Archive for category: Mutual Aid
Photo: Courtesy of Woodbine.
COVID-19 has taken the lives of over 90,000 in the US alone, and has infected more than 1.5 million. The heart of this crisis is strongly beating in New York City, with 191,650 cases and 20,887 deaths as of May 20th. Amidst the catastrophic loss of lives are the 30 million (and growing) number of Americans that have lost their jobs in the last six weeks. COVID-19 is not a “natural” disaster and therefore it was neither inevitable nor is it apolitical. Despite the natural mutation of viruses, critical geographers have argued that the, “circumstances in which a mutation becomes life-threatening depend on human actions.” Stimulated by violent and unregulated neo-liberal extractivism, it is our austerity-based society, rather than nature’s fate, that has given rise to the unequal conditions creating vulnerability to COVID-19. It is in the midst of what Naomi Klein has termed “Corona Capitalism” that I argue for a movement past our profit-motivated disaster capital responses. Paying particular attention to the experimental community hub Woodbine, located in Queens, New York, I present anarchism as a method for survival amidst the crisis of COVID-19. Woodbine’s organizing efforts manifest that we must create new, resilient social living systems. We need autonomy, and we need mutual aid. Most of all, we need each other.
Woodbine is situated in the heart of the crisis in Ridgewood, Queens. Ridgewood has seen between 1,390 and 3,809 COVID-19 related deaths. Created in 2014 by a group of friends who had organized together during Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy, the crew decided the best way to continue organizing was to center around a space which could allow for the sharing of resources, support, conversation, and serve as an anchor for projects to come. Over the years Woodbine has hosted weekly Sunday community dinners and poetry readings, created a community garden and CSA, and engaged the Ridgewood community through a community forum. In an interview with Matt Peterson, one of Woodbine’s organizers, he deemed the last seven years of organizing in Ridgewood as “really relevant to the food pantry and mutual aid things we’re doing right now. Having met all of those people, having surveyed the neighborhood, having built all of those connections, having met local media… because we did all of those things, we’re in a better position now to organize within the pandemic.” Without the trust that Woodbine created in their community over the past seven years, meeting the needs of people in this crisis would prove extremely difficult.
The mounting number of human needs due to COVID-19 seems to be the existential crisis of 2020. Despite the warnings of past outbreaks such as SARS and Ebola, the global neoliberal capitalist system has persisted, leaving our society ill-prepared for the arrival of the non-native microbial guest. Austerity-policy designed to fund tax cuts and subsidies to corporations and the rich has left any state public health effort lacking in the funding necessary to protect its constituents. In addition, the pharmaceutical industry is shirking the very responsibility it is supposed to have—protection against sickness. Instead, Big Pharma has traded in its expectation to prevent sickness with a money hungry agenda, focused solely on designing cures. The more sickness, the higher its share-holder values. It is this continuation of free-market capitalism that is continually creating vulnerabilities to public health crises. Unfortunately, this vulnerability is not equally distributed, and is particularly concentrated in regions that are experiencing more infection, death, and unemployment than their surrounding areas. Queens, New York is one of these regions. Situated in the Easternmost part of NYC, Queens is the largest of the five boroughs, with a population of over 2.2 million people. Also known as the most ethnically diverse area in the world, 28.1% of residents are of Hispanic or Latinx origin, while 20.7% are Black. In Julie Sze’s, Noxious New York, she details the historical events that have plagued Queens with injustice, including the effects of zoning for land use and development conflicts, and the Maspeth incinerator which made Queens home to mass-scale incineration, heightening the pollution in the already-industrial area. A system striving for infinite growth, coupled with the history of injustices in Queens have left the borough that Woodbine is located in prone to the adverse effects of COVID-19.
There has been recognition of the unevenly distributed casualty rates of COVID-19, but this recognition has often come with an elision of the pre-COVID-19 landscape of inequality. For example, a recent New York Times article was titled “Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C.” The title suggests that COVID-19 is racist, attacking structurally oppressed groups because of their skin color. A far more honest title would be “Current Economic and Political System Only Protects White Elites, Doubling Death Rates for Marginalized Groups.” The lack of access to health care combined with no other option but to serve the elite—those that can work from home—as front-line workers is the direct cause of a doubling of death rates for Black and Latinx residents in NYC. In addition, out of sight is the slow violence being enacted upon marginalized communities. Slow violence is that which is not obvious, and which happens over long periods of time over dispersed areas of space, a violence that is often delayed but ultimately just as ruthless (sometimes, even more so) as the violence we are used to such as murder or sexual assault. The combination of neoliberalism, zoning for land use and development, and the Maspeth incinerator, created a build-up of historical injustice in Queens. Pollution from incineration leads to inflammatory lung disease and coronary heart disease, two health conditions that make individual COVID-19 fatality risk increasingly severe. Residents of Queens have become victims of increasing state neglect and proximity to pollution, exacerbating the borough’s vulnerability to COVID-19. This violence is not attributed to any particular person or group, but rather to systemic injustice that caused violence, in the form of higher asthma rates and worse health outcomes, to happen over many years, throughout the borough. Also known as environmentalism of the poor, Rob Nixon explains in Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor, slow violence is inflicted primarily on those that the system neglects to care for in the first place. It is the inhabitants of Queens that are suffering from the slow violence of neoliberalist extractivism.
Countering the slow violence in Queens are the anarchistic organizing methods of Woodbine’s mutual aid efforts. Amidst the ongoing digital and virtual organizing, Matt said organizers at Woodbine realized that if they were going to help their community, they “had to do so in an extremely localized way.” They began with culling various mutual aid documents and information and created a mutual aid website with the most significant sources. Soon after, they “decided the best thing to be done was to partner with Hungry Monk—a homeless outreach organization—to expand their efforts with the food pantry and open up a satellite location.”
Photo: Courtesy of Woodbine.
Operations began on March 27th, and now there are about 20 volunteers— “mostly old friends, although more than 100 new people have written to us to get involved to help”—aiding in the effort to feed the Ridgewood locals. In crews of 4 to 5 volunteers at a time, food is packed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and distributed on Wednesdays and Fridays. Tables are set up outside of Woodbine’s nondescript, punkish storefront, and bags of fresh food are handed out to local residents lined up around the block. “About 300 come now for each distribution day, they start lining up around 8:45 in the morning (we open at 10am), and we do that twice a week. We also do home deliveries to around ten people a week—seniors, disabled, sick, in Ridgewood, Glendale, and Bushwick mostly. But the line and needs continue to grow, people are still hearing about it for the first time, we still get new requests daily for food delivery,” Matt elaborated. On Friday May 15th over 700 bags were handed out, and coupled with Hungry Monk’s distribution on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, Matt said the two locations are “providing to more than 1,000 local families a week.” In addition, “Woodbine has distributed thousands of homemade and donated masks, neighbors donated two sewing machines to Woodbine, so we’ve been producing our own masks as well. The masks disappear as quickly as we get them. People have also donated MetroCards, tablets, and laptops for us to distribute to those in our pantry line.” Those that line up outside of Woodbine tend to come back, and because of this continuity, the community is getting to know one another. Woodbine is creating the basis for a strong dual power structure as the State deteriorates before our eyes, failing to protect the most vulnerable.
A third of NYC’s COVID-19 cases are in Queens, and the hospital at its center—Elmhurst—does not have the proper funding or support to combat the damage. In Elmhurst and Corona, two neighborhoods surrounding Elmhurst Hospital, one in four people lack health insurance, and the same fraction of people live in poverty. On March 26th, 2020 Mayor De Blasio tweeted “Elmhurst hospital is at the center of responding to this crisis. It’s the number one priority of our public hospital system right now.” Despite being the city’s so-called number one priority, officials are stating that the hospital is desperately asking for help. The COVID-19-related deaths in Queens are not happening by chance. When it comes to crisis, survival and death are predetermined. Perpetrated by a classist and racist economic and political system, it is the marginalized folks that are unable to prepare, unable to seek protection, and ultimately, unable to survive. The COVID-19 related deaths in Queens prove the inequality inherent in this crisis, facilitated by slow violence due to the structural inequities of the global capitalist order.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage the country, the State is likely to either continue to crumble, or else become re-entrenched, only serving the interests of the powerful elite. Either way, a future led by a corrupt state is moribund at best. Many will be left unable to meet their basic needs. Relying on our current system to keep us afloat in this moment is a pipe dream, particularly for those that are the victims of slow violence. An alternative method of organizing is necessary.
Amidst disaster, anarchism can be used as a method for survival. Built on community, anarchism distributes power horizontally, and facilitates interdependence, agency, and self-actualization. Anarchism evades coercion and instead leads to liberty and justice, making decisions for the benefit of the community rather than for the individual. As we listen to ambulance sirens roar down our blocks, there is no need to anxiously await revolution or a savior to meet our neighbor’s needs. Anarchist elements can be implemented today, at the local level—in the family, workplace, or neighborhood. It is in observing the success of Woodbine’s mutual aid network that the strengths of anarchist tactics become clear. Using the anarchistic elements of autonomy, agency, and mutual aid, Woodbine is meeting the needs of their community. However, without a strong network of interdependence amongst their neighbors, Woodbine wouldn’t be able to maintain consistency in their efforts. Matt mentioned that the mutual aid efforts are in need of “new and consistent food sources, money to buy food and cover other expenses (vehicles, insurance, gas, utilities, rent), and volunteers to help with research, outreach, and running the pantries.” As needs are fulfilled and folks no longer have to fight for food security or shelter, neighbors will be better able to support one another. Agency will be put back into the hands of the people through the dual power structure that is created. Through the community trust built over the last seven years, the interdependence being facilitated in Ridgewood, and autonomous dual power structure that is evolving, Woodbine’s mutual aid organizing efforts are an example of successful anarchism. Woodbine serves as an alternative, an option for survival.
