Since arriving on our shores this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has eroded Americans’ confidence in the ability of the government to perform its most basic functions. This loss of faith in the state has been accompanied by a renewed belief in the voluntary and reciprocal care of others, commonly referred to as mutual aid. Once relegated to pamphlets strewn about folding tables at a Food Not Bombs potluck, celebrations of mutual aid are now everywhere. Even the pages of The New York Times are adorned with endorsements of its transformative political potential, the idea that society might be redesigned bottom-up by such practices of magnanimity.

These displays of community care have indeed been vital throughout this time of bleeding. As the lockdowns have ravaged the American economy, existing inequalities have deepened. Millions of people have lost their employer-provided health insurance, and tens of millions have experienced food insecurity as food banks and professional charity operations have been stretched beyond their capacity.

In this grim context, the writer Rebecca Solnit has applauded the “creative and generous altruism” and “brilliant grassroots organizing” of our times, as have many others. She celebrates the volunteers who provide meals and groceries to the elderly and the infirm, emergency aid to undocumented immigrants and sex workers, and free musical entertainment from apartment balconies. Others, like the anarchist attorney and law professor Dean Spade, have encouraged mutual aid work that is at once antagonistic and an alternative to welfare administrators who measure worthiness according to formal criteria before doling out assistance. Across the liberal-left expanse, mutual aid is on everyone’s lips and in every extended hand.

But members of our crowd aren’t the only ones extolling the virtues of mutual aid. For decades now—and especially since the pandemic started—libertarians and conservatives from organizations like the Heritage Foundation and writers for National Review have commended care provided by those other than the state. Like their counterparts on the left, these groups have advanced an understanding of mutual aid not as a tactic alone but as a vision for remaking society.

Though ideologically distinct, many on the left and the right now share a hope that mutual aid can overcome poverty and rigid class divisions through spontaneous, organic relationships rather than beginning from plans for serious structural reform. For instance, Brooklyn-based efforts have been lauded for the cross-class mingling among people like tech workers and out-of-work restaurant workers that has come to define care networks in gentrified neighborhoods. And while the characterization of mutual aid as solidarity, not charity, stands in stark contrast with the conservative faith in tax havens that masquerade as philanthropy, the two converge on critiques of the government’s capacity to provide for the many.

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