What do we mean by mutual aid?

By Tom Collinge 3 November 2020 3 minute read

The second English lockdown of 2020, beginning this week, invites a range of comparisons with the first one. A key question is whether we will see the return of the spontaneous up-swell of community action and support that happened under the name of ‘mutual aid’ during the first lockdown or, indeed, if it ever went away.

The question is more difficult to answer than you might think, considering the confidence with which some people talk about the phenomenon.

A long read from The Guardian in May builds a transatlantic case for mutual aid, arguing that, ‘the generosity and solidarity in action in the present moment offers a foreshadowing of what is possible—and necessary.’ And suggests that mutual aid, ‘is not only a practical tool but an ideological insurrection.’ Meanwhile, Conservative MP Danny Kruger argues in a submission to the Prime Minister that the rise of mutual aid groups is, ‘part of a general phenomenon of neighbourliness across the country,’ and Boris Johnson’s reply refers to, ‘tremendous levels of voluntary action,’ alongside, ‘innovation,’ and partnership with the private sector.

A lot of people therefore have a vision of this mutual aid phenomenon, plus perhaps a motive behind why they support it. It could have implications for everything from local government devolution to the future of capitalism. But who’s right, what do we mean by mutual aid? And what’s the future of the movement? Can it help us tackle some of our biggest social problems?

We know a little, but not enough

The simple answer is, we don’t know. In fact, the way different camps can interpret the phenomenon so differently is the first sign that there are currently no concrete ideas out there.

This is because, by their essential nature, mutual aid groups are hard to research. They are necessarily informal, they don’t have a uniform structure, mission statement or membership.

Finding them and researching them is hard. Some reports have had to resort to analysing mutual aid groups that the researchers themselves are involved in! Another researcher managed to interview only four people from mutual aid groups, out of a total of 55 interviews with organisations tackling the crisis.

Saying that, there are some excellent pieces of research already published on mutual aid, and more is on the way from major institutions like the London School of Economics. It is clearly possible to learn lots of useful things about them, but for now it is very hard to get a comprehensive picture of the scale and activities of these groups.

Even this amazing data set from Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, which has self-reported details on just under 3,000 groups, has issues. Plugging in my local area and then checking it against other resources suggests that it only contains about half the mutual aid groups that you can quickly find yourself online. The question of whether the groups in the data set are still active or not is then a further issue to consider (for some groups, the information is just a link to a WhatsApp group).

To be clear, I am not saying that all this makes mutual aid impossible to research. It is important to explore it, especially the level of mutual aid in areas worst hit by this crisis (please get in touch if you would like to help NPC with this kind of research). However, it is my belief that, despite all the good work that has been done, and in anticipation of the bigger studies that are coming, there is currently very little we can say with certainty about mutual aid in the UK—particularly whether these groups can help us tackle some of our biggest social problems.

A word of caution

Lockdown two will be an important moment for mutual aid in the UK. Whether it experiences a resurgence or not, it will be packaged up and sold back to you by people who want it to mean something. There’s nothing sinister about that, it is the way of all new and exciting things. But I hope this blog inspires you to ask for the evidence, and maybe speculate on their motives, before you believe what anyone tells you about the rise / fall of mutual aid meaning X / Y.

As England enters another lockdown, we may see another spontaneous up-swell of mutual aid. What do we know about mutual aid groups and can they help us tackle some of our biggest social problems? Click To Tweet