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Orleans, the city where I went to high school and where my parents still live, I was a continent away in San Francisco, and terrified. The news 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 down after 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 mayhem and fear certainly existed in the flooded city, so did solidarity and cooperation. An acquaintance told of the excitement and camaraderie among a group of friends and neighbors stranded by floodwaters on the second floor of an apartment complex. They rescued 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 told me 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 problems are 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 the average American. But human societies have always nurtured, and been nurtured by, this third 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 full narrative--the history of a social technology. It moves from the early history of mutual aid around 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, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs have served as neighborhood meeting places, philanthropic organizations, burial societies, and musical marching clubs that strut their stuff on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph's Day, or whenever it's time for a party. Whether guild or labor union, religious or ethnic society, producer or consumer cooperative, crew or brotherhood or club, mutual aid societies are the embodiment of that impulse. You saw it spontaneously after Katrina; you see it today in the 70-odd still parading Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and in a host of renewed neighborhood organizations after the storm. For millennia, people have banded together to provide each other with every social benefit: health care, pensions, unemployment aid, investment capital, buying power, aid to the poor, disaster relief, old age care, child care, culture, entertainment, political efficacy, education, food, shelter, professional training and standards, 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. Mutual aid 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 as armies, but their mission is life, not death. Beginning in southern India around 800 AD, a network 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 honorable dharma, or code of conduct. They sponsored trade fairs, established charities and paid tribute to local rulers. The Ayyavole name became a brand associated with high quality products and fair dealings for over 500 years. In the 1891 history Two Thousand Years of Gild Life, the social reformer Rev. Joseph Malet Lambert described the rules of guilds in ancient Rome, Anglo-Saxon England, and medieval Persia. Many of these societies united people by livelihood, some were religious cults, and others were locality-based, but they had several common characteristics across cultures: regular contributions by members; bonds of fellowship confirmed 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 society of the day, whether mutual insurance against theft or fire, facilitation of trade, or in an imperfectly organized society, for purposes of police." Even groups of English pirates in the 18th century contributed part of their booty into a common fund to provide payments at the all-too-common loss of life or limb. In this country, mutual aid found a new place and purpose. The rise of America's unprecedented multicultural democracy, broad middle class, and global economic power is directly tied to the rise of intermediary mutual aid institutions, most famously but not alone the labor union. In Northeastern cities during colonial times, master craftsmen and journeymen in dozens of trades formed "friendly societies," which became politically active in the fight for independence. During the Jeffersonian era these organizations grew and provided a full range of social benefits to their members, including death benefits to widows, assistance to the ill and unemployed, loans and credits, and libraries. They also helped establish a high standard of craftsmanship, a minimum wage for their work, and settle disputes among members. As America industrialized and urbanized, mutual aid helped maintain our humanity. Historian David Montgomery writes, "Workers created a wide variety of institutions, all of them infused with a spirit of mutuality. Through their fraternal orders, cooperatives, reform clubs, political parties, and trade unions, American workers 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 against child labor and for the eight-hour day. The heroic image is true to a point, but to depict labor in an unbroken march to victory and self-induced obsolescence is to mangle the facts. 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 claimed as many members as all of America's churches in the 1880s) and the Industrial Workers of the World, were put down with the help of federal action. Just as they are today, the haves were always ready to scorn the "levellers, mob, dirty-shirt party, tag, rag, and bobtail, 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 after then. The "tuxedo unionist" was born along with the corrupt image that dogs unions to this day. More fundamentally for this story, the New Deal transferred many large social functions from the old mutual aid institutions to the federal government, usurping power from the grassroots. In the 1940s, the further development of the employer-based health care and pension system tied Americans’ social welfare to the goodwill of business executives. The Great Society programs of the 1960s accelerated these changes. As a result of all these changes, America's workers, poor and elderly received much more assistance than in the past, but in exchange they became clients of the government and employer rather than true agents of their own and their fellows' destinies. For a variety of well-documented reasons, participation in mutual social institutions of all types, especially unions, has been sliding for two generations. “Since the early 1970s, the balance of power in American society has shifted in favor of business and away from workers,” writes labor journalist David Moberg. “This shift is arguably the most important 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 and private pensions; Social Security and Medicare; K-12 and higher education; even the basics, like infrastructure and credit; if it's a social benefit it's in an economic and political 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