The rising death count is not the only calamity tied to the pandemic. In mid-March, the stock market crash had led to a net devaluation of nearly 30% on stock markets worldwide. The failures of capitalism were bound to crash sooner rather than later. From Santiago to Beirut, protests were already mounting against global capitalism. Whether or not the dominant economic model can survive COVID-19 can only be learned in time. Capital accumulation is collapsing across the world: unemployment has skyrocketed, tourism is negligible, companies are going bankrupt, restaurants are closing, and festivals, sports games, and weddings are being cancelled. Local governments and institutions are cratering. Capitalism is dying. Matt said that “what seems to be the existential economic crisis is rent.” How will we pay for it if there is no paid work to go around? And if we decide that we cannot pay for it, how can we effectively rent strike? As the tides of crisis change and we turn from mass death to economic cataclysm, Woodbine’s efforts will become more important than ever. To reach the neighbors that they haven’t already encountered, Woodbine created a newspaper of which they have “printed 1,000 copies…We acquired a newspaper box that we installed outside the space to distribute them as well.” This outreach exemplifies the accessibility to their mutual aid efforts that Woodbine is creating.
Woodbine’s dual power model will not only be necessary for survival of this immediate medical crisis, but also for what looks like months or perhaps years to come of a major economic crisis. Woodbine organizers “believe this situation is going to last a very long time, both medically but also socially, at least into the Fall if not further. We’re going to stay the course here in Ridgewood and be a base for people to organize and survive.” A dual power structure such as the one Woodbine is building, using the anarchistic elements of interdependence and mutual aid, can scale past food distribution and be used to ensure shelter or financial support.
As we transition from health crisis to economic crisis, it is essential to find the cracks in the system that are slowly revealed and redistribute power where we can. Woodbine calls for self-organization. As Peter Kropotkin put it in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, “in the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.” When faced with a crisis, anarchism has the potential to extend care to the communities that have been continually neglected by the State. It is now that we have a chance not only for survival, but for wresting power from the State, and for taking it back into our own hands.
Sophie Jones is a student at NYU-Gallatin.
It was January when I first heard about the mysterious viral pneumonia circulating in Wuhan, China. I had some major worries—was this SARS redux, or something else?—but also a small, selfish lament. I was eager to go back to Hong Kong, where I had been conducting research on its protest movement. A new epidemic there would likely mean that visiting the city anytime soon would be unsafe. I worried about my many friends there. I told them that I hoped to see them as soon as the outbreak was over.
It’s been five months, and I doubt Hong Kong will let someone like me in anytime soon. The city of more than 7 million people had no local cases for weeks until today; meanwhile, I live in the country with the worst outbreak in the world, the United States, with more than 80,000 known deaths from COVID-19 and without encouraging developments on the necessary measures to contain it. Hong Kong, by contrast, has had only four known deaths total from the coronavirus over the past many months. It recently stopped calculating the dreaded R(t)—the real-time transmission rate of the coronavirus—because, of course, you cannot calculate transmission rates without new cases. Hong Kong never even had a full lockdown (although it closed schools, which it plans to reopen soon). Meanwhile, I’m entering my sixth week under a stay-at-home order, with no robust exit infrastructure in place.
If there was a country that could have been expected to have a hard time with this virus, it was Hong Kong. It’s one of the most dense cities in the world, with crowded high-rise housing squeezed into almost every available space, and more cross-border traffic with China than anywhere else in the world. The region relies on an efficient but packed mass-transportation system—trains run every few minutes but many are stuffed to the gills during many hours of the day. There is little open public space, and little room to naturally spread out. Many of my favorite restaurants in Hong Kong seat diners elbow to elbow, knee to knee.
Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong has had a long history of epidemics. The 1968 flu pandemic that killed 1 million people around the world started in Hong Kong, and killed at least many thousands of the city’s residents, and became known as the Hong Kong flu. Hong Kong also lost the most people outside of mainland China to the 2003 SARS epidemic.
It wouldn’t have been shocking if, like many pathogens before it, this coronavirus had spread wildly through Hong Kong. The city is connected to Wuhan, where the pandemic started, via a high-speed-train line and many daily flights. More than 2.5 million people came to Hong Kong from mainland China just in January of 2020. The city also lacks a competent government with a strong basis of legitimacy. The people don’t have full voting rights and the region’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, who was hand-picked by Beijing, failed to muster an effective response when the protest movement engulfed the city in 2019. The region’s economy was already in recession before the pandemic, and things have worsened since. Lam is extremely unpopular, with a staggering 80 percent disapproval rating.
Lam fumbled the response to the pandemic as well, reacting with ineptitude, especially at first. Hong Kong’s first coronavirus case was reported when she was having dim sum with world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, and there was an outcry over the fact that she did not quickly return. She dragged her feet in closing the city’s borders, and never fully closed down the land border with China. The hospitals suffered from shortages of personal protective equipment. Lam wavered on masks, and even ordered civil servants not to wear them. There were shortages of crucial supplies and empty shelves in stores, as well as lines for many essentials. In early February, the financial outlet Bloomberg ran an opinion piece that compared Hong Kong to a “failed state”—a striking assessment for a global financial center and transportation hub usually known for its efficiency and well-functioning institutions.
And yet there is no unchecked, devastating COVID-19 epidemic in Hong Kong. The city beat back the original wave, and also beat back a second resurgence due to imported cases. But unlike in Taiwan or South Korea, this success can’t be attributed to an executive that acted early and with good governance backed by the people.
The secret sauce of Hong Kong’s response was its people and, crucially, the movement that engulfed the city in 2019. Seared with the memory of SARS, and already mobilized for the past year against their unpopular government, the city’s citizens acted swiftly, collectively, and efficiently, in effect saving themselves. The organizational capacity and the civic infrastructure built by the protest movement played a central role in Hong Kong’s grassroots response.
For example, during last fall’s district-council elections, Hong Kong protesters created many resources to guide and mobilize voters in what were otherwise local elections of little consequence, but that had become symbolically important in the middle of the protest wave. One key initiative was websites that provided information on candidates so voters could easily figure out who was pro-government and who was not—not always easy when the candidates were supposed to be discussing garbage collection, not Beijing’s attempts to limit Hong Kong’s constitutional protections. On the very day the first known coronavirus case in Hong Kong was announced, the same protest team behind the candidate information sites immediately created a new website—this time to track cases of COVID-19, monitor hot spots, warn people of places selling fake PPE, and report hospital wait times and other relevant information.
Anthony Kwan / Getty
Many of the key information sources for Hong Kong protesters had been anonymous channels in the popular app Telegram and their own online forums. These anonymous formats protected the protesters from government repression but created a constant threat of misinformation, as someone could always pretend to be a protester or just be wrong or trolling. Consequently, the protesters learned to become incessant fact-checkers, used to looking up multiple sources and critically analyzing information. Now they turned their powers to critical analysis to the coronavirus: criticizing their own officials, as well as the World Health Organization, which did not advise wearing masks or travel restrictions, and China, which they saw as covering up the initial epidemic (they were right on all counts).
In response to the crisis, Hong Kongers spontaneously adopted near-universal masking on their own, defying the government’s ban on masks. When Lam oscillated between not wearing a mask in public and wearing one but incorrectly, they blasted her online and mocked her incorrect mask wearing. In response to the mask shortage, the foot soldiers of the protest movement set up mask brigades—acquiring and distributing masks, especially to the poor and elderly, who may not be able to spend hours in lines. An “army of volunteers” also spread among the intensely crowded and often decrepit tenement buildings to install and keep filled hand-sanitizer dispensers. During the protest movement, I had become accustomed to seeing shared digital maps that kept track of police blockades and clashes; now digital maps kept track of outbreaks and hand-sanitizer distribution.
When the government refused at first to close the border with mainland China, more than 7,000 medical workers went on an unprecedented strike, demanding border closures and PPE for hospital workers. This strike was only possible because labor unions were formed during the protests. Now they came in handy for collective action. Protesters also tried to speak symbolically and increase awareness: They advocated wearing white ribbons to show support for medical workers and made art that demonstrated proper hand-washing and correct mask wearing, and that decried the mask shortage.
Some of the signals to the government were decidedly more confrontational. Through Telegram channels, “anti-epidemic actions” were threatened if the government did not respond to the virus by closing down borders. Explosives were discovered at border checkpoints between mainland China and Hong Kong, and flaming objects were thrown at the train tracks connecting the two countries. When the government hastily set up quarantine centers in dense neighborhoods without consulting the people who lived nearby, Molotov cocktails engulfed their (empty) lobbies, and the plans were scrapped. Later, the government set up quarantine facilities in much more sparsely populated holiday villages and many people used hotels to self-isolate.
