The Revolution Will Be Caring

What makes something mutual aid or collective care and not capitalist charity?

The year in 2052. Anti-capitalist revolution in the United States is underway on the Gulf Coast and in Jackson, Mississippi, amid environmental collapse and state violence. Migrant workers in California become leaders in work to heal the trauma inflicted by capitalism; they also lead communal, militant struggle around the world. Indigenous people who have been subject to settler-colonial dispossession turn to care networks, which enable them to protect waterways, fight fascists, and ultimately, develop communal environmental management projects. The New York Commune begins when sex workers riot in the Bronx and students take back the Lower East Side from the ultra-wealthy and the cops. The Jackson Heights Commune arises when hospital workers occupy and reopen it after it’s been closed due to its unprofitability. Beyond the US, communes have been established for decades in the Andes and in the Levant, following Palestine’s liberation in 2041.

What sparks this hypothetical collapse and revolution? As capitalism implodes in the speculative novel Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052–2072 by M. E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi, if you’re not able to pay for health care via private income, crowdsourcing, or other means, you’re not merely saddled with medical debt—you simply cannot access health care. Failures of care, the authors show, is what sparks revolution.

During our own time’s greatest failure of care, the systems of mutual aid dreamed of by O’Brien and Abdelhadi went mainstream in the real world United States. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings against policing exposed crises of care and the rapacity of white supremacy, capitalism, and state violence. Aided by shared Google Drives, Discords, and social media, neighborhood residents organized food deliveries to homebound people, transferred cash to those who needed it, and offered to keep one another company. Mutual aid and collective care networks arose to meet care needs where governments and philanthropic efforts failed. The expansion of these practices raised questions, however: What makes something mutual aid or collective care and not capitalist charity? Many social media graphics have told us that the answer is “solidarity,” as in, “solidarity, not charity.” This galvanizing answer begets the questions of what the possibilities are for solidarity, charity, care, and mutuality under capitalism—a fundamentally antisocial, extractive formation of social relations.

Addressing these crucial questions is the goal of three new books, albeit from varied methodological and temporal perspectives. Nicolas Delalande’s Struggle and Mutual Aid: The Age of Worker Solidarity examines how 19th-century workers movements built international networks and institutions premised on solidarity. Let This Radicalize You, by Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes, outlines strategies and tactics for embedding care into social movements. These tactics offer glimpses of another world that O’Brien and Abdelhadi give life to in Everything for Everyone, a “polyphonic novel” that uses the form of the oral history interview to imagine what care could look like after capitalism.

Taken together, these books outline a past, present, and future of care that is collective and radical. They all analyze alternatives for the provision of care and social organization beyond the state, philanthropy, and private enterprise. They consider how, from the 19th century to the present to the future, people have developed alternative and non-state but also anti-capitalist relationships, networks, and organizations to not only make life more possible under capitalism, but to hasten an end to capitalism itself. Central to each book is the necessary work of what Hayes and Kaba refer to as “break[ing] free from the shackles of individualism” to forge relationships premised on solidarity in our collective confrontation with the manifold crises that capitalism creates.

All three grapple with the necessity forging commonalities that make organizing possible across diverging identities of race, gender, sexuality, and class. At the same time, these books challenge the portrayal of solidarity as a straightforward alternative to the problems of charity and philanthropy. For Delalande, the development of mutual aid projects necessarily involve conflict, and as such, are sites of experimentation and training grounds for more general programs of worker solidarity. In Let This Radicalize You, conflict between activists is an inevitable part of divesting from individualism and developing collective answers to crisis. And, in Everything for Everyone, conflict, violence, and trauma are always intertwined with revolution and with the world that proceeds from it.

These texts collectively underscore how care and conflict are not mutually exclusive. In fact, conflict—including among allies—is necessary to the project of transforming social relations that mutual aid undertakes. If philanthropy attempts to smooth over conflict via patronage to maintain capitalist hierarchy and the forms of violence upon which it depends, then mutual aid and other solidaristic practices recognize that transformation comes through struggle.


Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin first coined the term “mutual aid” to describe his sociobiological theory of human nature, which he argued was undergirded by cooperation, not competition. Humans and animals naturally cooperate with each other through exhibitions of mutuality and reciprocity because doing so is pragmatic, he claimed. Kropotkin used this insight to develop a politics premised on communal anarchism, in which individuals formed independent cooperatives and communes outside of state structures to meet their needs.

