Mutual Aid and Colonialism

Over the past several years I’ve observed and experienced a powerful confluence of Mutual Aid as a tool to work toward decolonization and antiracism.

In the following I write about what I have learned about Mutual Aid. My objective is to explain how those of us who are white can learn to work with black, indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) in ways that must be enacted through truth telling and Mutual Aid to discourage colonized ideas. (see TRUTHSGIVING below).

A core concept of Mutual Aid is a flat hierarchy of working together where everyone in a group is working for a solution to a problem that might affect everyone in the group. This is the opposite of vertical hierarchies commonly seen today. White supremacy can only occur with a vertical organizing hierarchy where white people try to enforce their superiority.

In its simplest form, mutual aid is the motivation at play any time two or more people work together to solve a problem for the shared benefit of everyone involved. In other words, it means co-operation for the sake of the common good. Understood in this way, mutual aid is obviously not a new idea. In fact, the very earliest human societies practiced mutual aid as a matter of survival, and to this day there are countless examples of its logic found within the plant and animal kingdoms.

To understand the specific embrace of Mutual Aid as applied to justice work today (which I indicate by capitalizing the term), we need to go back over 100 years, to the writings of the Russian Pyotr Kropotkin, who happened to also be an accomplished zoologist and evolutionary biologist.

Back in Kropotkin’s day, the field of evolutionary biology was heavily dominated by the ideas of Social Darwinists such as Thomas H. Huxley. By ruthlessly applying Charles Darwin’s famous dictum “survival of the fittest” to human societies, Huxley and his peers had concluded that existing social hierarchies were the result of natural selection, or competition between free sovereign individuals, and were thus an important and inevitable factor in human evolution.

Not too surprisingly, these ideas were particularly popular among rich and politically powerful white men, as it offered them a pseudo-scientific justification for their privileged positions in society, in addition to providing a racist rationalization of the European colonization of Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Kropotkin attacked this conventional wisdom, when in 1902 he published a book called Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, in which he proved that there was something beyond blind, individual competition at work in evolution. Kropotkin demonstrated that species that were able to work together, or who formed symbiotic arrangements with other species based on mutual benefit, were able to better adapt to their environment, and were granted a competitive edge over those species who didn’t, or couldn’t.

In today’s metropolitan societies, people are socialized to see themselves as independent, self-sufficient individuals, equipped with our own condos, bank accounts, smartphones and Facebook profiles.

However, this notion of human independence is a myth, promoted by corporations and states seeking to mold us into atomized, and easily controlled consumers, concerned primarily with our own short-term well-being.

The truth is that human beings are incredibly interdependent.

In fact, that’s the key to our success as a species.

What Is Mutual Aid?

“Survival of the fittest” was used by wealthy white men as justification for their privilege, for white supremacy. Justification for the colonization of this country and control of our political and capitalist economic systems. For structural racism.

The false premise of white supremacy is increasingly clear, as those political and economic systems are collapsing today. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the failure of the capitalist economic system. The weakness of our healthcare systems and social safety nets are exposed. Suddenly millions are struggling to find basic necessities and to deal with added burdens related to health and with their children at home and needing schooling.

That is an example of the strength of Mutual Aid, that many who might not be affected by a common concern related to food insecurity, for example, may sometime find they themselves needing that help.

As capitalism continues to “fray around the edges” as Ronnie James puts it, we will continue to see greatly accelerating social collapse. The alternative to capitalism and structural racism is Mutual Aid.  We can and should begin our own work with Mutual Aid now.

I’ve been researching the concept of Mutual Aid for most of this year, beginning in February when Ronnie James came to Friends House to join us for a vigil for the Wet’suwet’en peoples. Since then, Ronnie, of Des Moines Mutual Aid and the Great Plains Action Society has moved his office to Friends House. Des Moines Valley Friends Meeting has graciously allowed Des Moines Mutual Aid (DMMA) to use their kitchen to prepare food that is then distributed to the houseless community.

Since that time Ronnie has graciously taken a lot of time to mentor me about Mutual Aid.  This education has been augmented by my participation in DMMA’s food giveaway program. Ronnie is an Indigenous Organizer, and his main work is DMMA. It is also significant that Ronnie and Mutual Aid are fully supported by Christine Nobiss and Great Plains Action Society.


Truthsgiving is an ideology that must be enacted through truth telling and mutual aid to discourage colonized ideas about the thanksgiving mythology—not a name switch so we can keep doing the same thing. It’s about telling and doing the truth on this day so we can stop dangerous stereotypes and whitewashed history from continuing to harm Indigenous lands and Peoples, as well as Black, Latinx, Asian-American and all oppressed folks on Turtle Island.

You can view a video of the TRUTHSGIVING event here, where Ronnie, Christine and Trisha Etringer discuss their decolonizing work.

It is also significant that Des Moines Black Lives Matter/Liberation embraces the concept of Mutual Aid. Which means there has been and will continue to be significant interaction between DMMA and Des Moines BLM.

From the Des Moines Black Lives Matter Facebook page:

mutual aid is the new economy. mutual aid is community. it is making sure your elderly neighbor down the street has a ride to their doctor’s appointment. mutual aid is making sure the children in your neighborhood have dinner, or a warm coat for the upcoming winter. mutual aid is planting community gardens.

capitalism has violated the communities of marginalized folks. capitalism is about the value of people, property and the people who own property. those who have wealth and property control the decisions that are made. the government comes second to capitalism when it comes to power.

in the name of liberation, capitalism must be reversed and dismantled. meaning that capitalistic practices must be reprogrammed with mutual aid practices.

Without a doubt, when we get to the other side, it won’t be thanks to our government or those tasked with cleaning up the messes of their own oppression. It’ll be thanks to mutual aid. It’ll be because folks like Black Trans Blessings are working with, protecting and providing for black and brown TGNC folks in NYC. It’ll be because STL Covid Mutual Aid are making their own hand-washing stations, taping information pamphlets to them and sourcing tents and no-contact thermometers. It’ll be because folks in Florida, DC, LA and elsewhere are taking on the requests from closed-down food banks. It’ll be because our networks are building relationships with local organizations – from farmers to faith-based groups – in order to address the changing and growing needs of our communities. It will be because we do what our system has never done and will never do: work with and for people.


If poor and working people see within the coronavirus not only a pandemic that will possibly leave in its wake a massive death count, but also the very real crisis that is modern industrial capitalism, then we must mobilize for our own interests, push back, and actually fight. This means demanding not only bread and butter: free housing, access to food, an end to evictions, and clean water: but also building new human relationships, new forms of actual life. This means creating ways of meeting our needs, making decisions, and organizing ourselves and solving problems outside of the State structure and the capitalist system.

Autonomous Groups Are Mobilizing Mutual Aid Initiatives To Combat The Coronavirus, It’s Going Down, March 20, 2020

This entry was posted in decolonize, Des Moines Black Lives Matter, Des Moines Mutual Aid, Indigenous, Mutual Aid, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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