Thanks partly to their long history of fighting epidemics, Hong Kong also has some of the world’s most prominent experts in infectious diseases. They were cautious about picking open fights with their government or with China, but were clear in prioritizing public health. Defying China’s pronouncements about lack of evidence for human-to-human transmission and ignoring the WHO, which relayed those pronouncements to the world, the experts stated from very early on that they suspected the disease was transmitted among people, and acted accordingly in their recommended safeguards. Despite the Hong Kong government’s continuing ban on face masks, Hong Kong’s health authorities openly credited the near-universal mask wearing among the people for avoiding a surge in cases.
Vivek Prakash / Getty
Lam’s government eventually responded, but it was always a step behind the people. Hong Kong closed some border crossings throughout February but never fully shut down the border—by then, China was increasingly under a lockdown anyway, with limited travel anywhere. After increases in cases due to returning travelers, a screening center with testing was set up near the airport, along with a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period for all new arrivals (except those coming from China, Macau, or Taiwan)—but those measures didn’t happen until late into March, and testing for all incoming travelers did not even start until April 8.
Hong Kongers were so successful in their efforts that even the flu season ended six weeks earlier than usual. And now life returns to normal in Hong Kong: Museums and libraries are already open, and schools are reopening. People are able to go out and live their lives.
The people kept up their vigilance in responding to new threats as well. A warning shot came from Singapore, which got its outbreak under control only to be faced with a major resurgence in April among the country’s crowded and densely packed low-wage migrant-worker dormitories. Volunteers in Hong Kong quickly started efforts to sanitize the subdivided flats that Hong Kong’s own working poor inhabit using UVC lights—free of charge to the poor residents. Now they are collectively organizing ordering takeout from beleaguered restaurants that suffered in the past few months, hoping to help them survive this crisis. As the government scales up its repression—arresting elected legislators and prodemocracy figures, and with scuffles in the legislative body that portend more crackdowns—the protesters have even started planning for protests. You can be sure they will show up wearing masks.
The people of Hong Kong know who’s actually behind the city’s success. A recent poll of 23 nations found that Hong Kong came in third-lowest in citizens’ scoring of their government’s handling of the crisis. They know their reality is difficult, but they also refuse to surrender to despair.
There’s a lesson here, as the United States deals with staggering levels of incompetence at the federal level. Stories have been written by doctors in major hospitals in the U.S. about how they tried to source masks in the black market and disguised PPE shipments in food trucks to avoid their seizure by the federal government. As Taiwan and South Korea show, timely response by a competent government can make the difference between surrendering to a major outbreak and returning to a well-functioning, open society without lockdowns or deaths. But Hong Kong also teaches that people aren’t helpless, even when their government isn’t helpful.
Calls for a general strike are growing as millions of people consider going back to work after months of quarantine. Could a mass work stoppage be on the horizon? What about waves of local and regional general strikes as more cities and states move to reopen businesses during a global pandemic? Let’s consider the conditions of our current moment.
As COVID-19 continues to claim hundreds of lives every day, workers across the United States face an impossible choice: return to work and risk their health and the health of their loved ones at home, or potentially lose their jobs and their unemployment benefits.
While some employers are working with their employees to decide how and when to reopen, others want to jumpstart business and spend Paycheck Protection Program funds so loans provided under the program are forgiven. This requires convincing furloughed and laid–off workers to come back and earn a paycheck, or replacing them with new hires. Bosses have incentives to tell workers they must return now or their jobs will be gone later.
While there are some protections for workers with children and preexisting health conditions, the Labor Department is encouraging efforts to report workers who refuse to return so they lose their unemployment benefits. Workers can file a complaint if they believe their workplace to be unsafe, but safety inspections and enforcement have plummeted under President Trump as his pro-business administration guts protections for workers. Federal law protects workers from “unusual risks” posed by the pandemic, but the administration has failed to issue rules or guidance for reinforcing the right to refuse unsafe work.
That’s a raw deal for workers whose wages are so low that they are making more money by filing for unemployment. Low-wage workers are more likely to have hazardous jobs that cannot be done from home, and they are also disproportionately Black and Brown, which is one reason communities of color and Native communities have been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Unless policymakers and government agencies use their power to issue strong guidance and enforce workers’ right to refuse to return to unsafe working conditions, individuals, families, communities, and most of all, women of color, will continue to suffer,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, in a recent statement.
Meanwhile, there has been a major uptick in labor organizing and mutual aid efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, blowing wind into the sails of a labor movement that has been decaying under pressure from neoliberal capitalists and right-wing politicians for decades. With the economy on pause, activists have had more time to hold digital, socially distanced meetings and organize.
More than 200 wildcat strikes and mass sick-ins have erupted across the country in recent weeks as workers resisted conditions that put them in danger, with many striking workers finding support and solidarity among workers from different industries. In New Orleans, for example, a relatively small group of striking sanitation workers is receiving support from health care workers, mutual aid groups and young activists of color.
Over the past two months, rent strikes were organized across the country, particularly in big cities where large numbers of renters share the same landlords and can use their collective leverage to negotiate. Essential workers at large companies, such as Whole Foods, Instacart, Amazon and Target went on strike in unison on May 1.
Now, emerging activist groups inspired by the rapid growth of mutual aid projects and waves of strikes and protests are calling for a general strike starting June 1 in response to the conservative and pro-business forces pushing to reopen despite public health concerns. In a general strike, a substantial portion of the workforce across a city, state or region refuses to work. In this case, a general strike would likely entail a substantial portion of nonessential workers refusing to go back to work while some others walk off the job.
Calls for general strikes routinely make rounds on social media, and the topic continues to come up in digital town halls and remote organizing meetings held by activists. Shahid Buttar, an activist and socialist congressional candidate in San Francisco, said the labor precarity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has made conditions ripe for a general strike, but the crisis also presents its own unique challenges.
“To make it happen and envision and build the energy for a work stoppage, we have to build service delivery mechanisms to replace market–based services — and the biggest ones to me are food and child care,” Buttar said in an interview.
Buttar pointed to the 1955-1956 bus boycott against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. Rideshares were organized so Black participants in the boycott could still get around, making the historic protest sustainable and effective. To hold a general strike today, Buttar said, activists would need to create alternative ways to meet people’s needs. Currently, the need for social distancing makes it difficult, if not impossible, to organize a neighborhood child care collective, for example.
However, the pandemic has also ushered in a dramatic rise in mutual aid groups that distribute food, masks and other essential items. Many of these groups have developed strategies for working together and sharing resources while minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19.
“There are a lot of collectives of people delivering masks and food and hand sanitizer,” Buttar said.
Organizers of a general strike must also consider how to support people who lose their jobs as a result of going on strike, particularly lower-income workers and families who are already facing financial precarity. That’s why mutual aid and alternatives to the market for delivering goods and services are so important for a general strike — without them, a mass work stoppage could prevent people from accessing the things they need to survive.
A key feature of a general strike is workers learning to work for each other, rather than for employers who profit from their labor. Buttar said such organizing could blow wind back into the labor movement’s sails, which have been tattered for decades.
“If we can seize this opportunity to envision and claim a different future, the instability of this moment is a fertile time to plant these seeds,” Buttar said.
The demand to abolish the family has served as a way of imagining life beyond compulsory heterosexuality, misogynistic subjugation and familial violence.1 It brings up profoundly personal anxiety for many who believe that the family is the only protection against the violence of the state, white supremacy, or poverty. Opponents equate abolishing the family with childhood neglect and a prohibition on affection and care.
Marx and Engels were known for avoiding speculative depictions of communist life, objecting to imaginaries that lacked a strategy for how such a society could emerge from the contradictions of capitalism. In Anti-Dühring and its excerpted form in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels laid out the division Marxists would use to fend off any threat they may inadvertently become science fiction novelists. Though I agree that concrete descriptions of communist life cannot easily serve the programmatic function imagined by utopian socialists, I also believe that a return to speculative visions of communism can again serve us today. The horror of 20th century Soviet states calling their class- and wage-labor based societies “communist” calls on us to do what Marx and Engels avoided: write science fiction on futures we want to create. Such visions may provoke or enrich, but their utility is not in reading them as proposals to be implemented by the convinced. Their power lies in making visible the tenuousness and horror of the present, and in supporting an unfolding process of exploration and discovery in the midst of struggle.
When evoking the abolition of the family, Marx and Engels use the word Aufhebung for abolish. A Hegelian concept sometimes translated as “a positive supersession,” Aufhebung is to preserve, uplift and radically transform. This meaning is largely unlike the American legacy of anti-slavery abolitionists. Demands to abolish the family are not efforts to destroy people’s ability to form caring, romantic, or parental ties, nor to celebrate the pressures market economies put on domestic life. Instead, to abolish the family is to free our capacity to care for each other into more humane forms. Here I offer one speculative sketch of social reproduction to replace the family, specifically the commune as initially suggested by the early 19th century French socialist Charles Fourier.
