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Mutual Aid - From Guilds, To Networks, To the Next Social Safety Net

Mutual Aid - From Guilds, To Networks, To the Next Social Safety Net

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Published by Anya Kamenetz
From a book proposal by Anya Kamenetz, written originally in 2007.
From a book proposal by Anya Kamenetz, written originally in 2007.

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Published by: Anya Kamenetz on Apr 17, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Mutual Aid: From Guilds, to Networks, to the Next Social Safety Net
 When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the city where I went to high school andwhere my parents still live, I was a continent away in San Francisco, and terrified. Thenews media was depicting full societal breakdown, the war of all against all: looting, arson,withdrawal-crazed addicts roaming the streets. The chief of police was forced to step downafter he went on national television and repeated hysterical and since-debunked rumors of small children being raped inside the Superdome.There couldn't be a bigger contrast with the firsthand accounts I got later. While mayhemand fear certainly existed in the flooded city, so did solidarity and cooperation. Anacquaintance told of the excitement and camaraderie among a group of friends andneighbors stranded by floodwaters on the second floor of an apartment complex. Theyrescued dogs and made sorties by makeshift raft to local supermarkets to bring food, water,medicine and diapers to people awaiting rescue. "It was the best days of my life," he toldme with no irony.Community is a neutered word nowadays. In the stale intellectual landscape of contemporary politics, there are two great fonts from which solutions to social problemsare thought to flow. Liberals idolize the government and conservatives, individual interest(as pursued through the free market). Neither side has much to say about cooperative power beyond the utterly platitudinous.Over the past three decades, true, mutual aid has played a vanishing role in the life of theaverage American. But human societies have always nurtured, and been nurtured by, thisthird type of institution. Until now, this story has been told only in parts and particulars.
 Mutual Aid: From Guilds, to Networks, to the Next Social Safety Net 
gives the fullnarrative--the history of a social technology. It moves from the early history of mutual aidaround the world, to its unique historical role in America, to the new forms and possibilities arising now.Mutual aid is a universal human impulse. In New Orleans, for over a hundred years, SocialAid and Pleasure Clubs have served as neighborhood meeting places, philanthropicorganizations, burial societies, and musical marching clubs that strut their stuff on MardiGras, St. Joseph's Day, or whenever it's time for a party.
Whether guild or labor union, religious or ethnic society, producer or consumercooperative, crew or brotherhood or club, mutual aid societies are the embodiment of thatimpulse. You saw it spontaneously after Katrina; you see it today in the 70-odd stillparading Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and in a host of renewed neighborhoodorganizations after the storm.
For millennia, people have banded together to provide eachother with every social benefit: health care, pensions, unemployment aid, investmentcapital, buying power, aid to the poor, disaster relief, old age care, child care, culture,entertainment, political efficacy, education, food, shelter, professional training andstandards, and livelihoods. They have also leveraged their numbers to elicit some of these
same benefits from those other two great institutions, business and the government. Mutualaid extends the bonds of kinship and makes individuals into citizens.These groups prefigure most functions of the modern state. They are at least as old asarmies, but their mission is life, not death.
Beginning in southern India around 800 AD, anetwork of merchants' societies known as the Ayyavole 500 spread as far as Sri Lanka,Burma and Sumatra. The merchants agreed to cooperate and abide by an honorabledharma, or code of conduct. They sponsored trade fairs, established charities and paidtribute to local rulers. The Ayyavole name became a brand associated with high qualityproducts and fair dealings for over 500 years.In the 1891 history
Two Thousand Years of Gild Life
, the social reformer Rev. JosephMalet Lambert described the rules of guilds in ancient Rome, Anglo-Saxon England, andmedieval Persia. Many of these societies united people by livelihood, some werereligious cults, and others were locality-based, but they had several commoncharacteristics across cultures: regular contributions by members; bonds of fellowshipconfirmed by an oath or promise and reinforced by regular feasts and drinking parties;rules for preserving courtesy and order; and interestingly, most often, burial assistance.Beyond these basic attributes, the "gilds" were flexible, allowing for, as Lambert wrote,"the application of the fellowship or association to the most pressing need of the societyof the day, whether mutual insurance against theft or fire, facilitation of trade, or in animperfectly organized society, for purposes of police." Even groups of English pirates inthe 18
