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Mutual Aid, Incorporated.

by josie sparrow / April 23, 2020

Image: josie sparrow

Theory and Strategy  }
For capital, the Covid-19 crisis represents an opportunity. How can the left resist and respond in ways that are affirmative of life? 5708 words / 23 min read

A crisis does not emerge in a vacuum. It is, as Stuart Hall once said, a “moment of potential change”; a moment “when the contradictions that are always at play in any historical moment are condensed”. A crisis, then, is inextricably connected to and intertwined with what has gone before—and what will come after. Just as the choices that were made then have shaped what happens now, so the choices that are made now will shape what happens next. For capital, any crisis represents an opportunity. For the left—or, at least, those of us concerned with life as it is lived rather than the rational machinations of Strategy—the issue is more complex. What do the specificities of this pandemic reveal? How can we respond in ways that are prefigurative and non-exploitative? How do we avoid opportunism and adventurism? What can we learn from this, from one another, and from the ways in which capital is keen to exploit this crisis?

Transmission and transaction

A pandemic reveals something about interconnection and interdependence. It makes plain the ways in which we co-create one another. My health is conditional on yours. We breathe the same air, and exhale into the same space, and this space between us is also what connects us. We need one another, and, more than that, as Sophie Lewis argues, “we become-human through each other”—that is, we are continually engaged in the process(es) of making and re-making one another. In this moment, where radical practices like mutual aid are at the forefront of the popular imaginary, the ways in which we ordinarily co-create each other (through isolation, loneliness, suspicion, mistrust) are exposed, as well as the possibility, seed-like, of something better.

A pandemic also reveals something about circulation. Some things that circulate: infection, people, capital. Nick Estes, the Lakota scholar and activist, has observed that smallpox transmission tracks precisely the paths of white settler incursion into Oceti Sakowin lands.1 The radical Chinese journal 闯 (Chuǎng) describes, in an article that should be required lockdown reading, how Covid-19 “gestated at the nexus of economics and epidemiology”; the industrialised and industrialising regions of central China where the ‘wild’ intersects with intensive agricultural and urbanisation processes, and then spreads rapidly through a dense population. The spread of the virus was thus partially “driven by global commodity circuits and the regular labour migrations that define capitalist economic geography”. (There are also questions to be asked around the extent to which the globally-mobile super-rich have played their part.) The circulation of people, capital, and infection are interdependent and mutually constitutive. What the UK Government is trying to do, in their incredibly weak response to the crisis, is to protect the circulation of capital; this requires that they limit but not prevent the circulation of people, which also means that the circulation of infection will be limited but not prevented. Their clear priority is to preserve existing social, economic, and political relations as much as possible, so that we might pick up from where we left off.

This priority underpins all the Government’s actions in response to the pandemic. Their insistence on preserving the wage relation rather than opting for the obvious and elegant solution of a temporary Universal Basic Income is rooted in their desire to maintain the horizon of possibility in its present, limited state. A temporary UBI risks opening up new horizons, new possibilities; it risks encouraging new ways of thinking about need, new demands—why can’t things be like this all the time?—that the Government is determined to resist at any cost. By keeping our survival contingent on our relation to waged work (or our ability to navigate the Universal Credit system), the Government sidesteps the emergent questions of interdependence and non-capitalist ways of being.

Across the country, in response to both the crisis and the Government’s inadequate response, mutual aid groups have blossomed. If a crisis is a condensation of contradictions, it makes sense that those most affected by the crisis would be those whose lives are lived at the points where various contradictions intersect and intensify. Working class disabled people, undocumented migrants, recent care-leavers, casualised workers in so-called ‘unskilled’ jobs, elderly people who don’t speak English—in the past fortnight, I have borne witness to, and tried to help, all of these people and more. Friends and comrades in other mutual aid groups tell similar stories. Many of these people have slipped through the significant gaps in the Government’s appalling provision and are either ineligible for or afraid to seek assistance from formal organisations and local authorities. The lateral, informal approach of mutual aid—where no data is gathered, no passports checked, no means tested—enables us to respond quickly and care-fully to suffering; and to respond not with the condescension of the charitable act, but in solidarity, respect, and trust. Mutual aid thus hinges upon this recognition of our deep interconnectedness, and suggests ways of relating to one another that might begin to dissolve the transactional attitudes inculcated by capitalism.