Qualities of Communist Social Reproduction
The family serves as the main institution that mediates proletarian dependency on the wage. Along with the wage, welfare programs and the carceral system, we depend on those we call family to survive. For many proletarians unable to work, including infants, small children, people who are disabled and the very old, the main means of securing resources are from personal, familial relationships of dependence on a wage laborer. The growing systems of market-based reproductive care are no escape from this dual dependency on the family or the wage, as they are paid for from one’s own wage or that of a family member.
In our society, love and care are bound within the dependency and obligation of the family, and with them much of the labor of social reproduction. The family, therefore, takes a contradictory form in our world, both the means of love in the midst of a harsh and dangerous world, and a space of private dependency with little protection from the risk of internal abuse, violence, and heteronormativity. However good some families may be, their privacy and insularity buffers them from the necessary process of struggle. For those unable to live well under this gender regime, the gamble of who your family happens to be is a matter of life and death. The state, the wage, and the family: each oppose gender and sexual freedom, and each are incompatible with a full, free expression of human flourishing through gender and sexual diversity. The abolition of the family must be the positive creation of new institutions and practices of love, reproduction and erotic life.
In place of the coercive system of atomized family units, the abolition of the family would generalize what we now call care. Care of mutual love and support; care of the labor of raising children and caring for the ill; care of erotic connection and pleasure; care of aiding each other in fulfilling the vast possibilities of our humanity, expressed in countless ways, including forms of self-expression we now call gender. Care in our capitalist society is a commodified, subjugating, and alienated act, but in it we can see the kernel of a non-alienating interdependence.
Around the People’s Kitchen
People spontaneously form self-organized communities based on collectivizing reproduction during periods of prolonged insurgency. I call these communes, and consider them early forms of social reproduction that could come to dominate under communism. When large numbers of people directly confront the state and capital in forms that bring them into a shared location for multiple days, they often develop practices for collectively procuring food, cooking, and shared eating; for sleeping arrangements in proximity to each other; for sharing child rearing responsibilities and aiding disabled comrades. All work to share the work of care, to enable diverse participation, and to protect each other against harm.
We see some variation of this wherever prolonged occupations take root: in rural, direct-action protest camps like Standing Rock in the Dakotas or the ZAD in France, or in movement of the squares. In the Oaxaca Commune of 2006, women created collective reproductive activities on the barricades as a means of sustaining the protests and resisting the gender domination of home life:
The barricades were places where the people of Oaxaca slept, cooked and shared food, had sex, shared news, and came together at the end of the day. Resources such as food, water, gasoline and medical supplies were re-appropriated and redistributed, and in the same way, reproductive labor was re-appropriated from the specialized sphere of the home and became the underscoring way to reimagine social life and collective bonds.2
These arrangements serve immediate needs as part of an ongoing struggle. They collectivize reproductive labor, create new shared forms of intimacy and friendship, open new avenues for contesting gender and sexual relations, and can work to directly challenge the atomized, household structure of the nuclear family. Though misogyny, homophobia and sexual violence have often been the horror of such shared protest sites, their collective and political character provides a better forum to contest and challenge such dynamics than the isolated family. The protest camps we need must combine emergent forms of communist reproduction with feminist and queer practice, and ultimately, perhaps, better sex.
Just as the communal kitchen arises in past insurgencies, the commune as the prevalent mode of social reproduction could arise under a wider condition of communization. Though we can’t know the conditions of future insurrections, a few features characterize communist measures: a critical mass of proletarians rapidly seizing, transforming and putting into use the infrastructure and land, to enable non-market human survival and human flourishing. The obligatory nuclear family relation and wage labor would operate as direct obstacles to such shared survival, freedom and the persistence of the insurrection. If the nuclear family is not radically challenged, its pernicious counterrevolutionary logics of property, misogyny, heteronormativity and domination remain untouched. The communist reproduction of material life must resist dependency on obligatory family relations and participation in wage labor. It would instead be pursued through the democratic, collective management and global circulation of productive activity without market mediation.
In their 2016 article “Insurrection and Production,” Angry Workers imagine such a potential communizing revolutionary process in the UK, focusing on the essential industries that must be taken over for an insurrection to persist. Similar studies are necessary elsewhere, though much of their analysis parallels US conditions. They propose the formation of collective domestic units with each unit collectivizing food production and consumption. The commune here is not a prefiguration but necessitates the generalized condition of communism. They write:
The uprising and takeover of essential industries has to go hand in hand with the formation of domestic units comprising 200 to 250 people: communal spaces (former hotels, schools, office blocks, etc.) as central points for distribution, domestic work and local decision-making. The quick formation of such domestic units is as important as the takeover of the essential industries. Mainly in order to break the isolation of domestic work and gender hierarchies, but also to create a counter-dynamic to the centralisation in the essential industries: a decentralisation of certain social tasks and decision making.
This is very different from what were called communes in the 20th century: deliberate, small-scale countercultural communities attempting to survive under a market society. These 20th century communes include back-to-the-land collective farming communities in the 1960s and 1970s, group houses of hippies and punks, urban squats, queer families living together, and utopian planned communities. These are legitimate strategies for trying to live less alienated lives in the atomizing conditions of the market. Such practices are an admirable part of radical traditions, but as they operate within capitalist conditions, their limits are severe.
Communes in a capitalist society are forced into the shared poverty of economic self-sufficiency and isolation, or depend on significant contributions from wage labor or inherited wealth. The pressures of state policies, poverty, class contradictions among residents, or lack of mental health care inevitably exacerbate interpersonal conflict, and often lead to the eventual collapse of such deliberate communities. Only considerable class privilege offers long-term stability.
Further, many proponents of such planned communities mistakenly imagine that their very existence will inspire their gradual spreading in the shell of a capitalist society, providing the means of living anti-state communism in the present. Such thinking has produced the blossoming of isolated countercultures, but nothing suggests it could ever offer an exit from the rule of capital and the capitalist state. The structural conditions of proletarianization, market dependency and state violence make such a vision of a revolutionary transition impossible without generalized insurrection, and leave such communities inherently unstable, inaccessible and isolated.
For Angry Workers, and the analysis here, the commune is instead the collectivization of reproductive labor and consumption, the abolition of the family, and the freeing of love, care and eroticism into a collective, democratic space of shared life. To survive as the basis of freedom, the commune must be a part of a broader and successful effort to destroy the coercive mechanisms of the racial state, to seize the means of production and collective survival, and to defeat the class enemies of the revolutionary struggle. The commune can only survive under the conditions of global communization.
On Charles Fourier
This vision of the commune as a collective, erotic and joyful site of reproductive labor most closely resembles the theories of Charles Fourier. Fourier was a French merchant, clerk, and writer, and a major figure in what has come to be called the utopian socialist tradition. He was born shortly before the French Revolution and published most of his work in the early 19th century, dying in 1837. Fourier’s writing on the evils of the market, the bourgeois family, and collective communes became tremendously influential on socialist politics of the 19th century. There is clear evidence that Marx closely read Fourier, and many of Marx’s greatest statements in support of women’s rights, gender equality and women’s freedom are near verbatim quotes of Fourier.
Fourier is best known for three theoretical and political contributions: First, he identified early that the horrors of poverty were a result of the growing market economy, and that socialists needed to abolish markets and private property. This new society would guarantee all a “social minimum,” a concept of universal material provision that became central to new socialist thinking. Fourier defines it as essential to the shared well-being of the coming society: “Finally, in this new order the common people must enjoy a guarantee of well-being, a minimum income sufficient for present and future needs. This guarantee must free them from all anxiety either for their own welfare or that of their dependents.” (275)3 Second, Fourier was a major proponent of women’s rights, seeing the subjugation of women as a cornerstone of bourgeois society, the family, monogamous marriage, and the oppressive social order. He advocated extensively for the social, economic, and sexual rights of women, and is believed to have coined the word “feminism.” He generated a theory later adopted by Marx and others, that the degree of freedom in a society is best measured by the level of women’s emancipation.
Third, Fourier proposed that the solution to the horrors of the market and monogamy was a form of commune he termed the phalanx, numbering 1,600 people in a vast building of the phalanstery. Fourier’s vision of the phalanx was embedded in his science of the human passions, a “theory of passionate attraction.” By carefully examining the natural instincts, proclivities, pleasures, and developmental capacities of humans, we could design deliberate communities that perfectly calibrate personality types. The phalanxes would be shared spaces of labor as productive centers exporting a particular foodstuff or manufactured product. They would collectivize all reproductive labor, designed to maximize serving the diverse pleasures of food and daily consumption by all residents. Fourierist communes were started throughout the US and Europe in the 1830s and 1840s.
Rather than relying on compulsion to maintain social order or productive work, these communities could design “amorous work” to skillfully use pleasure, eroticism, and joy as incentives, so that collective and individual benefit align. “Useless as it is today,” he wrote, “love will thus become one of the most brilliant mainsprings of the social mechanism.” (176) Fourier’s theories of human passions were fundamental to his vision of social harmony. Love and attraction would replace domination as the central social bond of society.
Though Fourier’s writing on the erotic were not as widely regarded, he saw his commitments to sexual freedom and fulfillment as essential to his social theory. As well as a social minimum, he advocated for a “sexual minimum,” where the physical, erotic needs of all were guaranteed by their community, allowing each person the freedom to pursue full, authentic love.