seen since the Gilded Age. The only type of mutual benefit association currently enjoying decided government favor, the corporation, has become the winner that takes all. The decline of organized labor is associated with a litany of economic ills: wage stagnation, rising inequality, longer hours, greater insecurity, heavier workloads, and more stress. On Labor Day 2007, the UN reported that American workers were the hardest working and most productive in the world; yet despite an astonishing 20% productivity growth since 2000, wages for the median worker grew just 3% over the same time period. The truth of social isolation and the fraying social safety net is a harsh one. The historical model of mutual aid provides a surprising alternative. As it happens, we are living in a golden age of collective energy and power thanks to the Internet. The values and pleasures of association, fellowship, and participation are all flourishing online. Livelihoods are generated collectively on the Internet too: eBay is the second largest employer in the country, with nearly a million people making their living as independent online merchants in a kind of 21st century guild. Their success depends on the trust generated by the rules and values of their association. The business world takes the collective creation of value very seriously. The cutting edge of New Economy business theory is all about how companies can capture the awesome power of mass participation for their own profit. Bestselling books describe this phenomenon as “The Wisdom of Crowds” or “The Wealth of Networks.” As consultant Don Tapscott, a top advisor to Fortune 50 companies, puts it in his bestselling book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, " “new communications technologies are democratizing the creation of value.” Every company, he says, needs a strategy for harnessing this kind of emergent human capital power . Networks of people acting over the Internet for no reason other than to express themselves, amuse themselves or connect with others are already creating value, nearly effortlessly. The affinity groups on large social networks like Facebook are comparable to the “friendly societies” of the 18th century. But online networks have only rarely been tapped by individuals for the creation and exchange of practical, immediate benefits – other than very the important one of information. Now social leaders are asking, why shouldn’t we use this emergent value to help ourselves, and each other? For the past year I have been working as a journalistic fellow with an organization that points the way toward a new future of mutual aid: networks formed by social entrepreneurs and maintained by members, using technology. The Freelancers Union was conceived as the first step toward a "New New Deal," or new social safety net, that fits the way Americans live and work today. It currently has upwards of 60,000 members and provides health care at group rates to 17,000 freelancers in New York City. Through
the organization’s website, members connect online to exchange referrals, concerns, tricks of the trade and job opportunities. Currently the group is expanding health insurance to members in 30 states. The Freelancers Union is an example of another 21st century social innovation: social entrepreneurship. This is the deceptively simple idea of organizations that are run as efficiently and innovatively as businesses, perhaps with revenue generating activities or even at a profit, but serving social needs. In business, this is the next big thing. About 100 colleges and universities offer concentrations in the topic, up from just 17 in the mid-80s. The most successful social entrepreneurship organizations, like the Nobel Peace Prizewinning microlending program the Grameen Bank, fit the model of mutual aid societies —they rely on people participating for their own benefit as well as to help their communities. Long term, social entrepreneurs envision a new social safety net to replace the one that is disintegrating, delivered by a new breed of intermediaries. New unions and other types of nonprofit affinity groups can band together to deliver services such as pensions, unemployment insurance, and group health insurance. Unlike employers, the intermediaries of the 20th century social safety net, membership-supported nonprofits have a bigger chance of taking a long-term stake in their members' well-being – and 30% of the workforce and growing doesn't have a traditional employer relationship anyway. These new groups will have some characteristics of the old institutions, but will be more flexible and adapted to our less rooted way of life. They may unite people by type of work, neighborhood, heritage, or family status. They may fund their own projects through social entrepreneurship, or function as worker cooperatives. The new form of mutual aid has two complementary faces: the globally networked and the hyperlocal. Here are four more examples.
