This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
by Richard Lyon
The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly engulfed the entire globe. Most of the people on the planet have had their lives impacted by this crisis. The efforts to control the spread of the disease are creating major economic disruption. Governmental organizations at all levels are experiencing often contradictory demands for responses to the crisis.
The Democratic Socialists of America are seeking means of making a response to the situation. There was an initial effort by the national organization to organize a coordinated response. This effort quickly collapsed, mainly because there was no consensus on what to do and how to do it. Part of the original plan was to organize national coordination and support for mutual aid projects. The basic notion of mutual aid as an appropriate activity for DSA chapters became a matter of controversy. One strain of opinion has attempted to equate mutual aid with charity and thus render it an invalid organizing activity.
This debate is not entirely new. People have previously taken the position that activities like brake light clinics aren’t “real organizing.” For many of the people voicing such views, electoral politics and labor organizing are the gold standard of proper socialist organizing. The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically increased the demand for mutual aid projects and intensified this debate. When we look at the national news media we see that such political upheaval is not limited to DSA. The purpose of this article is to look back at the competing political and ideological forces that have shaped American public policy and voluntary activities that are still very much influencing the currents of opinion in the 21st century.
Informal mutual aid has always existed in small communities where everybody knows everybody else. Major life events such as sickness, childbirth, and death have been met by support and assistance from neighbors. In rural communities, gatherings for such things as barn raisings and quilting bees provided shared labor and occasions for social events.
With industrialization and urbanization, relationships within communities become more complex and impersonal, giving rise to structured organizations in lieu of neighborly gatherings. The US has a long historical tradition of more formal mutual aid organizations, many of which started in lodge organizations such as Masons and Odd Fellows. They involved the pooling of funds for various forms of assistance such as sick pay, death benefits, and unemployment support. Some of these evolved into corporate insurance organizations. There was a strong emphasis on these groups providing mutual assistance among what was often described as a brotherhood, and emphatically not as charity. The network of such organizations in the US was very extensive from the 19th century up to WWII.
During the same period, the American labor movement began to gather force. The efforts to organize for better wages and working conditions were met by resistance from capitalist employers and the legal establishment. Early unions evolved various forms of mutual aid to support members in the face of struggles, such as strike funds and other support funds provided by fraternal organizations.
An interesting piece of history from this period is the activity of socialist organizations. They were mostly limited to the east coast and centered in New York City. They were vigorously active in the creation of labor unions and mutual aid organizations. Anyone interested in exploring a bit of this history would find A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York by Tony Michles very useful. It focuses primarily on Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe.
Notions of charity arise in situations of economic disparity. There are people who lack the economic resources to provide for the essential conditions of survival, and there are other people with disposable economic assets who can be persuaded to transfer some of those assets to the “less fortunate.” Industrial capitalism has been the economic and political system that has created the most glaring disparities. The US industrial revolution produced a bumper crop of industrialists and financiers who amassed great personal wealth. Collectively, they have become known as the robber barons. Their activities in establishing foundations to dole out portions of this wealth have done much to set the tone for American charities.
Several of the richest robber barons established well-endowed foundations that set much of the ethos of the tradition of American charity. Historically, the names of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford stand out: their well-publicized philanthropy set a pattern followed by the financially comfortable in establishing more modest charitable activities. These large foundations were frequently instrumental in influencing both domestic and foreign public policy. The tradition continues today with the likes of Gates, Buffet, and Bezos.
Churches play a less glamorous role in the promotion of charities. As one might expect, their projects have a moral agenda. During the 19th century, many charities focused their efforts on building and operating brick-and-mortar institutions such as orphanages, asylums for the insane, and TB sanitariums, among others. One of the functions of such places was to put people out of sight and out of mind. There was a pretty clear dividing line between the people participating in mutual aid organizations like fraternal societies and labor unions and the people thrust into the arms of charity as a result of their circumstances. The pervasive value attached to the notions of hard work and self-reliance assigned a strong social stigma to the prospect of being on charity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the emergence of commercial financial corporations began to encroach on the membership of fraternal societies. Their lobbyists were frequently successful in the passage of state legislation that provided them with favored positions at the expense of voluntary societies. Then along came the Great Depression. The poorly regulated structure of much of the financial system collapsed under economic pressure. Many families saw their life savings wiped out by bank failures. Herbert Hoover’s response to the situation was to call on charities to do more. His plea did not accomplish a great deal.