We are going to discuss a new amorous order in which sentiment, which is the noble side of love, will enjoy an unparalleled prestige and will endow all social relations with a unique charm. How will sentimental love maintain this dominion? Through the fact that the physical impulses, far from being fettered, will be fully satisfied. (340)
Fourier may have been fiercely critical of the misogyny of today’s incel movement, but he worried about the despair of those denied sexual pleasure: “The disorders caused by the fear of amorous deprivation are not, in fact, as obvious as those caused by hunger riots. But the mutiny of love is only the more effective for being hidden and concealed behind all sorts of masks.” (340) He was confident that humans are naturally polyamorous, bisexual, and erotically joyful. The free love of the phalanx would be among its greatest appeals, and soon no one would be drawn back to the hypocritical horror of the conjugal family.
Fourier allowed himself a considerable degree of outlandish fancy in his writing on sexual freedom. He went to some length describing the integral role carefully choreographed orgies would play in future communes. As a parody of the Catholic Church, he described a new, voluntary clerical hierarchy based on sexual skill, sexual selflessness, and the capacity to bring sexual pleasure to the ugliest in society. As a replacement for the horrors of war, he imagined roving armies of amorous youth competitively demonstrating their erotic prowess on battlefields. Those who were sufficiently awed would signal their defeat by submitting themselves to voluntary erotic bondage and orchestrated sexual punishments for a limited duration. One such future encounter between traveling erotic armies and their hosts proceeds:
When the Head Fairy waves her wand a semi-bacchanalia gets underway. The members of both groups rush into each other’s arms, and in the ensuing scramble caresses are liberally given and received. Everyone strokes and investigates whatever comes to hand and surrenders himself or herself to the unfettered impulses of simple nature. Each participant flits from one person to another, bestowing kisses everywhere with as much eagerness as rapidity. (389)
This initial orgy is disrupted by the intervention of same-sex desire: “To break up the skirmish, use should be made of a divisive agent. Since everything is done by attraction in Harmony, mixed or homosexual attractions should be employed. Groups of Sapphists and Spartites should therefore be thrown into the fray to attack people of their own kind.” (390) This allows the sexual priesthood to issue their recommendations for the most compatible romantic pairings, as “the goal of Harmony is to establish compound amorous relationships based on both physical and spiritual affinities. Thus while the opening sensual skirmish is indispensable, it is only a prelude.” (390)
After one such dry erotic exposition, Fourier teases us, “Yet the minor details I have touched on will already have been enough to let you see how the new order will open the way to love affairs of such splendour and variety that all Civilisation’s tales of love will evoke nothing but pity.” (179)
Fourier, in short, was a delightfully kinky science fiction writer, and an inspiration to imagining pro-queer communes of the future. Fourier’s work can provoke in us not only a concrete alternative to the family as a unit of social reproduction, but an open-ended erotic desire for a better mode of life we have yet to discover.
Communes to Come
Rather than as the implementation of a plan, the commune could arise spontaneously out of insurrection. As masses of proletarians directly confront state, capital and oppression in their personal lives, they will need to turn to strategies of collective survival beyond the family. During an insurrectionary period, people would initially appropriate large buildings as centers of social reproduction, with collective canteens, shelter, childcare centers, medical care, and halls for democratic assemblies. Parents joining in the insurrection would likely come to share the labor of childcare to enable their full participation. These new institutions could offer both shared survival, and new forms of joy and belonging.
As an insurrection unfolds and consumes larger parts of society, collectivizing domestic, social reproductive labor offers a strategy of survival and community. There would be a spontaneous, overall tendency towards the formation of the commune as a primary unit of domestic life. Isolated households would lack the means of materially reproducing themselves without access to the market and market-based systems of distribution like supermarkets and box stores and their associated supply chains. Disrupting capitalist production, the state and the family would necessitate their rapid replacement with new institutions, chiefly the collective life of the commune. Communes are answers to the essential question that will arise in a revolutionary process: “How can we take care of each other?”
As the communes begin to offer material stability and supportive community, many less-normative families would choose to self-abolish, joining communes and dissolving their economic and social insularity into the broader community. Much recent debate has contrasted family abolition with forms of alternative, loving and non-normative families forged by some people of color and queers against white supremacist heteronormativity. Rather than a retrenchment of the family, such chosen forms may be the particular strategy that the yearning towards family abolition and shared care often takes in our world now. In a revolutionary process, queer-chosen family, women-headed families of color impacted by migration and mass incarceration, families living in poverty, and those surviving through other non-heteronormative working-class kinship relations would be the most likely to pursue the commune.
Family abolition is not the destruction of kinship ties that currently serve as protection against white supremacy, poverty, and state violence, but instead the expansion of that protection into broader communities of struggle. Those family householders most resistant to self-abolition—white property owners, abusive patriarchs, homophobes and others most invested in the normative family—would need to be challenged through feminist, queer and communist struggle both within their families and in the broader society. The more loving and chosen the family, the more amenable it may be to self-abolishing by joining a large, well-functioning commune.
The estimate of Angry Workers of around 200 people strikes me as reasonable, perhaps preferable to Fourier’s 1,600. Two hundred could be a sizable apartment building, the stand-alone homes clustered immediately around a school or other center, or a block of small apartment buildings. The shared kitchen would create a natural initial size, given the logistics of cooking for substantial groups. Other shared consumption and reproductive labor activities would quickly develop, and, depending on demographic distribution and concentration (of children, the elderly, and the disabled), may encompass multiple proximate communes in shared activity.
Establishing such free communities must be a part of an expanding, universalizing, and revolutionizing process that also develops fully communist modes for the production and circulation of material goods. These communes would not be self-sufficient agricultural communities or isolated units struggling to survive in a market society. A communist transition will take time and unfold unevenly in different places. But to survive, it must continue to expand, and ultimately destroy the means of reinstating the domination of the state or the market anywhere. Communist production, without wages, money or exchange, would be the democratic coordination of manufacturing of material goods, the provision of services and the sharing of culture, all managed through many layers of virtual and in-person assessments, surveys, debated algorithms, assemblies, meetings, and many other manifold deliberations to identify and sustainably meet human needs. These communes would be integrated with a communist production system expanding to a global reach, depending on the highest level of technology compatible with human decency and ecological sustainability.
These communes could consolidate within them collective reproductive services, including childcare and education; collective laundry, apartment cleaning, canteen food cooking and serving; repair and maintenance of household goods; mental health and regular medical care; and group entertainment activities. Collectivizing many forms of consumption would reduce the social resources and carbon consumption necessary for providing abundance to all. Advanced, high-skill services requiring substantial facilities and infrastructure could be organized regionally, such as surgical care or specialized education. All members could have full digital access to global networks of communication and collaboration, and could be encouraged to form a variety of networking relationships across other communities. These communes could provide the primary institutions for meeting human material needs while also being the center for new forms of communist sociality, art, expression, community, sex and love.
Direct-democratic governance and internal struggle would be essential for these communes to avoid internal class stratifications. Though some tasks could be delegated to elected bodies, the essential decisions of the community must be made through group assembly, deliberation in extended conversation, and weighing the concerns of all affected. Direct democracy could serve as a counterweight towards new forms of class rule and internal domination within the communes. Where world production would have to be organized through other, internet-based and networked mechanisms, decisions immediate to daily life could be made by each commune’s assembly. Two hundred people is about the maximum size of an in-person assembly where everyone is able to take part in decision making directly, and to have opportunities to speak to the entire group.
Drawing on Fourier’s commitment to the harmony of different personality types, communes should be internally diverse, rather than communities of affinity. The free circulation and migration of people between communes could be an essential contribution to such heterogeneity. To avoid becoming centers of survivalism, ethnonationalism or gender fascism, such communes must also resist tendencies towards religious and social homogeneity. Though individuals can harbor whatever beliefs they choose, their relations with others would be subject to public challenge and political struggle, breaking down a rigid divide between private and public.
Among the innumerable unresolved questions in imagining communism is preventing stratification between communes. What practices could assure the universality of “to each according to their need,” without the impersonal domination of a state removed from, and governing over, the social body? The lack of property, wage labor, and markets would limit communes’ capacity to dominate others, but communes may try to consolidate some forms of private production towards their own consumption internally. How could society prevent some communes from coming to enjoy significantly better living standards than others? Or negotiate conflicts over resources between communes? Or dismantle the existing distribution of geographic inequality, uneven development, and racial stratification that organizes capitalist space?
Those who imagine socialism as impersonal services through a state managing a market economy have intelligible and ready answers: they can outline policies that deliberately counter-weigh against inequality through bureaucratically investing in underdeveloped areas, taxing wealthier areas, and promoting policies of desegregation. But with decision-making dispersed throughout the society as a whole, and the communes functioning as a primary site of consumption, we would require new and currently unknown practices to mitigate against potential inequality in consumption between communes, and to assure basic material well-being for all. Here I support Fourier’s rare combination of calling for both dispersed non-market social infrastructures and a universal guaranteed social minimum.
As people encounter a free society, the numbers of people identifying with non-normative sexuality could grow, as we are now witnessing among young people increasingly not identifying as straight. Similarly, when Fourier treats standards of attractiveness and ugliness as transhistorical, I argue instead these will necessarily transform and broaden. Queer culture, queer leadership, and queer movements are an essential resource to communist struggles pursuing richer forms of human freedom. Combined with the collective character of the commune, such queer tendencies could unfold into new dynamics valuing consensual, positive, and healthy sexual relations.
