Monday, November 24, 2008

Mutual Aid

Recently, I was talking with a bunch of other parents of teens who have high-functioning autism.* We were talking about the massive cut-backs in public services that have been happening and loom on the immediate horizon.

But the dark cloud may have a silver lining. Here in California, it seems, parents spend tremendous amounts of time and effort on the phone and in meetings (due process, etc.) hassling with the care-givers and -financers in order to get appropriate services or something reasonably close to it. In other places (such as Australia or most of the U.S.), it seems, many fewer publicly-provided services are available. But this (bad) situation can encourage a positive response: while in California, the state-sponsored Regional Center used to provide services such as "respite care" (time away from the damned kid), in other places, the parents pool resources to provide respite care to each other. There's less time spent hassling the care-givers and -financers, because they don't do much if anything.

This kind of "mutual aid" (a concept central to libertarian socialist or anarchist thought, according to the Wikipedia) can be immensely liberating. However, I can imagine that a lot of time and effort can go into hassling other participants if feelings of solidarity are weak. If successful, this mutual aid can promote feelings of solidarity, encouraging a virtuous circle. In the US in the 19th century, labor unions were much more involved with this type of activity (in burial societies, providing unemployment insurance) than they are today (where the Andy Stern business union model of dues extraction seems the rule).

If the current recession turns into something more serious, it could combine with the longer-term trend of public-service cut-backs to encourage more mutual aid. This might in turn be the basis for broader "grass roots" political movements, independent of the political establishments (the two-party duopoly).

On the other hand, people might look to (soon-to-be) President Obama as the source of all solutions, sticking to the atomizing electoral model of politics. The latter can have the benefit of providing standardized public services. On the other hand, decentralized mutual aid tends to produce a division between groups having different amounts of income and health, belonging to different ethnic groups, etc. It does not seem to encourage mass grass-roots participation, except in short-lived waves.

I don't know what's going to happen to the economy (though it sure looks bad). What's going to happen with the society is even more difficult. With incomes falling along with public services, people could be driven into each others' arms (mutual aid). On the other hand, we may be split up into warring communities or praying that our benevolent leaders will solve our problems. Ideally, we could see the rise of new mass movements that would change the balance of political power, shifting it to the left, in favor of justice.

* It's the kids who have it, not the parents. That ambiguity is a problem with the "PC" language that prescribes "a person with a disability" to replace "a disabled person." I'm generally in favor of that "person first" language, by the way, because in the latter case the person is identified with the disability instead of having the disability seen as contingent.
Jim Devine


Econoclast said...

as per usual, I'm posting a comment on my own blog so that responses will be forwarded to my e-mail.
Jim Devine

Anonymous said...

Talking of Kropotkin's classic, my I recommend:

Mutual Aid: An introduction and Evaluation

Its basic argument has stood up well over the years, with Triver's independently coming to the same conclusions in his 1970s paper on "reciprocal altruism". Not to mention Kropotkin's arguments as regards human institutions.

An Anarchist FAQ