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+1 vote
So mutual aid is great. I do things, you do things, we both benefit. No problem. What about when one or both of us perceive the exchange to be unfair? Obviously this isn't a strictly measurable thing, but I don't think it's entirely an artifact of capitalism either. The extreme example is charity, where someone may be entirely unable to contribute. What mechanisms need to be cultivated to control the potential power flow in this situation?
by (610 points)

2 Answers

+1 vote
I don't know if this is the answer you're looking for, but I 'd argue that free association covers this.  As long as the participants are free to associate and dissassociate with each other they can address whatever power imbalances they perceive.  Obviously that's a bit all or nothing, but beyond maintaining the ability of all parties to freely engage or withdraw, it seems to me like creating other more refined mechanisms for addressing aysmetric power relations would be too specific and situational to apply as broadly as the question wants to.

I don't know why this didn't occur to me earlier, but it might be worth looking into the ideas of contemporary mutualist anarchists given that mutualism as it was originally conceived (iirc, please correct me if I'm wrong) was basically a way of eliminating the kind of imbalances in perceived contribution of value that we're talking about here, primarily by setting up markets whose currency would be labor-hours.  I don't know how much contemporary mutualists have addressed the general trashing of the labor theory of value (which the academic economics establishment exaggerates), and I'm not sure how much that matters, but it could be worth a look.
by (6.3k points)
edited by
Good points Yosemite.
i keep overlooking the obvious when it comes to free disassociation being an integral part of free association.
And hard and fast mechanisms bring the danger of inflexible Rules and then Laws - and we've all seen how that turns out.  :(
Though i wonder if mutual aid has to be all or nothing?  If someone's feeling put upon, could they scale back their gift to what the giver thinks is fair?  (broader social pressures bear here)  Or pick and choose which requests they respond to ?
hey cb - the way you're using "gift" is uncomfortable for me (which is fine, just sayin'... ;) ). i expect you're using it as short hand for who is getting more and who is giving more in any given interaction (pun not intended but accepted). but part of the point i think is that if mutual aid were more how people did things and *thought* about things, then this kind of *accounting*--for lack of a better word--wouldn't be how people addressed whether they were feeling burnt out or disgruntled or dissatisfied.
ie: mutual aid is not a bookkeeping system! :D

(yay etymology nerds!)
Dot:  A Link Is Not An Answer! ... :P  (just kidding)
The origin of the word from 'care, and esteem' is interesting, and suggests an origin closer to mutual aid that has been corrupted by  the Church over millenia.  Also that the entry for 'charity' directly references the entry for 'whore'!

And my use of 'gift' above was in the context of a one-way interaction, comparable to contemporary charity.  Not the true gift, freely given and freely accepted;  I was careless there, thanks for the poke it the ribs.
+5 votes
Maybe i'm reading this wrong, but mutual aid (as i understand it) isn't about 'exchange' - it is _not_ a barter relationship, it's more a gift relation (yes/no?).  The way you've worded the question sounds more like 'division of labor' than 'mutual aid', was that intentional or am i misreading it?

My experience is that a perception of scarcity can cause hard feelings when someone comes asking (though it varies a great deal with the individuals), but in abundance we are happy to share (when my garden produces more than i can use, i'm grateful to anyone who can use the excess rather than seeing it go to waste, i don't expect exchange or grovelling for it.)

Mutual aid and charity aren't bands on the same spectrum - they are entirely foreign concepts.  Your friends helping you shingle your roof is mutual aid; pasting a smile on your face and listening to some priests sermon to get a bowl of soup 'cause you haven't eaten in three days - that's charity.  Mutual aid is a handshake protocol; charity is a get-on-your-knees-and-pretend-to-be-worthy industrial complex.
You are absolutely right that charity is about power and domination, they are built right into the very fabric of the concept of charity.  Mutual aid is the conscious negation and rejection of domination and power; if it isn't, then we have fucked something up and need to start tearing shit down...
(There is a thought about dispossession and enforced scarcity feeding the domesticating industry of charity - but i haven't the wit to tease it out right now. :( )

'To each according to their needs, from each according to their means' (ok, i butchered that paraphrase).  If we see each other as human beings (or living beings, or...) deserving of respect for no other reason than their existence, and recognize that the only reason we have to bother to recognize that, is that our fucked up civilisation tries to break that mutual respect between individuals (the better to insinuate its agents and systems between us, see alienation and social conditioning... )

(does anyone know the origin of the word 'charity'?  Just curious.)
by (2.0k points)
I like this answer. Perhaps my thinking is clouded by living in such a capitalist society? So if people can interact either by barter or gift the natural thing to ask is are these two ends of a spectrum, or entirely distinct entities? And then, what conditions effect which one people choose?

