A declaration of interdependence
Image: Annie Spratt | UnsplashHumans are innately social beings who often thrive best in groups. However, Western societies are seeing a rise of individualism – and the attendant problems it brings. The coronavirus pandemic and the consequent loss of community interaction has exacerbated this situation. Can following the principles of mutual aid be a way of reversing this trend?
by Martin Oliver
We are living in confusing times. The arrival of COVID-19 has encouraged people to take opposing positions on a number of issues, and this has been accompanied by political polarisation, especially towards the far-right. In some countries particularly, a libertarian-oriented mistrust of governments runs rampant, and given their track record, some of these misgivings are justified.

The coronavirus has also shone a spotlight on the issue of unrestricted individual freedoms, which have become a hot-button issue in relation to the ongoing lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney. However, individual freedoms only really work when they are weighed against responsibilities and the idea of a wider social good.

Individualism and community are at polar opposites, and a healthy balance lies somewhere between the two. On this continuum, Australia is a fairly individualistic country, with a tendency to be averse to collective action. This spills over into politics, where it is commonly thought by politicians that voters are more preoccupied with the hip pocket than with advancing the broader national interest. In contrast, a region such as continental Europe is more community-directed, with more emphasis on collective goals.
  
In one of his poems, the English poet John Donne, said, ‘"No man is an island.” Humans are innately social beings who often thrive best in groups, and this can tie in with neotribalism, a relatively modern term for a shift towards a more communal living orientation. A maximum community size for meaningful social engagement has been calculated to be around 150 people. This is known as 'Dunbar's number', first put forward by anthropologist Robin Dunbar in 1992, based on primate observations.
  
Comparatively recently, the tribal social unit has been atomised into families, and now increasingly into lone individuals, which on an evolutionary timescale is an unprecedented historical aberration. Additionally, being alone, and therefore less resilient than in a group, can bring more challenges than just loneliness. People who live by themselves pay more in rent and bills than when accommodation is shared. As individuals who do not belong to unions, workers have no collective bargaining power, and can be forced by employers to accept casual or zero-hours employment conditions.

Another form of individualism is the one mediated by screens that many people spend too much time watching. Furthermore, digital escapism, whether it involves streaming entertainment, gaming, virtual reality, or social media, has the effect of weakening the connections in physical communities. Engagement in community activities has been falling, a phenomenon that was previously noticed decades earlier with the arrival of television. Inevitably, COVID-19 lockdowns have further challenged communities, with in-person gatherings and gigs cancelled, bars sometimes closed, and with hugs frowned on in a socially distanced world. Whether COVID vaccines will sufficiently curb the spread of the virus to allow these places to reopen in hotspot areas is a key question, at a time when their performance against new variants is waning.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ALTRUISM
In the 17th century, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicted humans as being fundamentally selfish beings who required civilisation in order to restrain their base impulses. A century later, Scottish economist Adam Smith proposed a capitalist 'enlightened' self-interest as a means of distributing resources. Also in a capitalist vein, in the mid-20th century, right-wing author and philosopher Ayn Rand declared herself to be an opponent of altruism while championing selfishness, which to her mind resembled Smith's self-interest under capitalism. Then in 1976, Richard Dawkins used his book The Selfish Gene to outline the reductionist idea that human behaviour is no more than an evolutionary strategy being acted out by one's genes.

Since its publication, scientific enthusiasm for Dawkins' ideas has waned, as studies are tending to reinforce the notion that people are innately altruistic. This may originate from tribal units, where cooperation is necessary for group projects such as hunting, gathering, and ensuring group safety.

This altruistic territory has been described by British journalist and author George Monbiot as the 'politics of belonging.' A few years ago, he drew attention to the results of a survey of people living in the UK, released by the Common Cause Foundation in 2015. While 74 per cent identified with unselfish values, 78 per cent believed that other people were more selfish than themselves. The predominance of negative news in the media may be creating a jaundiced perception of society that portrays it in an excessively negative light, and may also discourage translating these altruistic sentiments into positive action.
  
One important consideration with altruism is that it thrives in an atmosphere of abundance, and tends to shrivel in a climate of scarcity that foments meanness. In the modern world, a key driver of scarcity is the debt-based money system that drives competition. Among the remedies for this are complementary currency systems that are characterised by sufficiency rather than scarcity.