Since Kropotkin’s initial theorization, those engaged in mutual aid and collective care work have developed a range of theories and practices for providing care while simultaneously exposing the failure of both state systems of social provision and private (e.g., capitalist) charities, philanthropic organizations, and nonprofit programs. Although they did not always name it as such, a variety of social movements and activist groups, from the Black Panther Party to the Young Lords Organization to Occupy Sandy to disability activists, practiced the principles of mutual aid by developing autonomous care efforts that explicitly opposed and operated outside of the state. The Panthers’ now well-known free breakfast programs, for example, paired free meals for Black youth with organizing and political education around the capitalist state’s failure to provide social services.

More recently, catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina and COVID-19 have led to a surge in both mutual aid projects and theorizing around collective care structures as an answer to the state’s failure to protect its subjects from violence and premature death. Texts such as Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next) (2020), Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work (2018), and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) offer ideas for growing contemporary mutual aid work and explicitly frame mutual aid as oppositional to institutionalized charitable efforts, which they theorize as perpetuating rather than breaking down structures of violence and inequality. Critically, they show how mutual aid work mirrors already existing practices of survival and care by those most affected by state and institutional abandonment. In these formulations, mutual aid in times of crisis also acts as a training ground for long-term organizing. In Care Work, disability activist, writer, and performer Piepzna-Samarasinha describes mutual aid and collective care as central to disability justice, which is an “anti-capitalist politic” that recognizes the “inherent worth outside of capitalist notions of productivity.” The care that Piepzna-Samarasinha describes is incompatible with nonprofits and philanthropy because they have been mechanisms to manage dissent and institutionalize disabled people. Disability justice and its call for “revolutionary love without charity” can be created through mutual aid and care networks; however, both cause burnout and inequitable distributions of care due to racist systems of value that prioritize qualities like whiteness and extroversion.

Delalande’s Struggle and Mutual Aid: The Age of Worker Solidarity offers a longer historical grounding for both the possibilities and messy realities of mutual aid that Piepzna-Samarasinha, Spade, and Solnit discuss. Struggle and Mutual Aid traces the intellectual history of solidarity in the latter half of the 19th century in the context of globalization produced by capitalism and European colonialism. The convergence of the Age of Revolutions with industrialization and the attendant international circulation of goods meant that workers began to unite across national boundaries. While Delalande’s text is the most conventional in form, following the contours of the academic monograph, his ambition is not only to offer an intellectual history of solidarity, but “to unearth a series of practices and projects that for now may seem exotic, but which have power to inspire us as we plan the struggles of the future.”

Browse

How to Embrace a Wildfire: A Path Out...

By Benjamin P. Davis

Delalande locates the founding of the International Workers Association (IWA) at the First International in 1864 as a locus for the formalization of solidarity, fraternity, and self-help as labor values. As a multinational organization, the IWA faced the task of organizing workers across lines of nationality, accompanied by differences in language and custom that could result in misunderstandings and conflict. Radicals recognized the need to convince workers of their collective power and to amass resources that would allow them to counter threats of lost wages via strikes. Solidarity was the strategic, affective answer to this problem, and mutual aid was the tactical solution, a two-part equation that Marx described as the need to “not only feel but act as brethren and comrades in the army of emancipation” (Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council, 1866).

A key question that Struggle and Mutual Aid examines is how workers could give and receive resources without creating hierarchies associated with bourgeois religious and civic charity and philanthropy, both of which were becoming institutionalized into their modern forms during this period. In many cases, workers on the receiving end of aid rejected donations altogether, preferring instead to receive loans that must be repaid. Worker organizations formed their own financial institutions and credit systems. Rather than the bourgeois concept of debt, loans were based in generalized extended credit. However, these relationships of credit proved unsustainable when workers could not fulfill their credit obligations.

In the absence of viable credit systems, radicals’ suspicions of donation-based systems of relief were tested during strikes when “charity [became] a battlefield.” On the one hand, workers exerted their power through striking. But they needed income to replace their lost wages. As Delalande’s account of the Le Creusot Strikes of 1870 shows, companies, working in concert with religious organizations, used charity and corporate worker assistance funds to attempt to break strikes by promising workers food in exchange for returning to work. Solidarity donations served as the radical answer to charity because they were intra-class expressions of support between workers meant to bolster an organized, militant working class, rather than undermine it, as corporate assistance donations did. Unions raised donations for strike funds and published donor subscription lists as a tactic to demonstrate networks of solidarity for workers. These lists were also a tactic of international humanitarian philanthropy, though radicals transformed them by making collective rather than individual donations. The solidarity donation demonstrates that tactics of mutual aid were not necessarily radical in of themselves, but instead became radical through workers’ appropriation and transformation of them.