Mutual aid hinges upon this recognition of our deep interconnectedness, and suggests ways of relating to one another that might begin to dissolve the transactional attitudes inculcated by capitalism.

Predictably, then, capitalism has already mobilised to try and absorb this wave of everyday radicalism into its own currents. Local councils and MPs, spying a golden opportunity to steal valour from the grassroots, have been swooping into Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats with heavily-branded diktats. Hot on their heels came a flock of would-be Elon Musks: hapless tech bros eager to ‘disrupt’ the mutual aid ‘market’ through inexplicable data-gathering and technocratic centralisation. Organisations such as CoronaBuddy (founded by health tech entrepreneur Hugo Stephenson), LandVolunteers (an offshoot of property development technology firm Land.Tech), and my particular favourite, UK Mutual Aid (founded by a failed CBD importer who claims to have copyrighted the Chinese character for cannabis) have wasted no time in exploiting—and branding—the crisis. Many of these apps will never go anywhere, but some, such as UK Mutual Aid, have already seemingly mishandled enough serious incidents that my local council have made noises about shutting down all mutual aid activity in the area. Of course, this would be impossible to achieve; but the notion that vulnerable people might be putting their lives in the hands of those who are completely unqualified, but who grant themselves an air of authority and officialdom through their branding, apps, and business plans, is terrifying. They don’t even possess the qualification of unconditional care.

Some of the most egregious examples of this attempted co-option are those that attempt to undermine not only the lateral, spontaneous self-organisation of mutual aid groups, but the pay and conditions of frontline workers. As of late March, a local council in Suffolk were directing would-be helpers, as well as those in need of assistance, to an app called ‘Tribe Volunteer’. Though the press release gives the impression that this app is part of their in-house service, it is in fact a private enterprise operated by Bronze Software Labs. Billing itself as “an Uber for support”, the Tribe app allows you to advertise yourself as an unpaid carer. If you wish to be paid for your time, you “will be referred to [their] partner Community Catalysts,” who “will take you through a personalised development programme” (it is unclear whether one has to pay for this accreditation). Community Catalysts is a community interest company which aims to respond to “real challenges” in “the homecare market” by helping would-be care workers to become self-employed. This, they claim, “results in low-cost, flexible,[sic] care for older people” in which “money is saved as the cost of care delivered by community enterprises is cheaper”. If we are to measure cost on a vulgar metric incapable of accounting for, for example, the extra healthcare costs accrued when self-employed care workers must keep working through sickness, potentially the infecting the vulnerable people they’re supporting, then forcing people into self-employment (where they have no labour rights, no sick pay, and no capacity to organise) is certainly ‘cheaper’. It is also privatisation.

Exploiting the crisis

This tech-driven encroachment of private healthcare into NHS provision has been enabled by the Government, and in particular by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock. Hancock, a former DCMS Secretary whose family owns a software firm developing tech for direct marketing and data capture, drew some attention in 2018 when he—for reasons unknown—decided to release his own social networking app. Called, imaginatively, ‘Matt Hancock’, the app was immediately ridiculed for its awkward interface (“touch to open Matt Hancock”, anyone?) and the volume of unnecessary data it collected (unsurprising, perhaps, given the nature of the family business). After around a month, Hancock and his developers sheepishly updated the app’s privacy policy.

A few months later, having made the move from DCMS to Health and Social Care, Hancock began meeting with so-called ‘disruptive’ healthcare start-ups. Soon after, he began to heavily promote one of these ventures, a private healthcare business called Babylon. In November 2018, Hancock gave an interview to the Evening Standard for a pull-out health supplement called ‘Future London Health’. In the interview, he gushed with praise for Babylon and their ‘GP-At-Hand’ service (an NHS extension of their smartphone-mediated private health provision). The supplement in which the interview appeared was, it turned out, sponsored and paid for by Babylon Health Ltd. While the GP-At-Hand FAQs make much of the scheme’s efficiency, in May 2019, the Financial Times reported that GP-At-Hand had cost its local NHS body, Hammersmith & Fulham Clinical Commissioning Group, an extra £21.6m—at a time when the CCG was planning to

cut £10m of services that will affect overnight urgent care centres, out of hours GP services, diagnostics, cardiology, gynaecology, ophthalmology, radiology, dermatology, mental health and wellbeing, arts-based dementia services, stroke survivor support services, and rehabilitation facilities.

