We’ve Always Been All We Need: Mutual Aid As Radical Co-Conspiratorship Throughout History

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There is something irresistible about being a part of spaces aimed at overthrowing systems which pit human beings against one another. From passionate debates in community centers over strategic visions and growing gardens that will feed whole communities, to working together to expose official corruption and supporting one another when the lights and water are turned off, there is a deep sense of connection and spirit that only “doing the work” provides. And, while many of us have heard the term before, we might not be aware just how entrenched mutual aid is in our lives. 

Mutual aid is the process whereby a group decides to protect one another. It may involve feeding those who are hungry, sheltering those without homes, offering financial assistance when needed, or providing services for free to others in your community. An underlying understanding is that when we share openly and transparently across the struggles of life our burdens become less so, our connections with one another become deeper, and our communities become stronger as our reliance upon violent and extractive systems becomes less necessary.  

When we see ourselves as only as strong as our most vulnerable members everyone benefits.   There is a reason why so many in organizing say things like “this isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.” To be convinced that your liberation, your humanity, is rooted in all of the various lives around you (human or not), is to realize just how bleak, how inhumane, how dissatisfying it truly is to live as if the earth and the creatures on it are only here in service of profit. And, it takes only a quick glance through history to realize that we have survived because of mutual aid, in spite of the systems which treat life on this planet as disposable. 

One of the most famous examples of mutual aid is of the Underground Railroad. Along the treacherous journey to freedom that captured peoples endured, numerous abolitionists opened their homes, churches, and businesses,  providing food, shelter, news, and whatever protection they could along the way. Without these networks, escape and survival would have been highly unlikely. In Detroit, mutual aid societies sprung up as those already established sought to nurture newly freed people who often had little with them save their spirit and talent. 

Other more recent examples of mutual aid networks throughout history include The Black Panthers and The Young Lords who sought to subvert disinvestment in Black, Brown and Poor communities by offering free breakfast programs, health services, educational resources, and political training in their communities. Women’s rights have an intimate connection to mutual aid as well. In the fight for safe abortion access, women have long relied upon clandestine networks created to counter the illogical and unrealistic demands put upon them. In the 1960’s, through an underground network known as “the service”, “Janes” would help one another find access to safe abortion providers. Such programs not only served to save lives, but to call attention to the often deadly nature of establishment doctrines. 

 Such legacies of mutual aid have never just been about minoritized communities. Indeed, unions and fraternal societies, of which membership is often largely white and male, are also directly tied to practices of mutual aid. As noted by author Maya Adereth, “between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, thousands of “fraternal societies” provided access to healthcare, paid leave, and life insurance to workers in nearly every major city.” (read her excellent article in Jacobin Magazine about the history of mutual aid in the U.S. here:


Knowing all of this, why is it then that so many people remain committed to “bootstrapping” models that tell us we must go it alone to succeed? A quick discussion about evolutionary theory is illuminating. If we examine the idea of “the survival of the fittest” we can expose the ways in which pseudoscientific or popularized understandings of human evolution have distorted our social and societal beliefs. This is used to justify policies and practices that dehumanize the needs of the most vulnerable members of our communities and argue that individual struggle and competition between and among species is the backbone of survival. But did you know that even Darwin himself pushed back against centering this factor of animal behavior as primary to his theory?  Did you know that there is a parallel theory of evolution that has been largely suppressed?

In his 1902 treatise Mutual Aid, Russian anarcho-communist revolutionary and evolutionary scientist Peter Kropotkin railed against theories which underscored competition as primary to a species’ survival. Through his research, and that of countless others, Kropotkin argued that a penchant towards individualism and oppression was an unnatural manifestation of cynical economics and that cooperation was a far superior indicator of the ability for a group to sustain itself, and the ecosystems it relies upon.

Today, we continue to grapple with the damage that worldviews which support such d punitive ideologies. However, those within our beloved community networks are also keenly aware of the power in lifestyles, policies, and practices which uplift our shared struggle, our commonality, our deep need for one another as the only truly sustainable and humane way forward. No one, not even the most devout conservative capitalist got anywhere on their own. And it’s way past time that we put to bed a theory which is only marching us toward more division, less stability and safety, more damage to our planet. It is time to see our connections with one another, our stewardship of our water, air, and all natural resources, our care for other species, and our service to others as the actual test of “fitness” when it comes to true intergenerational and environmental survival.

To organize from such a place, is to fully understand the calls for abolition by those who see the deep trauma and harm that our violent systems create and maintain. It is why we call for an end to the cycles of mistrust, abuse, denigration, and damage that don’t actually lead us to a path towards survival. To organize from such a place is to fully recognize that mutual aid is the antithesis of neo-liberal capitalist formations, that mutual aid is rooted in abolition. 

We see this world reflected in many of our articles in this edition. Michelle Martinez and Gabriela Santiago-Romero’s speak of how organizers banded together after natural disasters. We see this care in Julia Cuneo’s tale of young people rising up and rejecting the narrative that change is impossible. We celebrate the activist networks written about by darien hunter-golston which worked to get out the vote in order to enshrine legislation in Michigan to protect the rights of those with uteruses to make decisions about their own bodies.

Poets and artists provide other ways of relating to the world and ourselves., Most pointedly, this edition’s sacred space centerfold, created by artist Evan Lockhart, exposes the ways in which transgender experiences highlight the power and ability for all of us to rebuild, redesign, and reshape the new out of the old. It reminds us that as humans, who are able to make conscious choices about how we want to live, we don’t have to be limited by what we see, what we are told must be taken for granted, and what has always been. It reminds us that joining the future we want can happen now.

This year, as Riverwise enters its 5th year of existence (Woo hoo! Thank you all for helping us to get here!), our dedication to supporting our communities, to growing our connections, to deepening our “right-relationship” with the world, remains as strong as ever. We share these stories of mutual aid, of possibility, to show that there is a place for joy within the movement. We share these stories so that everyone knows there is a place for them, that we see you, and that we appreciate you. We share these stories because we know we can’t do any of this alone. As we look forward to many more years, we call upon everyone to help drive this culture shift away from the belief that going it alone is a good idea. Let’s reimagine life based on mutual aid. Let’s think of the trickles that turn into streams, that run into rivers, that fill the lakes and oceans. Let’s think of the trees, who through mycorrhizal (fungi-based) networks in their roots deep underground work together to keep one another alive, share resources, warn one another of danger. Let’s think of the bees, who focus their energy on ensuring that whatever they may do alone will benefit the greater good of their community. And then let’s think that all of that also ensures our survival. Let’s flip the script. After all, as our collective conversations remind us, the times we feel most joy are when we’re all together, when our communities are working hand in hand, when our natural proclivity towards nurturing one another is allowed to flourish.

[1] Kropotkin, P. (1902). Mutual Aid. McClure Phillips & Co. New York