What is Mutual Aid? Our universal heritage of solidarity

Ben Norman of Unite explores what mutual aid tells us about our shared instincts and traditions to build grassroots solidarity and power in times of crisis, from Kurdistan to Keighley.

We in the West are facing our second deadly enemy at the same time as the Kurdish people. The first was ISIS and the second is Coronavirus. In Rojava (North-Eastern Syria), the response to both has been guided by neighbourhood-level, democratic self-organising and mutual aid. It’s no coincidence that across the UK, trade unionists and community groups are fighting coronavirus and its social symptoms with the same ideas. After all, the thinker who most inspired Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan to develop the ideas Rojava was built on, was himself a trade union organiser.

Mutual aid in the UK

As I write, the full power of the British state is being galvanised in its own defence; borders are closing, vast amounts of money are being pumped into the economy, and emergency legislation will gift the state ‘wartime’ powers for the next two years.

But that’s not how the virus is being beaten. Across Britain 1,500 mutual aid groups have sprung into life at the neighbourhood level to deliver food and medicines, look in on elderly neighbours, and provide comfort to the chronically isolated. 

The mutual aid groups’ political significance is two-fold. On the one hand, they represent perhaps a liberal sense of civic neighbourliness; stepping in where the state has failed to keep people safe through a decade of austerity. On the other hand, decentralised mutual aid efforts are part of an anarchist tradition that seeks to shine a light on state neglect and embolden communities as forces for structural change from below.

Sophie Hemery – Novara Media

Traditions of collective strength

These mutual aid groups are emerging in parallel to the traditional institutions through which people organise themselves – their trade unions. Members of my own union, Unite, are using their collective strength in the workplaces to prevent layoffs and to support the lowest paid and least secure workers who society is relying on to function. The union is providing support and guidance, while volunteers are mobilising through our community arm with a new helpline for people in need.

Some two thousand miles away in war-ravaged Rojava, the relief effort is being led by the council system, a network of local communes at neighbourhood level which coordinates all matters of day-to-day life from health to military defence. In parallel, the Autonomous Administration, created by the Kurdish people when they overthrew the Baathist regime and defeated ISIS, has been forced to cancel public events, like Newroz the Kurdish new year celebrations, close schools and other institutions.

The similarity between the mutual support groups Sophie Hemery describes the trade unions and the councils of Rojava isn’t a coincidence. In 2004 Abdullah Öcalan was six years into his abduction and imprisonment by the Turkish regime when he discovered the writings of the elderly Murray Bookchin. Bookchin was an influential American thinker who had emerged from the trade union movement, first as a shop steward at his New Jersey metal foundry and then in the great General Motors strike of the United Auto Workers in 1945.

Reclaiming our heritage of self-organising

By the 1980s and ‘90s – at the same time the Kurdish struggle for freedom was at its height – Bookchin penned his idea that the one constant throughout human history is our desire for local level, direct democracy. Bookchin argued that whenever in history you looked, from ancient Athens to the medieval cities of Europe, the American Revolution, the Paris Commune, the trade unions of the late 19th century or the socialist movements of the 20th, you could always find powerful, popular outbreaks of democracy which challenged power – be that the power of tribal leaders, priests, Kings, patriarchy, nation-states or global capitalism itself.

The answer, Bookchin wrote, was to reclaim that tradition and build our own institutions to root democracy at the local, face to face level and then create connections with others doing the same.

Bookchin called that vision a ‘confederation’. When Öcalan published his version of these ideas in 2011 he called it a ‘democratic civilisation.’ We would simply call it a trade union. Isn’t that how our unions operate? Local branches, organised by shop stewards face-to-face with members, based in workplaces and communities, which are then united into sectors, regions and a national democratic member-led structure. Our wording may be different, but the ideas which we share cross not only language barriers and cultures but stretch back into our shared history.

Mutual aid….or a wolf for the other man?

In his book In Defence of a People Abdullah Öcalan writes about the divide between our long-held desire for cooperation and democracy, and the more selfish, individualism which is encouraged by the very powers we confront. Öcalan noted the 16th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbs, who believed a powerful state was needed to keep people’s worst, competitive instinct at bay – or as Hobbs put it “to prevent every man from becoming a wolf for the other man.”

It is tempting, when we see stories of panic buying hordes stripping supermarket shelves clear and depriving NHS workers, that in this moment of uncertainty we will give in to those snarling wolf-like instincts, but the flourishing mutual aid groups and the selflessness of trade union members show that our other tradition – solidarity and cooperation – is re-emerging.

Bookchin argued that modern cities, stripped of once vibrant communities, threaten to literally and politically distance us from each other. As coronavirus forces us into further isolation, we must rediscover what we have always known. Mutual support, solidarity and cooperation make us safer, make us stronger and make a society. The peoples of Rojava learnt the lessons of mutual aid to defeat ISIS, we can do it today.