Desperate Times Call for Mutual Aid

But it’s not a substitute for organizing.

Marianela D’Aprile

Volunteers, like those pictured above from the Nile Swim Club, engage in direct service providing community members with milk during the pandemic. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group/Daily Times via Getty Images)

The numbers bear repeating: More than 20 million people lost their jobs; 40 million people are at risk of eviction; 12 million people have lost their health insurance. And those are just the most basic figures regarding the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers across the country are attending school remotely, which can mean from a closet or the bathroom, the only places they have with any privacy. Meanwhile, their parents balance full-time parenting with full-time work — if they’re lucky enough to be working. Some workers, those deemed essential, must risk exposure to the virus daily (and then risk carrying the virus home, exposing anyone they might live with). Workers lucky enough to be able to work from home (and limit their unnecessary exposure to the virus) are in a semi-permanent state of social and physical isolation. 

People are hurting in innumerable, deep ways, and the suffering will continue despite the vaccines. They— we — need help.

I am a socialist because I do not want working-class people to be forever doomed to take it upon ourselves to give to each other what our government owes us. That’s why we organize, either through political organizations or through unions: to wrestle back what we know is ours. 

As I have argued before, left organizations — including the one I help lead, the Democratic Socialists of America — should focus their limited time, energy and resources on campaigns to build power and organize the working class. Certain types of direct service, like providing meals to striking teachers and students, are worthwhile; they feed into and support the organization of the working class — in this case, union activity. I also argued that other types of direct service — like volunteering to change brake lights in heavily policed communities — do not necessarily support the organization of the working class; leftist organizations should therefore not spend their limited time on those pursuits.

I stand by my argument. Yet, in this time of unbearable crisis and human suffering, I am hard-pressed to find a good reason to tell my comrades they shouldn’t donate cans to a food pantry or collect outerwear to give to poor families. As many of us look around and see the depths of human misery exacerbated by the pandemic, we reach the conclusion that if we don’t do something—if we don’t take matters into our own hands — no one will. 

That conclusion is too often correct, but the political conditions that have led to it are always unacceptable. So, in addition to whatever else we do — which, in a pandemic, may well be direct service — we must still be organizing ourselves. 

To win working-class people what we need to live decent lives, it’s going to take mass power, built democratically from below. Over the past few years, leftists have seen people who share our politics elected to office, but that’s just one step. The power of elected officials is severely limited by the fact that they have to work and compromise with other politicians, and by the fact that even the most left-wing of them don’t have an organized base they can credibly call on to threaten strikes or mass disruption. 

Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the most visible and popular member of the left wing of the Democratic Party, has built a direct service tutoring program for students struggling with remote learning. Theoretically, she could write a bill to give more funding to public schools. Theoretically, she could work with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to support such a bill. Theoretically, UFT could threaten to strike until the bill passes. 

While the Left continues to grow, we do not have the power to pull any of that off. That level of power and organization is exactly what we should be building. 

If leftists find ourselves in an urgent moment — for example, a pandemic — when we can’t help but engage in direct service, then it’s incumbent upon us to carry out such programs in a way that builds lasting, working-class organization.

For a response to this article, read How Mutual Aid Can Build Working-Class Power” by Vicko Alvarez.

Marianela D’Aprile has served on the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America since 2018. She is a writer and lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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