New Orleans: On many visits home, I have seen dozens of new neighborhood organizations start up – people helping each other with rebuilding, planning, and expressing their political voice. I've also seen this spirit in the efforts of hundreds of newcomers – dubbed Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals – who have come South from all over the country to clean up, educate, feed, offer health care, create job opportunities, and organize people to help themselves. And I've seen it on the block where my parents live, where neighbors have become friends. John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, a national urban planning and developers' trade organization, has been advising in the rebuilding process for the past two years. "One thing I think is really positive is that the neighborhood groups are involved in the planning effort,” he told me in an interview last year. “Recovery has to be neighborhood based and block by block."
Relocalization: Increasing numbers of people anticipate a total reorganization of our society arising from global warming and peak oil. In this context mutual aid means people cooperating to provide for needs locally, thus reducing energy use. The first wave of interest in economic localization, leading to the success of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Now, people are investing efforts in “relocalization” and “urban homesteading”—rebuilding their communities in very practical ways, such as tool exchanges, community supported agriculture programs, and even local currencies. There are 161 relocalization groups around the US. My book will describe practical models of mutual aid both in history and using technology and existing resources. Aging: In mid-August, the New York Times ran a story that was the #1 most emailed story for several days. It was about a nationwide movement of over 100 self-help communities of elderly people. Neighbors are forming nonprofits, volunteering to help neighbors and banding together to enlist local service providers. This enables people to age in place at a much lower cost than any other existing care scheme. The Netroots: After this year’s Yearly Kos convention, one of the lead stories was the idea of founding a union for professional bloggers to enable them to have access to health care and retirement as well as raise professional standards. It was covered by the AP, MSNBC, CBS News and others.
More and more people nationwide are participating in some form of mutual aid, whether a dumpster-dived salvaged food potluck, a benefit party to help a friend with a health care expense, a clothing swap, or a community garden. Growing numbers are getting together to provide themselves with common space, materials, and resources to work and make art. Check out the online crafts emporium Etsy.com, which has recently opened a 20,000 square foot workshop in Brooklyn (it seems that just as in the 18th and 19th century, the cordwainers and weavers have the jump in terms of cooperation!) People are using the site Prosper.com to lend money to each other at mutually-agreed upon rates, rather than use banks, and couchsurfing.com to find a place to stay as travelers instead of relying on hotels. Fostering the growth of mutual aid satisfies many political and cultural yearnings at once. We have a chance to move beyond old political debates and strengthen democracy by channeling people's energy into participation and efficacy. Conservatives have sought to strengthen churches as social institutions, and centers of worship do have an important place in the panoply of mutual aid societies. But they don't satisfy the full range of needs
for organization and political efficacy in a multicultural, non-theocratic democracy. Liberals are very vocal about the need to foster community, but too often we form organizations under duress around political grievance or "resistance," and we don't sustain them. Without rewarding self-interest through providing benefits, long-term continuity goes missing. And with a charity-based model of simply delivering benefits across class lines, populism is an empty, not an empowering, message. Unlike the prescription of government welfare benefits, which Americans seem to be hardwired against and which seem further out of reach than ever in the current atmosphere of fear and scarcity, mutual aid fosters competition and builds civic involvement and political constituencies. Unlike winner-take-all capitalism, labor market intermediaries create more winners than before. Mutual Aid tells the story not of a far-off revolution, but of an existing, evolving social technology with deep roots in human civilization.