Meanwhile, as Hancock talks up his app-laden ‘NHSX’ scheme in the most embarrassing of terms (“the needs of our users will be at the heart of everything we do because the ‘X’ in NHSX stands for user experience”), NHS patients, suddenly rebranded as ‘end users’, find themselves directed to ‘manage their conditions’ by downloading £39.99 apps. These sorts of gimmicky tech processes, one suspects, do little more than provide the fig leaf of ‘innovation’ to the oldest gimmick of all: massive transfers of wealth from the commons and the poor to the private realm and the rich.

So how does this relate to mutual aid? Enter ‘GoodSAM’. Devised and co-owned by Ali Ghorbangholi, former Morgan Stanley/JP Morgan employee and director of yet another would-be GP start-up, Clinic.Co, GoodSAM bills itself as an app for qualified first responders—a sort of emergency services Uber, which (as far as one can tell) local CCGs pay GoodSAM Ltd to use. It has already been integrated into some local services and, though it effectively seems to mean that emergency responders face a new moralising compulsion to always be on call, it seems to have had positive, if limited, results.

This was good enough for Hancock. Given that his proposed ‘Hospital Helpforce’ app-mediated mass-volunteer scheme sank without a trace back in 2018, the Covid-19 outbreak must have seemed like an unmissable opportunity. Several weeks into the crisis, he announced that the NHS would be partnering with GoodSAM Ltd. and the Royal Voluntary Service (formerly the WRVS, of Blitz Spirit fame) to “launch NHS Volunteers”. Would-be helping hands can sign up to GoodSAM by providing documentation such as a DBS check, passport, driving licence, or bank statement. What checks are carried out using this information, where this information is stored, and what happens to the data afterwards remains unclear.

Once accepted (which is not a guarantee; there are reports of GoodSAM asking applicants for yet more personal data before approving their applications), volunteers can undertake one of four possible roles: ‘Check in and Chat Volunteer’ (effectively befriending/phone-buddying), ‘Community Response Volunteer’ (no information available), ‘Patient Transport Volunteer’ (driving patients to appointments etc.), or ‘NHS Transport Volunteer’ (collecting and delivering prescriptions and medical equipment to isolated patients). These latter two categories of work are usually carried out by the NHS Patient Transport Services (PTS), which in some regions has already been outsourced to ‘logistics’ companies such as DHL. A PTS dispatcher I spoke with told me that their crews already have to contend with low pay and poor working conditions—including a lack of sick pay.2 This raises a question: why not recruit (and retain, through an improvement in pay and conditions) more PTS staff? Cost is not an issue here; it is highly unlikely that GoodSAM are providing their digital services to the NHS for free. As this 2013 CLASS report makes clear, the costs of privatisation may be hidden from view, but they are no secret.

It has nothing to do with other forms of efficiency, either. Having been overwhelmed with applications, the registration process was suspended after a few days, and is yet to re-open. Moreover, the app itself seems barely functional—its Google Play reviews make for grim reading—and GoodSAM themselves seem somewhat confused about whether or not their product is up to the task. The following self-contradictory paragraph was copied verbatim from their volunteering FAQ document at the end of March, and has not been updated since

It is because of our technology of coordinating volunteers to those in need,[sic] that the system has been adopted for the NHS Volunteer Responders Programme. We are in the process of modifying the App for this new purpose and you will see changes in the coming days.

This level of incompetence would be laughable if it wasn’t directly connected to literal questions of life and death.

Why, then, does this Government—and Matt Hancock in particular—insist on pouring money into these useless ventures? The answer is that privatisation, ‘outsourcing’, and the volunteer industry (or what Suzanne Pharr and other US thinkers have termed the ‘non-profit industrial complex’)3 all work together to maintain our social, economic, and political relationships precisely as they are.

