Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Mutual Aid

I went to the 2nd Annual Anarchist Bookfair in NYC this past weekend. I went last year as well, and it was interesting to see what had changed and what had stayed the same. Overall I got a lot more out of it – perhaps because we were more organized about it, and made sure to look ahead of time at the talks we’d want to go to, or maybe the talks themselves were better this year. It is hard to know, since of course we can only go to one talk at a time!

The talk that got me the most fired up was on on mutual aid.

I’d read “Conquest of Bread” by Kropotkin on the bus on the way up to NYC, and it was pretty much the perfect reading material to have in my head going into the talks at the bookfair. It is an incredibly practical book, addressing many of the common questions people have about anarchism. I found it very interesting, other than the discussion of animal exploitation, which I mostly skipped. He was writing in the late 1800’s, and he’d come a long way from his beginnings as a Russian aristocrat who owned people! We are in a position today where we’re starting from a point where the thought of ownership of humans makes us recoil in revulsion, and so it is natural for us to go further, see the connections between all forms of exploitation.

I always wonder about some of these influential anarchists of times past, Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin (to name two that stick out in my own mind) – all the connections they made, all the thought they put into it…I wonder if they’d have been able to see the connection with animal exploitation if they’d been alive today? It seems like most anarchists I meet are vegan, to the point that I actually expect it, and am rarely disappointed.

So the talk on mutual aid…it was absolutely incredible. There were five panelists, with a wide range of experiences. Most of them had a background in social work. The audience was filled with thoughtful people, many of whom had also had experience and/or education in social work. Everyone was interesting, and the issue of harm-reduction was something that got me thinking. But what I can’t get out of my mind is a collective that a small group of local anarchists had formed based entirely on the concept of mutual aid.

The Rock Dove Project is an anarchist project composed of a two-pronged network. This network aims to connect people in search of cheap/free health care (“seekers”) to health practitioners who offer cheap/free services and agree with our mission statement (“providers”).

As a collective, Rock Dove will facilitate the process by offering seekers access to a directory of participating providers, and forwarding service requests to providers who are looking for people to serve. See below for details regarding both aspects of the Project.

They network among themselves and help others find access to health care, and they have a whole-person view of health. Part of that is reflected in the way they make sure that they take care of themselves, first and foremost, to avoid burn-out. (I wanted to ask them if they’d read “Aftershock”!) They are pretty much the embodiment of “prefigurative” if you ask me! Everyone always says “be the change you want to see” and that’s exactly what they are doing.

So what is mutual aid?

It is about community, ethics, and being non-exploitative. It is about finding ways around the capitalist mindset and hopefully giving yourself some breathing room from the wage-slavery. Here’s their description of it:

The term “mutual aid” has been used in various ways over the past two centuries by everyone from political theorists to emergency workers.

However, when we use it, we are referring to as Wikipedia so aptly puts it “the economic concept of voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.” In other words, it’s a much fairer and effective way of giving and receiving services and goods than using money. An example of how mutual aid can be used is if I walk Jane Schmane’s dog for an hour, in exchange for one session of acupuncture.

While we do not directly discourage Seekers from giving money in return for the services they receive from Providers, as it may be the most practical means of payment in any given situation, we do encourage practicing mutual aid, and not just in regards to the health services facilitated by this collective, but in as many aspects of life as possible. Rock Dove believes that by incorporating mutual aid increasingly into more instances in our lives, it will help to set the foundation for a freer and more just world.

It was fitting, then, to begin reading Nowtopia on the way home.

There are so many ways we can incorporate this into our lives. And you know what? It is almost the same thing as “building community.” Incidentally, the best way to reach and help people on an individual basis. My yoga teacher is already doing some of this in a very natural way. She’s exchanged massages for yoga classes. Maybe I’ll talk to her, see if she and others would be interested in a more formal network. I doubt they’d identify as anarchists, but mutual aid relies more on community and a desire to help others than it does on a political identification. It can easily transcend such flimsy boundaries.

It makes me think about one aspect of my dissatisfaction with some of the major animal “rights” groups. They encourage us to get on their email lists, to take action based on their alerts for their pet projects. And what I have learned is that I can take action until the end of time in support of them, but unless I am “a major supporter” in a financial sense, they won’t offer help in return.

And that’s crap, pure and simple.

Which only tells me what I already knew – it’s up to us, to the connections we make on a personal level and the community we form, to create change in the world.

amy and jeremy


8 responses to “Mutual Aid

  1. Kelvin Kao April 15, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    I guess it takes a certain type of life style and community to have total monarchy. Trading a massage for a yoga lesson works, but if what you need is, say, a surgery that requires a team of medical staff, it’s hard to trade with each of them individually. That’s when you need some level of abstraction, and we call that money.

