelihood of, if not solidarity and collaboration with you as you build local power, then at least not obstructing you.

People on all sides of all political spectrums hate anarchists, but when I was doing Food Not Bombs in Silicon Valley, it was never the libertarian tech executives or hardcore conservatives we were worried about disrupting our meal. It was always agents of the state. And that has profound value for crafting a liberatory narrative.

And there’s a personal growth aspect to it, too. It’s important to learn, not only how to do things, but learn to just do them. Fold the chairs. Keep stack. Make more coffee. Hold space for comrades. Take a shift watching the kids. These tasks need to be, and specifically by those whose background might mean they aren’t often asked to do it outside of the meeting, because it trains us to identify and perform the essential day-to-day, minute-to-minute tasks without the expectation of exceptional recognition.

The revolution will be humble or it will fail. If feeding people is beneath you, than a white cishet male comrade asked to lay out breakfast for the meeting can decide it’s beneath him, and you will lack the means of convincing him otherwise without flexing authority AND AW GEE WE’VE BEEN OVER THIS LIKE TWENTY TIMES, WE DON’T WANT THAT.

The union makes us strong not because we all believe in it really hard, but because we are prepared to do whatever it takes for one another, whether it’s make the coffee or hold the line against the riot squads.

That selflessness takes practice. We could use a little more practice, and our neighborhoods could use a free meal now and then.

Mutual aid: it works.

(Photo credit goes to A Syn/Flickr)

Author: Jetta Rae

Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae

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