How to Bootstrap a Resilient Mutual Aid Society
Mutual aid is the practice of voluntarily making reciprocal trades of resources and services for mutual benefit. For example, I let you use my lawnmower all summer long and in return you help me paint my garage. We both profited and without using money. Today I walk your dog, tomorrow you walk mine. Today, I help you survive a legal jam, tomorrow you repay me somehow.
This is an important topic to get a handle on because mutual aid is one of several promising vectors for resisting the state and building the stateless society. The state can take our money, put us out of jobs, seize our cars and put us in jail. But it can’t stop us from helping each other out of these dire straits. Since mutual aid doesn’t require money, it’s not threatened by the state’s inflation or seizures of precious metals. Mutual aid is how we keep ourselves afloat, stick out our tongues at the state, bring new people into the community and ultimately it is just a fun way to live life knowing that your friends have got your back.
Mutual aid requires a lot of trust. I see mutual aid happen all the time among non-US people. By that I mean Colombians, Mexicans, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Indians, West Africans, you name it. It happens because they trust each other. A favor done today requires repayment in kind down the road. If I don’t trust you to repay, why should I do the favor? If I do the favor and then you snub me, it makes me really bitter.
On the other hand, I do not see the same level of trust among US people. Even among family members, that kind of trust can be hard to come by. But it is this trust which enables real life mutual aid, agorism and other resistance strategies to work. The non-US people I speak of don’t think of what they do as resistance, but it is. And they do it better than us in the liberty community. Why? Because they trust each other.
We need to develop that kind of trust in the liberty community. But first we need to be worthy of it by paying forward favors, help, support, kindness, integrity and other forms of mutual aid. Trust is a result of building social capital. Social capital is the goodwill an individual causes to grow in other individuals through good acts like helping, being kind, donating funds, moral support and honesty. Liberty community members are good at building social capital.
What’s a Mutual Aid Society
A mutual aid society (MAS) is an organization whose purpose is to render mutual aid. It can be formal or ad hoc. Right now, the liberty community enjoys an ad hoc mutual aid society. When someone is in trouble, word is passed around on Facebook, Twitter, email and blogs. Those who want to help, do so. It’s simple, low-overhead and very egalitarian. At least one person has to champion the cause or the effort fails. This is how social capital works. And we should be building social capital by investing in each other. Since this kind of capital resides in our memories, it can not be seized by the state.
Before the rise of state welfare services in the 1930’s, mutual aid societies were abundant in the US. They have taken the form of lodges, fraternal orders, friendly societies, credit unions and coops. Given David Beito’s description of them – especially the part about being hostile to anarchists – I don’t find the early 20th century model to be completely relevant to the needs of liberty lovers today. We’re different people. It’s a different time.
Exploring a Modern Mutual Aid Society
I’d like to see multiple thriving mutual aid societies in the liberty community. Through these institutions we can help each other survive attacks by state thugs, economic mishaps, car crashes, family breakups and who knows what else – all the while building stronger individual relationships. We can deal directly with each other, without the state as buttinsky third party in the middle.
What’s the best way to structure such a mutual aid society? Perhaps the first thought that comes to mind is a paid membership model. Pay in a monthly or annual fee and you receive certain services or guarantees.
This has some problems. As money will be collected and kept centrally (i.e., not by the members), a bureaucracy of some size will grow up to count, disburse and solicit more money. Instead of dealing with each other through the state, we’re now dealing with each other through a bureaucracy. People lose direct control of their money. People’s money will be disposed of by the bureaucracy, instead of the people themselves, individually. This can hardly be called an improvement.
Another problem is transparency. How do I know who is spending my money and on what? Sure, there can be paid audits, but that just eats into the amount of money available for mutual aid. It raises the overhead further. A mutual aid organization, like a charity, should be judged partly on what percentage of income goes to mutual aid purposes. Frankly, I expect it to be around 99% or more. Also, auditors are not perfect. They can make mistakes, be tricked or bribed.
