Mutual Aid for Collective Wellbeing

by Joshua Potash

What does utopia mean to you? Is it important to you to keep the idea of utopia in mind, the goal of a utopian world in mind while you do your work?

Basically, yes. I think it’s so important to keep the idea of utopia in mind while doing mutual aid work. For one thing, without a long term vision of working towards a better world your work stays rooted in the present. What that can look like is taking real and meaningful steps to help folks in the moment, but not creating systems that will make your work unnecessary. In other words it’s one thing to give folks food and clothing, it’s a very different thing to build a world where people do not need to come to you for food and clothing. And each little mutual aid group, or a big mutual aid group, can’t overhaul our capitalist world so that poverty is eradicated, but keeping that post-capitalist utopian world in mind is vital so that you know what you’re working towards and are structuring your work so that it moves the world in that direction.

How can utopia be applied to push your work forward?

Yeah, I try to apply it and keep it in mind in multiple ways. The first is that in a utopian world people wouldn’t want for their basic needs, which to me means that all mutual aid that provides people with what they need to survive, at no cost of course, is already making the world a little bit more utopian. But that’s just the beginning, I think the next big way I and a lot of other folks practicing mutual aid apply the idea of utopia is that engaging with mutual aid starts to change minds and behaviors. People who get into it start to shift from a more capitalist mentality of everything having a price tag and needing to be sold for profit to a mindset of giving and gifting and solidarity. You give when you have and you take care of your neighbors. Then in your time of need your community will take care of you, if you build a really robust mutual aid network and mentality in your neighborhood or area or city etc. That mindset sounds a lot more like the utopia I envision - neighbors taking care of each other because that’s just what we do, not looking for how to profit from the encounter.

Let’s go back to basics for a sec, for anyone who isn’t familiar, what is mutual aid and how would you define it?

So Dean Spade, who wrote a great book called Mutual Aid, has a short definition where he says, “Mutual aid is the radical act of caring for each other while working to change the world.” From that starting point, where we can already see how applying utopia is highly relevant to the work, we can begin to differentiate mutual aid from charity, which is I think the biggest confusion about what mutual aid is. A lot of good people do a lot of charity, which helps a lot of people and does a lot of the “caring for each other” component. But charity does not work to fundamentally change the world, neither are most charity organizations seeking to do that. But mutual aid is. So that means mutual aid should always incorporate political education, meaning people should be engaging in conversations and reading and have that as a core part of their program. And, that sharing of resources should also be differentiated from charity. Mutual aid should of course be mutual, which I think of as a community helping itself, and building the capacity to help itself, not one group or one community helping a different, separate community.

What is the relationship between mutual aid and Utopia?

Given the last two questions and answers I think we can see that mutual aid can be one major part of working towards a more utopian society. We may never get there, but with this idea of applied utopia we start to build the muscles and networks and practices and ideas of both having a more utopian and caring world right here and now, and building capacity to change the world systemically for the better.

How do you hold the fact that our current dystopia is what requires people to engage in mutual aid while you pursue a better world?

This is tough. A lot of mutual aid arises because conditions are so bad. That’s why the early pandemic saw a million groups suddenly spring into existence. So the way I reckon with it is that it takes what it takes basically. When everyone is comfortable, no one really wants to build a more utopian world. Things could be going wrong all over, but if people are cut off from the problems of the world they rarely want to change it. So for me I often mourn that things seemingly had to be so bad for more folks to do mutual aid and organize, but I think we owe it to ourselves and the future generations to transform horrible conditions into a better world.

Would there be mutual aid in your Utopia? Would it be necessary?

That’s a tough question. In the truest definition of utopia, or the historical definition, I don’t know if there would be. Everyone would have everything they need without this extra layer of people needing to do more to take care of one another, I think. But I like this “applied utopia” idea because to me it implies that we’re never going to reach the “no place” of fictional stories. Instead we can try to create a more utopian society here and now. And in that sort of utopia, the one we can work towards and might actually see, I think the whole society might look a whole lot like a mutual aid network: everyone in a community working together to take care of the community. When someone falls ill or gets older the whole community provides for them, as they provided for others when they were healthier or younger etc. I can’t say that I know exactly what the answer is, but yeah I suspect mutual aid would be a mentality and a practice very deeply embedded in any more utopian society we might actually see.