by Max Power
Mutual Aid: (noun)
A term in organization theory used to signify a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.
An economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.
I have provided the two definitions above to allow you, dear reader, to understand the opposition inherent in these two forms of exchange, for the sake of this small case study. Mutual aid is a very simple concept that has existed for a very long time. In our current reality, it is a nearly phased out practice, replaced by a competitive social norm that is based on profit and personal gain (i.e. capitalism).
Sometimes, however, small examples of resource sharing do occur, such as between family members, friends, neighbors, and other social relations. Recently, Hamilton has been hit with a more public format of exchange: Buds Trading Zone.
This online trading platform is a Facebook page created to emulate the original Toronto-based forum, where members of the Facebook group can post pictures of items that are no longer of use to them and arrange a trade. The only rule from its conception was not to allow the exchange of any money. This platform worked well enough at first, providing a very basic means of connecting socially through a barter system and creating a sort of alternative economy. By using Buds, its members found a way of effectively by-passing the companies who put price tags on our used items and profit from the exchange.
Sadly, it didn’t take very long for a fixed economy to occur within the group. Standardized items such as alcohol or gift cards have recently become the norm when arranging a trade. Instead of trading for any old item that you also have lying around, it is now the norm to demand a gift card of the “seller’s” choosing, or to ask for a few craft beers. The Facebook world has found a way to shit from voluntary aid to capitalism by other means.
More recently, Buds users have begun posting photos of working class people with (or near) a bicycle and labeling them as potential bike thieves. One man’s good citizen is another man’s snitch. How did a platform for second-hand exchange become an outlet for middle class anxieties about their property? Simply put, it is operating within the context of aclass-based society in which we are required to collect and protect things, not give them away. When those things get taken from us, we often direct our anger downwards on the pyramid of class instead of upwards at the people who create scarcity to begin with. Despite our best efforts to experiment with other forms of relating to one another, it’s difficult to fight the magnetic pull back towards capitalism’s logic. Mutual aid within the context of capitalism is tricky business.
Real mutual aid is a simple concept based on sharing in such a way that it lessens our dependency on waged work. It is a concept based on sharing our skills and resources with each other — resources which come in many forms including food, clothing, electronics, skills (such as carpentry or electrical work), and emotional support. Real mutual aid is, at its core, an opportunity to pool resources so that we don’t need to pay money for every individual thing. It allows us to expand our social networks by relying on each other in a tangible way. At best, practicing mutual aid allows us to spend more time engaging in activities other than work.
While the problem is much larger than Buds Trading Zone, the example of this modern method of barter exchange and its very easy co-option into a profit-based economy demonstrates how deeply the values of capitalism have penetrated our means of survival.
When I think of personal examples of mutual aid in practice in my own life, I think of a recent harvest party that took place on a farm outside of the city. An invitation spread among friends asking for help with the onion harvest, and thirty people showed up in the morning to help out in the fields. Several people assigned themselves to cook a big lunch and dinner for everyone working, and those in the field chatted and worked. No one was forced to be there, but because we know that on any given day we can drop in at the farm to share a meal with the people who live there or spend a night sleeping out under the stars, it felt good to help out. When we can create networks of mutual support, time stops having a price tag.
As this example suggests, practicing real mutual aid requires more than just logging onto Facebook. It requires a mental overhaul of how we construct need and value in our lives. We work because we have a sense of material need, but how much of what we need is not, in fact, material, but rather social, supportive, and nourishing? Mutual aid is a basic concept to allow us to collectivize the energy that we expend on fulfilling our basic needs while simultaneously breaking down the focus upon material wealth. In the absence of accumulating goods and working to get ahead, what else might we do with our spare time?