Originally published by the PanMeMic Research Collective, 5 June 2020
With the growth and increasing visibility of mutual aid during the coronavirus pandemic, Daniel Lees Fryer looks at how mutual aid groups and the individuals involved in them are represented in the media.
Amidst the chaos and tragedy of the coronavirus, one of the things that has impressed me most has been the emergence and response of mutual aid groups and networks. For those not familiar with the concept, mutual aid is basically about people getting together to help each other out, sharing skills and resources for the benefit of all. Mutual aid groups are typically small, grassroots, community-based organizations or affiliations that help provide essential goods and services to local residents, especially in times of crisis. Right now, in the current pandemic, that includes providing or distributing food and medicine, stopping housing evictions, offering a point of contact for those in isolation, or helping out kids with their homework when schools are closed. Some mutual aid groups also organize solidarity funds for those whose often precarious livelihoods are most heavily affected by the pandemic (health or care workers, restaurant workers, sex workers, etc.).
The idea of mutual aid isn’t new—as long as there’s been community, there’s been mutual aid, some might say—but the concept or its popularization is usually attributed to Peter Kropotkin. Writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Kropotkin argued that humans and other living organisms flourish best when they cooperate, both within and across species, and that cooperation or mutual aid is key to their survival and evolutionary development. Kropotkin was a scientist, activist, and anarchist thinker, and his concept of mutual aid is one of the tenets of modern social anarchism. Although not all mutual aid groups (or the individuals involved in those groups) identify as anarchist, they’re usually leaderless, nonhierarchically organized, and directly democratic, sharing a sense of social justice and the need for direct action. That’s part of what makes them so interesting when they catch the attention of conservative and liberal media.
I’m thinking primarily of digital media here, the kinds of texts we might find in online newspapers and other news outlets, but much of what I’ve noticed likely applies to print media too. (Note that most of the articles I refer to here are in English. I’d be interested to know how mutual aid groups are represented in other languages and in other places where they’re actively responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Sorry for being so Anglo- and Euro-centric.)
The typical “mutual aid in the time of coronavirus” article (examples here, here, and here) contains most of what you’d expect. There’s the personal perspective, featuring an activist, an activist group, and/or someone from the local community in need of aid. There’s also a broader social and political narrative: what impact coronavirus has had on the local community, how that compares to other communities, how mutual aid addresses the problem, and what potential challenges it faces; and, of course, a brief account of what mutual aid is and how it works—like the one I gave above. There are also articles that are more like public service announcements, providing details of local groups and networks and how to get involved (examples here and here).
Activists in these news stories are typically portrayed up close and personal (examples here and here): eyes front, stern face, maybe a smile or a mask. Sometimes they’re shown at greater distance, turned away, in a state of activity, carrying boxes or bags of food or medicine (example here as well as previous examples). They’re generally described as creative or innovative (particularly with regard to digital technologies), often selfless and enthusiastic, generous and supportive, caring and compassionate, and sometimes exhausted and overwhelmed by the amount of help needed. One article refers to mutual aid groups as providing “meaning, purpose, and connection”. Others argue that, while necessary and important, such groups can’t or shouldn’t replace the kinds of services governments and local authorities should be providing but aren’t (examples here and here).
Those in need of aid—the sick and the elderly, for example—are often represented in similar ways: up close and personal, stern-faced or smiling; or anonymous, at a distance, in profile, face covered by a mask. They’re variously described as scared, desperate, and forgotten or neglected (by the state), but also grateful and relieved for the help they get and the “community spirit” they experience. One article describes their predicament as “heart-wrenching”, another as “life-threatening [existenzbedrohend]”.
In addition to the sources mentioned above, I had a quick look at the Coronavirus Corpus. “Mutual aid” occurs there at a relative frequency of 2.30 instances per million words. In comparison, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, COCA, contains just 0.34 instances per million words. In the Coronavirus Corpus, “mutual aid” collocates with “groups” and “networks”, as well as “local”, “solidarity”, “together”, “grassroots”, “volunteers”, “resources”, and “organizing”, to name a few. Not since the Occupy movement of 2011-2012 has reference to mutual aid been so frequent in the media, at least according to the corpora I’ve looked at.
Which kind of brings me back to part of what interested me about mutual aid in the media in the first place. Mutual aid can challenge existing forms of social and political organization (or the lack thereof). Yet the idea of mutual aid seems so simple, so everyday or commonplace, so natural maybe, that its radical or revolutionary potential might be overlooked. When The Telegraph, the Daily Mail (I’d rather not link to the Mail), or Conservative councillors write about or promote mutual aid, are they aware of that potential, or do they see a different kind of potential, perhaps one in which volunteerism replaces waged labour and poorly funded public services?
Mutual aid groups do things that governments or local authorities can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t do. They meet people’s immediate needs, offer care and support, and help (re)build and maintain communities. Think of the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast programmes, or the legal, financial, and physical aid offered to people threatened with eviction from their homes. While it might be easy to suggest that these are all services a well-functioning state or local authority should or could be taking care of, and maybe some already do, it misses part of the point of mutual aid as formulated by Kropotkin; namely that, given the right conditions, people don’t really need the government or local authorities in order to thrive (and, historically, generally haven’t had much use for them either). Indeed, the state might be the very reason they’re not able to thrive in the first place if it helps maintain inequality and threatens certain people’s lives or livelihoods. That’s not to say that all activities and services funded and organised by the state are bad, or that they aren’t important or essential; just that maybe they don’t need to be run by the state and can be more effectively done at a local level, coordinated through wider networks or federations. This is of course part of what mutual aid is all about, and something many of the current mutual aid groups and networks talk about too (see example here). Very few of the “mutual aid in the time of coronavirus” articles make this connection, however, even though several make reference to Kropotkin. That seems a shame, but perhaps isn’t surprising given the political or ideological positions of different media and those who write for them. Still, it’s nice, among all the other coronavirus news, to see masked activists get such positive media coverage for a change and to see how effective and wide-ranging mutual aid groups can be.