century contributed part of their booty into a common fund to provide paymentsat the all-too-common loss of life or limb.In this country, mutual aid found a new place and purpose. The rise of America'sunprecedented multicultural democracy, broad middle class, and global economic poweris directly tied to the rise of intermediary mutual aid institutions, most famously but notalone the labor union. In Northeastern cities during colonial times, master craftsmen and journeymen in dozens of trades formed "friendly societies," which became politicallyactive in the fight for independence. During the Jeffersonian era these organizations grewand provided a full range of social benefits to their members, including death benefits towidows, assistance to the ill and unemployed, loans and credits, and libraries. They alsohelped establish a high standard of craftsmanship, a minimum wage for their work, andsettle disputes among members. As America industrialized and urbanized, mutual aidhelped maintain our humanity. Historian David Montgomery writes, "Workers created awide variety of institutions, all of them infused with a spirit of mutuality. Through theirfraternal orders, cooperatives, reform clubs, political parties, and trade unions, Americanworkers shaped a collectivist counter-culture in the midst of the growing factory system."
When we think of mutual aid in America, we most often think of unions. The phrase"labor history" invokes sepia-toned images of the late 19th and early 20th centuries –sitdown strikes, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the successful fights againstchild labor and for the eight-hour day. The heroic image is true to a point, but to depictlabor in an unbroken march to victory and self-induced obsolescence is to mangle thefacts. Three separate times in the 19th century, national unions built hundreds of thousands of members only to be quashed by economic panics and political repression.Two of the most significant national organizations, the Knights of Labor (which claimedas many members as all of America's churches in the 1880s) and the Industrial Workersof the World, were put down with the help of federal action. Just as they are today, thehaves were always ready to scorn the "levellers, mob, dirty-shirt party, tag, rag, andbobtail, and ringstreaked speckled rabble."Ironically, America’s collectivist counterculture met its ultimate match in the New Deal.Union leaders, representing mainly skilled, industrial, white, native-born, male workers,accepted establishment status in exchange for pulling up the ladder for all who came afterthen. The "tuxedo unionist" was born along with the corrupt image that dogs unions tothis day. More fundamentally for this story, the New Deal transferred many large socialfunctions from the old mutual aid institutions to the federal government, usurping powerfrom the grassroots. In the 1940s, the further development of the employer-based healthcare and pension system tied Americans’ social welfare to the goodwill of businessexecutives. The Great Society programs of the 1960s accelerated these changes. As aresult of all these changes, America's workers, poor and elderly received much moreassistance than in the past, but in exchange they became clients of the government andemployer rather than true agents of their own and their fellows' destinies.For a variety of well-documented reasons, participation in mutual social institutions of alltypes, especially unions, has been sliding for two generations. “Since the early 1970s, thebalance of power in American society has shifted in favor of business and away fromworkers,” writes labor journalist David Moberg. “This shift is arguably the mostimportant change in American society during the period.” By no means coincidentally,our social safety net has also disintegrated since that time. The health care system andprivate pensions; Social Security and Medicare; K-12 and higher education; even thebasics, like infrastructure and credit; if it's a social benefit it's in an economic andpolitical crisis right now.
America produces the wealth to deliver these benefits, but it is going instead into private pockets. With the collapse of organized labor, our economy has reverted to a model not

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Michael Carder added this note
Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Hope the book includes the work of rebecca solnit who reached same conclusions about human instinct for cooperation in catastrophes. Be nice too, and would strengthen the argument, to take story back beyond 'history' to the roots. As Kropotkin pointed out, cooperation is a universal principle and is what enabled species to survive and ecologies to emerge. And all
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