Mutual aid (organization theory)

voluntary exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit

In organization theory, mutual aid is a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.


  • The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, unfolding around the world as I write these words, will likely be remembered as an epochal shift. [...] Against all these fateful outcomes there will be those among us who refuse to return to normal, or to embrace the “new normal,” those of us who know that “the trouble with normal is it only gets worse.” Already, in the state of emergency that the crisis has unleashed, we are seeing extraordinary measures emerge that reveal that much of the neoliberal regime’s claims to necessity and austerity were transparent lies. The God-like market has fallen, again. In different places a variety of measures are being introduced that would have been unimaginable even weeks ago. These have included the suspension of rents and mortgages, the free provision of public transit, the deployment of basic incomes, a hiatus in debt payments, the commandeering of privatized hospitals and other once-public infrastructure for the public good, the liberation of incarcerated people, and governments compelling private industries to reorient production to common needs. We hear news of significant numbers of people refusing to work, taking wildcat labor action, and demanding their right to live in radical ways. In some places, the underhoused are seizing vacant homes. We are discovering, against the upside-down capitalist value paradigm which has enriched the few at the expense of the many, whose labor is truly valuable: care, service, and frontline public sector workers. There has been a proliferation of grassroots radical demands for policies of care and solidarity not only as emergency measures, but in perpetuity. [...] Meanwhile, the quarantined and semi-isolated are discovering, using digital tools, new ways to mobilize to provide care and mutual aid to those in our communities in need. We are slowly recovering our lost powers of life in common, hidden in plain sight, our secret inheritance. We are learning again to become a cooperative species, shedding the claustrophobic skin of homo oeconomicus. In the suspension of a capitalist order of competition, distrust and endless, pointless hustle, our ingenuity and compassion are resurfacing like the birds to the smog-free sky. When the Spring arrives, the struggle will be to preserve, enhance, network and organize this ingenuity and compassion to demand no return to normal and no new normal.
  • We have learned how to bring a capitalist economy to its knees through non-violent protest in the face of overwhelming, technologically augmented oppression. We are learning how to become ungovernable by either states or markets. Equally important, we have learned new ways to care for one another without waiting for the state or for authorities. We are rediscovering the power of mutual aid and solidarity. We are learning how to communicate and cooperate anew. We have learned how to organize and to respond quickly, how to make collective decisions and to take responsibility for our fate. Like the heroes of all good epics, we are not ready, our training was not completed, yet fate will not wait. Like all true heroes, we must make do with what we have: one another and nothing else. As the world closes its eyes for this strange, dreamlike quarantine ⁠— save of course for those frontline health, service and care workers who, in the service of humanity, cannot rest, or those who have no safe place to dream ⁠— we must make ready for the waking. We are on the cusp of a great refusal of a return to normal and of a new normal, a vengeful normalcy that brought us this catastrophe and that will only lead to more catastrophe. In the weeks to come, it will be time to mourn and to dream, to prepare, to learn, and to connect as best we can. When the isolation is over, we will awaken to a world where competing regimes of vindictive normalization will be at war with one another, a time of profound danger and opportunity. It will be a time to rise and to look one another in the eye.
  • If the traditional civil rights movement was clearly in the ranks of a liberal-progressive orientation, calling for more effective national governmental action, some advocates of Black Power could easily conclude that such action had reached its limits: Once the national government removed the legal barriers to advancement, the task was then up to blacks themselves to devote more of their energies and resources to helping themselves. They needed to engage more in “self-help” and seek to develop organizations and institutions that would rely less on government “handouts” and more on their own intra-communal efforts. After all, wasn’t this the way other groups had made it in the society? As many blacks received advantages in education and jobs, they should “reach back” and help their less fortunate sisters and brothers. And do so without the constant complaining about the lack of governmental economic assistance. They should stop seeing themselves as perpetual victims, and take more initiative on their own to assume responsibility for alleviating their plight.
