Dean Spade on How Mutual Aid Will Help Us Survive Disaster

We have to fundamentally reimagine community if we want to avoid “intensive, uneven suffering followed by species extinction.”

Clara Liang

Dean Spade's new book on mutual aid serves as a how-to guide for all people hoping to build community power and resilience in the face of disaster. Illustration by Galine Tumasyan

Amid the cat­a­stro­phe of the pan­dem­ic, cli­mate emer­gency and racist state vio­lence, mutu­al aid has explod­ed. Ordi­nary peo­ple around the globe, from Seat­tle to Nige­ria, are find­ing ways to sup­port each oth­er when the gov­ern­ment won’t.

Mutual aid isn’t just that we help each other. We help each other based on a shared recognition that the systems aren’t delivering and are actually making things worse. We’re simultaneously building a movement to address the root causes of the crisis we’re in.

Activist and law pro­fes­sor Dean Spade’s time­ly new book, Mutu­al Aid: Build­ing Sol­i­dar­i­ty Dur­ing This Cri­sis (And the Next), is a guide for endur­ing dis­as­ter by tak­ing mat­ters into our own hands. It’s at once a the­o­ry, his­to­ry and step-by-step man­u­al on mutu­al aid, which Spade defines as the sur­vival work done in con­junc­tion with social move­ments demand­ing trans­for­ma­tive change. The book out­lines how we can rad­i­cal­ly redis­trib­ute care and well­be­ing, avoid com­mon orga­niz­ing pit­falls and, ulti­mate­ly, heal our­selves and the world.”

Spade’s mes­sage is philo­soph­i­cal and urgent. He argues that if we don’t fun­da­men­tal­ly reimag­ine com­mu­ni­ty, gov­er­nance and pow­er, we will face (to put it blunt­ly) inten­sive, uneven suf­fer­ing fol­lowed by species extinc­tion.” But the book is ulti­mate­ly hope­ful, not­ing how many times humans have sur­vived and remind­ing us that, for most of our his­to­ry, we didn’t live under exploita­tive cap­i­tal­ist conditions. 

In These Times spoke to Spade in ear­ly Octo­ber about the impor­tance of being ordi­nary, the pow­er of imag­i­na­tion, and more. Our con­ver­sa­tion has been edit­ed for length and clarity. 

Clara Liang: What’s the one thing you want peo­ple to walk away with after read­ing your book? 

Dean Spade: Mutu­al aid is some­thing every­one can do right now. It simul­ta­ne­ous­ly builds move­ments and address­es sur­vival con­di­tions. Peo­ple come to move­ments because they need some­thing that’s not being pro­vid­ed, or because they des­per­ate­ly want to imme­di­ate­ly help oth­er peo­ple who may be strug­gling. Mutu­al aid is the door­way in, and the more we can build mutu­al aid infra­struc­ture, the fiercer and stronger and more pow­er­ful our move­ments will become. 

Clara: You pro­vide a great his­to­ry of mutu­al aid, from the Black Pan­ther Party’s free break­fast pro­gram to Indige­nous anti­colo­nial projects. Mutu­al aid isn’t new. What new forms is it taking? 

Dean: Dur­ing a lot of dis­as­ters — storms, fires, floods — we get atten­tion to people’s mutu­al aid activ­i­ties. In the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of atten­tion brought to what the Black Pan­thers called sur­vival pro­grams, which took form in so many dif­fer­ent move­ments. In the fem­i­nist move­ment, for exam­ple, peo­ple were fig­ur­ing out how to do their own con­tra­cep­tion and abortions. 

Covid-19 real­ly lift­ed mutu­al aid to the sur­face, because Covid-19 is hap­pen­ing every­where, to every­one, where­as most fires, storms and floods hap­pen in par­tic­u­lar regions. These obsta­cles of not being able to get your gro­ceries or pick up your meds — it was hap­pen­ing all at once, everywhere. 