Sex and sexual pleasure could become collective concerns, both challenging sexual coercion and abuse, and supporting people to find paths towards sexual fulfillment. Unlike Fourier, I recognize that full sexual satisfaction and perfect harmony is not likely possible given psychoanalytic insights about human development; but the commune provides the opportunity to transform sexual practice and eroticism into something that could be collectively considered as a human need, a source of well-being, and a field of ethical care. This could occasionally take the form of Fourier’s imagined mass planned orgies; but more often it would look like supporting people in their sexual health and sexual satisfaction by incorporating it into mental and physical healthcare; polyamorous relationships could be more common; and a social acknowledgement that good sex is a source of human well-being could all help undo heteronormative misogyny.
Successful communes must include those unable to work. Recent experiences of houseless people joining Occupy encampments make clear the strategic necessity of skillful, collective, and non-exclusionary strategies to deal with disability, drug abuse, and mental illness. Harm reduction, mental health support, and drug recovery would all be central concerns of those initially setting up the communes. The communist society will take many generations to heal from the traumas of capitalism and war, as well as complexities of human biological variation in the forms we now define as disability, neurodivergence, or mental illness.
As the insurrection secures more stable, large-scale material conditions, there could be a countertendency towards the reassertion of the family. If these communes fail to become the generalized form of social reproduction, and the nuclear family again became the main unit of consumption, society would see the return of the capitalist family’s current logic of conservatism, whiteness, property-ownership, and self-isolation. The return of the family would contribute to counterrevolution, the reassertion of the state, and the failure of communism.
To resist this countertendency, the contradictions of gender and sexuality could become central to resisting such a return to the family. Like Fourier, I imagine self-interest coupled to transformed consciousness would be essential to maintaining the collective commitment to the commune. Women and feminized partners could refuse the reimposition of the family, having witnessed the reduced domestic labor of the collective commune, and the opportunities the commune affords to contesting sexist relationship dynamics. Queer and trans people could recognize in the commune the means of resisting the abuse and domination of the family for themselves and future queer and trans children. Those who have experienced the insurrectionary commune could recognize in it the material basis for a freer gender and sexual order, and choose to defend and expand its reach. All those who come to realize what is at stake in winning communism could join queers, trans people, and feminists in resisting the return of the family, and instead fight for the family’s full replacement with the commune.
If the communes succeed, gradually new forms of architecture, design and construction would reflect the needs for both a combination of heterogeneous private living space for individuals and small chosen clusters, and shared space for reproductive labor and consumption. In the design of new physical spaces for communes, people could have sufficient private and personal space for themselves and their self-chosen kin. But many things now done in the private home could be far better done in shared space: canteens can replace most kitchens and dining rooms; crèches replacing a child’s individual play room; entertainment rooms could serve as places to watch television or hang out in groups; personal studies could instead be shared libraries and co-working areas; home maintenance and cleaning equipment could be available in common space; vehicles could be similarly shared. The commune of around 200 is small enough all of these things are close at-hand and easily accessible at any hour. On the other hand, the commune being much larger than currently existing households reduces the need for individualized consumption and isolated living space to a reasonable minimum. In most cases, private space could be limited to clusters of comfortable bedrooms for those opting to live in a family-like arrangement grouped around a single shared room, easily accessible to the commune as a whole.
Within the commune, kinship ties could persist in many forms, but would be integrated with a broader, interdependent community. Individuals could opt into an arrangement of co-parenting with one or more adults, creating family-like arrangements for purposes of raising children. In recent decades, research into psychological development has established children do need the consistent attention of a small number of adults early in life. This challenges some historical family-abolitionist currents that have mistakenly seen mother-infant bonds as inherently oppressive and in need of complete prohibition. Among the heterogeneous arrangements of close relationships within a commune, people may choose to raise children they gestate or with whom they have a biological relationship; or they may choose other arrangements; or they, their child, or those immediately in the life may change those arrangements as a child ages. Similarly, a few may choose to form lifelong relationships with their biological family, or to partner romantically for the long term with one other person and incorporate child-rearing as a practice.
Yet these close parenting or familial units would not serve as an economic unit in any sense and would not organize material consumption. Instead, they would only act as a voluntary and personal arrangement to be entered into within a broader economic unit, within the ready availability of multiple alternatives for anyone to opt out. If a child found their living situation intolerable, there would be many other adults interdependent with them and in social proximity who could observe the situation, intervene collectively if needed, and offer easily accessible alternative housing arrangements, including other families the child could join, or crèches specializing in such tasks. Children could pass through multiple households and living arrangements as they grow up—including time in children-centered group housing—always within a building or short walk from the original group of adults who they may identify as their parents. When they come of age, as Fourier imagined, they could set out to travel across continents exploring the richness of the world, maintaining digital remote contact with their friends and many forms of familial relations. These alternatives allow parents as well to opt out, assuring their children’s material and social needs will be met by others.
The commune could come to prioritize gender discovery, exploration, and expression in every person. New gender modalities could be integrated with child-rearing, with games and social spaces, with entertainment, and with medical care. Gender liberation is an essential feature of creating a new basis for communist human well-being. In the communization of society and the abolition of the family, gender would undergo massive transformations to no longer serve as a basis for the division of labor, interpersonal domination, or sexual violence. Instead, gender could become what is already prefigured in trans experience: a form of expressing subtle personal truth, the beauty and richness of human expression, and the wielding of aesthetics, eroticism and personal fulfillment.
Writing in 1808, Fourier describes the timeline of the complete revolution in all social relations. Though like all past revolutionaries he proved wrong in his timeline, he is right that communism is always immanent to the present, as the real movement to abolish the existing order of things:
Do not be misled by superficial people who think that the invention of the laws of Movement is just a theoretical calculation. Remember that it only requires four or five months to put it into practice over a square league, an attempt which could even be completed by next summer, with the result that the whole human race would move into universal harmony, so your behaviour should be governed from now on by the ease and proximity of this immense revolution. (306) ⊱
As the Covid-19 crisis wears on in Britain, people have sought out ways to support each other despite social isolation and self-quarantine. The biggest outlet for feelings of solidarity may be the government’s NHS volunteer scheme – 750,000 people signed up – but many members of the general public have also found their way into community organising for the first time.
Thousands of autonomous, horizontal and hyper-localised Mutual Aid groups have formed since the pandemic reached the UK. Through delivering food and medicine, Mutual Aid groups are helping the most vulnerable shield from the virus. It’s estimated that they are connecting some three million people, with tens of thousands actively involved in giving and receiving assistance. For many, this is their first contact with the guiding principle of anarchism, Mutual Aid.
Such efforts appear to offer a hopeful picture of greater inclusivity and willingness to organise for equality. But can Covid-19 collectivism inspire a lasting loyalty towards each other, and particularly the most vulnerable?
While community organising has sparked discussions about collective support during Covid-19, policy-makers have also been encouraging community cohesion since the start of the lockdown. This second sort of community-building can be described as ‘Covid-nationalism’ because it invokes the nation and Britishness, rather than solidarity and care. Even though these perspectives legitimise completely different sorts of responses to Covid-19, they are not a simple binary; top-down narratives can become entwined with ordinary people’s day-by-day experiences of extraordinary yet acute suffering. The danger is that today’s feelings of compassion might produce only short-term voluntarism, not sustained solidarity.
Mutual Aid and Covid-nationalism’s contradictory notions of affinity are both imagined and discursive. In itself, this is not new: as Benedict Anderson argued, every community is constructed through an imaginative process. Indeed, distinct “communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined”. He showed that communities are always imagined because the feelings of commonality which can sustain networks need the individual to have an “image of community” in their mind’s eye. Today, Anderson’s understanding of the political work which the imagination performs is useful, given the power which ambivalent and largely oppositional narratives of ‘community’ wield.
Concern for the most vulnerable is at the heart of both Covid-19 Mutual Aid organising and the other volunteering. For Mutual Aid groups, the desire to re-imagine belonging is implicit in their egalitarian vision of connected living. Activists have attempted to list the countless hyper-local autonomous groups on a Covid-19 Mutual Aid website, which emphasises horizontalism in practical rather than abstract terms: “Mutual aid isn’t about ‘saving’ anyone; it’s about people coming together, in a spirit of solidarity, to support and look out for one another”.
Similarly, the anarchist intention to work outside of formal and powerful structures which entrench inequality is articulated through the centrality of “care and compassion” for the most vulnerable: collaboration with the police, for instance, “may prevent vulnerable people [such as undocumented migrants] from accessing your support”. These groups have the potential to act as laboratories for grassroots narratives of belonging and solidarity, where care for the vulnerable is prioritised.
However, in practice, sustaining autonomous organising during lockdown is challenging. Mutual aid work has usually thrived through sustained personal relationships, but now only fleeting socially-distanced encounters are possible. Out of necessity, these networks have been built and maintained online. Beyond simple sign-up forms which you fill out with contact details and your availability to run errands, Facebook and WhatsApp groups are the chief ways people interact with Mutual Aid networks. These groups seem to be developing in various distinct directions simultaneously.