Single Point of Failure
How do you protect all of this money now that you have collected it? Bank accounts can be seized. Cash and precious metals can be pilfered, seized or lost. Directors and employees can be caged and indicted. Organizations can be put on terrorist watchlists. Does it really make any sense to make a big pot of gold just for some thug to take from us? Isn’t that making their job easier?
If the organization registers with the government, opens bank accounts and/or pays taxes, fees and licensing, that may save it from the government’s wrath – or invite it. But it definitely eats into the amount of money available for mutual aid. It also calls into question just how consistent with libertarian principles it is.
Even more important is the issue of lists. To have customers requires keeping lists of them, all usually in the same place. These can be seized and used by the intelligence apparatus to more effectively oppress dissidents. Lists need to be avoided. Sure, they can be encrypted. But they have to be decrypted in order to work with them, opening a vulnerability. And the people with the passphrases can be threatened. Of course, the private encryption key will be on computers that can be seized and searched, leaving the data wide open.
No Value Added
Is a membership model financially viable? The cost of defending against the state is so high as to be, for all intents and purposes, infinite. Lawyers, bail, lost wages, lost jobs, the risk of being accused of a crime while out on bail or probation, the possibility of one’s possessions being seized, the damage to one’s reputation – all of that adds up. How do you insure against infinity?
In order to mitigate that risk, the amount of money paid out to individual members in need could be (1) limited to how much the member has paid in; (2) unlimited; or (3) arbitrarily limited. Option 1 is a losing proposition for the members. They could instead invest in assets, gold, silver or just a mattress – and come out ahead. Option 2 puts the whole enterprise at risk of bankruptcy and/or failure to honor its member obligations. Option 3 sows distrust and bitterness if members in similar circumstances get different amounts of aid.
Another potential funding source is the proceeds of civil suits against the police. The MAS could finance the criminal defense of a member in return for proceeds from a civil suit after the fact. The problem is that you first have to beat the state in their house under their rules with them in control of the evidence and the jury. This could take a lot of time, cost a lot of money and result in a complete loss. A civil suit would take longer and is out of the question unless you beat the criminal charges. And you still might not win a significant amount of money. It’s like playing the lottery or chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Even in the the best case, you might get some money issued by the house, which may not be worth anything by that time. Even the best case scenario sucks.
There is the risk that this kind of activist insurance will embolden members to commit civil disobedience. This is good, on the one hand, because it may accelerate the achievement of liberty. This is also bad, because civil disobedience is expensive. Consider the case of “Sovereign” Curtis who is accused of passing less than a gram of cannabis to an undercover cop in New Hampshire. After months of fundraising he has apparently raised less than 10 per cent of the $8,500 he needs to fight a felony charge. Curtis is not only well-known, he also has the support of the CD Evolution Fund. Is the strategy of trying to beat the state in court even worthwhile? It’s certainly expensive. Insurance for expensive things has to be expensive as well. And the liberty community is not known for its wealth.
Would such activist insurance actually cause more people to commit civil disobedience? I don’t think so. Judging by the state of Curtis’ (and others’) fundraising, there is not a lot of demand for civil disobedience right now. Forming a MAS is not going to magically change that. Furthermore, civil disobedience is expensive in ways that are very hard to mitigate. You can lose your job. Your concealed carry license can be revoked. When I was arrested by US marshals, they kept my driver’s license. I couldn’t drive for several days until I was able to go and get a new copy.
Could a MAS grow its funding ability by soliciting customers outside the liberty community? That’s an interesting idea but a tough sell. In the final analysis, it doesn’t change the funding dynamics.
I especially have trouble with a mutual aid organization that incentivizes salespeople to sell lots of memberships by paying a commission. The incentive for the salesperson is to sell, and lots. There is no incentive to be accountable for the promises she makes while selling, promises that someone else has to fulfill. There is no incentive to support the member after the sale. In fact, after the sale, support is a cost center, not a profit center. So who is going to support the members, how will that be paid for and what is their incentive to do a good job of it? It’s an unbalanced equation. Not to mention that the commission is more money that could be going to mutual aid but is instead going into someone’s pocket.