The Roosevelt administration was swept into office on a tide of desperation. The New Deal made major structural changes to the American economy and firmly established a much more robust notion of government responsibility for the well-being of ordinary citizens. The only major program that created direct financial assistance to individuals was the Social Security Act. It established a program of social insurance for the elderly and public assistance programs for the indigent. The later programs were jointly funded by federal and state governments and administered by the states. Since social security was funded by a combination of employer and employee contributions, it was easy to sell it to the public as being the product of hard work and personal effort. On the other hand, public assistance carried the combined stigma of taking money that was not earned by hard work and coming out of the tax payer’s pocket instead.
In the middle of the 20th century, a major portion of jobholders were covered by employee benefits for health insurance and pension plans. The kinds of protections for which people had once turned to fraternal organizations had become tied to employment. That picture began to shift with the decline of unions in the private sector and the rise of the gig economy. More and more workers began to experience chronic economic stress.
The neoliberal economy that began to hold an increasing sway in the late 1970s has created many difficulties for ordinary working people. One of the worst of them is the housing crisis that gets worse year by year. It erupted in the crash of 2008 with a massive wave of foreclosures driving more people back to being renters. Rising rents have driven people onto the streets as homeless. These are people who have completely fallen out of the bottom of the safety net promised by public policy.
Throughout American history, the popular culture has made an arbitrary distinction between mutual aid and charity. Participating in one is “good” and accepting the other is “bad.” This moral dichotomy is still with us. It avoids an intelligent examination of specific economic arrangements and the impacts that they have on the various parties involved. It also assumes that things must be placed in one box or the other. There is no allowance for mixed and ambiguous situations.
Now, in 2020, the world has been rapidly consumed by one of the most devastating pandemics in history. Along with spreading sickness and death, it has created major economic impacts of unemployment and financial crisis for small businesses. People whose lives are impacted by this crisis are confronted by a patchwork of possible sources of assistance. People with nice middle-class office jobs who can work from home face a trade-off of social isolation in return for being spared the stress of the daily commute. Other people are likely to face more pressing needs.
The crisis is putting added stress on economic and political systems that were already showing signs of strain. There are major issues of public policy that require governmental action. As during the Great Depression, private mutual aid and charities cannot offer solutions to the structural problems. They can only provide some assistance to individuals who are caught in the cracks.
There are people in DSA who think that there should be hard standards for “valid” forms of socialist organizing. Anything that claims to be mutual aid must have clear objectives of building socialist power and increasing DSA membership in the process. Anything accused of being charity is simply beyond the pale and should be left to sentimental liberal organizations.
Some activities such as tenant organizing do fit the characteristics of organizing the working class and challenging capitalist property owners. The activities are timely and worth doing. However, there are a lot of other things that are useful and helpful in the context of this crisis. People need food and medical supplies. Seniors isolating at home or people living on the streets are in urgent need of such assistance. There is a sizable number of DSA chapters that have organized such projects. There are other organizations like local food banks that need donations. Why should anybody care whether this is charity or mutual aid?
The contention seems to be that mutual aid projects done to assist people who are not in a position to act on their own behalf can easily fall into being charity and are thus not valid forms of socialist organizing. If establishing the right of all people to the necessities of life and dignity is not a proper aspiration of socialists, then what is it all about? Red T shirts? Ordinary working people are not easily excited by ideological rhetoric. They are much more likely to remember people who made sure that they had food on the table and a roof over their heads.