Point/Counterpoint: NYC-DSA and Mutual Aid
by Willie J
The Southern shores of Brooklyn and Queens are sort of like urban barrier islands. They're densely populated areas with fine sand beaches that absorb the force of the ocean and the storms it carries. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York back in 2012, this stretch of urban coastline and its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants took a beating.
At that time, I was teaching in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn: a narrow strip of land on this coastline surrounded by Sheepshead Bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other. Many of my students and colleagues lost their homes, their pets, their cars, their schoolbooks; they lost their lives, as they knew them.
I commuted to school (as I still do) from a neighborhood of Brooklyn that the storm had left largely intact. Despite that, as a teacher and a socialist who believes thoroughly in the basic principle, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, I felt responsible for offering aid to the beleaguered, displaced members of my school community.
Mutual aid and solidarity
Our school, which had somehow maintained electrical power and structural integrity throughout the storm, became a de facto crisis center where supplies and goods were collected and distributed to those in need. Like many colleagues, I donated supplies and helped organize them so they could be distributed to students and family members who needed them. When the students returned to school, I provided pens, books, and other supplies to students who had lost them in the storm. Teachers and staff around the building did the same. I wasn’t a leader in this work; I was one of many pitching in during a crisis. From each according to our ability, to each according to our need.
This mutual aid work in the aftermath of Sandy was organized in response to a crisis for which the state had failed to prepare and to which the state had failed to respond. Those of us who were socialists or communists or anarchists had no illusions that providing this aid was a systemic solution to the problems of climate change, crumbling public infrastructure, or economic inequality.
Similarly, with wildfires raging across California and the air growing more toxic by the day, I’m sure our comrades in San Francisco DSA, who have distributed thousands of N95 masks to area residents so that they can breathe, don’t expect these masks to lead to socialist revolution. That would be as silly as believing that a few scattered comrades taking union jobs will transform what’s left of the labor movement into a fighting force that will alter the balance of power between labor and capital.
The point of this essay isn’t to state the obvious truth that we in DSA don’t have a clear road map for socialism. The point is to remind our comrades that, as socialists, the society we’re working to build will be based on principles of solidarity and inclusion, rather than profit and elitism. Mutual aid networks are networks of solidarity. By organizing them, we’re practicing solidarity and raising consciousness, both our own and, hopefully, the consciousness of those to whom we’re relating. When we provide strike support to workers and comrades on picket lines, another form of mutual aid, we’re doing the same. From each according to our ability, to each according to their need.
For many years, many kinds of mutual aid work was considered essential to socialist organizing, yet in DSA, comrades are required to justify its strategic validity. That socialists need reminding that solidarity is the foundation of the work we do is a symptom of a deeply confused Left, one that’s spent decades cut off from the communities it should be organizing. In his 2004 essay, Planet of Slums, Mike Davis describes how, in the 21st century, “populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity…occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism.” He explains that, with the Left “still largely missing from the slum”, these religious movements organize “night schools” for the urban poor, provide “legal aid to victims of state abuse”, and buy “medicine for the sick.” In providing this type of support to the victims of capitalism who Davis’s essay focuses on, these religious movements serve a function that groups like DSA could aspire to, if we weren’t so busy turning conversations about building solidarity and consciousness through material, mutual aid into abstract debates about what’s strategic. As Davis puts it, “with the Left still largely missing from the slum, the eschatology of Pentecostalism admirably refuses the inhuman destiny…[of] those who, in every structural and existential sense, truly live in exile.”
Hurricane Sandy and the California wildfires are not unique events. For most of the world’s population, the hardships that these disasters caused are daily realities: poor air quality; lack of basic resources like food and housing and potable water; forced displacement; exile. Mutual aid work, the practice of solidarity and the development of capacity to survive in a crisis, is critical work because the crisis is already upon us. Our comrades in California are in quarantine because the air is toxic. Our comrades in Michigan have poisoned water coming out of their taps. Our comrades in New York can’t afford roofs over their heads. Our enemies on the right have effective control of the courts and our militarized law enforcement agencies are heavily staffed by neo-fascist transphobic misogynist white supremacists. And our socialist organization is having an online debate about whether or not mutual aid is strategic.
In his essay, Davis quotes Moroccan socialist Abderrahmane Youssoufi who laments the fact that religious fundamentalists “have seduced [the Left’s] natural electorate,” while the Moroccan Left has become “embourgeoisified.” Youssoufi describes a Left that has “cut ourselves off from the people.” Following internal DSA conversations about how best to develop a “labor strategy” designed for “downwardly mobile millennials,” it’s easy to see that the symptoms Youssoufi describes are also at work here in the U.S.
Mutual aid as praxis
The word “praxis” gets thrown around a lot in socialist groups, so much so that it can start to sound like empty jargon. What it actually means, if you just check the dictionary, is the process of using theory in a practical way. DSA’s mutual aid work is, therefore, good praxis. Comrades in the DSA medics, in labor and strike solidarity, in San Francisco DSA, are taking the concept of solidarity – that most fundamental socialist principle – and putting it into practice.
All around us, the waters are rising. Where I live, in a gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn far from the shore, it would be easy for me to ignore the flood. I could look away from the daily suffering of people in this hellscape of a city and focus my gaze on a fantastical future where state-sanctioned elections will overthrow the state’s capitalist, white supremacist foundations and where deeply corrupt, bureaucratized unions can easily be bent to the uses of our disorganized, fragmented socialist group. There are leaders in DSA who call that type of magical thinking strategic.
From where I sit though, there’s nothing strategic about accepting the daily misery of life under capitalism and valorizing incrementalist, transactional politics. If anything, such politics are the praxis of privilege: allowing the comfort and safety that many DSA comrades enjoy to determine the urgency with which we confront the suffering and exploitation that surround us. This approach is the antithesis of solidarity, and its underlying logic – that the short-term suffering of others is an acceptable price to pay for the possible reward of seeing our theories validated – is no different than the logic of capitalism.
Is it any wonder then, that for all of our numerical growth, DSA continues to suffer from the same crises of composition and relevance that many U.S. socialist groups have suffered from for decades? As long as DSA’s leaders deride the work of building solidarity and consciousness in our communities, we will continue to find ourselves in the situation Davis described more than a decade ago: watching confused as the poor and working class and exiled – a socialist movement’s natural allies – bypass our insular organization in favor of groups that are presenting, in practice, alternatives to the brutal misery of life under capitalism.
For my part, I see great value in applying concepts like solidarity and inclusion in my political practice. When our neighbors can’t breathe, giving them an N95 mask isn’t just charity. It’s a basis for a relationship based on common material circumstances; it’s an invitation to a conversation about the forces that are suffocating us. It’s a demonstration, in clear practical terms, of the meaning and value of solidarity. That’s what mutual aid can do and that’s why socialists should do it.
Willie J is a high school special education teacher and member of the United Federation of Teachers. He’s a member of the Central Brooklyn Branch of DSA and serves on the political education committee of the NYC Socialist Feminist Working Group.