Finally, if I remember correctly, Mohandas K Gandhi himself experimented with setting up small mutual aid foundations in South Africa. The community (poor, of course) made a great effort to raise funds. They handed the funds over to an organization with a board. Sooner or later, the board took things in a different direction, one that did not serve the people who gave the money to start the society. Gandhi was eventually kicked off the boards. Let’s learn from our history, and not try to re-invent the wheel.
Bureaucracy takes on a life of its own. The hierarchy inherent in centralizing money and putting a select few in charge of spending it places too much distance between people and their money. Even with the best of intentions and the most honest people, it’s not nearly as efficient as letting people just keep their own money.
Designing a Resilient Mutual Aid Society
Like the Liberty Dollar, the more our mutual aid societies succeed, the greater the pressure will be on the state to destroy them. We need a MAS model that is resilient before we start risking people’s precious funds. We’re wise to take hints from bitcoin, open source software projects, anarchism, leaderless resistance and the whole peer-to-peer concept (P2P) (egalitarianism). If funds and lists aren’t stored centrally, they can’t easily be seized. If there is no bureaucracy and no company president or board, they can’t be indicted or compromised. The key to a resilient MAS is that simple: decentralize.
You can’t peg decentralization onto a centralized organization. Decentralization needs to be part of the model from the beginning. Don’t sell memberships. Don’t have a board or bureaucracy. Don’t have salespeople. Money should change hands as little as possible. Access to information and communication should be maximized. Transparency isn’t important if the funds are transferred straight from one member to another, P2P style. Only trust is important – trust that the funds will be used as advertised. We could use more trust.
Here’s my proposal for a resilient mutual aid society:
- Set up a master mutual aid mailing list, or more than one (or, ideally, use a less centralized communication tool). The problem of having a list of members can be avoided on an individual basis by using throwaway or anonymous email addresses.
- Individuals create MASes, each with their own self-selected communication tools. But each MAS also becomes a partner in one or more master mutual aid mailing lists. In this way, de facto syndicates are formed.
- When a request for mutual aid comes in to a MAS, they send it to the master mailing lists they are a part of. Other MAS members of the master mailing list can relay the request to their members or not, as they see fit. The original MAS also uses their own internal communication channels to get the message out to their own members. In this way, requests have the potential to reach not just the MAS you are a member of, but all MASes, everywhere. Communication is maximized.
- Requests for mutual aid need to come in a form that tells a story, includes as many details as feasible and can be reposted to blogs, social media, press releases, etc. They need to include instructions for donating or otherwise rendering aid, such as participating in a call flood or sign wave. It would be wise to agree on one or a few standard format(s) for these requests. (This opens the door for writing/marketing specialists to offer their services writing successful requests.)
- Each individual MAS member needs to identify one or more champions, or buddies. Should the member be arrested or otherwise incommunicado, the champion goes to work for them, gathering facts, creating a chipin and otherwise circulating the news and request for aid. Who is whose champion is known only by the member, their champions and anyone they choose to tell. It is not stored centrally. It is stored in a dispersed fashion that is decided by the individuals involved. One or more champions needs to take the initiative to go to work when a friend needs help. The incentive to do so is the social capital created when a champion does a good job.
- Basic membership in the MAS is free. Membership is granted upon signing up for the MAS mailing list. Membership can be reasonably anonymous by signing up via a throwaway or anonymous email address.
- Requests for mutual aid are granted or not by the individual members of the MAS. They do this by participating in some action or donating some funds. None of this goes through a central authority. It might go directly to the recipient or it might be handled by a champion. Flows of money stay small and are always passing through different people’s hands. This makes it harder to steal, seize or tax the funds. Also, little or no money is spent on administration and bureaucracy. It goes directly to mutual aid, as it should. No auditing or trust of a bureaucracy is required. Aidees who voluntarily release reports on how they used the money will earn social capital and build trust in the system.
- Individual members decide who gets aid and how much. Social capital comes into play. Each potential aiding member asks: “Do I know this person?” “Do I like this person and what they do?” “Have they been nice to me?” “Have they helped me before?” “Are they my friend?” “Have they already paid it forward by helping others?” An incentive exists to pay mutual aid forward to other members of the community. Unlike investments in fiat currency, real estate or precious metals, this kind of investment exists in our memories. It can not be taken from us. It is resilient capital.