  • A soon as we study animals — not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest and prairie, in the steppe and in the mountains — we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle. Of course it would be extremely difficult to estimate, however roughly, the relative numerical importance of both these series of facts. But if we resort to an indirect test, and ask Nature: "Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?" we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development and bodily organization. If the numberless facts which can be brought forward to support this view are taken into account, we may safely say that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle; but that as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance, inasmuch as it favors the development of such habits and characters as insure the maintenance and further development of the species, together with the greatest amount of welfare and enjoyment of life for the individual, with the least waste of energy.
    • Peter Kropotkin, "Mutual Aid as a Factor in Evolution" as quoted in The Cry for Justice : An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest (1915) by Upton Sinclair
  • All that was an element of progress in the past or an instrument of moral and intellectual improvement of the human race is due to the practice of mutual aid, to the customs that recognized the equality of men and brought them to ally, to unite, to associate for the purpose of producing and consuming, to unite for purpose of defence to federate and to recognize no other judges in fighting out their differences than the arbitrators they took from their own midst.
  • It is especially in the domain of ethics that the dominating importance of the mutual-aid principle appears in full. That mutual aid is the real foundation of our ethical conceptions seems evident enough. But whatever the opinions as to the first origin of the mutual-aid feeling or instinct may be whether a biological or a supernatural cause is ascribed to it — we must trace its existence as far back as to the lowest stages of the animal world; and from these stages we can follow its uninterrupted evolution, in opposition to a number of contrary agencies, through all degrees of human development, up to the present times. Even the new religions which were born from time to time — always at epochs when the mutual-aid principle was falling into decay in the theocracies and despotic States of the East, or at the decline of the Roman Empire — even the new religions have only reaffirmed that same principle. They found their first supporters among the humble, in the lowest, downtrodden layers of society, where the mutual-aid principle is the necessary foundation of every-day life; and the new forms of union which were introduced in the earliest Buddhist and Christian communities, in the Moravian brotherhoods and so on, took the character of a return to the best aspects of mutual aid in early tribal life.
    Each time, however, that an attempt to return to this old principle was made, its fundamental idea itself was widened. From the clan it was extended to the stem, to the federation of stems, to the nation, and finally — in ideal, at least — to the whole of mankind.
  • In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support — not mutual struggle — has had the leading part. In its wide extension, even at the present time, we also see the best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race.
  • Mutual aid is one of the most beautiful of anarchism's ethics. It implies a lavish, boundless sense of generosity, in which people support each other and each other's projects. It expresses an openhanded spirit of abundance, in which kindness is never in short supply. It points to new relations of sharing and helping, mentoring and giving back, as the very basis for social organization. Mutual aid communalizes compassion, thereby translating into greater "social security" for everyone—without need for top-down institutions. It is solidarity in action, writ large, whether on the local or global level.
  • When felt and lived out as a daily sensibility, in combination with other anarchist ethics, cooperation creates fundamentally different social relations, which offer humanity the best odds of transforming the values of a hierarchical society. In a hierarchical society, charity is a form of "giving" that no matter how benevolent, ends up forging paternalistic relationships. The giver is in a position of authority; the recipient is always at their mercy, even if the giver needs the recipient to feel good about themselves (or as a tax write-off). This leads to an ethics of self-interest: one shouldn't give unless one receives something equal in return, regardless of whether each person has something equal to give. Mutual aid, in contrast, stresses reciprocal relations, regardless of whether the gift is equal in kind. Humans give back to each other in a variety of ways—the inequality of equals. Individuals and societies flourish because the different contributions are not only equally valued but combine to make for a greater whole.
  • The implication of mutual aid is that humans see themselves as part of nonhuman nature (though distinct from it in certain ways), needing to cooperate as much with the nonhuman natural world as with each other to survive and evolve. The ecological crisis is, in fact, a social crisis: humans believe they can dominate nonhuman nature because they believe it's natural to dominate other human beings. But mutual aid holds that humans, other animals, and plants all thrive best under forms of holistic cooperation—ecosystems. It suggests that people would be much more likely to live in harmony with each other and the nonhuman world—to be ecological—in a nonhierarchical society.