Outsourcing responsibility

Outsourcing pantomimes efficiency, in that it condenses multiple expenses (ie. staff wages) into a single payment. But, as outsourced staff at St George’s, University of London (SGUL) discovered when an internal report was leaked to them, outsourcing often costs institutions more than paying in-house staff would cost. But, of course, when an organisation employs and pays its staff directly, it also accepts responsibility for the fairness of those wages, the safety of those employment conditions. It is no mistake that the jobs most frequently outsourced in this way are those often categorised as ‘unskilled’. It is no mistake that these jobs are frequently performed by some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged people in society. These are the jobs and the people that the affluent would rather forget about.

Outsourcing exists, in part, to facilitate this forgetting. It breaks the link between employer and employed; it adds an extra level of alienation to the process of wage labour. To bring those jobs in-house would not only mean an organisation must commit to paying equitable wages—it would also mean that it must recognise that these jobs, this work, these workers are necessary if the organisation is to continue to exist. By bringing all staff together under the same employer, possibilities for communication and collective organisation are opened up. And by restoring the link between employer and employed, in-housing leaves employers vulnerable to pressure from below from this organised staff. As the striking workers at SGUL observe:

The university thinks that if we’re given the same pay and terms and conditions as SGUL staff, we’ll then go on to demand more. And this way of thinking isn’t confined to St George’s. It’s rife across the entire country and the entire economy. 

If you can get away with paying somebody less, or with keeping them on an unfair contract—or if you can look the other way whilst somebody else does this on your behalf—why wouldn’t you? If people can’t afford to live, then surely they can just get a different job, or learn to budget, or work harder! Not much has changed since 1863, when, as Marx wrote,

women [were] still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling barges, because the labour required to produce horses and machines [was] an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population [was] beneath all calculation.4

To use undernourished working-class women to do the job of a shire horse is by no means ‘efficient’. But a horse requires a certain amount of food and stabling; a machine requires a certain amount of steel and oil. A working-class woman, on the other hand? Toss her a penny; she’ll be grateful for it, and she’ll learn to make do. Character-building, you see. Can’t be encouraging a culture of dependency or entitlement.

So it is that the continued functioning of capitalism requires the continuous production of people who’ll be ‘grateful’ for starvation wages, dangerous conditions, abusive contracts, etc. To allow us to expect better is to create the demand for better; and the demand for better cannot be fulfilled while extraction and profit-making continues. Wages are, by their very nature, variable, and have always been unfair: they have to be. The accumulation and expansion of capital depends upon the portion of every worker’s labour that goes unpaid,5 and this process of accumulation reproduces itself by maintaining the cost of labour at broadly the same level, even while profit and productivity increase. Marx explains it thus:

As capital grows, instead of ½ its total value, only ⅓, ¼, ⅕, ⅙, ⅛, etc. is turned into labour-power, and, on the other hand, ⅔, ¾, ⅘, ⅚, ⅞, into means of production.6

This perpetual (re-)investment into the means of production—that is, machinery, technological advances, efficiency improvements, etc.—enables the capitalist to, in Marx’s words, “extort a given quantity of labour out of a smaller rather than a greater number of workers”,7 and keeps labour costs down even though productivity and profit increase exponentially. The same workers whose labour created the capital that bought the machines now find themselves unemployed—surplus to requirements.

Those workers who remain employed may quite rightly look at the profits being generated by their labour and demand fairer (ie. higher) wages in recognition of this. To keep these demands in check, capital converts the ‘surplus’ (ie. non-productive) population of former workers into what Marx calls an “industrial reserve army”.8 You may recognise them from such capitalist proverbs as “if you don’t want this job there’s plenty who’d be grateful for it!” This reserve army of labour is deployed ideologically to discipline workers into compliance. As Marx says, the “pressure that the reserve, by its competition, exerts on the employed workers forces them to submit to over-work and subjects them to the dictates of capital.”9 Our perceived disposability and replaceability are thus central to the functioning of capitalism.

