Essay / 29 October 2020

To (Mutually) Aid is Human

Week of the Festival: Hausacher LeseLenz, Hausach, Germany

When old systems collapse, new ones must be established. That’s neither philosophy nor politics: it’s healthy common sense. And a motivating challenge for us all. Those who wait for new structures of salvation to be prepared for them during times of great adversity are suffering from religious delusions. This insight is not theoretical. It’s also no illusion. It’s not even an ideal. It is lived, experienced history. The phenomenon known as mutual aid is inalienable from the survival and prosperity of individuals, groups, and societies. It is, therefore, all the more perilous that it receives so little attention here in these times of unsteady hierarchies and dubious networking.

An example: in Corona-April, hundreds of thousands of households in Argentina received a ring at the doorbell. Elderly residents who tentatively unlocked their doors were handed a warm meal. Not from social services. Not from the local incarnation of Catholic Charities. The meals were prepared by activists from the grassroots mutual-aid movement “Barrios de Pie” [Neighborhoods Standing]. The food — prepared in communal kitchens across the country — was financed neither by the State nor by some oligarch’s endowment, but by innumerable individuals and small businesses, among them (conveniently) also butchers and bakers. This initiative didn’t materialise out of the blue; it follows a long tradition of engagement and democratic self-empowerment in a country whose workers have, for decades, occupied businesses and continued on autonomously when threatened with shutdowns. And not without success. Because, as it turns out, they got on fine without managers telling them what to do — overpaid command-parasites who stretch their hands out all the more at each success and arm themselves with handkerchiefs to wave farewell at any failure, absconding unperturbed to the next opportunity.  

This example from Argentina is no isolated case. People across the world have come together and rolled up their sleeves without anyone telling them how or what to do. The year 2020 is no exception. As the American author Rebecca Solnit demonstrates in her illuminating book, A Paradise Built in Hell, people in crises or those experiencing catastrophic conditions mostly respond through mutual aid — something she describes by examples following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Mutual aid all around. Disruption came not from the passivity of individuals, but through the aggression of state authorities who felt their omnipotence challenged by these alternative structures. Often the State attempted to maintain its misguided and sunken order by any means necessary — also through violence. And so, even after the cataclysmic flood, stores in New Orleans were guarded against “looters” instead of declaring that those who were cut off from the rest of the world and fighting for survival could — as a matter of course — make use of the still-extant supplies.

Crises demand change, but sustainable change often shatters against the bulwarks of the prevailing status quo. Innumerable examples of mutual aid — vast human competencies  — remain uncelebrated and are less likely to be encouraged than they are to be swept under a rug beneath a filing cabinet topped with a heavy bust. We are conditioned to believe that we should continue, as before, to believe in the sole and sanctifying power of authority and heteronomy — that we should continue to live without solidarity and passively accept that this, instead, be used as baking powder for the small bread rolls of the welfare state while the perverse concentration of wealth accelerates both nationally and globally. While social injustice in some parts of the world exceeds that of the slaveholding states of antiquity.

On mornings when I go rowing, I seat myself in a boat alongside others who also woke up early that day —sometimes there are two of us, sometimes four, sometimes even five. Often, we have never before rowed together in this particular constellation, and yet we also find our common rhythm without need of a drum-beating, commanding officer. We reach an understanding in destination and tempo. After a few minutes, we’re already cooperating sufficiently to plough through the Danube upriver, against the current. Mutual aid is in no way an elite project. Countless clubs and associations in this country demonstrate their consistency and resolve. The oft-denigrated club fanaticism in Germany is not merely an expression of bourgeois narrow-mindedness, it is also an expression of civic dynamism: a foundation for actual democracy.

The prerequisite for mutual aid is what Argentinians call horizontalidad (I’ll leave this translation up to the readers). It’s often referred to as flache Hierarchien [flat hierarchies] in German, but that makes very little sense — it would be like describing the low-country landscapes of East Frisia as “flat mountains.” Mutual aid is the antithesis of humanity’s most calamitous scourge: the conviction that one person should be in command of others. The belief that we need leaders and directions — and require material stimuli and financial compensations — before we can bring ourselves to overcome our self-imposed lethargy, to ally ourselves with neighbours or coworkers for our common benefit, and march together in the direction of the sign proclaiming: keep out! If we do not learn to deploy this realisation more zealously in the future, then we will, unfortunately, have failed to understand the moral of the corona story.

There is reason enough to be optimistic. Despite a system which rewards self-interest and greed, we are experiencing solidarity actions every day: reciprocal support, collaborative solutions. These helping hands —whether big or small — contribute more to the equilibrium of our society than the profitable operation of all those quantifiable processes which serve only to secure the power and wealth of an ever more exclusive social stratum.

Carl Zuckmayer once wrote that the world will never be good, but it could always be better. He unfortunately neglected to mention that the idea of a good world forms the basis for its improvement. Without alternative designs, without a rebellious practice, we are threatened with hopelessness — what Karl Jaspers called the “anticipation of defeat.” Equality and mutual aid are among our most beautiful and most crucial visions, and they carry with them the benefit of constant, small-scale implementations.

I sometimes hear readers object: “But that’s all just a happy dream.” And that may be. Gandhi once wrote: “A man, whilst he is dreaming, believes in his dream.” How right he was. Such a dream immunises us against rampant anxieties about the future, particularly in an era of pandemic. I can but entrust this dream to you.

Translated into English by Jon Cho-Polizzi


Ilija Trojanow

Ilija Trojanow is an author, translator, educator, and publisher. He was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1965. Trojanow is a member of the PEN Centre in Germany and the author of numerous award-winning works of fiction and non-fiction, including his debut novel Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall [The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner] (1996) which was adapted for film in 2008, Der Weltensammler [The Collector of Worlds] (2006), and Macht und Widerstand [Power and Resistance] (2015). His most recent novel, Doppelte Spur [Two Tracks], was published in July 2020. He has lived in Germany, Kenya, France, South Africa, and Austria. He currently lives and writes in Vienna.

Portrait photo © Susann Urban (LeseLenz-Archiv)