My own hyper-local WhatsApp Mutual Aid group is a useful example of this, and shows how people’s vernacular uses of “community” are associated with a number of these directions. Some members have written messages to the group as a whole, expressing gratitude for how it makes them feel as well as the tangible support individuals within it have provided. One thanked the group as a whole “your generosity of spirit, community spirit and positivity” while another said “it’s kept me going not just in practical help and support but [through] a feeling of connection and community and not having to face difficult times alone”.
The majority of messages are requests for general advice about supermarket stocks and queues (and I have joined in, asking a somewhat frivolous question about compost). The remainder of exchanges are the simple, transactional messages which arrange food and medicine drops: the backbone of Covid-19 Mutual Aid. In the case of this group, some requests come directly from the person in need while others come through Lambeth Mutual Aid volunteer organisers.
Notably, the Lambeth-wide organising group points interested readers to Kropotkin’s writing on Mutual Aid, but largely focuses on the practicalities of organising during the pandemic. They are attuned to the heightened need for accountability and have worked to monitor lockdown policing in Lambeth, where 60% of the population is BAME and thus more likely to be targeted.
Despite the tangible ability of groups like this one to encourage care and compassion, and despite social media groups’ ability to go some way towards virtually sustaining feelings of affinity, individuals’ desire to organise beyond their most immediate circumstances is clearly not guaranteed. How can feelings of compassion and solidarity today be translated into sustained and organised collective care?
Until recently, it was commonplace for UK policymakers, especially on the right, to talk of the ‘decline of community’. The lack of “community spirit” gained such credence that it has contributed to the tragically high number of Coronavirus victims in this country. Boris Johnson’s delay in implementing lockdown was caused – at least in part – by scientific advisors initially ruling out the lockdown measures other countries were implementing, seemingly because of the assumption that British people would reject stringent limitations of personal freedom.
The idea seems to reflect, somewhat troublingly, a vision of British exceptionalism where “individual liberty”, freedom and democracy are inalienable “British values”. These attributes are hardly exclusive to British identity – and certainly, individuals rarely take on such top-down narratives wholesale – but it is striking that both inclusion in and exclusion from collective “Britishness” have been articulated in relation to “individual liberty”.
Those who prioritise their personal freedom over others’ health have consistently been a small minority. Having to keep one’s distance from others may be a paradoxical expression of communitarian sentiment, but the sheer number of people volunteering with Mutual Aid groups, the NHS and charities is testament to the strength of the desire to help each other.
Those who lament the “decline of community” all too often look back nostalgically to Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, seeing a time when kinship and local ties were stronger. In practice, individualism and communitarian sentiment were often messily and ambivalently interwoven – as they continue to be today. However, invocations of community sentiment also served to bolster the postwar reconstruction’s focus on welfare, security and prosperity. However, in her analysis of post-war attitudes towards class, historian Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite found vernacular language which predated neoliberalism but was similar to the Thatcherite talk of individualism. Equally, although the very real damage wrought by under-funding public services and weakening labour rights must not be under-estimated, feelings of affinity and organised solidarity have both persisted. It seems that “community” has changed rather than “declined”. Increased affluence and technological advances like mobile phones, email and social media have allowed bonds to become increasingly non-geographic and, therefore, elective (Lawrence, 2019).
Today, lockdown means social circles are being re-drawn with a greater localised focus. Although social distancing makes all physical contact impossible and has made friendships more reliant on technology than ever, the urge to check on neighbours and help the vulnerable locally has re-emphasised place-based communities. A common feeling of affinity underlies the will to support the vulnerable and the desire to arrange localised communal activities like socially-distanced street parties (and individual actions like dropping off a home-cooked meal or organising a book swap).
After the government u-turn, when lockdown was finally imposed in late March, it began to encourage community feeling through Covid-nationalism. Various top-down narratives have since been invoked to curb individualist tendencies among the general public, all too often also being based on nationalist conceptualisations of British character. In the Queen’s speech before the Easter bank holiday, the isolation and separation of lockdown was paired with the experiences of child evacuees during the Blitz. Her speech encouraged “pride in who we are” as a nation through the “attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling [which] still characterise this country”. This is strikingly similar to the mythologising, patriotic work ordinary people’s perceived stoicism and “good humour” performed in discourses of the “Blitz spirit”.
However, in reality the least tenuous parallels between the ongoing global pandemic and the bombing of London’s civilians during the Second World War are class divisions, and have nothing to do with the romanticised national character: then as now, the elite sought to shelter themselves while the working class had to fight for rights to safety and shelter. During the Blitz, working class Londoners had little choice but to occupy tube stations in their thousands to shelter during air raids. Today, people experiencing homelessness have resorted to opening squats so they can safely self-isolate.
“Clap for Our Carers” may be one of the clearest examples of socially-distanced events which bring neighbours face-to-face at a safe distance, but it has also become troublingly entangled in the complex top-down expressions of apparent compassion and affinity. Although campaigner Annemarie Plas started the weekly event in response to citizens’ actions in Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, the celebration of “NHS heroes” gained additional meanings when it was championed by the government. As an expression of support, it went some way towards obscuring governmental neglect for key workers’ safety without requiring the tangible, meaningful support the government owes NHS staff and other key workers – chiefly PPE and tests. Neoliberal politics has attempted to foster community feeling before – both Tony Blair’s “Third Way” and, later, David Cameron’s failed Coalition-era “Big Society” sought to heal what governments and think tanks increasingly called the “broken society” resulting from the “decline of community”. However, fostering cooperation and social bonds on a local scale didn’t necessarily mean tackling structural inequality.
In addition, the community sentiment supposedly stimulated by “Clap for Our Carers” has prompted BAME British and immigrant key workers to draw attention to the violent ways they are habitually excluded: through racism, xenophobia, nativism and the hostile environment. This is an expression of a broader issue with top-down narratives of belonging: inequalities of race and class, and their impact, run the risk of being obscured. Anderson observed that conceptualisations of “the nation” intertwine emotion and politics in such a way that the act of imagining may obscure the very real divisions of inequality:
[The nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship
This is the sort of sentiment which has been stoked by notions of coronavirus as “the great leveller”. It grew particularly pointed in the UK in mid-April when the Prime Minister was hospitalised with coronavirus and the government emphasised that we are “all in this together”. In reality, inequalities are being replicated in the risks of Coronavirus contagion, spread – and even the extent to which they benefit from government measures introduced to help.
It’s clear there is no de-facto equality in the face of Covid-19; but through ongoing, organised solidarity networks, a level of it can be created. However, Bordieu’s thoughts on collective choice might serve as a spark for further ideas about the meanings of solidarity and belonging during the pandemic and its aftermath. Individual interest, reading Bordieu reminds us, is historically arbitrary rather than a constant. We must not return to the same society after this crisis.
in a suddenly no-longer-globalised world where unprecedented state intervention is undeniably needed to weather the economic crash, his criticism of neoliberal “tyranny” of supposedly-inevitable individualism is more pressing than ever. When imagining the ways we will relate to each other and the collective demands we will make about how we should live, it is worth thinking, as Bordieu did, about the ways pre-existing structures – the education system, politics, etc – need to be continually transformed as people make sense of their everyday lives, build solidarities and those previously shut out take over the resources.
Freya Marshall Payne is a freelance journalist and researcher. Her writing has also appeared in Vice, Prospect and The Guardian among other publications. She is currently completing a Master’s in History at the University of Oxford, where she will begin doctoral research into women’s experiences of homelessness this autumn.
Women’s work has always been an afterthought in cities
The pandemic has finally revealed the cracks in our care networks
The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped back the curtain that covers the true engine of the global economy: the undervalued, feminized care labour that keeps society functioning through its often invisible and almost always underpaid exertions. The simultaneous collapse of the systems that keep this work hidden and the exponential increase in the need for this work has also revealed that our cities have never been designed to make caring work easy. In fact, “women’s work” has always been an afterthought in cities. Now that everything we’ve taken for granted about how our cities function has been left in ribbons, will the gaping holes in our care network continue to be ignored?
For far too long, the smooth running of the economy has relied precariously on the zombie of outdated gender roles grafted onto the reality of the modern working woman. In the realm of unpaid work, women perform the vast majority of global labour that keeps children alive and growing, workers fed, homes clean, sick people tended to, food grown, and volunteer work staffed. The value of this work is estimated to be in the trillions of dollars. “Estimated” because it is uncounted, intentionally excluded from the GDP, and not considered part of the “economy” by international definitions.
Much of this work is done by women who also have one or more (under)paid jobs, jobs that we suddenly see as valuable: nurses and cleaners, grocery store clerks and personal care workers, food service workers, and childcare providers, to name a few. Women’s work has gone from hidden and disposable to heroic and essential, seemingly overnight.
COVID-19 has forced us to dramatically rearrange our lives, both socially and spatially. Not only has this exposed the shaky foundations of a system that rests on women’s continued willingness to do so much undervalued work, but it’s also highlighted the cracks in our cities when it comes to care. Cities have been designed to facilitate the needs of the traditional male breadwinner, the man who commutes from a residential zone to work in a manufacturing or white-collar zone of the city. The separation between home and work is largely unproblematic; after all, these are separate spheres of life, right? Not so for women, and especially not for single mothers, poor women, and those with multiple caring responsibilities.
