Mutual Aid groups and Covid-19: a grassroots demand for social insurance

Puru Miah sees the flowering of Mutual Aid groups as a signal for a new form of social insurance that includes a universal basic income

Mutual Aid Groups are a grassroots initiative filling the gaps left by a decade of austerity and the gutting of local public authorities. These groups are creating a new grassroots movement and vision for Community Wealth based around social insurance. It shows the spirit of human resilience but ultimately it is an indictment of a failed state in the sixth richest economy of the world.

“There is no such thing as society”

Margaret Thatcher, 31st October 1987

When the Covid-19 crisis first broke, I dreaded as a local councillor how we would cope with the crisis. Local councils are classed as first responders under the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act; therefore, not only are they expected to deal with the Covid-19 emergency, but manage the emergency in the context of a decade of austerity and cutbacks to capacity. One of the depressing aspects of being a councillor is the annual ritual of delivering a fresh round of cuts to public services at the Council Budget Meeting. It was with this knowledge, in a near failed state scenario, that I readied myself to face the emergency.

Then unexpectedly I witnessed the spontaneous creation of Covid-19 Mutual Aid Groups, not just in Tower Hamlets as a whole, but in individual wards. I decided to get involved and help facilitate and empower – not lead – residents in the Mutual Aid groups. From a small WhatsApp group, it grew to five groups with over 400 participants divided around social housing estates, with tasks and responsibilities parcelled out in turn to coordinators for individual roads and blocks of flats. Before the lockdown the group designed, printed and distributed to most of the households in the ward a leaflet with numbers of key stakeholders, including faith organisations, Tenants & Residents Associations and local shopkeepers who were willing to deliver groceries to the doors of residents who were self-isolating. One of the groups is now setting up its own food bank and discussing how to maintain community cohesion through virtual community activities.

The Mutual Aid group is closely working with a local social landlord in rolling out help to tackle ‘data poverty’ in the lockdown. Many families are expected to work and access services and their children are expected to do their school work from home. The lockdown has highlighted inequalities at home, including data poverty. For example, not all children at home have access to videos their teachers are sending. Due to a lack of access to the internet, they are falling behind. Working with the social landlord, the Mutual Aid group is distributing forms and helping to identify families who need support in terms of laptops and internet access.

Working with the local Mutual Aid groups, volunteers and local stakeholders made reality that society does exist, and that the politics of hope will always overcome apathy or cynicism. As George Orwell wrote when living in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War:

“….One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship and not as in most countries for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.”

Being an observer, it was like witnessing the spirit of human cooperation in a time of crisis, outlined first by the 19th century thinker Peter Kropotkin, who first introduced the term “mutual aid” into the political lexicon. But for me the impulse and motivation behind people’s enthusiasm for Mutual Aid groups goes beyond Kropotkin, to the 18th century radical Englishman-turned-American Revolutionary, Thomas Paine.

In 1797 Thomas Paine published his pamphlet, ‘Agrarian Justice’. In the pamphlet, Paine outlines the idea of universal social insurance – its mechanism as well as its philosophical underpinnings. Universal social insurance as a means of tackling poverty and inequality was an alternative to two extremes. At one end was the degrading means-tested Poor Laws of his native England, and at the other the proposal to abolish private property in revolutionary France. Social insurance was a solution that was compatible with individual liberty, universal dignity, equal democratic citizenship and distributive justice.

What Paine realised over 220 years ago, and what the participants of these Mutual Aid Groups have realised in a spontaneous and subconscious manner, is that our civil liberties and property rights are contingent on the universal wellbeing of every member of our community. Our wellbeing is linked to the wellbeing of our neighbour, a fact brought into stark reality by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Given the nature of the pandemic, many of us will fall ill. All of us will be unable to function normally for a substantial period of this pandemic, either falling ill ourselves, or looking after our loved ones who have fallen ill. Therefore the Mutual Aid group provides a network of support to ensure that no one suffers unnecessarily, and is entitled to the collective effort of the community, either through physical capital (help with purchasing food and shopping) or through social capital (volunteers willing to deliver the food and shopping).

Paine’s underlying argument behind social insurance is that as property owners we are not entitled to the underlying value of natural resources, which we did not produce but simply took for ourselves. To compensate for this appropriation, we owe a rent to everyone else. Two hundred and twenty years later, the same applies to modern day property owners. Our property rights (in the modern sense) benefit from the underlying value of a healthy and prosperous community.

As the Covid-19 crisis deepens in terms of deaths and economic fallout, it will test both front-line public services in terms of resources, but it will also test the resolve of the Mutual Aid movement in filling the gaps left by a public sector gutted by a decade of austerity. I am also aware that many parts of Tower Hamlets and the country are not fortunate in either having an active Mutual Aid group, or one with a comprehensive coverage in terms of volunteers or logistics. The fact that Mutual Aid groups are needed and are being called upon to fill in the gaps left by austerity is an indictment, not a celebration, of the state of our society today. As Clement Atlee said:

“Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.”

Only time will tell whether the Mutual Aid movement can convert itself into a sustainable grassroots movement for a sustainable universal social insurance. The increasing calls and realisation about the necessity of Universal Basic Income are hopeful signs.

This is reinforced through my experience of working with volunteers in the Mutual Aid movement locally, reminding me of Orwell’s observations in Homage to Catalonia:

“Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working class origin, all living at the same level and mingling in terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism.”

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