Chapter Outline 1) World History of Mutual Aid. Guilds date back to the beginning of recorded history. They were found in Ancient Rome, Medieval India and Persia, and Anglo-Saxon England. In the 880s-890s, the Anglo-Saxon Laws of Alfred assumed membership in a guild for all adult men, as in the rule, “ if a man kinless of paternal relatives fight and slay a man and have maternal relatives, let them pay one third of the wer [penalty], his gild brethren a third. If he have no maternal relatives, let his gild pay half…” Mutual aid figures into philosophies of community and individual, the state and the market from Plato, Hobbes and Malthus, to Adam Smith, and Marx. Rev. Joseph Malet Lambert , the first major historian of the guild movement, was a prominent social reformer and education advocate in Hull, England, which was a center of guilds dating back to the 1400s—everyone from cobblers to shipwrights had their own halls. His work confronts the future of mutual aid during the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. 2) American History of Mutual Aid. The spirit of mutual aid in America dates back to Reverend John Winthrop’s 1630 “City on a Hill” sermon. He told his fellow Puritans: “Wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion, wee must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, wee must uphold a familiar
Commerce together in all meekenes, gentlenes, patience and liberallity, … allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke.” Most interesting are the times in American history when a full range of different social reforms, approaches and organizations flourished simultaneously. The colonial “friendly societies” of merchants and craftsmen provided for social needs and the rudiments of a democratic political culture. The “practical utopians” of the Jeffersonian era cooperative movement founded producer and consumer cooperatives to take capital power into the hands of the people. The “Age of Jackson” in the 1830s and 40s brought with it a diversity of trade and craft unions, political parties and rural associations called “America’s first labor movement. Philadelphia, with its Quaker influence, played host to an especially robust Working Men’s party, with charismatic and unusual leaders like Stephen Simpson, a poet and the son of a banker who developed radical social ideals at odds with his background. Intentional communities and communal living became popular in American society in the 19th, early and late 20th centuries. The Knights of Labor, the IWW and the AFL were three waves of social movement unionism that each rose and fell in their time— the 1880s, 1910s and 1930s. The populists and the Progressives in the early 20th century brought these ideals into federal policy for the first time, forever changing the role of workers’ organizations. 3) The Decline of Mutual Aid in America. Organized labor’s great compromise started with the New Deal and stretched to the Great Society, as the unions traded their adversarial stance for political standing and benefits programs. This was the heyday of cigar-chomping “Tuxedo unionists” like George Meany, father of the merged AFL-CIO, who identify in an unprecedented way with the state. “When [the Soviets] say I am an agent of Wall Street,” he said during the Cold War, “if they mean…that I am an agent of the American system—as far as I am concerned, I accept that.” Since that time, and for many reasons, membership in societies of all kinds has frayed, as famously chronicled in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Then, in the 1980s, we saw the conservative revolution, the decline of manufacturing and its union stronghold, and Reagan’s war on labor epitomized by the firing of the nation’s striking air-traffic controllers. Now we are in the age of the “disposable American,” the great fraying of the social safety net: from health care to elderly care to education to child care. 4) The New “Wealth of Networks.” The 2000s have brought the unprecedented creation of value collectively through global peer-to-peer technologies and social media. Those who have made their fortunes from this new “Web 2.0” technology
are taking very seriously the potential of mutual aid for social change. For example, Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll, the founder and first CEO of eBay, came to see that company as having the social mission of building trust in its community of buyers and sellers. Each went on to invest their billions in supporting social entrepreneurship and networks of social entrepreneurs—the Skoll Foundation and Omidyar Network—both of which rely on group action. "Time and time again, you see this outpouring from people once they're made aware they can do something," Skoll told me in an interview. Other examples of social (peer to peer) networks with mutual aid functions and effects are the Nobel Prize-winning Grameen Bank and the peer-to-peer lending site Prosper.com. Even purely social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn act like guilds in connecting people with jobs, support, and valuable information. A second face of mutual aid—call it the “wealth of the backyard”--is seen in the relocalization movement . Thousands of people in hundreds of towns and cities are figuring out how to fulfill basic needs within their communities in response to global warming and energy concerns. The local food movement is the first wave of this trend, which harks back to the old producer and consumer cooperatives of the 19th century—but with the Internet as a medium of exchanging information on the movement worldwide. Finally, this chapter goes to New Orleans. In the two years since the storm, recovery has been agonizingly slow. The failures of government are endless. The strength of people banding together to help each other, has been the one bright spot. Dozens of neighborhood organizations have either been formed or greatly expanded, even in the most devastated areas, and suddenly everyone knows the local city councilperson by name. "I knew my neighbors to wave to," before the storm, Karen Gadbois told me last fall. In 2005 she co-founded the Northwest Carrollton Civic Association and is now working tirelessly to get elderly neighbors back in their homes, shut out big-box stores, clean up garbage, and improve police response. Like the leaders of other neighborhood organizations, she uses online tools like blogs to help build her neighborhood network. Most recently, she has been taking pictures of houses that are on the city’s demolition list and posting them online in the hopes that people will recognize and rescue their homes.
