Continuing my interest in the emergence of mutual aid groups in response to the pandemic, I thought I would write about other grassroots organisations that have emerged in response to crises. I have wanted to do this for a while but been delayed again due to various factors including more health issues with the Covid vaccine.
This of course, is not the first time that cooperative grassroots initiatives have emerged in response to disasters, catastrophes and crises. As Rhiannon Firth (no relation, 2019) has discussed in her excellent book chapter on Covid and mutual aid, environmental catastrophes such as Hurricane Sandy have, over the last few years, been responded to very early on by on the ground activist and community based relief efforts, and what she terms disaster anarchism.
Occupy Sandy, for example, organised community disaster relief at a much quicker pace than NGOs, charities and federal agencies. It drew on knowledge and practice of activists from the Occupy movement in Zucotti Park in New York, which itself emerged in response to the financial crash in 2008/9. At the time of the first iteration of Occupy, many commentators bemoaned the lack of strategy and concrete demands that the movement embodied and saw this as indicative of a lack of longevity. While on one level, this criticism may be valid to some extent, in the main, it misses what was a crucial aspect of the movement. What Occupy did, was to equip activists with ways of organising, namely practicing collective, cooperative and collaborative organisation and decision-making which directly challenged the dominant ultra-individualistic neoliberal paradigm. Since the actual occupations died down, it may seem that nothing has come of them. However, the experiences shared by activists involved, became a useful reservoir of knowledge from which to draw from in the future. Indeed, there is evidence that it is often the case that activists who have been involved in previous actions, or have a shared history and political culture, can at times quickly collaborate and create seemingly spontaneous actions within communities (Firth, Scott). What may seem spontaneous often emerges as a result of much offstage on the ground activism that has to happen before anything becomes visible.
There are also many examples beyond living memory of innovative forms of cooperative grassroots organisation emerging at times of devastation and destruction. I am cautious about drawing too much of a parallel between the pandemic and a state of war, especially as wartime rhetoric has been used especially in the UK, by the government, to forward nostalgic and essentially nationalist agendas. Nevertheless, unlike a localised environmental catastrophe, the pandemic is affecting not only whole nations but is a global event and there is much to be gained from keeping a global perspective. In addition, there is a level of collective trauma that is perhaps comparable to a large global event such as a world war. During the last century, both world wars engendered new forms of organisation. Between 1916 and 1921, waves of strikes, protests and labour organising, took place in many countries across Europe, predominantly directed against the labour conditions workers were expected to endure because of the First World War. Two new forms of organization emerged at this time – the factory committee and the soviet (Mason, 2015). In addition, innovations in media technologies, the telephone, telegraph and radio facilitated the dissemination of these new organisational forms and protest techniques on an international scale. In Germany, Italy and Russia, the unrest reached revolutionary proportions while becoming ‘pre-revolutionary’ in the UK, France and the US. The soviet, of course became the self-proclaimed democratic unit for the Soviet Union, although in actuality, the Communist Party held onto the real power and control, while in Germany for example, workers councils voted to join the national government in order to create the Weimar Republic.
A perhaps more comparable example, less based on the protest against working conditions, although drawing from the same repertoire and knowledge, took place after the Second World War in Germany. The devastation caused by the war engendered many small mutual aid organisations to appear across Germany. Shortly after what became known as Zero Hour, anti-fascist committees or antifas, and workplace councils seemed to spontaneously emerge out of the rubble (Pritchard, 2004). In this case, the tradition of workplace councils from before the Nazi regime, the same ones that had emerged during the First World War enabled them to emerge again alongside low level resistance during the Nazi reign which became the antifas. Interestingly, these two organisational forms, the antifas and the workplace councils, took on not only local denazification processes but also provided basic services and utilities such as electricity and water to the wider population at a time when there was no state capacity to do so. There are opposing views of the significance and radical potential of these grassroots organisations. Some historians have claimed that they were potentially revolutionary and could have led to a form of genuine socialism based on direct democracy and others (from both East and West) have downplayed their significance. The population in Germany at the time was hugely split between a passive, apathetic and still essentially National Socialist majority and a small but significant active anti-fascist minority. This split eventually came to be embodied in the geopolitical split between East and West Germany. In each case, the state dealt differently with these organisations in order to subsume, co-opt or suppress them. In the formation of the GDR, for example, the workplace councils and antifa’s were suppressed by the state, while in the West, they were subsumed by the state social welfare infrastructure.
In The Utopia of Rules, anthropologist David Graeber argued that the modern social welfare state during the late 19th Century, in fact came into being through creating its own top-down versions of organisations that had already been created by trade unions, neighbourhood associations, cooperatives and other grassroots organisations. These, Graeber argues ‘were engaged in a self-conscious revolutionary project of “building a new society in the shell of the old,” of gradually creating Socialist institutions from below’ (2012, p. 153). Graeber’s argument is essentially a classic anarchist argument echoing that of Kropotkin, that the rise of the state destroyed the independence of other forms of organisation in favour of its own bureaucracy (p. 119). From this perspective, far from just appearing at times of destruction, crisis and disaster, cooperative organising exists in many different forms, much of the time, as the basis on which society is founded. For Kropotkin this is a very different state of nature to Hobbs’ brutish one. Indeed, Marx also argues that social cooperation, is in fact the stuff on which capitalism is built.
