Mutual Aid: A Moral and Strategic Necessity
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 David Joseph Deutch
Where We Stand
Over the past year, I, myself, and many others have knocked on hundreds of doors to make the argument for our values, and for those who promise to carry them forward. We have taken the time to reach out to our neighbors and build true solidarity one conversation at a time. Rather than adopting the traditional model of campaigning, which focuses on the short term goal of gaining a vote, we pursue much broader goals, ones that look beyond the performative proceduralism of liberal democracy and to a more radically liberatory end. Actualizing such liberation means that electoralism must not only be an avenue to a form of institutional power, but must also seek to build genuine relationships, express and foment solidarity, and demonstrate a kind of class unity. It isn’t about just getting someone to turn up and pull a lever; it’s about understanding that our political goals are a collective endeavor rooted in our shared values.
Such a logic is potent and actionable when applied to those we already interact with; people in our clubs, schools, sports leagues, and local business owners. However, the logic fails to meet its stated goals when we apply it to those neighbors who live near us but don’t know us. There needs to be more than a simple statement of solidarity based on some idea of proximity if we hope to realize a project of collective liberation. Bourgeois society has created a chasm that will require far more than a friendly conversation and a raised fist to build a shared path across. It requires a genuine commitment to each other, our communities, and the principle of direct action as a means of realizing a world of genuine liberatory politics.
Thus, our strategy must rest on two pillars: a commitment to a form of electoralism and to building community solidarity and power through material assistance. This short piece hopes to clarify where we are currently, where we need to go and contribute to the ongoing discussion of how we might get there.
Rethinking the Political Spectrum
In order to assess our path forward, it is essential to adequately understand our current political and institutional moment. Regardless of the fact that it has become something of a cliche to challenge the traditional left-right political spectrum, the current state of global liberalism requires us to come to terms with the reality that centrist and right-wing actors can both easily operate within its institutions. Instead of being an affront to liberalism, the new wave of right-wing elected officials are direct products and agents of it. Rather than referring to the American brand of ‘liberal politics’ associated with the Democratic Party, I am here speaking about the political tradition stemming from Enlightenment thought. This tradition provides an understanding of freedom that involves being largely unencumbered by state authority in one’s day to day life, accompanied by a strong rule of law relating to the protection of private property. In short, think more about John Locke than Barack Obama.
In regard to ideas of belonging, and who one has a moral obligation to, the spectrum has a very clear meaning. On the far right of the line, those to whom one has such an obligation is very narrow. Think of forms of extreme-individualism, where force determines who owns what and who may take what. As we move along the spectrum, the circle of obligation becomes wider. For conservatives, this will be articulated in a sense of belonging to a family unit, a localized community, a nation, and, potentially, a race. As we move into the left, the circle of belonging is articulated in generally broader terms such as class, species, and potentially the whole planet.
All this said, something peculiar occurs when we consider liberalism through this lens. Historically speaking, liberalism invokes the idea of the universality of man. It proclaims that there is a set of inalienable rights bestowed upon humanity by merit of its very existence. Despite the lofty rhetoric, liberalism is nowhere near being ‘left-wing’ due to the fact that its commitment to community members is definitively shallow.
What this means is that liberalism has a general commitment to freedom of conscience, but only expands this to freedom of practice in instances that don’t interfere with the operation of power. This becomes apparent when we consider the concessions that liberalism has granted us over time. Alternate identities are only permitted when they don’t rock the boat or change the hierarchy of decision-makers in the society. Nowhere is this more apparent than in regard to Blackness within US society. While the concept of Blackness may at times be allowed space within the public discourse, the material circumstances of those who represent this identity are kept in an economically and politically subservient position under a form of capitalism that must preserve notions of hierarchy in order to distract from broader questions of material domination. As such, despite the election of a Black president and greater representation in elite circles, the median wealth for a Black family in the US remains one-tenth ($17,150) of that of a white family ($171,000).
The point is that liberalism effectively short circuits the dichotomy of right and left, narrow and broad, by expanding the circles of obligation while simultaneously making it significantly more shallow. Under a liberal system, premised on nation-states and global markets, liberation will always be partial and symbolic. Through a commitment to such forms of liberation, the political and business elite narrow our understanding of what constitutes genuine freedom and solidarity. In essence, we become hopeful about receiving scraps from the table rather than hoping for a true meal.