There’s been a sig­nif­i­cant set of shifts in left move­ments since the 60s and 70s, when move­ment orga­ni­za­tions doing pow­er­ful mutu­al aid work were orga­niz­ing them­selves in very hier­ar­chi­cal mod­els. The Black Pan­ther Par­ty is one, with its almost mil­i­taris­tic mod­el of cer­tain lead­ers on top. Those mod­els had real­ly big costs: They made it eas­i­er for the gov­ern­ment to infil­trate them and take out one leader; they often per­mit­ted more sex­u­al and gen­der vio­lence and hier­ar­chy inside groups. A lot of groups, from that time on, exper­i­ment­ed much more exten­sive­ly, often inspired by Latin Amer­i­can social move­ment orga­ni­za­tions, with more hor­i­zon­tal forms. 

Clara: What chal­lenges might the recent atten­tion to mutu­al aid bring?

Dean: A lot of media cov­er­age indi­cates a pret­ty thin under­stand­ing of mutu­al aid. One ten­den­cy I’ve seen is an attempt to say, Mutu­al aid goes hand in hand with state inter­ven­tions.” Peo­ple will try to find exam­ples that sug­gest that mutu­al aid is not actu­al­ly oppo­si­tion­al to the sta­tus quo, is not actu­al­ly a threat to gov­ern­ment systems.

Sim­i­lar­ly, I found some cov­er­age dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Har­vey [in 2017] say­ing, Look at these peo­ple who are using their own boats to res­cue peo­ple. We don’t need state sup­port.” There’s a sort of right-wing read on mutu­al aid efforts that real­ly takes them out of con­text and tries to use them to push for elim­i­nat­ing state safe­ty infrastructure. 

Mutu­al aid isn’t just that we help each oth­er. We help each oth­er based on a shared recog­ni­tion that the sys­tems aren’t deliv­er­ing and are actu­al­ly mak­ing things worse. We’re simul­ta­ne­ous­ly build­ing a move­ment to address the root caus­es of the cri­sis we’re in. That’s real­ly dif­fer­ent from the char­i­ty mod­el, where some vol­un­teers occa­sion­al­ly give some peo­ple some stuff. 

Clara: Can you talk more about the rela­tion­ship between mutu­al aid and trans­form­ing the root con­di­tions — such as cap­i­tal­ism and racism — that are respon­si­ble for large-scale human suffering?

Dean: The oppo­si­tion has all the mon­ey and all the weapons. All we have is peo­ple pow­er. We need to build move­ments that aren’t based on try­ing to con­vince them to let go of the reins of pow­er. We need to build move­ments that have enough pow­er to throw a wrench in the way the sys­tems are now and to stop the things that are harm­ing peo­ple, for instance by defund­ing the police and stop­ping gas and oil com­pa­nies from fur­ther extraction. 

Mutu­al aid work inevitably becomes deeply inter­sec­tion­al, because people’s lives are inter­sec­tion­al. If we’re in a home­less encamp­ment doing direct work for peo­ple liv­ing there, we’re also join­ing the fight to defund the police because we see how the police harm the peo­ple in this encamp­ment, and we’re also show­ing up at the migrant jus­tice ral­ly to close the deten­tion cen­ter because we know and love peo­ple who were tak­en out of this encamp­ment and thrown into the deten­tion center. 

We don’t want to just keep try­ing to get help where there could nev­er be enough, we want to see change. It’s not rock­et sci­ence. Peo­ple wouldn’t be home­less if they had housing. 

Clara: The forces that keep the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er and resources so unjust can feel insur­mount­able. You write that things are real­ly ter­ri­fy­ing and enrag­ing right now, and feel­ing more rage, fear, sad­ness, grief, and despair may be appro­pri­ate.” How do you sus­tain hope and trust in the mutu­al aid process while also tun­ing into grief, rage and despair? 