5) The Freelancers Union and the New Social Safety Net. Labor lawyer Sara Horowitz was raised in the traditional left – her grandfather was vice president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, and her father was also a labor
lawyer. But she grew impatient with the old categories and old ways of thinking. An exceptional social entrepreneur, in 1995 she founded Working Today, now known as the Freelancers Union. She won a 1999 MacArthur Genius Grant for her work with the organization. The organization delivers benefits directly while it builds a constituency for broader change. While most members interact only online, using a blog and social networking tools, the group has regular meet-ups in cities nationwide and meetings with local politicians in New York to encourage political participation and the all-important value of fellowship. The Freelancers Union will be expanding nationwide throughout 2007 and 2008, creating new partnerships with political organizations and businesses, broadening both its political agenda and the benefits that it offers members. Leaders like Horowitz say some government reforms may be needed to encourage the growth of these networks. It requires halting the political war on organizing and organizers fomented by business conservatives and waged through the courts. Financially, the investment could be modest: perhaps a program of tax breaks and incentives for providing benefits similar to that now given to corporations, as well as access to low-cost capital for organizations providing a social benefit. But ultimately it will be up to social entrepreneurs to create the new mutual aid models, and individuals looking for both solutions and connections with others to sustain them.
References 1. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans … Kamenetz, Anya. “When the Levees Broke: Hurricane Katrina unravels the threads of a fragile New Orleans society.” Village Voice, 31 August 2005. 2. Beginning in southern India… D¯iksita, Ji. Es. Local bodies in medieval South India. Hospet : Dept. of Archaeology and Museums, Govt. of Karnataka, 2004. 3. In the 1891 history …Lambert, Joseph Malet.Two Thousand Years of Gild Life. Hull, England: A. Brown and sons, 1891. 4. In American society… Morris, Richard B. “The Emergence of American Labor.” A History of the American Worker. Ed. Richard Morris.Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, 1976. 5. Workers created a wide variety… David Montgomery. “Labor in the Industrial Era.” A History of the American Worker. Ed. Richard Morris. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, 1976.
6. “levellers, mob, dirty-shirt party,…” Pessen, Edward. “Builders of the Young Republic.” A History of the American Worker. Ed. Richard Morris. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, 1976. 7. Three separate times in the 19th century… Wilentz, Sean. “The Rise of the American Working Class, 1776-1877.” Perspectives on American Labor History: The Problems of Synthesis. Ed. J.Carroll Moody and Alice Kessler-Harris. Dekalb, IL: Northern IL University Press, 1989. 8. Ironically, the collectivist counterculture…Dawley, Alan. “Workers, Capital, and the State in the Twentieth Century.” Perspectives on American Labor History:The Problems of Synthesis. Ed. J.Carroll Moody and Alice Kessler-Harris. Dekalb, IL: Northern IL University Press, 1989. 9. Since the early 1970s … David Moberg. “The US Labor Movement Faces the Twenty-First Century.” Which Direction for Organized Labor? Bruce Nissen,Ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1999. 10. On Labor Day 2007, the UN reported… .Key Indicators of the Labour Market (KILM), fifth Edition. International Labour Organization. 2 September 2007. http://www.ilo.org/global/About_the_ILO/Media_and_public_information/ Press_releases/lang--en/WCMS_083976/index.htm 11. Yet despite an astonishing 20%, Bernstein, Jared and Lawrence Mishel. “Economy's Gains Fail to Reach Most Workers' Paychecks.” Economic Policy Institute. 30 August 2007. http://www.epi.org/content.cfm/ newsflash_070830 12. Don Tapscott, a top advisor to Fortune 50 companies, … Tapscott, Don. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York: Portfolio, 2006. 13. Kamenetz, Anya. “Building Blocks: Neighbor by neighbor, house by house, New Orleans struggles on.” VillageVoice.com. 25 August 2006. 14. Nola YURP Inititative http://nolayurp.collectivex.com/
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