What Hancock’s ‘Hospital Helpforce’ app was intended to do, back in 2018, was to try and recruit a reserve army of unpaid labour in an attempt to patch up the clearly collapsing NHS without investing any more money into labour-power. (The ‘Tribe’ app is clearly attempting something similar within social care.) It didn’t work, but the Covid-19 crisis has granted him, and the interests he represents, a second chance. The investment of capital—capital generated entirely by workers, be they in the NHS, elsewhere in the ‘national’ economy, or in the places we colonised—has been pushed into new technology, just as Marx observed of 19th century capitalism. In this instance, however, this technology has an entirely negative telos. The aim of these apps is not to increase productivity, but to convert the temporary ‘surplus population’ created by the pandemic into a reserve army of labour at a time when borders are effectively closed (meaning that the UK economy has limited access to the global reserve army of migrant labour on which it depends),10 and when the demand on our already-collapsing public services is increasing exponentially. To invest actual money in health and social care services—in recruiting, training, and paying staff—would be an affront to both the ideology of capital and the specific class interests of the Conservative Party. It makes no sense to strengthen a service that you’re trying to stifle through strategic defunding. Passing the responsibility on to these apps enables the Government to maintain its position on the NHS, to transfer public money to private business, to continue the reduction of pay and conditions for health and social care workers, and, not insignificantly, to look like they are doing something. That the situation calls for trained frontline medical staff, adequate personal protective equipment, and equitable employment practices that don’t place BAME workers at excessive risk of exposure, rather than 750,000 completely unqualified volunteers keen to “check in and chat”, seems immaterial.

The choices we make now will determine what happens next. Hancock & co. know this all too well. For them, the crisis represents nothing more than an opportunity, a niche in the market into which capital can expand like insulation foam, growing into every corner until there is no room for anything else. The upsurge of mutual aid and solidarity represents nothing more than an army of willing workers who will offer their time, their labour, their hearts for free; and who, in so doing, will act as unwitting conduits for the funnelling of wealth from public to private, for the driving-down of pay and conditions, and for the continuing primacy given to the relationship between the individual and the state. It’s to this latter point I now want to turn.

The family against socialism, or: the enclosure of care

The privatisation of care is by no means a new thing. It is, as an ideology and a horizon ideal, arguably as old as the bourgeois nuclear family. In their 1982 book The Anti-Social Family, Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh observe that

Conservative thought is often said to focus on the idea of individualism: self-help, self-support, self-sufficiency, self-respect. It rejects dependence, ‘scrounging’, collectivism, the belief that ‘the world owes you a living’. Yet in practice the unit of self-support is not the individual but the family.11

This conservative attitude is not uniquely Conservative. Barrett and McIntosh describe “the unseemly spectacle of Labour and Conservative politicians competing for the claim to represent the interests of the family”12—a spectacle to which observers of the 21st century Labour Party will be crushingly accustomed, from Miliband’s articulation of the ‘hard working family’ as a locus of patriotism through to Starmer’s insistence that “families” are the sole unit of social analysis or lived experience. Indeed, as Barrett and McIntosh note, Thatcherism did not innovate but merely “encod[ed] the ideology that families—for which read ‘women’—should be responsible for the day-to-day care of the young, the elderly, the sick and the disabled wherever possible.”13 Presciently connecting this ideology to welfare cuts—the Griffiths Report on ‘community care’, which led to the proto-privatision National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, would not be published until 1988—the authors shrewdly discern the twofold nature of the ‘familist’ discourse. Firstly, it enacts and encodes the view that “the family should be a self-sufficient enterprise needing little support from the state”;14 and secondly,

this familism is part of a broader political rhetoric… to endow the government’s economic policies with a spurious ‘commonsense’ legitimacy. The chancellor of the exchequer, like any housewife or corner grocer, must balance his books and cannot afford your nursery or hospital.15

In other words, despite how they may have appeared, and despite Thatcher’s own vehement appeals to ‘family values’, Thatcherite approaches to care were never about “a straightforward policy of ‘getting women back into the home’”;16 rather, they were a laying of the ground for the increased privatisation of society, against collectivity, against the social part of socialism, and against working-class, Black, queer, and other marginalised and non-bourgeois life.

Thus, Thatcherite taxation policies were “explicitly designed to benefit higher-paid women”, and her government’s position on women was “far more contradictory than the support for a stereotypical nuclear family embedded in… the host of welfare policies and reforms developed in the post-war decades.”17 But this was nothing to do with any commitment to women’s economic liberation. Rather, it was about “elevat[ing] the morality of the market into an entire social ethic”18 through the performance of productivity. Women with children who also wanted (or had) to work outside the home were, Thatcher made clear, expected to rely upon the invisibilised labour of other women, such as “an aunt or a granny”—or, in Thatcher’s own case, nannies and other domestic workers—all of whom get absorbed into the broad idea of ‘the family’ or ‘the household’. The sentimental notion of the ‘family wage’, beloved by macho trade unionists and misty-eyed social reproduction theorists19 alike, performs this same sleight of hand, at once subsuming women and children into one unindividuated lump labelled ‘family’ and completely erasing the long histories of (to take two examples) working-class and Black women who have always had to work outside the home.