Decades of research have shown that women’s commutes are longer and more complex than men’s, as women have less access to private transportation, run multiple errands during commutes, and are primarily responsible for children’s journeys as well. Women pay more to commute as this complexity often means more spending on extra transit trips or taxis. The prohibitive cost of housing in central neighbourhoods means that workers in these essential roles are commuting farther. Somehow, women juggle more than fifty percent of child and domestic labour in the home, along with elder care, community work, relationship building, and their paid work across urban networks that refuse to cut them any slack.
The pandemic puts these longstanding issues into sharp relief. Low-paid cleaners are compelled to ride still-crowded subways and buses from far-flung neighbourhoods. Single mothers are forced to choose between doing their essential paid work and their essential unpaid work. Women working from home are facing heightened risks of domestic violence with nowhere to go. Those who work multiple jobs (women are more likely to be employed casually or part-time) may be prohibited from entering multiple workplaces (e.g. care homes), leaving not only a gap in their income but in the care work that desperately needs to be done for many vulnerable citizens. The serious limitations on the kind of volunteer and charity activities largely undertaken by women to feed, clothe, and sustain homeless, disabled, elderly, and marginalized groups have also left giant rips in the social fabric of care.
Our overreliance on women’s work has never been adequately supported by investments in the kinds of infrastructures and social programs that make this work possible. Everything from robust public transit to affordable housing to a living wage to childcare to walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods to quality elder care to social programs funded by the state rather than charity has been seen as luxuries that cities can’t afford. After all, women have always been there, by choice or by compulsion, to fill those needs.
While the curtain that hides the true contribution of women’s work lies in shreds for the moment, the critical question is whether it will be hastily re-hung as the crisis abates. Will care work be forced back into obscurity, or will we work to re-organize our cities in ways that support, value, and redistribute care work more equitably and sustainably for everyone?
By John P. Clark
May 10th, 2020
In my book, TheImpossible CommunityI reflected on the experience of the Common Ground Collective andother groups that I worked with in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Iconcluded from this experience that thereexists in the midst of crisis something that I called “disasteranarchism.”1
Disaster anarchismis a collective force that “breaks radically with the ordinarycourse of things,” and is characterized by “an extraordinaryflourishing of love, compassion, solidarity, mutual aid, andvoluntary cooperation.” It is a source of hope and inspiration,since “within it there emerges a strong sense of the possibility ofa qualitatively different way of life, through the actual experienceof that other way of living.”
It is inspiring tosee exactly such radical possibility emerge once again, at thepresent crucial moment, through the work of the New Orleans MutualAid Group (NOMAG).
NOMAGdeveloped out of the Cat’s Claw Collective, an anarchist communitycenter in the Eighth Ward of New Orleans. The Collective takes itsname from a locally (in)famous vine that it defines as “a floweringplant deemed a nuisance and capable of dismantling just about anystructure.”
Cat’sClaw sees its mission as working against“gentrification, exploitation, authoritarian capitalism and whitesupremacy,” and practicing “direct action, mutual aid reliefbased on the principles of inclusivity and consensus.” So, it isnot surprising that the city’s main radical mutual aid projectshould grow on that particular anarchic vine.
NOMAG’swork focuses on food distribution. The core group from Cats Claw hadalready been working with a food share program started four monthsago, and had also worked with Community Kitchen, a local organizationthat serves food at political events, to those in need, and to thecommunity in general. So NOMAG is an organic growth out of thatprior work, adapted to this time of crisis.
TheGroup has been working for two and half months, starting shortlyafter Mardi Gras. So far, about one-hundred people have expressedinterest in the group, and about fifty volunteers have already gottenactively involved in various ways. The project was originallycentered at the Cat’s Claw site but is now located at St. RochMetalworks, an Eighth Ward warehouse about a mile and a half away.
Distributionstarted in the neighborhoods of the 7th, 8th, and 9thWards of downtown (the local term for “downriver”) New Orleans.It has since expanded to neighborhoods in the Mid-City area. NOMAGhopes that as it moves into more neighborhoods it can divide intosub-groups based in the various neighborhood communities. The currentplan is to divide shortly into two hubs, and then to create more asactivity grows.
NOMAGmakes weekly food deliveries to families at a current rate of abouttwenty per day, and has made about five-hundred deliveries so far. The Group estimates that each delivery is shared by five people, sothe program has thus far aided recipients 2500 times.
TheGroup is beginning to publish a twice-monthly broadsheet called TheBroadcastthat will be put in food boxes and distributed in the neighborhoods.It will include basic practical information on subjects like foodresources, COVID-19 testing, finding diapers, pet food, and othersupplies, mental health services, and dealing with utilities.
However,reflecting the project’s dual emphasis on providing immediate aidand also promoting long-term community liberation, it will alsoinclude political activism-oriented material. For example, there willbe information on the prison and legal system, housing issues,workers’ struggles, working for better health care, rent strikeorganizing, and support for local protests and actions.
NOMAGrecognizes that given the structures of domination, every crisistakes on a particular form in which different social groups andcommunities are affected differentially, and levels of assistance aredetermined not by personal and communal needs, but rather by thedemands of power and profit. Consequently, as the Group states it,“This is a crisis of capitalism, of property, of profit, and ofwhite supremacy as much as it is one of health.”
TheGroup sees a problem with many paying lip service to “solidaritynot charity” (the famous slogan that came out of theanarchist-influenced Common Ground Collective), but still in manyways following a charity model of aid. The Group wants to furtherpoliticize mutual aid, and to make its efforts part of a largerproject of creating a community in which mutual aid and solidarityare a systemic practice and, most important of all, a way of life.The Group’s political engagement is exemplified by its activesupport for a sanitationworkers wildcat strike on May 8.
NOMAG’swork has already given birth to a related mutual aid project with abroader scope and transformative vision. This is Lobelia Commons,which defines itself as “anetwork for autonomous food production and neighborhood survival,”and foresees the creation of a variety of interconnected land-basedprojects. At present, ithas a core of ten active members, in addition to many friends andsupporters.
Lobelia Commons’ first project is the St. Roch Free Nursery. At this site, the group is raising about four-hundred okra plants, in addition to squash, watermelons, herbs, tomatoes, chilis, and other vegetables for the plant delivery program. It has also started a garden in the Upper 9th Ward, about a mile from Cat’s Claw. So far, it has built a water catchment system, sheet mulched the beds, and brought in compost to this site.
Immediately,the gardens will function as a free nursery for the community andenable NOMAG to include more fresh vegetables in deliveries, inaddition to distributing plants for community members to raise intheir own gardens. Eventually, they will include additional projectssuch beekeeping, growing mushrooms, and sharing cooperativeneighborhood chicken coops.
Butthey are also part of a larger transformative vision of creatingcommunity resiliency and self-sufficiency through neighborhood foodproduction. The hope is that the gardens will be the beginning of adense network of politically engaged community gardens, orchards, andfarms, dispersed throughout the city’s neighborhoods.
Thegoal of establishing a network of community-controlled projects invacant lots is not only to make good use of abandoned space. Its aimis also to create a strong basis for autonomous food production, forneighborhood survival, and for community self-determination. Vacantspace in historic neighborhoods of New Orleans is prey for the kindpredatory development that is epitomized by the viral epidemic ofAirbnb’s that has plagued much of the city. Building neighborhoodpower—from the ground up—will make possible deep-rootedresistance to this exploitation.
It seems best toconclude with a description of how NOMAG sees itself. Here is the wayone collective member sums up the Group’s mission and action:
We practice mutualaid as opposed to more institutional and static forms of charitybecause we have found this tactic to allow for the spontaneity andflexibility to change course and adapt our practices as thecomplexity of crises reveal themselves. As the pandemic shut down theworld economy, we saw not just a drastic need for material supportthat the state would predictably fail to adequately provide, but theneed for networks and groups who could link together and supportwildcat strikes, eviction defense, and find new ways to protest. Thissituation requires not only material resources, but fluid andadaptable militancy. We came together loosely affiliated by socialand political tendencies, but we deepen our solidarity to each otherwith each passing week of sustained action.
Forcontact and support:
LobeliaCommons email: firstname.lastname@example.org(to request plant delivery)
LobeliaCommons phone: 504-345-8097(text to request plant delivery)
NOMAGon Venmo: @nolamutualaid
LobeliaCommons on Venmo: @lobeliacommons
NOMAGon Twitter: @nolamutualaid
LobeliaCommons on Twitter: @lobeliacommons
NOMAGon Instagram: @nolacovid19mutualaid
LobeliaCommons on Instagram: @lobeliacommon
1“Disaster Anarchism: Hurricane Katrina and the Shock ofRecognition” (Ch. 8) in TheImpossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism(New edition forthcoming from PM Press).
John P. Clark is a philosopher, activist, and educator. He lives and works in New Orleans, where his family has been for twelve generations. He is director of La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, located on Bayou La Terre in the forest of coastal Mississippi. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including The Anarchist Moment; Anarchy, Geography, Modernity; and The Impossible Community. He writes a column for the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism and edits the cyberjournal Psychic Swamp: The Surregional Review. He was formerly Curtin Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University.
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