Theory aside, I'm still bothered by the practical problem. Let's look at your "charity" example more closely. A priest has a surplus of food, and doesn't want you to starve. He also thinks his religion is a good idea. You're hungry. We'll assume that both your hearts are in the right place. There's still a serious danger of any relationship between you turning toxic, without vigilance. Looking at Yosemite's answer, you can phrase this as a failure of free association, but this just rephrases the problem. The lack of freedom seems forced by the circumstances. So, how do the two of you keep things from getting out of hand? I don't expect there to be easy or universal answers, but it would be nice to be more aware of my options.
The relation between you and the priest can't be mutual without the destruction of a whole lot of shit--perhaps most notably the priest himself. As you say, it is forced by the circumstances--hearts in place or not, his surplus is non-accidental, as is your scarcity. His religion not only perpetuates the surplus and scarcity through preaching submission to it, it also *is* this surplus. Religion is a congealed accumulation of food, land, etc, priests are functionaries who serve that accumulation. The system they serve doesn't somehow exist 'in spite' of their hearts being where they are supposed to be (presumably between their ribs) and beating--having no lifeforce of its own, it relies on those hearts to pump blood and move around and bring more shit into it.

Look at places where missionaries go and feed people--places that have been and are being targeted for accumulation. The people there are starving not because they aren't growing enough food to feed themselves--they are, but it is taken and exported and accumulated and then the charity people come from their religions, NGOs, whatever, with the deeply idiotic notion that they are giving something to people when in fact they are simply returning a remnant (a small, stripped, heavily processed remnant with an international aid logo or cross stamped on it) of what the system they serve has extracted from the  people, and then only as bait to lure them in to still greater extraction.

My point is that the practical problem has no a practical solution. You and the priest are not going to patch things up between yourselves and make it right. I wouldn't worry about your relationship turning toxic, I would assume it is polluted and rotten from the very start, and focus my mutualistic energies elsewhere.
anok - this comment is fucking awesome.
Whereever you find a food crisis, you'll find a bunch of  bastards with warehouses full of staples - withholding them to try to drive the local price higher.
I'll give Geom. the benefit of the doubt and presume the example of a priest was simply a convenient one, the principles are the same but the big bad Church is a lightning rod here.
Geom -  all our thinking is clouded by living in a capitalist world.  we spend our lives, from birth, swimming through social conditioning and propaghandi and corporate bullshit - it is boggling that we ever manage to glimpse daylight.  And yet here we are.

For gift vs. barter... hmm..  barter, as generally used today, is just a commercial exchange without g.i. currency or representative tokens - that is to say, ten pounds of copper ore for a bushel of salt cod... or a pound of C4 for a hundred rounds of 223... (depends on your immediate context.)  Gift, however, covers a broader context than is generally appreciated.  There is the intimate gift, among people you are familiar with and identify with - this is the personal gifts we all experience.  Then there is the gift-between-tribes (for lack of a better term at the moment), which is a gift between different groups who interact with each other, often influenced by cultural traditions (this is often described as 'trade' by anthopologists, because they're sometimes fucked up too).  Then there is the gift-on-the-end-of-a-bargepole, which is how peoples find a starting point with other people they aren't familiar with (and aren't trying to kill them at the moment [our fucking species sucks in some fundamental ways...]);  someone would leave a selection of items in a place in view of the other party, and wait (at a safe distance) for them to view the items and exchange some of the offered gifts for different items the other party felt were valuable, thus drawing a stranger into a gift-between-tribes, (and the mercantile mindset of the europeans who stumbled into this protocol completely fucked it up too).