So we can see that the individual is not just conflated with the family in right-wing thought, but in putatively left-wing thought too. The family produces the worker, who produces the commodities and the surplus value which produce the nation. “Britain succeeds when working families succeed.” The family here is taken as a ‘natural resource’ just as much as the materials that will have been extracted or extorted to produce the commodity; just as much as the unpaid portion of the worker’s labour which produces surplus value; just as much as the reserve army of labour who are used as threats to keep wages low.20 And so, as Barrett and McIntosh write,

it becomes possible to believe that the whole economy is organised on the liberal-individualist model of the free market, with everyone working in order to support themselves, because those who cannot earn a living are subsumed under those who can.21

The family, in the popular imaginary, is conflated with the individual because the individual is, at base, a unit of productivity. The state’s assumed role in all of this is to ‘support’ and ‘enable’ families as sites of (unpaid, unrecognised, often unloving) care that produce the producer, and then to ‘manage’ that producer through moralising narratives of ‘individual responsibility’ that work on us and through us to ensure that our wages remain variable, negotiable; to keep us divided and isolated; to ensure that we can neither imagine nor demand a better life. It’s a form of enclosure: enclosure of our capacities for care, our capacities to relate to one another, our capacities to create anything other than surplus value.

Mutual aid can help us think and live against and beyond this. To be presented with the possibility that we might support and love one another regardless of blood relationship, citizenship status, or any other preconditions is not only an opportunity to build something better. It’s also an opportunity to ask ourselves why we haven’t done this before. The answers can reveal the ways in which we are encouraged to view one another as threats, the ways in which we are alienated from our own lives (am I allowed to do this for myself? For others? Can I trust you? Do I need permission?), and from one another; the ways in which we’re always already engaged in mutual relationship, even if that relationship consists in mutual suspicion or fear. Asking these questions of ourselves can be powerfully transformative—an invitation to imagine new ways of being together. Of remaking our relationships from first principles.

The specificities of this pandemic makes this sort of radical relationality even more crucial. As lockdowns bind us more closely to what I’ll loosely call our ‘homes’, countless people are forced into continual proximity with violent, abusive, or otherwise oppressive families, partners, friends, housemates, and landlords. Meanwhile, the construction of anybody outside of our household—both figuratively (people with whom we don’t live) and literally (anybody outside without what police deem “a good reason”) as a potential threat is sharpened and intensified. In a moment where being annoyed at your neighbours having noisy fun is taken as a legitimate reason to report them to the police, developing and deepening relationships based on reciprocal trust, love, and the assumption of basic goodness feels increasingly important. Added to this, the fact that mutual aid operates outside the capitalist system of needs means that the range of needs we can recognise, respect, and relieve is expansive. There’s enough for everyone!

Small flowers crack concrete

Without a doubt, the state should be doing so much more than it is. There are forms of suffering that mutual aid should not have to try and alleviate; there are basic needs that we should not have to meet; there are forms of oppression that the people do not yet have the power to overcome. There is a risk that the practice of mutual aid can, at the most practical level, operate in a way that is indistinguishable from charity or volunteerism. There is a risk that, in doing what the state will not, we launder its reputation, we stop it having to confront and deal with the suffering that it produces. We must never allow the practice of mutual aid to lessen our demands for justice or to normalise the huge gaps in state provision as it currently exists. Rather, by practicing unconditional love and kindness with and for one another, we can sharpen our demands. We can realise what might be possible—those little seeds, those glimpses of a better world—and we can fight for it, together. We can build friendships, solidarities—a network of relationships that is non-hierarchical, plural, and lateral, and that increases in capacity with every new connection.