In the face of such a degradation of our fundamental political condition, the key question must be: how do we build true political solidarity and push back against the corporate-state nexus, who has so fundamentally captured our collective consciousness? In this regard, the political movement connected to both DSA and the Sanders campaign has foregone the political purity tests of the past in search of a sort of mixed-method, the goal being the production of a political hegemony for the left, and the building of genuine solidarity.
As the era of armed revolution passed, and globalization became the dominant economic principle of the state, the likelihood of a revolutionary movement seizing power receded to near zero. The ebbs and flows of history, and capital’s ability to adapt to moments of crisis, has meant that the revolutionary position - that being one which explicitly shuns electoral politics as a form of bourgeois moderation - is not a viable path. Such an approach not only perpetuates the current movement towards total corporate-state domination but rather accelerates it as the genuine left cedes the realm of electoral politics wholly to a corporate-sponsored centrist oligarchy.
However, investing solely in electoral politics is not an option either. The New Democrats of the Clinton era found a winning strategy by abandoning the working people who stood by them during the conservative fight-back of the 1970s, carving out a pact with the devil in order to occupy the seat of power. By claiming to oversee a program of incremental reform, with capital’s permission, working people were sold out by a party that was committed to a corrupt charade.
The need for a middle ground, one which stays true to the genuine cause of liberation and solidarity, but truly embraces Malcolm’s maxim of ‘by any means necessary’, should be clear to all. Dual power means mutual aid, genuine material and spiritual solidarity, and winning electoral battles, as a means of realizing political hegemony. Without these two pillars, the left is doomed to live in a ruined house, set aside for us by capital but willingly occupied by us.
Having split my time between New York City and Texas, one thing is clear. It is the case that the majority of left-wing groups, aiming at building electoral victories, are not putting in the groundwork in a deep and meaningful way. This isn’t to say that groups like DSA aren’t moving in that direction, but rather that solidarity and trust aren’t given over in exchange for pretty words and promises; it comes from turning up day in and day out. Huey Newton spoke about it in terms of the divide between a largely bourgeois Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement (RAM) and the Black Panther Party. RAM talked the talk, while the Panthers walked the walk.
In Dallas, I was largely confronted with people who had never had a campaign knock on their door before, let alone had a left-wing political organization provide direct, meaningful assistance. In these poorer minority neighborhoods, there was a deep desire to engage in left-wing politics; large numbers of people expressed outrage at the current state of inequality and oppression but had few avenues to engage with political groups outside of their neighborhoods. This represents a failure of our movement to go beyond statements of solidarity.
This shows a need for a deeper commitment to mutual aid as part of building political hegemony moving forward. The reason why the left-wing organizers of the trade union movements in the 1920s and 30s were so formidable is that they turned up time and time again for their communities. This is the spirit that needs to be emulated and expanded through deep coalition-building and consistent material support. This means working with civically-minded neighborhood organizations and being a day-to-day force for good in communities that need a hand. With comrades from all localities, we need to work to identify areas of need and seek to engage people where they are. This doesn’t mean bringing a savior complex; this means being materially useful to people who the state actively discriminates against, and building true solidarity. This requires that direct support always have an eye to the end goal of community self-determination. The state keeps us in servitude and fear, but we liberate ourselves. When people know the socialists to be those who turn up, that is the day that people will turn up for socialists at the ballot box.
In Texas, there are already amazing groups working in marginalized communities. The Texas Organizing Project screams out as one. If they want the help, all of us should heed the call. The first step is to build these kinds of coalitions, and the second is to put in the work.
Under a system that seeks to organize and group us vertically rather than horizontally, one that seeks to divide us by faction and neighborhood, race and gender, the most powerful commitment we can make to each other is to provide hands-on, material aid. An electoral campaign can’t expect that people will come out to partake in a manifestation of liberal bourgeois electoral politics when that system has never come out for them. This is the time to put in years of work, tirelessly serving our comrades. The left needs to demonstrate a deep commitment to the fundamental belief that our obligations to each other run wide and deep.
Building power is always a learning experience. As the forces of the corporate-state entity adapt, learn, and fight back, we must do the same and forever seek to get out ahead of the machine with a two-fold strategy rooted in mutual aid.