Dean: In cap­i­tal­ism, we’re encour­aged to actu­al­ly be numb to our own pain and to oth­ers’ pain. And that is demo­bi­liz­ing. I think it’s mobi­liz­ing to be tuned into and car­ing about the harm and bru­tal­i­ty that is our cur­rent sys­tem. We are lit­er­al­ly fac­ing the end of human­i­ty because of cli­mate change. We are real­ly star­ing fas­cism in the face. We’re dip­ping into the next hor­ri­ble eco­nom­ic cri­sis. Peo­ple are dying, in huge num­bers, of Covid-19. There’s no way to not be affect­ed by that if you’re pay­ing atten­tion to suffering. 

I find that being in mutu­al aid groups with oth­er peo­ple who also are feel­ing that pain and urgency, and also try­ing to do things they think might reduce suf­fer­ing, is actu­al­ly my great­est relief. I hope to live out this incred­i­bly trans­for­ma­tive, dif­fi­cult peri­od engaged with peo­ple about things that they care about, even if it’s the last thing we do. 

It’s not about avoid­ing the pain; it’s about turn­ing toward the pain and engag­ing with prin­ci­ple, which I think is very de-numb­ing, and not easy, but prefer­able to the cap­i­tal­ist numb­ing pattern.

Clara: Toni Cade Bambara’s call to make rev­o­lu­tion irre­sistible” comes up in your book. Who are some of your oth­er teachers?

Dean: Prob­a­bly the cen­tral intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion that has impact­ed me is the set of women of col­or fem­i­nists deeply invest­ed in prison abo­li­tion who cri­tiqued the idea that you can solve gen­der-based vio­lence through crim­i­nal­iza­tion. A lot of those thinkers — many of whom are includ­ed in the won­der­ful INCITE! antholo­gies like Col­or of Vio­lence and The Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Fund­ed—named this trap that social move­ments are encour­aged to fall into, where we build non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions that use elite strate­gies like pol­i­cy change and very depoliti­cized ser­vices, where we part­ner with the police and the mil­i­tary. Fem­i­nist women of col­or brought these deep cri­tiques of not only what’s wrong with that polit­i­cal agen­da and how it didn’t work out, but also what’s wrong with the ways it tells us to orga­nize and the way it eras­es mutu­al aid and oth­er fem­i­nized care labor.

I think a lot of my learn­ing has come through par­tic­i­pat­ing in grass­roots, unpaid mutu­al aid projects, and projects to stop prison expan­sion and jail expan­sion. Doing this work is how we get our pol­i­tics, how we know what’s real­ly going on, how we get an analy­sis of what it would mean to actu­al­ly dis­man­tle these sys­tems ver­sus get­ting duped into reforms that expand, legit­imize and sta­bi­lize the cur­rent system.

There are so many peo­ple, like Andrea Ritchie, who have been work­ing for decades. They do their work whether it’s pop­u­lar or not. To me, that rig­or and care and relent­less­ness in that work — they’ve taught me how I want to be. 

Clara: Mutu­al aid is often hard, bor­ing work: going to gro­cery stores, wait­ing in lines at wel­fare offices. Tell me about your con­vic­tion that we might cul­ti­vate a desire to be beau­ti­ful­ly, exquis­ite­ly ordi­nary just like every­body else.”

Dean: I meet a lot of young peo­ple who say, I want to make a dif­fer­ence in the world. I want to be an exec­u­tive direc­tor of a non­prof­it.” We’ve been told that lead­er­ship is about being impor­tant, excep­tion­al. That caus­es a lot of peo­ple to act cap­i­tal­ist, white suprema­cist and patri­ar­chal in our lead­er­ship styles, regard­less of our identity. 

Mutu­al aid sug­gests that the work to imme­di­ate­ly help some­body make sure they have a mask or hand san­i­tiz­er today is just as impor­tant as some­thing some­body is doing in your state capi­tol try­ing to close the deten­tion center.

When we show up with a lot of integri­ty, when we care about all the peo­ple around us, make offer­ings, and expect to make mis­takes and receive feed­back, the reward isn’t going to be some moment of fame or per­fec­tion. It’ll be the ongo­ing ups and downs of being con­nect­ed to oth­er people. 