The tech-mediated, state-mediated corporate co-options of mutual aid reinforce the movement of relationship as something that is constricted, that flows upward, to the state, and is then distributed outwards, like a resource. (Our personal data, as well as our labour and our love, is also treated as a resource for extraction.) Certain outcomes—such as people whom the state and the popular imaginary already recognise as being vulnerable having access to help—may be the same regardless of whether they were achieved through traditional volunteerism or radical mutual aid. Certain outcomes, however, are simply impossible under the current system of needs and distribution, from supporting those who aren’t recognised or accepted by the state to offering the kinds of everyday kindness that work against the loneliness and division into which we’re forced, but which are unnecessary to production and therefore dismissed as unnecessary in toto. Mutual aid can (re)build the relationships necessary for this sort of everyday holding of one another—true, reciprocal, loving support, the kind that un-produces the climate of suspicion, mistrust, and alienation (from “shop a scrounger” to the ‘immigration enforcement’ hotline to the Amazon Ring webcam-doorbell) that characterises so much of our contemporary subjectivity.

The sort of paranoid, conspiratorial thinking that’s become commonplace as the crisis has unfolded arises out of this climate of suspicion. It also obscures the ways in which the ground has been laid for this crisis over a period of at least 40 years, if not the 500-year unfolding of extractive capitalism.22 As Ludwig Wittgenstein, exasperated with analytic philosophy’s continual scrabbling about for some sort of abstract ‘truth’ when the answers were there all along, once wrote: nothing is hidden.23 Capital operates as capital has always operated, and, as Achille Mbembe reminds us, capitalism has always been inimical to life. The choices that were made then have determined what is happening now. And, just the same, the choices that we make now will determine what comes next. We can choose to do things differently, to begin to figure new ways of being with one another—new ways of co-creating ourselves and one another and this whole and multiple ecology within which we’re so beautifully and inextricably entangled. We can choose to nurture those seeds of possibility in memory of all those who were never permitted to bloom. Our mourning can be our organising; our organising a way of mourning. Our organising, too, a way of tending one another, with tenderness and tenacity—we flourish and we love, despite it all, because of it all.

For some tools to support radical mutual aid & resistance during the pandemic, visit peachtreepeartree.com/resources

‘Small Flowers Crack Concrete’ has been borrowed from a Sonic Youth song title. The song is not as good as the title.


  1. Nick Estes. 2019. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London: Verso, pp.84-5 

  2. Personal communication, March 2020 

  3. See INCITE! Women of Colour Against Violence (eds). 2007. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the non-profit industrial complex. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press. 

  4. Karl Marx. [1867] 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, p.517 

  5. Marx p.769 

  6. Marx p.781 

  7. Marx p.788 

  8. Marx p.781 

  9. Marx p.789 

  10. There may well have been an aspect, in the 2018 roll-out of Hospital Helpforce, of trying to prepare the economy for an anticipated reduction in migrant labour post-Brexit. 

  11. Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh. 1982. The Anti-Social Family. London: Verso, p.47 

  12. Barrett and McIntosh p.12 

  13. Barrett and McIntosh p.12 

  14. Barrett and McIntosh p.12 

  15. Barrett and McIntosh p.12 

  16. Barrett and McIntosh p.12 

  17. Barrett and McIntosh p.13 

  18. Barrett and McIntosh p.48 

  19. Nancy Fraser. 1997. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition. London, Routledge, pp.41-66. 

  20. Marx’s own thinking of the reserve army of labour has its limitations, particularly around the ways in which the national and the global intersect and interact. I think that here it’s possible to talk about a nationally-bound reserve army, given the ways in which the specificities of the British state have produced the specificities of this crisis; but it’s important to consider the ways in which the global reserve army is often constituted, and immiserated, in part by these nationally-bounded discourses. For a look at one of the ways this dynamic operates, see Clair Quentin’s ‘Seventy-seven nation industrial reserve army’

  21. Barrett and McIntosh p.49 

  22. Jason W Moore. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso, p.14 

  23. Ludwig Wittgenstein. 1958. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by GE Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. §435 


Author:

josie sparrow (@ofthesparrows)

josie is a writer, an artist, and a philosopher. Her interests coalesce around the intersection of the poetic and the political, with a particular emphasis on process, relationality, socialism, ethics, ecologies, words, and flowers. Her future plans include dismantling capitalism and co-creating a more beautiful world, with and for others. She is General Editor at New Socialist. You can read more of her work at peachtreepeartree.com.