If we return to the contemporary moment in which in the UK at least, there has been over a decade of austerity and state withdrawal, there is a growing trend for the state to rely on spontaneous community responses to compensate for its lack (Firth). This became particularly visible during the coalition government’s emphasis on the Big Society after the financial crash. As the state withdrew, there was more focus on the community based and charitable sectors, but also increasingly on state terms, with more constraints put onto many organisations such as charities for example, to be organised in certain ways and not to act in ways that might be deemed to be political. While there was an encouragement of more socially active citizenry and a decentralisation of knowledge and information, support has only really given to sections of civil society that have deemed ‘legible’ to the state. These moves can be viewed as parallel to and in some senses complicit with neoliberal governmentality, in terms of putting increasing responsibility and risk onto the individual for things that had once been the remit of the state.
With a short term crisis or disaster, there is even more possibility that once the initial community response has happened, the ‘return to normality’ will involve a process by which the grassroots initiatives, rather than being supported, will be taken over, discredited, depoliticised, or otherwise managed. Indeed, as Firth has argued, mainstream disaster studies views human cooperation precisely as an anomaly to be harnessed in the interests of capital. From this perspective, cooperation as a community response involves a level of post-disaster camaraderie and euphoria that leads people to put aside differences but is inevitably temporary. While there may often be an initial and particularly intense surge of altruism and camaraderie that is difficult to sustain, this does not mean that cooperative relations and organisation cannot continue. It is often the case that interpersonal difficulties derail social movements and non-hierarchical organisations, but that doesn’t mean that more longevity isn’t possible. Any initial putting aside of differences, needs to be channelled into acknowledging and working with them, but that isn’t to say that it can’t be done.
One of the things which has seemed to become apparent, especially at the beginning of the pandemic was a sense that values were being reassessed with life, health and the provision of basic needs becoming more important than the economy. That social reproduction, the reproduction of life, is more valuable than the reproduction of what Marxists term labour-power, or the time and resources it takes to reproduce a worker on a daily basis.
What I am particularly interested in therefore, is longer term alternative infrastructures that can in some sense hold the cooperative spirit. In relation to the post-pandemic situation, there are some examples of cooperative infrastructure developing from Covid Mutual Aid Group (CMAG) networks. In particular, Cooperation Town is a network of mostly very small and informally organised food coops, many of which are now associated with CMAG groups. (). This in turn, took its inspiration from Cooperation Jackson, a grassroots citywide initiative in the USA. There are also other initiatives such as solidarity funds and eviction resistance networks, emerging from or utilising the CMAG networks. Pandemic Notes is a really nice publication, which has just been published, which details some of the responses to the pandemic.
In the last post, I highlighted theoretical ideas about the commons and the possibility of the development of polycentric social governance built from the bottom-up. Polycentricity is a fundamental concept in the work of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom (the economist whose work on the commons garnered her awards). A mix of multilevel organisations of multiple levels and scales of diverse types of organisations and governing authorities would for Kioupkiolis include state apparatuses. Ostrom suggests that polycentric governance or governance that has polycentric characteristics ‘may be capable of striking a balance between centralized and fully decentralized or community-based governance’ (Carlisle & Gruby, 2019, p. 928). A purely anarchist perspective would however, reject this proposal out of hand as being too centralised and state based.
What is also true is that while there has been a decentralisation of knowledge and information, risk and responsibility, there has also been a growing automation and an authoritarian creep which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Indeed, what has been termed cybernetic governance can be said to have been emerging since the shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist paradigm. Cybernetic governance combines ‘a state-capitalist logic with decentralised cybernetic components’ (Firth, p. 61) of control and governance. It can be seen in its most extreme form in contemporary China where facial recognition, social credit and tracking systems heavily control the population. It is perfectly possible that at least some of these governmental initiatives could come into greater effect here in the UK over the next few years. As the current UK governmental incoherence grows in the midst of a third wave, we should be on our guard for both the increase in these decentralised control mechanisms and a continuation of the disaster capitalism that Naomi Klein (2008) so presciently described in her book nearly fifteen years ago.
Keith Carlisle and Rebecca L. Gruby, (2019), ‘Polycentric Systems of Governance: A Theoretical Model for the Commons’, Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 47, No. 4.
Rhiannon Firth, (2020), Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom, London: Palgrave MacMillan.
David Graeber, (2015), The Utopia of Rules, NY: Melville House.
Alexandros Kioupolis (2019), The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics: Rethinking Social Change, Edinburgh University Press.
Naomi Klein, (2008), The Shock Doctrine, London: Penguin.
Paul Mason, (2015), PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, London: Allen Lane.
Gareth Pritchard, (2004), The Making of the GDR, 1945-53, Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press; Palgrave.