Being cooperative in a purely competitive society is potentially a recipe for disaster. However, it is possible for groups to create supportive bubbles of trust and cooperation within this milieu, where the regular rules do not apply. This can be in form of a wide range of grassroots mutual aid networks.
MUTUAL AID
An instructive story is the Parable of the Long Spoons, often attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, a town in Lithuania. A man is taken on a tour by an angel, who opens a door and shows him Hell. This is a place where a group of people are sitting around a large bowl of vegetable stew, each holding long spoons, and in a starving condition. They pick up the stew, but are unable to feed themselves, instead spilling it on the ground. Then the man is shown Heaven, where the set-up is the same but everyone is happy and well-fed. The man asks the angel why, and is told that they have learned to feed one another.

The term 'mutual aid' was first popularised by Peter Kropotkin, a Russian philosopher and anthropologist in his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. This work drew on examples of cooperative behaviour from animal and human communities.

In 2020, COVID-19 quarantining prompted an outpouring of mutual aid organising, especially in the UK, where many people had not previously heard of the term . Activities include helping people out with basic needs such as shopping, collecting prescriptions, and dog-walking.
  
A 'long spoons' principle can be applied more widely to mutual aid structures where power is shared horizontally rather than being exerted hierarchically in a top-down fashion. Initiatives running along these lines often represent a means of ameliorating an existing problem, and may represent a working alternative to the market economy. Some examples include:

  • Friendly Societies. In Australia, these cooperative institutions were founded in the 19th century, at a time when neither Centrelink nor Medicare existed. Members would make a weekly contribution, and would be supported if a misfortune meant that they could no longer work. Friendly Societies also ran their own hospitals and pharmacies.
  • Business cooperatives, and platform cooperatives which operate via a high-tech medium.
  • Housing cooperatives, which can offer advantages to renting on the open market.
  • Community Land Trusts, which enable housing to be constructed more cheaply than usual because the trust continues to own the land on which it is built.
  • Intentional communities such as ecovillages, which have strong interpersonal bonds, and shared activities, including eating, celebrations, and ceremonies.
  • LETS systems. Local Exchange Trading Systems involve community trading of products and services using points, and making use of both positive and negative balances.
  • Timebanking involves a similar type of trading to LETS, but is limited to services, and the unit of exchange is an hour of time.
  • Barter groups, operating on Facebook and elsewhere.
  • Freecycle, and other similar online give-away groups. In addition to saving participants money, they also divert waste from landfill.
  • Repair Cafés, where non-functioning items are brought along to be fixed by experts, and new repair skills are acquired. These events are a challenge to the culture of planned obsolescence. Similar are Restart Parties, where electronic items are repaired, although they are currently limited to Europe.
  • Libraries of Things. Owning an item that is rarely used can be a hassle, and a Library of Things has a range of stuff to be lent out for a modest cost. This liberates storage space, saves money, and reduces impact on the environment because fewer items need to be manufactured.
  • Gift economies in general, which are important to the social fabric of traditional cultures, and can also work in modern consumer societies too.
  • Food Not Bombs, a group that started in the US, and has spread to several other countries. It involves setting up kitchens in public places where anyone can eat free vegan or vegetarian food.
A REALLY REALLY FREE MARKET
Every month, in the northern New South Wales city of Lismore, a crowd of people turn up, put cloths down on the ground, and proceed to lay out a range of secondhand items to give away unconditionally to anyone who wants them. This is the Really Really Free Market, one of several such events occurring in Australia, and other countries including the United States.

It would perhaps be simpler to donate the items to an op shop, although this has its shortcomings. These places are often overrun with stuff, and too much of it sadly finds its way into the garbage.
Some op shops are closed following COVID-19, others are declining to accept certain types of donation, and some people on very low incomes can find themselves unable to afford the prices.

A Really Really Free Market is money-free, and doubles up as a social gathering that builds community. It represents a working example of a gift economy, defying those people who think that it is too idealistic to exist in today's world. One regular visitor is Jo Nemeth, a local woman who has been living entirely without money for the past six years, and for whom the monthly market is an important opportunity to pick up items she needs. She shares her journey on Facebook at Jo LowImpact.
GET INSPIRED
One theme running through many of these mutual aid initiatives is an inclusive, creative, and inspiring energy that motivates other people to get on board. Behind the negative news headlines there are reasons to feel encouraged, even in the face of today's many challenges. Writing in The Age, Cielle Summy stated:

 "One of the lessons this pandemic has taught me is that it’s up to all of us to care enough about one another so our fear does not dictate what we become as a society." 

As the long spoons story shows, mutual aid is as a good starting point.
Image: Encants Vells| ShutterstockRESOURCES
About the author:
Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives
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