- MASes aren’t limited to organizing on just a local level but can also coalesce on an international level, by philosophy, language, trade, gender, you name it. For example, there could be a mutualist MAS, a women’s MAS or a MAS just for Spanish speakers.
For future development, a more decentralized form of communication is desirable. While Skype is interesting, Microsoft controls it now. That casts a question mark over its future. Jabber, Diaspora and statusnet are worthy contenders. Perhaps OpenSIP or something similar will soon or already is suitable. The key is to keep communication decentralized and P2P. Given our small numbers, however, it is also important to reach all potential aid providers quickly, so that swift and effective action can be taken.
At this time, it is likely that email communications will receive the most attention. Everyone has it, after all. In order to make these communications more secure or anonymous, there is a market opening for services along these lines.
One possible objection is that this just-in-time model of fundraising takes too long to raise bail money and lawyers’ fees. I disagree. This is just the same ad hoc system we have now with a little more organization and communication. It worked to bail Rich Paul out of jail in Greenfield, Mass, to bail Pete Eyre and Ademo Freeman out of the same jail, to get Shaun Lee out of a mental hospital and to raise $6,000 for my legal defense against the US marshals. It works just fine – as long you have already paid forward the amount of social capital required for your situation.
Some or all of the above mutual aid cases may have required champions or initial outlays from personal funds. But there is nothing wrong with that. If you don’t have enough social capital accumulated for champions to step forward on your behalf, it is not to the advantage of the community to help you anyway. This is the free market at work.
Another objection I have heard is that everyone holding their own money negates the value of working together. But this is not right. This resilient model requires people to work together by continuing to use social capital as a currency. The membership model discussed above sends all requests through the bureaucracy. People are incentivized to build social capital with the members of that bureaucracy, not with the peers who originally put up the money. This is a power structure and a threat to the stability of the system.
This model requires begging others for help. Sure, but that is as it should be. It’s either that or beg the bureaucracy. Power to the people. It is the people who produce the value that the money represents. We should each be able to decide exactly how we will spend it. It may hurt your pride a little, but mutual aid is a fact of life – of our evolution. I feel no shame in it. But I also give help when I can. It’s a two-way street.
Success in business requires laser focus. An enterprise prospers when it centers on one service or one tightly-related basket of services. But there are lots of ideas being tossed around: activist insurance, bail-out service, keep-in-touch service, Porc 411 service, fundraising service, defense networks and more. With a free and open P2P foundation, all these add-on services can flourish.
Let’s not slice up the mutual aid pie in a new way. Let’s especially not do it in a way that reduces the percentage of funds going to the end user. Let’s focus on building businesses that can produce new wealth. One excellent service that MASes can offer (to make money on the side) is training in how to start, grow and maintain businesses. This has the potential to grow the pie while simultaneously adding more positive freedom to members’ lives.
Slow and Steady wins the Race
Sure, we as a community could rush out to find people in trouble with the state, bail them out and finance their criminal defenses. But the state will always have a surplus of victims. There is a relative scarcity of people like us. Our ability to help ourselves must be preserved at all costs. It’s the foundation for our future. Let’s take care to secure it.
It’s a game-changer to use our libertarian and anarchistic principles to inform the design of our mutual aid societies. It is ho-hum same-old same-old to provide mutual aid via a hierarchical company. It doesn’t advance our praxis or our security. Let’s leverage our decentralized, leaderless principles to launch resilient mutual aid societies. The worst option would be to build on a vulnerable foundation, only to have our MASes collapse at the moment of greatest need.
On a side note, I’ve been thinking about this concept for some time. I am still considering launching Shield Mutual, a cooperative mutual aid society based on this vision. But, if you like this vision, by all means incorporate any and all aspects into any of your own projects. I obviously don’t own the ideas expressed here and I won’t be upset if you use them all.
N.B. If you liked this, you may also be interested in 38 Objections to a Resilient Mutual Aid Society.