Clara: How do you under­stand mutu­al aid in rela­tion to elec­toral pol­i­tics? Do you view vot­ing as harm reduc­tion, or as anti­thet­i­cal to mutu­al aid’s belief in eman­ci­pa­tion from bro­ken systems?

Dean: Regard­less of what hap­pens in this elec­tion, we’re going to need mutu­al aid more than we ever have. Our polit­i­cal cul­ture tells us that vot­ing is the most impor­tant polit­i­cal act. It real­ly tries to quell dis­sent and mobi­liza­tion by telling us that this is the only place to act, in this order­ly, state-approved fash­ion. There are sec­ondary ones, like it’s okay to post on social media, it’s okay to go to a per­mit­ted march once in a while. There are approved ways of dis­sent­ing, and then there are broad­ly dis­ap­proved of, and crim­i­nal­ized, ways. 

I’m not an abso­lutist. I think there’s room for almost every kind of polit­i­cal action. So, absolute­ly vote, but I hope that’s not the begin­ning and end of anybody’s polit­i­cal activ­i­ty. It’s real­ly impor­tant for peo­ple to know that they can, in addi­tion, do more sat­is­fy­ing, more direct­ly impact­ful polit­i­cal activ­i­ty with peo­ple, and break their own iso­la­tion, and feel a sense of purpose.

Clara: You note that cap­i­tal­ism makes it dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to imag­ine sur­viv­ing any oth­er way, even though humans long lived out­side this sys­tem. Mutu­al aid, you write, is inher­ent­ly anti­au­thor­i­tar­i­an, demon­strat­ing how we can do things togeth­er in ways we were told not to imag­ine.” Can you indulge for a moment in your most free, lim­it­less imag­in­ing of what could be?

Dean: I can imag­ine a world based on the prin­ci­ples of mutu­al aid in which every­body has what they need to sur­vive, and peo­ple are work­ing on repro­duc­ing the means of sur­vival not because of a coer­cive sys­tem where they’ll die or be crim­i­nal­ized if they don’t have a wage job, but instead because of the plea­sure of grow­ing food that oth­er peo­ple will eat, and mak­ing a sew­er sys­tem that we’re all using. Peo­ple doing the work because they want every­one to have these things, not because if they didn’t do that work, they would starve. A key piece is this deep desire to share well-being with all, and make sure every­body has what they need and nobody has a lot more than they need.

I could see peo­ple liv­ing in a soci­ety where they’ve grown a lot of capac­i­ty to not avoid con­flicts but instead have gen­er­a­tive con­flict, give and receive feed­back, and be aware of their own emo­tion­al landscapes. 

I can absolute­ly imag­ine a world with­out bor­ders, pris­ons or wars. A world in which we’re not pro­duc­ing all of these weapons, where peo­ple aren’t using them on each oth­er or threat­en­ing each oth­er with them. In most of the his­to­ry of the world, there weren’t mil­i­ta­rized bor­ders, there weren’t mil­lions of peo­ple in cages. 

I can imag­ine a world in which Indige­nous peo­ple are restored sov­er­eign­ty over the lands that have been tak­en from them, and deep process­es of repair and care and con­nec­tion are led by them — under their terms — to dis­man­tle the set­tler state and set­tler relations. 

I can imag­ine a world where we don’t cen­ter fos­sil fuels. We can change what we’re using to trans­port our­selves, to pro­duce our food. 

There would be a lot of col­lec­tive self-gov­er­nance on lots of dif­fer­ent scales at the same time, com­plex nets of coor­di­na­tion so that the peo­ple grow­ing food are con­nect­ed to the peo­ple eat­ing food, and it’s all con­nect­ed to peo­ple doing healthcare. 

Peo­ple are real­ly afraid of this world I’m talk­ing about — that there wouldn’t be med­i­cine or inno­va­tion or tech­nol­o­gy. I just real­ly don’t believe that. That’s one of the lies of capitalism.

Clara Liang is a writer based in San Fran­cis­co and an In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern. She recent­ly grad­u­at­ed from Car­leton Col­lege with a degree in Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Race, Eth­nic­i­ty, and Indi­gene­ity Studies.

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