    But when you have money, you’ll have people that can accumulate a lot of money. They start to become powerful and when these powerful people try to regulate things, anarchy falls apart.

    But it can still work on some levels, just not all levels in the modern society (unless you are Omish?)

    Of course, I don’t know enough about Omish people or anarchism, so I might have been totally wrong.

    So… Durant, eh? Didn’t know that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Deb April 15, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    Well, it is true that to have community you need to commit to a certain kind of life style, though it is more of a mentality than a lifestyle. The commitment is important, though the idea of a real community seems alien in this current society. It isn’t so different from how people survived a couple hundred years ago though.

    It is always easy to see where in our lives with the way society is set up, where mutual aid won’t work. I mean, hey, I can’t pay my mortgage unless I have a job, because the bank only takes cold hard cash. (Well, actually, they’re perfectly happy with the electronic equivalent.) But that’s not the point here. The point is to see and act on where and when we CAN bring mutual aid into our lives.

    We do this automatically with our close friends and family. (At least, I don’t charge my friends when I give them a ride places…for one example.) The trick is to expand that with purpose and commitment.

  3. Kelvin Kao April 15, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Yeah. It’s the mentality. I was saying that total monarchy can’t really exist in practice, but then again, total any ideology probably wouldn’t exist, or otherwise they wouldn’t be called ideologies.

    This might be somewhat off topic from the anarchism discussion, but I think the family tie and friendship will be stronger, if we are exchanging favors instead of money, like parents spending more time with their kids instead of showering them with money and gifts. Then maybe the idea can be expanded to the community too… hm, somehow I feel on topic again. =)

  4. Becci April 16, 2008 at 1:45 am

    Rock Dove is another word for the sweet feral pigeons we see in our cities…interesting choice of name!

  5. Kenneth Cassar April 16, 2008 at 5:36 am

    If you haven’t already, I’m sure you would be very interested in reading Kropotkin’s “Mutual aid – a factor of evolution”. It actually begins with mutual aid among non-human animals.

    The whole text of the book is also available online at

  6. Deb April 16, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Kelvin, total monarchy has existed many times in the past, as has total anarchy. Anarchy isn’t itself an impossibility, living in a community that is a real community isn’t an impossibility. There are people doing it right now. It isn’t where my life is, but that doesn’t mean I can’t incorporate aspects into my daily life. As for monarchy, I believe there are several countries living under the rule of kings or queens, even today. And yes, our communities ties, whether through friendship, family, or other connections, are strengthened when we don’t put a dollar value on our interactions.

    Becci, that’s why they chose the name! From their main page:

    Why Rock Dove?
    “Rock Dove” is the original name for the pigeon. You may have seen one or two around town.

    We are Rock Dove because we aim to connect the strength and groundedness of the rock with the peace and flight of the dove in our lives, our relationships, and our work.

    We are Rock Dove because amidst what looks like endless and irreversible hardship, we aim to serve as messengers from a live, green world. We see and build that world in the shell of the present. We hatch plans.

    We are Rock Dove because this is New York City, and we are everywhere.


    Kenneth, thanks for the link. I’ve seen it float around, but it is always good to have the link again. I haven’t read Kropotkin’s “mutual aid” but it has been on my list for a while. It is at the bottom. I have too many books to read!

  7. Mary Martin May 5, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks for the link, Kenneth.

    And Deb, the anarchists I know, one of whom is a City Commissioner (I know, oxymoron-ish) are not vegans. They’re all about SOLE food (sustainable, organic, local and/or ethical, but ethical to them doesn’t include not killing anyone). I always thought that was odd.

  8. Deb May 6, 2008 at 7:54 pm


    For what it is worth, I’ve met one and only one anarchist who wasn’t vegan. (I’m not saying that every anarchist IS vegan, just that the vast majority I’ve met are.) And she’d tried, but she has some of the most bizarre food allergies that I’ve ever heard of, and she lost a ton of weight and was really unhealthy when she tried to eat the very few vegan foods she could digest. Such people really do exist, it seems.

    Anyway, I’ve been to anarchist book fairs, at which only vegan food is available. Anarchist book stores, at which almost everything is vegan (and that is experience in four states and two countries, for whatever that is worth) when they serve food, and I met quite a few people at each, all of whom were vegan, except one.

    I’m not sure what difference it makes overall, whether the people I’ve met are the anomaly or the people you’ve met, but suffice to say, there are a lot of anarchists who are vegan. In fact, the majority of the anarchists are multiple-issue activists, which is something I can’t usually say about vegans. So when I volunteered at the Green Festival with RAN last year, the people before me and with me were all vegan, and one of the people with me was anarchist as well.

    I’ve never met a single person who has talked about SOLE. I wonder if that is a Florida thing?

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