As Delalande shows, the formation of mutual aid for labor solidarity was based on a series of experiments, most of which were not ultimately successful, due in part to conflict that they caused, including in deciding whether to use gifts or loans to support strike activity and how loans would be repaid. However, for Delalande, conflict is necessary and productive for creating a politics of solidarity.

Care and conflict are not mutually exclusive. In fact, conflict—including among allies—is necessary to the project of transforming social relations that mutual aid undertakes.

Moving us forward into the present, Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba describe the necessity of daily acts of reciprocity in our current moment, when an advanced capitalist crisis makes solidarity ever more urgent and difficult. Let This Radicalize You invites the reader to take up the “challenge” of sticking with the long, uphill battle of collective survival rather than to despair. Rather than the norm of the capitalist status quo, Hayes and Kaba call for a normalization of care and mutual aid, which would mean that individuals and communities operate not from positions of fear, abandonment, and scarcity, but from a sense of shared connection, creativity, and reciprocity. In service of this end, they equip readers with a stock of fundamental organizing lessons that tie together theory and practice. Each of the book’s ten chapters takes up a specific orientation necessary for organizing for the long haul: moving from alarm to action; resisting fear and abandonment; creating a “counterculture of care;” and avoiding burnout, among others. While the chapters engage with a lineage of thinkers like Paulo Freire, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Rebecca Solnit, their focus is primarily on stories of organizing. The book makes demands on its readers in its calls to avoid misanthropy and cynicism and instead to reflect on why violence and hopelessness are normalized to transform the world otherwise via action to “uproot oppression.”

The greatest demand that Let This Radicalize You makes is toward a politics of interdependence that resists abandonment and misanthropy. In the chapter “Refusing to Abandon,” Hayes and Kaba describe the “social life support system[s]” that people who have been imprisoned create in the face of abandonment. These systems are simultaneously simple and profound. They illustrate these support systems through the story of Monica Cosby, a formerly incarcerated abolitionist, who describes how she would have committed suicide in prison had it not been for simple acts of kindness and presence by fellow incarcerated women. In other cases, Cosby remembers frequent celebrations in which imprisoned women marshalled joy as a form of rebellion against carceral indignity and violence. In the context of the prison, which involves constant surveillance of movement and activity, these seemingly small gestures are risks and are therefore indicative of how meaningful and necessary they are for survival. Further, these gestures of kindness, joy, and celebration are oppositional to carceral logics of abandonment. They are testaments to the persistence of care and its ability to evade even the most oppressive environments. This refusal to abandon one another also runs counter to the temptation to choose misanthropy in the face of state repression and the frustrations of organizing. Believing in people, believing in care amid human conflict and messiness, is crucial to long-term political transformation.

In Let This Radicalize You, this story lives alongside others such as those that document how Chicago’s Edgewater Mutual Aid network “cross-pollinated” care work with direct action or how the Lucy Parsons Lab defends its community against Chicago Police Department surveillance via research. These contemporary examples provide specific strategies and tactics for activists that show how collective care is a central strategy for organizing outside of the state and philanthropic institutions. Above all, for Hayes and Kaba, collective care ensures that we resist the forces that “would leverage cynicism and despair to keep us idle as our world burns.”


In Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, Eman Abdelhadi and M. E. O’Brien offer a future-oriented account for the past and present formations of solidarity and collective care that Delalande and Hayes and Kaba describe. Their speculative oral history shows what care looks like in a world no longer structured by capitalism, charity, philanthropy, and nonprofits and simultaneously considers what aesthetic forms might be used to represent it. The book uses interviews with fictional characters to recount the painful, uneven US revolutions in the mid-21st century, which are marked by conflicts over care.

More specifically, Everything for Everyone uses the form of the oral history interview to narrate the revolution and the commune. In doing so, it allows for a nonlinear account that complements the process of communization that captures conflicting, sometimes contradictory, perspectives and multiple temporalities.

Its first interview is with Miss Kelley, a former sex worker who lays out the reality of care under capitalism, care’s role in overthrowing capitalism, and care’s future in the commune. She describes living with addiction, hunger, and violence as capitalism collapsed in the 2040s. However, she also describes networks of care that existed between sex workers, queer people, and within her biological family that enabled her to survive. Miss Kelley is interviewed because of her role in the Insurrection at Hunts Point in the Bronx, which began as a riot for food in the Market. Police and private security transported fresh food from the Market to wealthy parts of Manhattan. Everyone else could only access protein paste from the army. Sex workers and street gangs took the market from the police and private security forces by force, including catapulting burning trash cans. Reexpropriating and redistributing a commodified, privatized food supply to meet a fundamental human need becomes the starting point for “taking care of people,” what Miss Kelley says that she is “best at.” This work involved setting up a drug clinic, a hospital, a school, and eventually, a commune. The Market eventually evolved into a sophisticated food distribution system for all of New York City, connecting it to the region through the provision of care. This complex network is made possible by forms of care and organization developed through sex work, which during Communism, becomes “skincraft,” an important site for providing care and pleasure through sexual aid.

Miss Kelley’s interview also points to the aesthetic and representational dimensions of care. Her interview thematizes practices of representational care through her description of a “memorial project” to the “girls” who “didn’t make it through” the insurrection, but also for those who died before it due to the “intensity of violence that was just part of everyday life” under capitalism. This project gives rise to “crying, lots of hugging,” affective acts that arise from and demonstrate care for those who didn’t make it, as well as among those who did. However, it’s also meant to make sure the “younger girls … know why we have to defend the commune, no matter what it takes.” This act of archiving and commemoration is one of care, as well as one that represents the inadequacy and violence of capitalism. Further, the oral history itself becomes a way to express care in the relationship it creates between the interviewer, which in this case is O’Brien, and interviewee, who develop trust through an implication of shared transgender identity.

The nonlinear form of the oral history interview allows multiple temporalities that Miss Kelley describes—capitalist, revolutionary, and post-capitalist—and the forms of care embedded in each to exist on a spectrum, as Miss Kelley jumps back and forth between them. In the middle of the interview, Miss Kelley answers the question, “What does the commune mean to you?” by explaining that “It means we take care of each other. It means everything for everyone. It means we communized the shit out of this place. It means we took something that was property and made it life.” Here, Miss Kelley describes how care is organized after capitalism, in a world where charity, philanthropy, and nonprofits do not and cannot exist. However, this world still contains traces of the forms of mutuality, cooperation, organization, and collectivity that do find their way into philanthropic structures and the alternatives they foment, even under capitalism. Miss Kelley describes horizon of care that all three books in this review look toward—one that is radical, collective, and interdependent.

Unlike philanthropy, which aims to manage social and political instability that capitalism creates and smooth over its contradictions, we see how Communist care systems evolve through conflict, both in needing to overthrow oppressive systems but also in building those that replace them. One interviewee, Tanya John, describes how the Crotona Park Commune in the Bronx formed from convergences between ravers and “old commies,” but only after many arguments over topics ranging from party structures to discipline to how to protect children from child abuse. The “misery and joy” of anti-capitalist insurrection create aftereffects that linger even after capitalism is overthrown, leading to communization, abolition, and the formation of bodies such as the assembly and the commune. These processes are based in militant abolition and a reorganization of social reproduction that detaches care from capitalism.

The post-capitalist future in Everything for Everyone does require work, albeit in a reduced quantity. Nine-hour work weeks are common. But interviewees do not describe lives of leisure. They undertake intense work, particularly in the era of struggle to overthrow capitalism and in the initial founding of the commune. They describe cleaning crèches, distributing food, organizing the communes’ canteens, and creating data networks to make decisions. These tasks and the administrative needs that accompany them—abundant committees, endless meetings, knotty interpersonal dynamics—are familiar to anyone who has participated in nonprofit work and leftist organizations alike. This work is neither waged or unwaged, as wage labor no longer exists; nor is it controlled by funders or by demands for revenue. The provision of care work described in interviews is not structured by notions of deserving and undeserving beneficiaries; in fact, no one is a beneficiary, and no one is a benefactor. No one must perform gratitude nor generosity. Rather, responsibilities for care work are widely distributed and does not depend on nuclear families or the presumption that to afford health care, one must produce a certain amount of value.

All of these texts acknowledge that mutual aid and collective care efforts can be difficult to sustain in a world where capitalism demands that to survive, most must participate in relentless waged labor. However, moments of solidarity, mutual aid, and care beyond the state and capitalist charity—even if they are not institutionalized—act as experiments that prepare participants for forms of collective resistance and for future social struggles. Their rehearsal of these practices of mutuality paves a way for solidarity and care to not only arise in reaction to capitalist crisis, but to become features of everyday life. icon

This article was commissioned by Matthew Wolf-Meyer.

Featured image: Mutual Aid (2009). Photograph by Timothy Vollmer / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)